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Maritime Trade in the Philippines During the 15th Century CE

Le commerce maritime aux Philippines durant le xve siècle
Bobby C. Orillaneda
p. 83-100


La période allant du xve au xviie siècles dans la région d’Asie du Sud-Est a été appelée « Âge du commerce ». Elle est caractérisée par la délimitation nette des sociétés, l’expansion urbaine sans précédent et la formation d’États largement issus d’un commerce maritime dynamique, non seulement au sein des pays de la région, mais aussi avec la Chine à l’est et l’Inde et les États arabes à l’ouest. Les sources historiques et archéologiques indiquent que le xve siècle a ouvert la voie à l’entrée de l’Asie du Sud-Est dans l’économie maritime qui reliait l’est à l’ouest avant l’arrivée des Européens au xvie siècle. Quel a été l’impact de ce commerce régional aux Philippines ? La recherche archéologique récente a généré un corpus important de données provenant de sites terrestres et submergés pendant la période protohistorique des Philippines (ixe-xvie siècles). Cet article présente les résultats d'une enquête archéologique réalisée à partir de trois épaves (Pandanan, Lena Shoal et Santa Cruz) et de trois sites terrestres (Tanjay, Cebu, Calatagan) dont l’objectif est de tenter d’élucider comment les matériaux archéologiques étrangers ont été amenés aux Philippines et s’ils ont été utilisés par les sociétés locales de cette époque.

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  • 1 Common Era.

1After the overland Silk Road commercial route across central Asia was largely inoperable in the 12th century CE1 partly due to the disintegration and fragmentation of overland commercial networks (Hall 2011), merchants from the Arab states in the west and China in the east redirected trade routes. At this time, the seas were used to transport people and merchandise. The "maritime silk road", as it came to be called, stretches from the Mediterranean to southern China; traversing the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and South China Sea to Southeast Asia (Li 2006). Although this area had been actively used for maritime commercial activities for hundreds of years, trade between the great economic markets in the east and west intensified as the seas became the primary avenue of interethnic commerce and cultural contact based on historical documents and the increasing number of shipwrecks and terrestrial archaeological evidence dated to this period.

2This maritime shift had profound effects on Southeast Asian complex societies especially those proximal to shipping routes within the South China Sea. From the 12th to the 15th centuries CE, regional centres of trade developed in Cambodia (Angkor), Burma (Pagan), Sumatra (Majapahit), Vietnam (Champa) and Malaysia (Melaka) (Hall 1992). These centres acted as hubs of commerce. The centres have a central market where traders from the east and west meet and exchange a wide range of commodities, from marine, forest, and exotic products to cultural merchandise such as textiles, ceramics, glass and metals. Equally important are the symbiotic flow of cultural interactions between different ethnicities with their own religious systems, beliefs, practices and norms that were instrumental in shaping Southeast Asia as a melting pot of cultures.

3Anthony Reid (1990, 1993) coined the term "Age of Commerce" to highlight the importance of the period from the 15th to the 17th centuries in the economic history of Southeast Asia. He considered the 15th century as setting the platform for the ‘long sixteenth century’ economic boom in Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, China, Japan and perhaps India in which Southeast Asia played a critical part. This was stimulated by the demand for spices (pepper, cloves, nutmeg) and other exotic marine and forest products that propelled merchants from far and wide geographies to converge in Southeast Asia to exchange their own trade items in different ports and production areas. Maritime historian Kenneth Hall aptly described Melaka, the foremost maritime polity of the 15th century:

In essence, it [Melaka] was appropriate that this central entrepot was in Southeast Asia, because Southeast Asia was then the pivotal center of Asian trade, as the source of the most demanded commodities; the most important consumer marketplace for imported textiles and ceramics; and the common center for the exchange of the variety of commodities that derived from China and the Middle East, as well as other secondary sources of supply. (2004: 250)

4During the 15th century, Chinese textual sources mention two main maritime trading routes: Wang Da-Yuan’s Dao Yi Zhi Lue (The Descriptions of Island Foreigners), written during the latter part of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), described two routes: the Eastern Sea route that crosses the China Sea then passes through Taiwan to the islands of Luzon and Mindanao to Sulu, then to Borneo, hence to the Moluccas; the Western Sea route hugs the Chinese coast to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, then to Java, Sumatra, to Bengal, India, hence, to Mecca (Wong 1979:56). From the Shung Feng Hsiang Sung, an anonymous compilation originally written around 1430 but with further additions in 1571: the Eastern Sea route crosses the China Sea to the Islands of Luzon and Mindoro, with the possible extension along the east coast of Palawan in order to reach Balambagan, Borneo and Java, the Celebes, Sulawesi to the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) (Goddio 2002: 6).

  • 2 Beyer’s (1994) seminal work on sixteenth-century Philippine culture and society is culled from gene (...)

5The Philippines, located east of the South China Sea, has been considered peripheral in this regional trade (Junker 1999). Increased cultural complexity at the local level has also been ascribed to trade and cultural contacts with China and India (Beyer 1948, Fox 1967). Geographically, the country is an archipelago of 7,641 islands and a total land area of approximately 300,000 square kilometres. It is divided into three major island groups: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Sixteenth century historical sources2 document peoples of different ethnicities with diverse and complex tangible and intangible culture.

6Recent archaeological research however presents a contradicting view. The presence of foreign imports with deep temporal chronology reveal the utilisation and incorporation of these materials by early societies as part of their cultural fabric even before external trade contacts intensified in the 15th century (Bacus 2004). One of the purposes of this paper is a nuanced interpretation of the socio-cultural development of 15th century Philippines through the analysis of a combined maritime and terrestrial data gathered through archaeological excavations.

  • 3 The protohistoric period of the Philippines covers the period 9th century CE to the 1521 CE charact (...)

7Recent historical scholarship on Southeast Asia also offered revisionist interpretations that emphasized local initiatives, rather than foreign influence, in developing processes leading to enhanced social and political delineation (Hall 2011). In the Philippines, Chinese (e.g. Ju Kua 1911) and early Spanish (e.g. Pigafetta & Quirino 1969) narratives documenting the cultural life of the Philippines during its protohistoric period3 also strengthens this hypothesis. Ethnohistorical sources further mention the existence of maritime polities in Manila, Magindanao, Sulu and Cebu, which engaged in competitive trading and raiding during the 15th century (Junker 1999, Scott 1994, 1984).

8This paper attempts to provide a holistic interpretation of the process of maritime trade in the Philippines. It aims to answer questions on the extent of the participation of the Philippines in the regional trading network through shipwreck analysis (volume and variety of trade cargo, trade routes). It also seeks to know if the Philippines was a destination of trading activities and if contemporary indigenous societies utilized foreign materials as part of their culture as can be gleaned in habitation (luxury and utilitarian) and burial (status, ritual) sites.

15th Century Archaeological Sites in the Philippines

9This section shows the maritime and terrestrial archaeological data used in interpreting the maritime trade and its impact on the indigenous population. The maritime evidence, in the form of the Pandanan, Lena Shoal and Santa Cruz shipwrecks, show that the eastern part of the Philippines was used as a maritime route during the 15th century. The settlement sites located in Cebu and Tanjay as well as the burial site in Calatagan indicates that the cargo contained in the above ships were destined for the Philippine market.

Pandanan Shipwreck

  • 4 Manguin (2010: 335) provided a general description of the Chinese shipbuilding tradition as having (...)

10A pearl farm diver inadvertently discovered this shipwreck in 1993 while searching for a missing pearl basket at a depth of 42 meters off the waters of Pandanan Island, southern Palawan (Honasan 1996). Examination of the shipwreck vestiges revealed that only the port side remained, possibly due to shipworm infestation of the exposed starboard side. Dizon (1996) analysed the shipbuilding technique employed in the construction of the ship and concluded that the ship was probably a Chinese (South China) or Indo-Chinese (Vietnam) junk. His basis was the use of iron nails that joined the keel to the hull and the presence of seven compartments or bulkheads that held the cargo in the lower hull, which are diagnostic techniques of Chinese shipbuilding tradition.4 The ship’s dimension was estimated to be 25–30 meters long and 6–8 meters wide (Dizon 1996, 2003).

11The archaeological artefacts totalled more than 4,700 of which approximately 80% were remarkably intact (Dizon 1996). The significance of the ceramic cargo lies in its provenance. More than 70% were divided between two types of ceramic wares from Vietnam. Vietnamese wares including Champa stonewares produced in the Go Sanh kilns in Binh Dinh province of present-day Central Vietnam and blue and white porcelains produced by the Chu Dau kilns in present-day North Vietnam. This marked the first archaeological evidence of the substantial export of such wares in Southeast Asia and could also indicate direct trade of Vietnamese goods with the Philippines (Diem 1996). Present in smaller amounts were Sukhothai and Sawankhalok stonewares from Thailand, as well as Chinese blue and white wares from Jingdezhen as well as celadons from Longquan (Diem 1996, Dizon 1996). Diem (1996) noted the presence of high-quality Chinese blue and white porcelains (qingbai double gourd pouring vessels, large bowl decorated with mythical figures, small jar with floral motifs) that were dated to the Yuan Dynasty period (1279–1368 CE). These wares were dated a hundred years before the date of the main cargo. Diem (1996) suggested that they might be heirloom pieces meant to be re-traded to obtain Southeast Asian luxury goods.

12Other finds at the site included earthenware, metals (e.g. iron cauldrons, bronze gongs, bronze cannons), glass beads, stone implements and Chinese coins, one of which was dated to the reign of Ming Dynasty emperor Yong-le (1402–1424 CE). Morphological and stylistic analysis of the Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai ceramic wares placed the sinking of the Pandanan ship to the middle or late 15th century (Diem 1996). This was also supported by the ceramic studies of Kenichi Morimura (1996), who found similarities of some Pandanan Chinese porcelain with dated Chinese tombs. Ko Mukai (2003) also found comparable Thai black-glazed, four-eared jars on the Royal Nanhai shipwreck in Malaysia, also dated to the mid to late 15th century (Brown 2010). According to Tanaka and Dizon (2011), the Pandanan earthenware (pots, lids, jarlets, pouring vessels and stove) resembled some of the 15th century Calatagan burial site earthenware in Batangas.

Lena Shoal Shipwreck

13The Lena Shoal shipwreck was accidentally discovered by fishermen off the waters of Busuanga, northern Palawan in the early part of 1996 (Conese 1997). Significant looting occurred before the National Museum and the Far Eastern Foundation for Nautical Archaeology (FEFNA) carried out the archaeological excavations. More than 7,000 archaeological specimens comprising high-fired ceramic tradewares from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, earthenware, elephant tusks, tin ingots, glass beads, bronze bracelets and gongs, and organic materials were recovered (Goddio 2002). Density studies were undertaken to determine the distribution of certain types of materials (i.e. porcelain, porcelain bowls, porcelain plates and dishes, green-glazed globular Sawankhalok jars, small ovoid stoneware jars from the Tao Maenam Noi site in Thailand, glass beads, Siamese celadon, Chinese celadon, Vietnamese stoneware jars, tin ingots and brass bracelets and elephant tusks). Analysis of the ceramic wares puts the date of the shipwreck to the late 15th century during the reign of Chinese emperor Hong-zhi (1488–1505 CE).

  • 5 Manguin (1993, 2010) created parameters for the identification of the hybrid South China Sea Shipbu (...)

14The lower part of the wooden hull measuring approximately 18.3 meters long and 5 meters wide was preserved due to an overlying layer of sand and archaeological materials (ibid.). It had wooden dowel, edge-pegged double planking with lap-jointed lining planks. The planking strakes were Jupiter-jointed and also joined by wooden pegs. The plank timbers and the wooden peg wood species are commonly found in Southeast Asia. Evidence of bulkheads, a Chinese shipbuilding technique, that divided and strengthened the cargo holds, was observed. Analysis of the shipwreck remains identified the Lena Shoal to belong to the South China Sea Shipbuilding Tradition5 that incorporated Southeast Asian shipbuilding techniques (edge-joining using wooden pegs) and the Chinese shipbuilding techniques (bulkheads) that were commonly found during the 15th century (Manguin 2010). Measurement of the existing wooden vestiges estimated that the overall length of the ship to 24 meters with a carrying capacity of approximately 100 tons.

15The cargo of the Lena Shoal reflected the internationality and diversity of maritime trade in the 15th century. The dominant cargo of ceramic wares was produced in the kilns of China, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, while other artefacts came from different areas around China and Southeast Asia. In looking at the typology of the ceramic wares, Monique Crick (2002: 89) suggested that part of the ship’s itinerary was destined for the Islamic communities of the Southern Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia due to the presence of Islamic-influenced ceramic shapes and motifs. Furthermore Crick also suggested that the rare and special shapes such as the ewers, bottles, pen boxes and other high-quality type porcelains might be destined for nobility or elite communities while the low quality and common types were for the general populace as similar types have been found in settlement and burial sites in some parts of Southeast Asia.

Santa Cruz Shipwreck

16Fishermen discovered the Santa Cruz shipwreck by chance off the waters of Santa Cruz, northwest Zambales in Luzon at a depth of 33 meters. More than 200 sacks of freshly broken ceramics, predominantly stoneware jars and celadon dishes, were collected at the seabed surface; stark evidence of wholesale destruction. After the initial undersea assessment, the National Museum and the FEFNA carried out systematic excavations from July to September of 2001 (Conese 2001, Orillaneda 2008).

17Approximately eighty percent of the ship’s lower hull was remarkably preserved. The ship was estimated to be 25 meters long and 6 meters wide and built in the South China Sea Shipbuilding Tradition (Orillaneda 2008, 2012). The round-bottomed, keeled hull is constructed using three planks and edge-joined by wooden pegs, while iron nails were used to fasten the planks to the frames. Sixteen bulkheads were observed that contained the predominantly ceramic cargo still in its original packing position.

18The archaeological excavations retrieved almost 15,000 artefacts that comprised predominantly of high-fired, glazed stoneware and porcelain ceramics from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. Other items included iron cauldrons and ingots, bronze weaponry and gongs, earthenware, tin ingots, glass beads and bracelets, carnelian beads, and wood and stone implements and other organic materials (Orillaneda 2008).

19Thirty-six percent of the total archaeological recoveries were subjected to typological and quantitative analysis as well as distribution studies in an attempt to trace the origin, route and destination of the ship (Orillaneda 2008). The Chinese ceramics dominated with more than 86%, followed by Thailand with 9%, Burma with 3%, Vietnam with 0.37% and other unidentified ceramics at 0.96%. From the results of the origin and placement of the cargo, it was suggested that the Santa Cruz could have originated in Thailand, which is further supported by both the shipbuilding construction technique that developed in the area during this period (Flecker 2005), which matches the hull of the Lena Shoal wreck, and presence of Thai stoneware jars in the lower cargo holds. The Burmese ceramics and other marine and forest products could also have been loaded in the same Thai ports. Vietnam was the next likely port of call as evidenced by the Vietnamese ceramics before the ship proceeded to China. The ceramics, iron cauldron, glass, and other metal artefacts could have been loaded at the Ningbo port of Zhejiang province in southern China. The fully loaded vessel may have passed through Taiwan, then went southwards to the Philippines where it met its untimely demise near Santa Cruz in Zambales Province, eastern Luzon (Orillaneda 2008).

Cebu Settlement Site

20When the Spanish expedition ships led by Ferdinand Magellan reached the Philippines in 1521, chronicler Antonio Pigafetta observed that Cebu was a bustling commercial entrepôt with a large population of mixed ethnicities (Nowell 1962). Local merchants exchanged local and inter-archipelagic goods with traders from Java, Sumatra, Ayutthaya and China. Rajah Humabon, the ruler of Cebu, controlled the economic activities and demonstrated his familiarity with the ritualised exchange between ruler and foreign merchants by demanding tribute before formal trading activities were conducted (Bacus 2004).

21Archaeological investigations in Cebu have generally validated Pigafetta’s observations. Early research studies by Tenazas and Hutterer (1968) and Hutterer (1973) indicated that Cebu was an important commercial area prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century. A wider and more extensive archaeological research project was carried out in 1985 and 1986 by Nishimura as part of his doctoral dissertation to determine long-distance trade and the development of complex societies in central Philippines with Cebu as the case study (Nishimura 1992). The research area covered approximately 100 hectares that yielded various artefact assemblages including pottery and ceramics, slag and manufactured iron, glass, stone, wood, bone and semi-precious stone as well as faunal remains (animals and shells) and two human burials with grave goods.

22Geological and archaeological studies revealed that Cebu as a settlement began sometime during the 10th century CE. Soil chemical analysis (Nishimura 1992) showed that Cebu did not grow into an agricultural area due to extensive land overexploitation by early settlers. Instead, it developed into a commercial administrative centre populated by non-subsistence producers as a response to increasing population and demands of local and inter-island trade initially, and later long-distance foreign trade. To increase its efficiency as a trade centre, Nishimura theorized that the ruling class created elaborate levels of hierarchy (datus, timagwas and oripen) as manpower resource and regulatory units to respond to the amount of information (e.g. administrative concerns) as the level of trade complexity increases.

23Foreign trade ceramics and other external trade goods were utilized by the elite community to promote good relations with interacting merchants and selected supporters who provided subsistence goods. The rajah and other administrators (datus) organised symbolic feastings intended to show socio-political and economic authority. Glazed ceramics from China, Thailand and Vietnam were used as food containers during feasts and distributed as gifts to clients and supporters and also wielded as potent symbols of power. These were found in substantial quantities in the Cebu archaeological matrix.

24As ceramics and other foreign luxury goods could only be acquired externally, Cebu depended heavily on long distance trade to maintain the elite’s social and political dominance over the general community. Trade was carried out using multiple partners and multiple trade routes to attain stability and counter the unpredictability of long distance trade due to natural disasters and piracy. It also suggests that what was valued was ‘exotic-ness’ in general rather than specific products from specific external producers. Trade goods were being used in entirely local strategies of power. This redundancy increases in the trade system is considered “one of the diagnostics of the development of social complexity and what underlies the socio-cultural development of Cebu” prior to the arrival of the Europeans (Nishimura 1992: 1023). The research revealed that local interactions within the community and its surrounding environment primarily developed local societies’ socio-cultural complexity, thus enabling it to accommodate long-distance foreign trade.

Tanjay Maritime Polity

25Ethnohistorical sources allude to the Bais-Tanjay region in southeast Negros Oriental, Central Philippines, as having colonial period settlements with earlier prehistoric roots. The Bais Anthropological Project was initiated “towards the elucidation of processes of socio-cultural evolution in the Philippines, particularly in the development of Philippine lowland societies” (Junker 1990: 405-406). Anthropological and archaeological surveys and excavations were carried out in six campaigns between 1979 and 1995 (Hutterer 1981, Junker 1990, 1996, 1999). The results of the extensive archaeological excavations at Tanjay formed the basis of Laura Junker’s doctoral dissertation. It focuses on the

[…] examination of changes in the degree of regional political centralization and in the regional organization of both internal and external trade in what is inferred to be an emerging lowland chiefdom centred around the coastal site of Tanjay in the first millennium and early second millennium AD. (Junker 1990: 412.)

26The Tanjay research area measured approximately 30–50 hectares and characterized by alluvial plains drained by the Tanjay River and bordered by mountains. The archaeological excavations yielded material remains of habitation sites (postholes, hearths, trash pits), fortifications, burials containing grave goods (porcelain, earthenware), production areas for pottery and metal making, ritual objects (figurines, feasting paraphernalia) and objects classified as prestige goods (porcelain, bronze, decorated earthenware, paste beads, bone ornaments). The material and documentary evidence led Junker to categorize Tanjay as one of the active small-scale maritime polities in the Philippines prior to Spain’s arrival early in the 16th century CE (Junker 1999).

27The concept of “chiefdom” was applied in the study of the Tanjay maritime polity. Drawing from more intensively-researched chiefdoms in Iron Age Africa and Europe, Tanjay was similar in some aspects such as the stimulation of local production, mobilization and exchange of resources from the centre (elite residence and centre of trade) outwards to the hinterlands (i.e. source of natural resources needed in exchange for foreign goods are located) due to external trade and the demand for foreign prestige goods (Junker 1999). The chiefdom was centred on the power of a ruling person (chief) and his ability to control lowland-upland exchange as a means of procuring foreign prestige goods to control political and economic landscapes. The archaeological evidence at Tanjay (settlement hierarchies, mortuary patterns, household wealth and dietary differentiation) shows that external trade in the 15th century had a pronounced effect in the development of the polity, although this has been grounded in earlier phases of the maritime polity’s history. Junker (ibid.) pointed out the existence of an already developed internal network system based on prestige goods as far back as the Metal Age Period (c. 500 BCE–1000 CE) and that the 15th century foreign luxury trade was just an extension of this network.

28The settlement’s archaeological data revealed a variation of cultural material density. Denser concentration of artefacts was found at the coastal, lowland centre in Tanjay that gradually decreases at the upland and hinterlands. Likewise, high-quality or high-value goods appear more in the centre than outside of it. This can be explained by the development of an elite and non-elite habitation zones and of a centralized and standardized craft production (Junker 1994). The participation of the Tanjay chiefdom in long distance trade developed as a result of a well-developed local exchange economy to allow surplus to be traded for exotic prestige goods, which stimulated a demand that resulted in the expansion of these internal and external trade networks.

Calatagan Burials

  • 6 The Philippine Neolithic period is circa 5,000-1000 BCE.

29Elaborate burials have been part of the Philippine cultural landscape since the Neolithic Period6 and remain one of the most important sources of information in interpreting the Filipino past (Bacus 2004, Fox 1970). Research into mortuary practices examines not only the skeletal remains but also associated materials as a way of interpreting ancient lifeways. In 1959, Robert Fox carried out archaeological excavations in the western coast of Calatagan, Batangas in western Luzon that yielded more than 700 graves in varied archaeological contexts (Fox 1959). A significant number of these burials contained accompanying objects (foreign ceramics, earthenware, metals, beads, as well as flora and fauna) termed ‘grave goods’ by Fox (1959). The site was dated to the late 14th- to mid-15th centuries based on the stylistic analysis of the Chinese, Thai and Annamese tradewares that were found on some of the burials (Barretto-Tesoro 2003).

30Grace Barretto-Tesoro analysed the earthenware from selected Calatagan burials to answer questions on the impact of external trade on the pottery production, to determine the different functions of the earthenware vessels, to evaluate the use of other objects as funerary items and “to understand how identities were negotiated and represented in the burials through grave goods” (Barretto-Tesoro 2008: 5). Approximately 300 pots in more than 12 sites were analysed through the measurement of metrical and non-metrical attributes. Pots were classified into functional types and variation of forms, earthenware fabric identification, and the measurement of labour in the pottery production (Barretto-Tesoro 2008). To contextualise the burial and mortuary practice, ethnohistorical and ethnoarchaeological documentary sources referring to the Batangas area and the larger Tagalog region was employed (ibid.).

31The earthenware vessels, both plain and decorated, were placed in different locations relative to the skeletal remains and other associated material remains. Analysing the context and perceived meanings, Barreto-Tesoro (2008) theorized that earthenware served different functions: as ritual objects, as early status marker and as symbols of shared cultural identity (Junker 1999). She posited that foreign ceramics were used as prestige markers, signifying achieved high status or exceptional ability, and, in the case of infants, ascribed status. Motifs (e.g. solar and avian) take precedence over physical form as status symbols, and the combination of local earthenware with foreign ceramics in Calatagan burials seem to indicate that indigenous earthenware still possess symbolic value and represent old beliefs and cultural ties with the community (Barretto-Tesoro 2008).

32Barretto-Tesoro (ibid.) concluded that the impact of foreign trade in Calatagan differed from those of the Cebu and Tanjay settlement sites. There was no material evidence in Calatagan of increased inter-polity conflict over external trade and access to foreign ceramics appeared to be unrestricted, as can be seen by the large number of Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics. Pottery production thus did not achieve a high degree of specialization that would have led to mass production of standardised pots as exchange items in the lowland-upland/centre-satellite interaction. The pots were instead manufactured at the household level by possibly part-time female potters and used as utilitarian or burial goods according to Barretto-Tesoro (2008).

Impact of Foreign Trade

33The Pandanan, Lena Shoal and Santa Cruz shipwrecks proves that the Philippine archipelago was a destination of the Southeast Asian regional trading network during the 15th century. These wrecks are also part of a much larger corpus of shipwrecks that show the intensity and volume of maritime trade. Roxanna Brown (2009, 2010) compiled a list of Southeast Asian shipwrecks dated from the 3rd century to the 19th century CE as part of her doctoral thesis. She identified 18 shipwrecks circa 15th century from Thailand (5), Malaysia (4), The Philippines (3), Vietnam (3) Indonesia (2) and Brunei (1). Dating of the ships was based primarily on the stylistic and morphologic analysis of the high-fired, glazed stoneware and porcelain ceramics from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. A recent addition to the list is a shipwreck discovered off the coast of Koh S’dech, Koh Kong in Cambodia (Beavan et. al. 2012). Salvage operations in 2005 yielded more than 900 pieces of ceramic that were mostly produced by Thai kilns. A woven-bamboo-cored lacquer vessel was radiocarbon dated that yielded dates of 475±22 year BP (Before Present) with a 95.4% probability on the years AD 1428–1482 (calibrated). However, systematic archaeological excavation has not been conducted at the site thus far.

34Brown’s compilation is part of her shipwreck ceramic research data that seeks to answer questions on the "Ming Gap", or the severe limitation of Chinese ceramic production and export from the late 14th century until 1567 CE (Brown 2009, 2010, Guy 1986, Lam 2002). Historical sources say that with the founding of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, China underwent an internalization process to purge itself of the previous Mongol Yuan Dynasty foreign influence and restore its Confucian roots. Part of the policy changes saw the issuance of imperial decrees that prohibited maritime overseas trade and the export of trade goods. Brown’s research proves that there was indeed an export gap of Chinese ceramics vis-à-vis Southeast Asian ceramics (Brown 2009, 2010). The number of Chinese ceramics as ship cargo started decreasing during the early stages of the prohibition in the late 14th century that plummeted to a low of 5% during the middle 15th century. Brown (ibid.) suggests that due to the absence of Chinese ceramics in the regional markets, other ceramic producing countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Burma stepped up production and export to fill in the void until the late 15th century, when Chinese private traders resumed overseas trade.

35Brown’s thesis has been largely corroborated by the Philippine shipwreck data. The Pandanan contains the largest consignment of Champa and Vietnamese wares exported to Southeast Asia although it also had the largest percentage of Chinese ceramics during the mid-15th century. Diem (1996) writes that the ship might well be one of the last trading ships from the Champa kingdom as it was invaded by northern Vietnam shortly thereafter. Brown considers the Pandanan as a "bridge" between the mid- and late-15th centuries, when Chinese trade resumed despite the Ming Ban. The Lena Shoal, Santa Cruz and the Brunei shipwreck represents these Chinese trade resumption (Goddio 2002, L’Hour 2001, Orillaneda 2008). The shipwrecks contain predominantly Chinese blue and white porcelains, celadons, and stoneware jars from different ceramic production kilns of China. In the case of the Santa Cruz, 98% of the ceramics analysed by the author were Chinese tradewares. Chinese historical documents state that during the late 15th century, the prohibition decrees were largely ineffective and private merchants were working with high-ranking government officials to engage in illegal overseas trade despite the official ban (Lam 2002).

36The shipbuilding technology of the Philippine shipwrecks reflects the foreign provenance of the ships. In the case of Pandanan, Dizon (1996) makes the case of the ship being built in South China or Vietnam but argued for the latter as the majority of the ceramic cargo was produced in Vietnam. The use of iron nails and bulkheads, however, clearly shows the Chinese Shipbuilding Tradition. The lack of available data of other shipbuilding aspects precludes a definitive conclusion. The Lena Shoal and the Santa Cruz were ships that belong to the South China Sea Shipbuilding Tradition. Both exhibit features of the Chinese shipbuilding technique (bulkheads, iron nails) and the Southeast Asian shipbuilding techniques (v-shaped hull, planks edge-joined with wooden dowels).

37Nishimura and Junker’s settlement studies strongly suggest the existence of maritime polities with hierarchical socio-political structures in the 15th century. External trade seem to be an important factor that led to the marked transformation of the Cebu and Tanjay settlements albeit in different ways. In Cebu, Nishimura’s analysis of the archaeological remains shows the rise of Cebu as an administrative centre during the 15th century mainly as a response to increased inter-island and foreign trade. His artefact assemblage variability studies in different localities and the comparisons of the degree of variability of artefacts without trade goods against foreign trade good presence shows that only glazed ceramics showed significant variability, suggesting that the community had different levels of access to these materials, which meant the glazed ceramics were possibly used as social status markers and access was restricted. Junker’s research on Tanjay show the steady increase of the polity’s socio-economic development as it engaged with foreign trade. This resulted in a defined internal trade network and tribute system in which the lowland chief, who facilitated the acquisition of foreign trade and prestige goods, controls the coastal centre and promotes alliances with the outlying areas where the raw materials are sourced through elaborate systems of enticements, obligation, coercion and co-optation (Junker 1999).

  • 7 Ca 500 BC – AD 1000.

38Both studies however, do not support the notion of foreign cultures as catalyst for the development of 15th century Philippine polities advanced by earlier Philippine and Southeast Asian scholars (e.g. Beyer 1948, Cœdès 1968, Fox 1967, Wheatley 1973, Wolters 1967). Junker (1999: 375) argues that burial patterns during the Philippine Metal Age7 has revealed an

[...] already well-developed status differentiation […] involving locally made prestige goods” while Nishimura’s conclusions after analysing the density and spatial variability of the foreign glazed ceramics in Cebu stated that “long distance trade activities (specifically correlated to glazed trade ceramics) were not a necessary factor for the development of the Cebu-socio-cultural systems during the Late Prehistoric period. Even the analyses of the classes of artefacts excluding trade goods showing increased variability between localities over time. It is evident, however that long distance trade heightened the variability in the socio-political and socio-economic systems. (Nishimura 1992: 1007.)

39The Calatagan burials contain Chinese, Siamese and Annamese ceramics possibly along with other perishable, non-indigenous goods that can only be brought through foreign trade. Barretto-Tesoro (2008) postulates that these foreign goods were used as social status markers of the interred individual. However, locally manufactured items including earthenware, metal implements and faunal remains were also found along with the non-local goods. The earthenware vessels were viewed not merely as accompanying grave goods of inferior status but also expressions of multiple identities created by the living social actors who wish to convey their identities, beliefs, skills and knowledge as they honour the dead (ibid.). Decorated earthenware was used as prestige markers while undecorated ones signify provisions and offerings. In general, the burial objects are meant to enhance the deceased status in the afterlife and placate the spirits.

40The entry of foreign ceramics in Calatagan did not significantly alter local pottery production. Pottery making remained at the household level and pots are designed for utilitarian and burial use. It did not reach the ‘standardisation’ level unlike those in Tanjay as it was not utilized as exchange items in trade-related practices.


41From a regional perspective, other Southeast Asian kingdoms and maritime trade centres experienced differing political and economic trajectories during the fifteenth century. Angkor’s long history of civilization was abruptly cut short in 1432 due to Siamese attacks (Higham 1989, 2004, Stark 2004). Champa in present-day Central Vietnam also suffered the same fate despite its long history as a powerful maritime state when the Dai Viets conquered the Cham capital Viajaya in 1471 and then increasingly annexed their lands through territorial conquest. Ayutthaya and Majapahit were dominant maritime-based kingdoms in the fourteenth century but went on different paths. Ayutthaya survived for another four hundred years before Burma’s expansionist measures overran the Ayutthayan capital in the middle of the 18th century (Kasetsiri 1991). Majapahit, on the other hand, barely survived the fifteenth century as a combination of turbulent internal politics and the challenge of the northern Javanese port rulers decimated Majapahit as an empire (Noorduyn 1978, Shaffer 1996). This culminated in the capture of its capital in 1528. Melaka is represented as a kingdom which rapidly emerged in the late fourteenth century, peaked in the fifteenth century then suddenly declined in the early sixteenth century when it was taken over by the Portuguese in 1511 (Andaya & Andaya 2001, Hall 2004).

  • 8 The Southeast Asia–Indian Ocean maritime trading network is also a significant subject. Melaka, as (...)

42The regional maritime trade network in fifteenth century Southeast Asia appeared to be confined intra-regionally as new trade patterns emerged during the fourteenth to early sixteenth century. Hall (2004, 2011) noted that maritime trade during this period is segmented and that merchants from the Indian Ocean8 did not make the direct, long-distance voyage to China anymore. The Indian Ocean merchants deemed it uneconomical, time-consuming and riskier, and instead stopped at the ports of Melaka, Ayutthaya or northern Java to unload their goods (Lieberman 2009). One possible reason was the closure of China to private commercial trade. Instead China focused on the diplomatic tribute missions, which provided an opening in the market that the Southeast Asians took advantage of. This meant that only a trickle of Chinese goods was available and non-Southeast Asians had no choice but to acquire in-demand merchandise in Southeast Asian ports. Another possible reason was that Southeast Asian markets were already well organised, efficient and had all the merchandise needed by Indian Ocean traders, thereby negating the requirement for the extra voyage to China. Reid (1996: 34) noted that “It appears that the majority of the shipping between the Malay world and China around 1500 was not China-based but in Southeast Asian junks, owned by Melaka merchants.”

43Social, political and economic development of the larger Southeast Asian region has had significant impact on the transformation of Philippine complex societies. The shipwreck data has provided a glimpse of the volume and variety of trade that passed through the Philippines as part of the Southeast Asian intra-regional maritime trade. Some of their cargoes, especially the Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics, have been found in the Tanjay and Cebu settlements and in the Calatagan burials. The evolution, development, and impact of this trade however, were different at each of the sites, suggesting the importance of the trajectories of local societies.

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Note de fin

1 Common Era.

2 Beyer’s (1994) seminal work on sixteenth-century Philippine culture and society is culled from generally five historical collections: the first three comprises the colecciones de documentos indetos published by the Spanish government beginning in 1825, the fourth is the fifty-volume Blair and Robertson’s The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 and the fifth constitutes the Historia de la Provincia Augustiniana del Smo. Nombre de Jesus de Filipinas by Isacio Rodriguez. The book also detailed the different physical, social, political, economic and the material culture of the different major island groups.

3 The protohistoric period of the Philippines covers the period 9th century CE to the 1521 CE characterized by the absence of indigenous Filipino writing but present in historical documents outside the country (e.g. China’s reference to a polity called Ma-i, considered to be Mindoro in the Philippines (Scott 1984: 68). The historical period started with the written observations by chroniclers (e.g. Antonio Pigafetta) and other eyewitness accounts of the Magellan expedition during its arrival in 1521 (Scott 1994, 1984, Lach 1968).

4 Manguin (2010: 335) provided a general description of the Chinese shipbuilding tradition as having prominent features including "flat-bottomed, keel-less design of the hulls, the division of the hull into water-tight compartments by strong bulkheads, the axial rudder, and batten sails".

5 Manguin (1993, 2010) created parameters for the identification of the hybrid South China Sea Shipbuilding Tradition, which basically incorporated the Chinese shipbuilding construction techniques (axial rudder, watertight, structural bulkheads, iron nails or clamps, transom bow and/or stern, flat bottom hull, no keel) with the traditional Southeast Asian shipbuilding construction techniques (V-shaped hull, pointed bow and/or stern, planks edge-joined, with wooden dowels, no bulkheads with waterways) (Manguin 2010: Table 12.1).

6 The Philippine Neolithic period is circa 5,000-1000 BCE.

7 Ca 500 BC – AD 1000.

8 The Southeast Asia–Indian Ocean maritime trading network is also a significant subject. Melaka, as the foremost trading centre of the period, housed a substantial population of people with different ethnicities. Among these are the chatis, a group of merchants from the Indian Ocean states according to Ma Huan’s description (Mills 1970: 77-85). These merchants represent the vibrant maritime trade relationship between the Bay of Bengal and the Melaka straits in the fifteenth century (Subrahmanyam 2002). Besides Melaka, Wade (2010) notes that the chatis resides and operates also in port cities such as Pegu, Ava, Tenasserim, Bantam and the Moluccas. Some of the traders even occupy important political positions such as the case of Tamil merchant Tun Mutahir who became Bendahara with the title Bendahara Seri Maharaja (Wade 2010). In the realm of maritime economy, their participation is mostly confined to trading activities with major Southeast Asian port cities as a collection and transit point for trade goods to be transported back to the Indian Ocean sphere. There are however, a number of publications that emphasize the significant role and influence of the Indian Ocean traders in matters of politics, religion, economy and culture but are currently outside of the purview of this chapter.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Bobby C. Orillaneda, « Maritime Trade in the Philippines During the 15th Century CE », Moussons, 27 | 2016, 83-100.

Référence électronique

Bobby C. Orillaneda, « Maritime Trade in the Philippines During the 15th Century CE », Moussons [En ligne], 27 | 2016, mis en ligne le 17 mai 2016, consulté le 17 décembre 2017. URL :

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Bobby C. Orillaneda

Museum Researcher at the Underwater Archaeology Section, Archaeology Division of the National Museum of the Philippines and candidate for Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) at the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology (OCMA). He has been involved with a number of underwater archaeological projects in the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Egypt and has published his researches in books, conference proceedings and journals.

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