Man’s earliest ambitions to set sail marked the beginning of an age of discovery where wild minds and bold hearts dared to challenge the endless seas and embark into a mysterious world of which nothing was known. The first great sea voyages established mankind’s unique ability to adapt and conquer in the face of great odds – and would all but ensure the worldwide expansion of many different cultures and traditions.The urge to travel the seas was widely noted in many of the great empires of the Western world, but less is known about the history of a forgotten civilization of seafarers known as the Kingdom of Butuan, a small progenitor civilization found on the northern coast of Mindanao.
The unearthing of a massive balanghai “mothership” near Butuan City back in 2013 changed the preconceived notions we had regardingthe involvement of our Butuanon ancestors in pre-colonial exploration and trade. According to archaeologist Dr. Mary Jane Bolunia, lead site researcher working with the Philippine National Museum, the huge craft is estimated to be at least 25 meters in length, possibly more. In fact, it is so large that balanghai of this size can no longer be constructed because there are no trees large enough in existence to craft the necessary planks to build such a massive seaworthy structure. The Butuan Mothership was never fully excavated due to the delicate condition of its ancient woodwork, but it is estimated to have been built sometime in the 1200’s – a whopping 300 years before the first Spanish expeditions started to trickle into the archipelago. If true, it would give reason to believe that our ancestors may have had a forgotten impact on the development of Asian civilization and culture, considering that they were able to sail to distant empires and engage in overseas trade and diplomacy during a time when nobody else in the region was doing it.
This extraordinary finding has proven to be a valuable, tangible piece of history that forms part of a growing pile of evidence that suggests our people were far more organized and developed than previously thought. It is now being suggested that trade expeditions from Butuan to the Kingdom of Champa (Vietnam) and Guangdong (China) were fixed in large balanghai fleets led by a single mothership that likely held goods, slaves, or warriors being transported across the seas. In fact, historical records originating from the Song Dynasty in China confirmed the arrival of a delegation from “The Kingdom of Butuan” all the way back in the year 1001 – indicating that our people began seafaring even before the Chinese did (and may have served as motivation for them to do the same). If these records are accurate, then it can be taken as undeniable proof of an organized civilization with an established government that was capable of feats of exploration that were unrivaled in their day.
It is unfortunate that not much else is known about the ancient Kingdom of Butuan, as Spanish occupation singed the memories of our ancient past from our lands (and our consciousness) – but at the very least, the discovery of the remains of this great vessel provides some insight into what was and what could have been.