Of dragon boats and the barangay | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Of dragon boats and the barangay

/ 12:58 AM September 07, 2011

The recent victory of the Philippine Dragon Boat team generated discussions on many issues regarding government and public support, as well as the sad fact that the more articulate Azkals, with their movie star looks, cornered all the endorsements in ads and billboards. It is true that we should not judge books by their covers, but when we are in a bookstore standing in front of a full shelf we do judge books, initially, by their covers.

The Philippine Dragon Boat team reminded  me of another group who built a balanghai based on historical and archeological records and have been sailing it all around. In pre-Spanish times we were a people who lived on and by water, thus our lives were not hampered by the lack of the wheel, the lack of roads and bridges. Many people who describe the Philippines today as an archipelago separated by bodies of water should look further back to a time when we were a people connected by rather than separated by water.


In our time, a barangay is the smallest political unit of the government. In ancient times, the balangai (no “h”) was a sailing vessel of a type common around insular Southeast Asia before the West came to this part of the world and divided the area forming what we know today as Asean. In some parts of the Visayas, a balangai can also mean a village. The boat was the basis of ancient kinship and communities.

In the last century, and well into our own, there was a belief, now discredited, that the Philippines was peopled through so-called “waves of migration” from neighboring Southeast Asia. Our ancestors actually traveled in boats like the balangai, settled in the archipelago, and established communities based on the people aboard the balangai. To this has been traced the beginnings of the modern barangay, the smallest political unit in the Philippines, in the same way that the family is the smallest or basic unit in Philippine society.


The remains of the balangai are currently on display in the National Museum in Manila and on site in the National Museum branch in Butuan.  Although there is not enough to reconstruct a full vessel, there is enough for our imagination to work on.

Described in 16th century Spanish accounts of the Philippines, there was no actual vessel within living memory, leading some people to believe that the balangai was, at best, mythical. Then the remnants of a balangai were discovered by pot hunters in Butuan in 1976. It is unfortunate that, in the mad rush for antiquities like Oriental ceramics and gold, the archeological site was looted before documentation could be made. That balangai—“actually only four intact wood planks found” one meter underground in Butuan—is now  known as “Barangay I.” Estimated to have been 15 meters long and at least three to four meters at its widest point, Barangay I resembled the 1668 description by the Jesuit Alcina, validating what was once thought to be imaginary.

Former National Museum Director Jesus Peralta described the balangai thus:

“[B]asically a plank boat which is put together by joining the planks edge to edge using pegs. On the inner side of the boat, the planks are provided, at regular intervals with raises, rectangular lugs throughout where holes are bored diagonally from the sides to the surface. Rib-like structures made of lengths of wood are then lashed against these lugs to provide a form of flexible bulkhead to reinforce and literally sew the boat together. The hull, measuring about 15 meters in length, is normally semi-circular in cross section with no marked keel and has a width of about four meters amidships. It has a complex super structure with a number of decks. Provided with huge outriggers, the boat is propelled either with a sail or by means of paddles.”

Barangay I was found on a site that did not yield a single fragment of the usual Ming blue and white porcelain. There was Yueh ware that dates the site roughly to the 10th or 11th century.

Sixteen meters from Barangay I, another archeological excavation yielded coffins containing deformed human skulls and blue and white ceramics dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Although no relationship between this Ming period grave and the older boat has been established, these finds only go to show that Butuan is a rich archeological resource and should have been preserved from pot hunters.

But that is water under the bridge now, and we can still learn from the artifacts from these sites that are now in private collections in Manila.


To complicate things further, the carbon dating of a wood sample from Barangay I in 1978 yielded an even older date of around 320 AD! Perhaps the boat was made in the 10th or 11th century, but the wood came from a tree that was much, much older?

Barangay II was excavated with all its planks intact and was shipped to Manila. Bigger than Barangay I, it has a radio carbon date of circa 1250 AD.

A third barangay was found with only three planks intact.

These bits and pieces are visible proof of a developed boat-building technology in pre-Spanish Philippines and suggest a web of trade and interaction with neighboring China and Southeast Asia that still has to figure fully in our textbooks and our consciousness.

Archaeology and history are distinct but allied disciplines: history provides the written sources and archeology the artifacts that validate each other.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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