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We were voyagers: Why the dark ages weren’t so dark for pre-colonial Filipinos

Sep 20, 2021
Ela Robles

Many believe that the dark ages was just as the name suggests—dark. And while that may be true for many European countries, where there was social, political, and economic decline, that isn’t the case for many other parts of the world. Asia was thriving. It was a golden age of learning and commerce for China, India, and the Islamic world—and the Philippines’ pre-colonial ancestors, too!

“We were voyagers,” says historian Sab Schnabel on the “What’s AP? Araling Panlipunan Rebooted” podcast. Our balangay, the first wooden boats excavated in South East Asia, is proof of thriving pre-colonial societies.

The boats that brought us together

Long before the Spanish arrived on our shores, word of our pre-colonial South East Asian ancestors had been making its rounds among Portuguese expeditions and other traders because of the Maritime Silk Road, a thriving marketplace at the time. Southeast Asian societies were trading goods like ivory, silk, and spices, showing that peaceful commerce can occur between different cultures. 

Archeologists found balangay boats at a dig site in Butuan that date from around 320 BCE to 1200 BCE. “There are enough boats to suggest that Butuan was an important port in the area around this time,” adds Schnabel.

The word “balanghai” first made its appearance in The Chronicles of Pigafetta, where Magellan’s chronicler describes an encounter with two large balanghai full of men. Pigafetta says the King (or to us, a datu) sat in the larger one, under a canopy of mats.

And the balangay was more than just a sailboat. The large wooden ships were capable of making long voyages. Not only were our ancestors trading with people coming into Butuan, they had a fleet of their own.

“We might think it’s obvious today that we were descended from voyagers. But before we had proof, we thought we never left,” adds history nerd and “What’s AP?” co-host Ceej Tantengco. “Kung sa Moana, tayo yung nasa simula ng movie, nag-eenjoy lang ng buko juice. Pero pala: We were voyagers.”

In 2013, National Museum of the Philippines archeologist Dr. Mary Jane Louise A. Bolunia and her team even found what is now called the “Mother Boat” in Libertad, Butuan City. Although it has yet to be excavated, it is estimated to be up to 25 meters long, with nails as wide as a soda can.

The National Museum has highlighted the similarities in construction between the balangay and Viking ships. While the Vikings were raiding in the West, our Filipino ancestors were making trade relationships across the Pacific Ocean, with routes going as far as China and Polynesia.

Reclaiming our connection to the sea

For Filipinos today, learning about our pre-colonial societies and ancestors is key to reclaiming our identity in a post-colonial world.

“(Our pre-colonial ancestors) become museum set pieces rather than real people who lived and worked and raised their families here,” said Tantengco. “We have severed our connection with them—but we can reclaim it by reclaiming the ownership of our seas.”

In 2018, a group of Filipinos set out on a journey of their own to see if our ancestors’ boats could really journey as far as we thought. “Kaya ng Pinoy” built three balangay to retrace the 1417 voyage of Sultan Paduka Batara, who left from Sulu to China in search of a preferential trade agreement. The team left Manila in April that year and arrived safely in the port of Xiamen, China in just five days—armed only with the tools that our ancestors had. 

Being able to recreate centuries-old voyages is a feat in itself, one we can attribute to the endeavors of our academics, and in this case, new explorers. It is through these efforts that we get to appreciate what we had before our histories were replaced by the Euro-centric ones we know today.

The balangay tells us that our ancestors were resourceful, innovative, and fearless seafarers.

Former Environment Undersecretary Arturo Valdez, leader of the 2018 expedition, said at the time that the voyage demonstrated how ancient civilizations in Southeast Asia were brought closer to one another through these boats: “These waters never divided us. They unified us. And this boat...is a symbol of that relationship.”


“What’s AP? Araling Panlipunan Rebooted” is the podcast that looks at Philippine history with fresh eyes. Get it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

“What’s AP? Araling Panlipunan Rebooted” is a PumaPodcast production.

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