While Filipinos nowadays are fairly knowledgeable of the Spanish, American, and Japanese eras, the same cannot be said when it comes to the pre-colonial Philippines. Which is a shame actually, because even before the coming of the three foreign races, our ancestors were pretty much living in a veritable paradise.
Although it wasn’t perfect, that era was actually the closest thing we ever had to a Golden Age, a sentiment shared by national hero Jose Rizal, members of the Katipunan, noted historian Teodoro Agoncillo, and even some church historians.
Let’s look at some of the compelling reasons why we think life was really better during the pre-Spanish Philippines.
10. Women Enjoyed Equal Status With Men
During pre-colonial times, women shared equal footing with men in society. They were allowed to divorce, own and inherit property, and even lead their respective barangays or territories.
In matters of family, the women were for all intents and purposes the working heads, possessing the power of the purse and the sole right to name their children. They could dictate the terms of their marriage and even retain their maiden names if they chose to do so.
During this time, people also traced their heritage to both their father and mother. In fact, it could be said that pre-colonial Philippines was largely matriarchal, with the opinions of women holding great weight in matters of politics and religion (they also headed the rituals as the babaylans).
As a show of respect, men were even required to walk behind their wives. This largely progressive society that elevated women to such a high pedestal took a serious blow when the Spanish came. Eager to impose their patriarchal system, the Spanish relegated women to the homes, demonized the babaylans as satanic, and ingrained into our forefathers’ heads that women should be like Maria Clara—demure, self-effacing, and powerless.
9. Society Was More Tolerant in Pre-Colonial Philippines
While it could be said that our modern society is one of the most tolerant in the world, we owe our open-mindedness not to the Americans and certainly not to the Spanish, but to the pre-colonial Filipinos.
Aside from allowing divorce, women back then also had a say in how many children they wanted. Sexuality was not as suppressed, and no premium was given to virginity before marriage. Although polygamy was practiced, men were expected to do so only if they could support and love each of his wives equally. Homosexuals were also largely tolerated, seeing as how some of the babaylans were actually men in drag.
Surprisingly, with the amount of sexual freedom, no prostitution existed during the pre-colonial days. In fact, some literature suggests that the American period—which heavily emphasized capitalism and profiteering—introduced prostitution into the country on a massive scale.
8. The People Enjoyed a Higher Form of Government
The relationship of the ruler to his subjects was very simple back then: In return for his protection, the people pay tribute and serve him both in times of war and peace.
Going by the evidence, we could say that our ancestors already practiced an early version of the Social Contract, a theory by prominent thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau which espoused the view that rulers owe their right to rule on the basis of the people’s consent.
Conversely, if the ruler became corrupt or incompetent, then the people had a right to remove him. And that’s exactly the kind of government our ancestors had. Although the datus technically came from the upper classes, he could be removed from his position by the lower classes if they found him wanting of his duties. Also, anyone (including women) could become the datu based on their merits such as bravery, wisdom, and leadership ability.
7. We Were Self-Sufficient
In terms of food, our forefathers did not suffer from any lack thereof. Blessed with such a resource-rich country, they had enough for themselves and their families.
Forests, rivers, and seas yielded plentiful supplies of meat, fish, and other foodstuffs. Later on, their diet became more varied especially when they learned to till the land using farming techniques that were quite advanced for their time. The Banaue Rice Terraces is one such proof of our ancestors’ ingenuity.
What’s more, they already had an advanced concept of agrarian equity. Men and women equally worked in the fields, and anyone could till public lands free of charge. Also, since they had a little-to-no concept of exploitation for profit, our ancestors generally took care of the environment well.
Such was the abundance of foodstuffs that Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the most-successful Spanish colonizer of the islands, was said to have reported the “abundance of rice, fowls, and wine, as well as great numbers of buffaloes, deer, wild boar and goats” when he first arrived in Luzon.
6. We Had Smoother Foreign Relations
We’ve all been taught that before the Spanish galleon trade, the pre-colonial Filipinos had already established trading and diplomatic relations with countries as far away as the Middle East.
In lieu of cash, our ancestors exchanged precious minerals, manufactured goods, etc. with Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and several other nationalities. During this time period, many foreigners permanently settled here after marvelling at the beauty of the country and its people.
Out of the foreigners, it was the Chinese who were amazed at the pre-colonial Filipinos the most, especially when it came to their extraordinary honesty. Chinese traders often wrote about the Filipinos’ sincerity and said they were one of their most trusted clientele since they did not steal their goods and always paid their debts.
In fact, some Chinese—out of confidence—were known to simply leave their items on the beaches to be picked up by the Filipinos and traded inland. When they returned, the Filipinos would give them back their bartered items without anything missing.
5. Our Forefathers in the Pre-Colonial Philippines Already Possessed a Working Judicial and Legislative System
Although not as advanced (or as complicated) as our own today, the fact that our ancestors already possessed a working judicial and legislative system just goes to show that they were well-versed in the concept of justice.
Life in pre-colonial Philippines was governed by a set of statutes, both unwritten and written, and contained provisions with regards to civil and criminal laws. Usually, it was the datu and the village elders who promulgated such laws, which were then announced and explained to the people by a town crier called the umalohokan.
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The datu and the elders also acted as de facto courts in case of disputes between individuals of their village. In case of inter-barangay disputes, a local board composed of elders from different barangays would usually act as an arbiter.
Penalties for anyone found guilty of a crime include censures, fines, imprisonment and death. Tortures and trials by ordeal during this time were also common. Like we’ve said, the system was not perfect, but it worked.
4. They Had the Know-How To Make Advanced Weapons
Our ancestors—far from being the archetypal spear-carrying, bahag-wearing tribesmen we picture them to be—were very proficient in the art of war. Aside from wielding swords and spears, they also knew how to make and fire guns and cannons. Rajah Sulayman, in particular, was said to have owned a huge 17-feet-long iron cannon.
Aside from the offensive weapons, our ancestors also knew how to construct huge fortresses and body armor. The Moros living in the south for instance often wore armor that covered them head-to-toe. And yes, they also carried guns with them.
With all these weapons at their disposal and the fact that they were good hand-to-hand combatants, you’d think that the Spanish would have had a harder time colonizing the country. Sadly, the Spanish cleverly exploited the regionalist tendencies of the pre-colonial Filipinos. This divide-and-conquer strategy would be the major reason why the Spanish successfully controlled the country for more than 300 years.
3. Several Professions Already Existed
Aside from being farmers, hunters, weapon-makers, and seafarers, the pre-colonial Filipinos also dabbled—and excelled—in several other professions as well.
To name a few, many became involved in such professions as mining, textiles, and smithing. Owing to the excellent craftsmanship of the Filipinos, locally-produced items such as pots, jewelry, and clothing were highly-sought in other countries. In fact, it is reported that products of Filipino origin might have even reached as far away as ancient Egypt. Clearly, our ancestors were very skilled artisans.
2. The Literacy Rate Was High
Using the ancient system of writing called the baybayin, the pre-colonial Filipinos educated themselves very well, so much so that when the Spanish finally arrived, they were shocked to find out that the Filipinos possessed a literacy rate higher than that of Madrid!
However, the high literacy rate also proved to be a double-edged sword for the Filipinos once the Spanish arrived. Eager to evangelize and subjugate our ancestors, the missionaries exploited the baybayin for their own ends, learning and using it to translate their various works. Consequently, the pre-colonial Filipinos became more easily susceptible to foreign influence.
1. We Already Had an Advanced Civilization
Contrary to foreign accounts, our ancestors were not just some backward, jungle-living savages. In reality, pre-colonial Philippines already possessed a very advanced civilization way before the coming of the Spanish.
Our ancestors possessed a complex working society and a culture replete with works of arts and literature. When the colonizers came, everything contradictory to their own system had to go. Sculptures, texts, religious ceremonies, and virtually anything else deemed obscene, evil or a threat to their rule were eliminated.
Conclusively, we can only speculate what would have happened had our ancestors never been colonized in the first place. Although the Spanish era (and the American period by extension) did have their good points, would it have really been worth it all in the end?
Funtecha, H. (2006). The pre-colonial government of the Filipinos. [online] The News Today. Available at: http://goo.gl/9Z5DFI [Accessed 10 Nov. 2014].
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