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Nobility System of Pre-Spanish Philippines
post Nov 21 2008, 09:50 AM
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Because existing records of Philippine society and culture before the arrival of the Spanish were scarce if none at all, information about the Islands were based on the writings of Spanish and foreign historians who wrote about the Islands during and after 1521, such as Antonio Pigafetta, who arrived in the country together with Ferdinand Magellan and chronicled Magellan’s discovery of the Islands.

When the Spaniards arrived, what they discovered were inhabitants with a system of government, who were in contact with the Chinese, Arabs and the rest of the Asian continent; inhabitants with their own system of writing, language, and culture.

The clearest evidence of a social class in pre-Spanish Philippines occurred during the Barangayanic phase of Philippine social development.

The “balangay” or “barangay” represented an independent community in the Archipelago ruled by a “Datu”. There were, however, instances where a Datu of a certain barangay was aided by a council of elders in running the affairs of the baranggay similar to privy councils of European monarchs.

In that patriarchal society, the Datu and his family constituted the highest authority in the barangay and were therefore considered the equivalent of European monarchs. His rule was absolute. He dispensed justice and declared war against other barangays. Therefore, at the apex of pre-Spanish nobility in the Philippine Archipelago, was the Datu – the term commonly use by the Tagalogs. In Mindanao, ‘Sultan’ and ‘Rajah’ were used accordingly for the highest chief of their respective communities.

Pre-Spanish Philippines had a caste-like system that classified members of the barangay. First were the “Mahaldica” or “Maharlika”. Presently, the term is perceived to mean “royalty”, however, the “mahaldica” were given to people in the barangay who were never slaves - freemen. The perception that the term connotes royalty could be attributed to the fact that the “Datus” and the “Maguinoos” also belongs to this class as they were freemen; thus, the term became synonymous with “royalty” or “nobility”

Among the “Mahaldicas”, beside the “Datu”, was the “Maguinoo”. The Maguinoos were the Tagalog equivalent of the European Princes or Great Dukes, although the term has been reduced to mean only “a gentleman” similar to how present dictionary defines the English word “Gentleman”- far from what they used to mean during the feudal period. They were usually referred to or addressed with “Gat” before their known names, such as “Gat Maytan”, or “Gat-Paguil”, the Duke of Sampaloc. Others substituted it with the term “Lakan” or “great one”. This is why the official residence of the Republic’s President today is called “Malacanan Palace” from the phrase “May Lakan diyan” or “There is a great one there”

Contrary to their European counterparts, seldom was nobility in pre-Spanish Philippines acquired through blood. Father Sta Ines expressed that nobility then was mostly acquired through industry and fortitude. Thus, one remembers that in the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish nobility was obtained not through the usual founts of fortune or industry, similar to the rest of the nobles in Europe, but through the sword.

Another similarity with Spanish nobility and law of succession is that Pre-Spanish Philippine succession does not follow the law of male primogeniture. Thus, a female in the family has the same right as that of her brothers in succeeding as the head of the family. The wife of the Datu may also act as a regent in the absence of a legitimate king and may transfer this authority to whomever she marries.

Among the “Mahaldicas” were the “Timawas” or “Timaguas”, the commoner freeman. Hermano Placencia, however, does not refer to this group of freemen as “mahaldicas” but instead called them “pechero”. This group made up the barangay’s middle class. They owned properties and were not subject to servitude to the Datu nor the Maguinoos, hence, they were free. Although they enjoyed the privileges of a freeman, the Datu or his Maguinoos could also call upon them to fight in times of war.

The lowest in the barangay were the serfs and the slaves. Although serfs had their own properties, houses, and lands, they did not enjoy the full benefits of their possession. They were subjected to the “buis”, a fee exacted from them by the Datu, or their overlords, in exchange for protection. The serfs were also called “Aliping Namamahay”. Some of them had to work on their master’s field as services for the Datu or Maguinoo, while others offered half of their crops, products or gold as tributes given to their masters. Contrary to the feudal system of Europe, these vassals were not given land by the overlord in exchange for the vassal‘s services. Instead, serfs offered their land, or their properties to the Datus or Maguinoos in exchange for the guarantee of protection. More than their freedom, they wished to ensure that they did not become “Aliping Sagiguilid”. Thus, many freemen or “mahaldicas” or “pecheros” lost their freedom in this manner.

The “Aliping Sagiguilid” was the barangay’s lowest citizen. Wars, debts, and tyranny were the principal cause of how a person ended up as an “aliping sagiguilid”. However, Philippine slavery was distinct from other cultures, as a slave was permitted to own land and to receive payment from any extra work, thereby allowing him to “buy back” his freedom from his overlord.

This state of Philippine society existed within the Islands until it was colonized by Spain, after which a new social stratification was introduced and existed for over 300 years of Spanish rule. At the onset of America’s so-called “benevolent assimilation” of the Islands, nobility was abolished. The idea of democracy and equality of men were the foremost concepts provided by the Americans to the Filipinos and have experienced only a brief interruption when the Japanese occupied the country in 1941 until the country’s liberation in 1945.
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