A receipt in copper | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

A receipt in copper

/ 01:15 AM October 28, 2016

If we are to believe the story spun by antiques dealers, a crumpled piece of copper was fished out of the mouth of the Lumbang river in Lumban, Laguna, in 1989 by someone who then flattened it and saw ancient writing embossed on it. This unnamed person sent the artifact through the network of antiques runners who vainly tried to peddle it in Manila. It was offered to me but I did not give it a second look; I lectured my favorite antiquities dealer that it was probably of Indonesian origin because there were many, better, specimens in the Elephant Museum in Jakarta.

The rejected artifact was acquired in 1990 by the National Museum, where it is now preserved as a National Treasure—the first or the oldest specimen of writing or written record we have in the Philippines. Antoon Postma, who transcribed and translated the text in ancient Javanese and old Tagalog as the “Laguna Copper Plate Inscription,” noted its date that corresponds to 900 AD.

In the inscription we have 900 AD as the point where the Philippines’ written or recorded history is to be reckoned, anything before that becoming prehistory, or prehistoric. The inscription documents the payment of a debt in gold, making our first writing not a poem or a fragment of an epic but a receipt. If anything, it reminds us of our ancestors’ pragmatism. They did not rely on a verbal receipt, nor did they write it on material that would disintegrate in time. Remember the Tagalog sayings “Itaga mo sa bato” (Engrave it on stone) or “Isulat mo sa tubig” (Write it on water) that refer to permanence and impermanence? Our ancestors did the best thing: They made out a receipt in copper that has survived over 1,000 years.


One wishes that more than this unique piece of copper will turn up to provide us with a written history stretching back to the 9th century or earlier. Till then, one of the earliest records of the Philippines and Filipinos is the reference in the Chu fan-chi by Chau Ju-kua written in 1225 that describes the barter trade with China.


All these bits of useless information emerge when you get me started on early trade in the Philippines. Ancient Chinese seafarers were familiar with the trade winds Filipinos know as the amihan (northeast monsoon) that brings cold to our shores from the Christmas season to February, and the habagat (southwest monsoon) that brings heavy rainfall resulting in floods during the wet season. They sailed in their junks from Guangdong and Fujian to the Philippines and Indonesia during the amihan, and sailed back with the habagat.

Chau Ju-kua said the traders moored midstream and announced their arrival by beating drums—a signal for the natives to come in small boats carrying goods like cotton, yellow wax, native cloth, and coconut-heart mats for barter. Any disagreement in price was settled by the local chief or other officials or elders who are then offered presents of silk, umbrellas, porcelain, and rattan baskets. “The chiefs,” wrote Chai Ju-kua, “are in the habit of using white umbrellas, for which reason the traders offer them as gifts.”


After three or four days the traders lift anchor and move to another town on the coast. Aside from the goods mentioned, they needed to stock up on fresh food and water paid for with: porcelain, black damask, silk, glass beads of many colors, tin, and lead sinkers for nets. The most striking part of the narrative reads:

“The custom of the trade is for the savage traders to assemble in crowds and carry the goods with them in baskets; and, if one cannot at first know them, and can but surely distinguish the men who remove the goods, there will yet be no loss. The savage traders will after this carry these goods on to other islands for barter, and, as a rule, it takes them as much as eight or nine months till they return, when they repay the traders on shipboard with what they have obtained [for the goods]. Some, however, do not return within the proper term, for which reason vessels trading with Ma-I are the latest in reaching home.”

Why is it surprising for us in the 21st century to note that our ancestors were very honest? History records how much we have changed or stayed the same in a millennium.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

TAGS: antiques, China, Laguna, trade

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Fearless views on the news

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

© Copyright 1997-2023 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.