Would you believe that the Philippines was somehow already a civilized region even before Spain colonized the country? Let us take a look into the life of pre-colonial Filipinos in Manila.

Governance and Interrelations

According to the Malacañan Palace Presidential Museum and Library, most of the Philippine islands before their colonization had already established political organizations or polities known as chiefdoms. These polities differ in economic levels and hierarchical complexity. Polities are related through trade.

The chief—playing the central role in the political and economic welfare of the polity—manages trading activities to form alliances among polities. Forming alliances is more important to polities than expansion of territories. Partnerships were legalized in three ways: circulation of goods, marriage, and ritual feasting.

Early Settlement in Manila

Scholars say that Manila already existed prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. The name Manila was theorized to come from either two terms: may nilad or may nila. On the one hand, may nilad means “a place with mangrove shrubs” or “trees bearing white flowers.” On the other hand, may nila refers to the “dye extracted from the same plant.”

Along the coasts of present-day Pasig River, settlers occupied a place termed Sapa, which is present-day Santa Ana, Manila. Archaeological pieces of evidence, such as Chinese ceramics and human burials, prove that these settlers have occupied Sapa for at least a thousand years before the Spaniards colonized the islands.

Tondo was “already an established polity” according to the Laguna Copper Plate, which is the oldest document found in the country that indicates the political structure of the Philippines during the 10 th century. Tondo had a complex government system and established alliances with other polities according to Spanish accounts.

Pre-colonial Filipinos in Manila

Manila was considered one of the most important pre-colonial trade ports—trading cinnamon, wax, and brass with neighboring countries. With 2,000 inhabitants, settlements were located along the coasts of the rivers.

The houses were built on stilt, and lands were cultivated and had smooth slopes. Early Filipinos in Manila possibly crafted metals, as metal lumps had been uncovered at the Santa Ana churchyard.

Social Structure of the Tagalogs

The following are the three social classes in Tagalog communities:

Maginoo or the Ruling ClassLakan or Rajah. He was the highest ranking ruler of a large town.
Datu. He was a maginoo that governed a barangay. He governed his people and led them in wars.
Maginoo. The Maginoo comprised the ruling class of the Tagalogs. Ginoo referred to both men and women who were part of the social class.
The FreemenTimawa. They were non-slaves who could chooses their datumaster. They served their datu and could use barangay land.
Maharlika. They were similar to the Timawa, but also served as part of the military of the datu.
Alipin or the SlavesAliping namamahay. They were allowed to live in their houses and to farm parts of the barangay land, but were expected to give a part of their harvest to their masters.
Alipin sagigilid. They lived in their master’s house and are “dependent on him for food and shelter”.
Table 1. Social Structures of the Tagalogs
The descendants of the lakans of Manila—Rajahs Matanda, Soliman and Lakandula—were given privileges by the Spanish colonial government.
Illustration by Francisco Mendoza. More Hispanic Than We Admit 3, Vibal Foundation (2020).

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