Pre-Hispanic Philippines: Our golden past

The history of the pre-Hispanic Philippines has always fascinated me, and I’m enjoying reading up on it again as part of my research for a new short story I’m working on.

One of the things I’m grateful for was being able to see the “Gold of the Ancestors” exhibit twice at the Ayala Museum—the first time with Ellen and Sam, and then a few years later again with Sam.

It was a breathtaking and eye-opening experience, that made me realize even more how much of our past has been hidden from us Filipinos—whether because of the efforts of our conquerors and colonizers and/or because of our own ignorance and indifference.

For instance, when I was in school, the elementary and high school history books barely taught us the thriving pre-Hispanic cultures and different kingdoms, rajahnates, and sultanates of our ancestors.

The fact that Manila was a Muslim kingdom is glossed over. Selurong, the Muslim city that would later become Manila, was established by the Sultanate of Brunei under Sultan Bolkiah when it attacked the Tagalog Kingdom of Tondo.

In the Visayas, you had the Rajahnate of Cebu founded by Sri Lumay, a minor prince of the Chola dynasty in Sumatra, who was the grandfather of Rajah Humabon—the ruler of Cebu whom Ferdinand Magellan met when he “discovered” the Philippines.

Meanwhile, in Mindanao, the Sultanate of Sulu, the largest Islamic kingdom in the islands that would later be called the Philippines, encompassed parts of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Many items from “Gold of the Ancestors” were included in the “Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms” exhibit in New York in 2015 organized by the Asia Society and the Ayala Museum.

Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times article about that exhibit, from which the photo I used was also taken.

“How was it that knowledge of a culture — or collection of cultures — capable of such exquisite and sophisticated metalworking was forgotten and left without a name? That is a tangled tale.

“Gold was always plentiful in the Philippines, readily collected by panning. Today the country is said to have the world’s second richest gold deposits. When the Spanish landed, they found natives sporting much gold jewelry and regalia. Illustrations in a book from around 1590 called ‘The Boxer Codex,’ on view in the exhibition, depict indigenous people wearing ostentatious gold adornments over flowing, colorful garments. But the Spanish colonizers wasted little time in decimating the native cultures and making off with their gold, which they melted down for their own purposes.”

Here’s hoping that we’ll discover more of our past, and that we will be inspired to work together to build a brighter future for the Philippines.

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