The Kingdom of Butuan


There is a favourite saying among the Butuanons (the people of Butuan) that, “… in the Beginning, there was no Philippines, but there was Butuan.” This belief adds some credence to claims of evidence of the existence for the Kingdom of Butuan.  

The name Butuan is believed to have existed before the Spanish conquistadores arrival in the Philippines. An indication of this is a rhinoceros ivory seal (image, left) with a design carved in ancient Javanese or early Kawi script (used around the 10th century AD) which, according to a Dutch scholar Antoon Postma, was deci-phered as ‘But-wan’. Yet another account suggests the name derives from the word ‘batuan’, a mangosteen-like fruit tree thriving in Mindanao. Whichever source it derives its name from, Butuan has been around for a very long time in the northeast part of Mindanao. 

The Eskaya of Bohol Island – a secret organisation based on that island in the Visayas re-gion, claim that their ancestors appeared one day on their island. One of the books of the Eskaya entitled ‘Unang Katawhan Sa Bohol’’ (or, First People of Bohol) relates that an ancestor named Dang-ko, his 12 children (11 boys and a girl), and several followers that included men, women and children made their landfall on the shores of Bohol in 677 A.D. 

These apparent migrants (or refugees?) originated from Sumatra-Manselis (the western side of Sumatra, Indonesia) on board a ‘Lutsa’ – a type of sailing vessel somewhat resem-bling a cross between a Chinese junk rig on a Portuguese (or European style) hull. In time, Dang-ko’s only daughter married a chieftain of Butuan. This relation might explain why the Eskaya were once part of the Butuan thalossocracy (a state with primarily maritime realms) and also why members of the Eskaya in Butuan maintain close contact with the Eskaya of Bohol to this day. 

Only few places in the Philippines have a longer and more colorful history than Butuan. Through most part of the Middle Ages, specifically between the 5th to the 14th century AD, Butuan was a flourishing and highly-civilized community. It rose to become an inter-national trading centre and possessed a developed political structure, cosmopolitan tastes for fine clothing and jewelry, chinaware, cosmetics, gold ornamentation and silver-smithing technology. 


Gold has always figured in Philippine history. Since ancient times, the Philippines have been an active producer of this and other precious me-tals. In that respect, Butuan owes its existence largely to gold mined at the headwaters of Agu-san River in the Diwata mountain range. Then as now, it was known as a major source of this metal during the 11th century. Today, nearly 70% of the Central Bank of the Philip-pines’ pre-hispanic gold collection comes from Butuan and its neighboring areas. It has grown into one of the most important gold collections in Asia. 

The economic influence of this ancient settlement is undeniable. It was a centre where local merchants bartered gold for foreign goods. But other goods recovered from archeological excavations in Butuan – ceramics, glass beads, bronze vessels and utensils; also highlight the extent and sophistication of Butuan culture, trade and contact with other kingdoms of the time in China, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and other Asian countries. 

During that period, the Kingdom of Butuan was a large settlement and a flourishing port with an established civil structure exercising governance over residents that included traders, craftsmen, and others who would have had religious and cultural activities as well. This explains why it emerged as an urbanized port centre and an entrepôt during the first millennium. 


Evidence from written records reveal that the kingdom was in contact with the Song dynasty of China (960 and 1279 AD) and that from the 10th up to the 13th century AD, diplomatic and trade missions from Butuan were being received at the Imperial Court. 

The Chinese annal Song Shih records the first appearance of a Butuan diplomatic mission at the Chinese Imperial Court on March 17, 1001 AD. It describes Butuan (P’u-tuan) as a Hindu country with a Buddhist Monarchy by the sea that had regular economic intercourse with Champa – a Cambodian kingdom, and intermittent contact with Imperial China under a rajah named Kiling (989-1009 AD). 

In the year 1003 A.D., Rajah Kiling sent two of his emissaries – Liyihan and Jiaminan, to the Sung Court of China. But it was eight years later in 1011 AD that his successor Rajah Sri Bata Shaja (pronounced Xi-li-ba-da-sha-zhi) sent a flamboyant ambassador – Likan-hsieh, who shocked the Chinese Emperor by presenting a memorial engraved on a gold tablet, camphor, Moluccan cloves, and a South Sea slave at the eve of an important cere-monial state sacrifice. This display of wealth sparked interests from China over the king-dom and Liyu-xie obtained recognition from China equal to the status of Champa as Chi-na’s tributary. 


It is perhaps through ignorance that the world continues to consider China and India as countries that have a tradition of writing and assumes that the Philippines owe its literacy to the West. Is it because these larger countries use their own writing systems while Fili-pinos read and write in the Latin alphabet? But although outsiders may be forgiven for such a belief, many Filipinos unfortunately also do not know that a writing system was in place in the Philippines long before the Chinese, Indians and Spanish set foot on its shores. 

In most ancient cultures, the art of reading and writing was reserved for the few who belonged to privileged classes. The priestly class in ancient Egyptian and Mayan civiliza-tions and its related class of scribes existed mainly to glorify and perpetuate the reign of the ruling king. They were employed to record history, the glorious deeds of the king, and keep track of tributes and taxes that were expected from the governed. 

In contrast, accounts of the use of writing in the Philippines indicate that they were not ex-tensively used to record history and tradition of kings but simply for personal communica-tion and writing poetry. The culture that the Spaniards found in the Philippines was unique in that the art of reading and writing was in the hands of everybody. When Miguel Lopez de Legazpi came to Manila, he found that al-most everybody could read and write. 

The Spaniards found the inhabitants in Manila and other places in the archipelago writing on bamboo and specially-prepared palm leaves using knives and styli. They used the ancient Tagalog script which had 17 basic symbols – three of which were the vowels a, i, and u. Each basic consonantal symbol had the inherent ‘a’ sound: ka, ga, nga, ta, da, na, pa, ba, ma, ya, la, wa, sa, and ha

A diacritical mark called ‘kudlit’ modified the sound of the symbol. This mark could be a dot, a short line, or even an arrowhead. When placed above the symbol, it changed the inherent sound of the symbol from ‘a’ to ‘i’; placed below, the sound became ‘u’. Thus a ba with a kudlit placed above became a bi; if the kudlit was placed below, the symbol became a bu. It was a simple and elegant system that was called baybayin

This prompted the Spanish Catholic friars to publish a book in the native script in 1593 but within a century of their arrival, literacy in the Tagalog script that they came upon was gone largely through forced introduction of the Spanish language. It was not, However, until the end of Spanish Period in the Philippines where it became known that remote mountain groups had maintained their literacy in scripts similar to the Tagalog script. They are still in use today. 


There is oftentimes a miserable circumstance that occurs after contact with colonizing powers from the European side of the world. As had happened to the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas in Central and South America, the glory of the Rajahnate of Butuan was eventually washed away. It was a lust for gold and spices that propelled a furious race to establish colonies around the world in the Age of Discove-ry. The intense competition between the Spaniards and Portuguese made sure of these inevitable outcomes. It was no different for the Kingdom of Butuan, being des-troyed by the Portuguese and their Mollucan allies.  

While diplomatic relations between China and the Rajahnate reached its peak during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Chinese records about the kingdom stopped after the reign of Rajah Siagu – the last independent King of Butuan. He was formally subjugated into the Spanish empire after he made a blood compact with Ferdinand Magellan in March 1521. 


This entry was posted in Bulwagan Foundation Trust, Philippine History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Kingdom of Butuan

  1. gener paduga says:

    Mabuhay!!!!! from palawan paraw connection …

  2. I can’t help to get amazed with the rich history of Butuan. If my memory serves me right, based on Che Che Lazaro’s documentary video “Gintong Pamana”, it was told that Butuan was then the place where expert goldsmith could be found back then.

    I’m saddened that if it wasn’t for the greediness of the colonizers, we might still be using the writing system mentioned.

  3. Rizalino R. Reyes says:

    One way to promote Filipino culture and history is to provide our youth with these kind of information.

  4. erap estrada says:

    Very similar to Arabic. A diacritical mark called ‘kudlit’ modified the sound of the symbol. This mark could be a dot, a short line, or even an arrowhead. When placed above the symbol, it changed the inherent sound of the symbol from ‘a’ to ‘i’; placed below, the sound became ‘u’. Thus a ba with a kudlit placed above became a bi; if the kudlit was placed below, the symbol became a bu. It was a simple and elegant system that was called baybayin.

  5. Rizalino R. Reyes says:

    These historical materials should be made available and taught in all our schools.

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