IF you want to read a good single-volume English-language overview of Philippine society before the coming of the Spanish colonialists, you can bet on William Henry Scott's Barangay: Sixteenth-century Philippine Culture and Society, published in 1994. It features descriptions from accounts from all over the islands. Except that it could be sporting the wrong title.

Why and how could it be wrong? We were always told by previous history books that the basic unit of society in the ancient Philippines was the barangay, headed by a datu. In fact, the law that declares all barrios in the Philippines to be called barangays, Presidential Decree 557 signed by Ferdinand E. Marcos on Sept. 21, 1974, said, "Whereas, the barangay was the basic political unit existing in the Philippines before the arrival of the Spaniards." He used this historical information on the barangay to reinforce that he is the new datu of the new society who ratified constitutional amendments through hand-raising in the citizen's assemblies.

 Two works clarify that the ‘bayan,’ not the ‘barangay,’ was the basic unit of ancient Philippine society. PHOTOS BY THE UP PRESS AND BAGONG KASAYSAYAN INC.
Two works clarify that the ‘bayan,’ not the ‘barangay,’ was the basic unit of ancient Philippine society. PHOTOS BY THE UP PRESS AND BAGONG KASAYSAYAN INC.

According to Damon Woods, an American historian focusing on the Philippines, all the narratives on the barangay as a unit of society point one way or another to Juan de Plasencia, the Franciscan friar who wrote the law standardizing town planning in the entire Spanish Empire from the Philippines to Latin America. In 1589, he was commissioned by the Spanish authorities to study Tagalog society more and submitted Las costumbres de los indios Tagalos de Filipinas. This pertinent passage, translated into English, came from The Philippine Islands by Emma Blair and James Alexander Robertson: "These chiefs ruled over but few people; sometimes as many as a hundred houses, sometimes even less than thirty. This tribal gathering is called in Tagalo a barangay. It was inferred that the reason for giving themselves this name arose from the fact (as they are classed, by their language, among the Malay nations) that when they came to this land, the head of the barangay, which is a boat, thus called...became a dato. And so, even at the present day, it is ascertained that this barangay in its origin was a family of parents and children, relations and slaves. There were many of these barangays in each town, or, at least, on account of wars, they did not settle far from one another. They were not, however, subject to one another, except in friendship and relationship. The chiefs, in their various wars, helped one another with their respective barangays."

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What is clear though, according to Woods, was that among the many Spanish chroniclers and old Tagalog dictionaries written by the Spanish, there is plenty of reference to balangay as a boat, but only Plasencia mentions barangay as a community. Woods also noted that even in the numerous early manuscripts in the baybayin script written by the landed Filipinos, never did they mention barangay, ever.

Woods' argument was that because the Spaniards wanted to find an equivalent to the European barrio in the Philippines, they named the barrio leader the cabeza de barangay, and even codified it in the Maura Law of 1893. But in their system, the barrio was not called a barangay.

Plasencia's error can be explained by going back to this passage: "The head of the barangay, which is a boat, became a dato. And so, even at the present day, it is ascertained that this barangay in its origin was a family of parents and children, relations and slaves." When he heard that the balangay boat's head was called a datu, he also got confused and thought that the village whose leader is called a datu must also be a barangay. Woods believes that this word is a Spanish corruption, hence, the title of his book, The Myth of the Barangay.

Zeus Salazar pointed out even before Woods' study that the datu is the head, not of a political unit, but of an economic unit composed of a family or a clan, which is close to what Plasencia said. The barangay concept also permeates a culture of smallness since we are told we are only composed before of these small communities.

In a 2005 monograph "Ang Dalumat ng Bayan sa Kamalayan at Kasaysayang Pilipino," Mary Jane Rodriguez-Tatel emphasized that the basic political unit was the bayan, from the word bahayan or "place of many houses" (banua in Visayan or ili in Ilocano). Which was more meaningful because it pertains not just to a place or even the center of a town, but to the people and eventually, to the whole nation as Inang Bayan. The basis of the formation of the bayan was the sandugo of the datus, independent of each other but connected, hence, kapatiran.

We can still continue using barangay to refer to a political unit in the present — historical processes led us to it — but we should never say that it was the basic unit of society in our land in ancient times.