Balanghai boats: A proof of a pre-Hispanic Kingdom of Butuan

You probably may have heard about the phrase that said: "In the beginning there was no Philippines, but there was already Butuan." But that was simply true, noting about the place that has already been existing and as an established independent form of government long before the first European colonizers and explorers have set foot on what is now called the Philippine Islands.  Butuan became the center of trade and commerce in the Philippines by the 11th century and has established a strong trading relations in as early as 10th century with neighboring countries such as Vietnam (then called as the Kingdom of Champa), among the areas covered by the Shrivijayan empire, and many others.

Butuan, located in northern Mindanao and now the regional center of Caraga region, is what many historians would refer to as the once pre-Hispanic Indianized Kingdom of this part of the Philippine archipelago. Archaeological finds dating back to that era would reveal us the Balanghai boats (also known as the Butuan boats) excavated in many places near the old El Rio de Butuan and Masao river. These Balanghai boats are not ordinary boats, they are products of extraordinary craftsmanship and seamanship skills combined. There was one time when a Norwegian ambassador to the Philippines, upon visiting Butuan to see what the Balanghai boat should look like, had these words to say: "Your Balanghai boats are older and much more skillfully made than the Vikings of Europe."

The first Spaniards who arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century found out that the locals of Butuan and neighboring areas were living in a well-organized independent villages called "barangays." It was later on learned by the Spaniards that the word "barangay" is derived from "balangay" which is the Austronesian word for "sailboat". Today, a Balanghai festival is celebrated in the city of Butuan every month of May each year. It was beleived that the first migrants who settled the Philippines came on board the Balanghai boats from the areas covered by the Shrivijayan and Majapahit empires in the far south.

The Balanghai boat, considering its size, was used for raiding purposes and for cargo. Carbon dating the wood of one of the excavated Balanghai boats would bring us back to as far as 320 A.D. From among these Balanghai boats, which were more than a mere boat bearing a social unit, of long ago emerged the "barangay" which has become the smallest political unit in Philippine society today.


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