A Philippine Leaf
Sulat sa Tansô

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription

A Philippine Document from 900 A.D.

by Hector Santos
© 1995-96 by Hector Santos
All rights reserved.


Once in a while, an unusual artifact different from anything else previously found in the area turns up and baffles experts. It usually ends up in a dusty museum shelf, waiting for the day when somebody will study it, understand its significance, and reveal its secrets to the world.


LCI Picture
The Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI)

Copperplate

A small, innocent-looking object found in 1989 on the southeastern shore of Laguna de Ba'y was such a find. It now threatens to upset our basic understanding of Philippine history. The object is a thin copperplate measuring less than 8x12 inches in size and is inscribed with small writing that had been hammered into its surface.

The black, rolled-up piece of metal was found by a man dredging for sand near the mouth of the Lumbang River where it emptied into Laguna de Ba'y. The man could just have easily thrown it away as just another piece of junk that tended to clog his equipment as he tried to make a living. It was not porcelain, like those he found before and was able to sell for good money to the antique dealers from Manila.

Those dealers have been frequenting the area because it was a rich source of artifacts that were in demand among the rich in Manila. These artifacts provided another welcome source of income for people like this man who struggled to provide for his family.

Fortunately, the sand man decided to keep that piece of metal and take another look. Upon unrolling, it turned out that there was some kind of writing on the crumpled and blackened metal plate. He finally sold it to one of the dealers for almost nothing for it was unlike anything ever found before and nobody knew what it was.

Because it was not a recognizable object, the dealer could not find a private buyer for it. In desperation, he offered it to the National Museum of the Philippines, normally the buyer of last resort for unsold objects. The copper object is now called "Laguna Copperplate Inscription" (LCI).

It languished at the National Museum as supposedly qualified scholars passed up the chance to evaluate the artifact. They were either too busy or not interested, but perhaps intimidated by the prospect of working on something they had no knowledge of.

Fortunately, the ability and persistent effort of one man paid off in unlocking the secrets of the LCI. Antoon Postma, a Dutch national who has lived most of his life among the Mangyans in the Philippines and the director of the Mangyan Assistance & Research Center in Panaytayan, Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro, was able to translate the writing. His effort is all the more remarkable when you consider that the text was in a language similar to four languages (Sanskrit, Old Tagalog, Old Javanese, and Old Malay) mixed together.

The text was written in Kavi, a mysterious script which does not look like the ancient Tagalog script known as baybayin or alibata. Neither does it look similar to other Philippine scripts still used today by isolated ethnic minorities like the Hanunóos and the Buhids of Mindoro, and the Tagbanwas of Palawan. It is the first artifact of pre-Hispanic origin found in the Philippines that had writing on copper material.

Indeed, artifacts of pre-Hispanic writing are so rare that only three had been previously found and made available to researchers. They are the 14-15th century Butuan silver strip, the 10th century Butuan ivory seal, and the 15th century Calatagan jar. The writings on these three previous finds have eluded attempts to decipher them so far.

Important Date

Postma's translation provides a lot of exciting surprises. Like most other copperplate documents, it gives a very precise date from the Sanskrit calendar which corresponds to 900 A.D. in our system. It contains placenames that still exist around the Manila area today. It also lists the names of the chiefs of the places mentioned.

The date is important because a country's history is considered to begin with the first dated document recorded in it. This newly found document pushes the "starting point" of Philippine history all the way back to 900 A.D., 621 years earlier than the previously accepted date of 1521 when Antonio Pigafetta wrote his observations during his voyage with Magellan.

Authenticity

The authenticity of the LCI was a prime concern to all from the very beginning. Postma and the Philippine National Museum were aware of the many frauds that had been perpetrated on Philippine historians in the past. Many of these fraudulent historical documents have unfortunately gotten into Philippine history textbooks which are still being used today.

The most famous of these frauds is the Code of Kalantiaw that every Filipino schoolboy knows. The supposed text of the code was contained in the Pavón manuscript, one of the many fraudulent documents passed on to the Philippine National Museum over many decades by Jose E. Marco, a known philatelic forger. Damage caused by frauds like this is immeasurable.

More than a quarter century after the fraud was exposed in 1965, the average Filipino still believes that the Code of Kalantiaw was real. This is not so much a reflection on the average Filipino's interest in history as it is on the Philippine government's failure to educate the public. As a matter of fact, President Marcos was still inducting "deserving" justices into his Order of Kalantiaw in the 1970's. (This was, perhaps, a fitting way for History to get back at those who wanted to rewrite it.)

Postma was acutely aware of what yet another phony document would do to the community of Philippine historians. He sought and got advice from Dutch and Indonesian experts on the LCI's authenticity. The experts concluded that the specific script style used in the LCI was consistent with its indicated date, and that the correctness of the languages and words used would have been very hard for a forger to have contrived.

Although there were some differences between the LCI and the copperplates found in Indonesia, they were for legitimate reasons and their consensus was that the LCI was authentic.

The text on Indonesian copperplates of the same era was mostly in Old Javanese and, as was customary at that time, mention the name of King Balitung (899-910 A.D.). Unlike its Indonesian cousins, the language of the LCI was not Old Javanese. That the LCI did not mention the king's name was another clue that the LCI did not come from Indonesia.

However, the biggest difference was in the way the copperplate was inscribed. Indonesian copperplates were prepared by heating them until they became soft. Then a stylus was used to impress the letters on the soft metal, creating smooth and continuous strokes. The Philippine copperplate, on the other hand, was inscribed by hammering the letters onto the metal using a sharp instrument. The letters show closely joined and overlapping dots from the hammering.

Philippine connection

It was left for Postma to establish the LCI's Philippine connection. When he first saw the LCI, he thought it may originally have come from Indonesia but made to appear like it was found to the Philippines so that it could be sold as a valuable antique. The text of the LCI convinced him of its Philippine provenance.

The LCI was an official document issued to clear a person by the name of Namwaran, his family, and all their descendants of a debt he had incurred. In the old Philippines, an unpaid debt usually resulted in slavery not only for the person concerned but also for his family and his descendants. The amount of debt was 1 kati and 8 suwarnas of gold (865 g. or about $12,000 at today's prices), an unusually large amount.

The pardon was issued by the chief of Tundun, who was of higher rank than the other chiefs who witnessed the document and whose names and respective areas of jurisdiction are listed. The last sentence on the copperplate is incomplete, indicating that there was at least one more page to the document. Unfortunately, none has been found so far.


Map of LCI Towns
Placenames mentioned in the LCI

Placenames

The placenames mentioned prove the Philippine connection of the LCI. The names are still recognizable today although almost eleven centuries have passed since the document was issued. The placenames are Pailah (Paila), Tundun (Tundo), Puliran (Pulilan), Binwangan (Binwangan), Dewata (Diwata), and Medang (Medang).

The first four places are near Manila but Dewata and Medang pose a problem. They could have been personal names but more likely "Dewata" was Diwata, a town near Butuan, and "Medang," Medang in Old Java or Sumatra. Both these places must have been connected politically to Tundun and the other settlements in 900 A.D.

Diwata is important because in addition to the silver strip mentioned earlier, there are reportedly some other artifacts with undeciphered ancient inscriptions that have been found in the Butuan area. Shamefully, like many other artifacts they are in private hands and unavailable to scholars.

Since the LCI was found in Laguna de Ba'y, Postma first thought that Pailah was Pila, Laguna and Pulilan was the southeastern area of the lake because that was what the place was called in the old days. Pila was then a part of the area known as Pulilan. However, he opted to take Pulilan and Paila both along the Angat River in Bulacan as better candidates because the document clearly referred to two separate places, not one inside a larger jurisdiction. A look at the map would show that his choices are correct since they are more conveniently connected to each other by the usual river and coastal travel routes than if he had picked the Laguna area.

Another possible connection to this Bulacan riverine area is the village of Gatbuca that exists today. Bukah, son of Namwaran, is mentioned in the document. Gat was a title used for important persons and has found its way into many contemporary family names (e.g., Gatbonton, Gatmaitan, Gatdula, etc.). It is possible that the town was named for Bukah when he rose in position later.

Significance

Just how significant is this incomplete document that ends in midsentence and contains only ten lines?
  • It means, as we have discussed earlier, that the edge of history has been pushed back 621 years, giving the Philippines a documented existence among the ancient kingdoms of Southeast Asia like Shri-Vijaya (Sumatra), Angkor (Kampuchea), Champa (Vietnam), Madjapahit (Java), and others that existed before the 10th Century.
  • Ancient Chinese records with placenames like P'u-li-lu, which was thought to have been Polilio (but didn't make sense), will have to be reevaluated. Placenames mentioned in the LCI will have to be given more importance when evaluating ancient records that contain similar sounding names.
  • From porcelain finds, Manila was thought to have been settled as late as 1200. It now appears that an earlier date was more likely. Certainly, a search for other means of dating Manila's first settlements is needed. A search for artifacts in the places mentioned in the LCI might also prove fruitful.
  • Earlier historians thought that the Philippines was part of Shri-Vijaya or even Madjapahit. Their theories have been largely discredited in recent times. It is now time to reexamine the possible connection.
  • Historians believe that the Muslims who ruled Manila were the first to establish more sophisticated forms of government in the area. They also believe that the Muslims started the trade with Borneo and other points south. It is possible that the Hindus were in Manila before the Muslims.
  • The Tagalog script is so rudimentary that it cannot even completely record the sounds of its own language. Three centuries before the Tagalog script's emergence, the Manila area used a script so rich and sophisticated that great empires were ruled through its use. How did this happen? How could a less sophisticated script have supplanted a better one?
Many interesting scenarios can be created to explain some of the above puzzles. During the era of the LCI it was not uncommon for settlements to disappear. They flourished for some time, even for centuries, but things like natural catastrophes, epidemics, emigration, pirate raids, war, etc. made them disappear. It is also known that Muslim culture pushed Hindu influence in Indonesia out of most areas, leaving Bali as the only place where Hindu culture has survived. Any one of these things could have caused the early settlements around Manila to disappear.

The disappearance of the earlier people who settled around Manila may explain why the Kavi script was lost and a lesser one introduced later. But how did the placenames remain? If a few people remained to maintain a continuity of their settlements and placenames, how did they lose their knowledge of the Malay language and the Kavi script?

At this time, everything is conjecture. Many more questions will be asked, answered, and refuted; other questions will be asked again. Little by little, we will know more about the Philippines as it was before the Spaniards came, thanks to a little piece of metal dredged from the sand.

A different version of this article appeared in the September 1994 issue of Filipinas Magazine.


More on the LCI

  • Download LCI graphic. 6.85" wide @ 300 dpi, 67K file.
  • Download map showing LCI placenames. 7" wide @ 300 dpi, 41K file.
  • Transliteration of the LCI text. Check this out if you understand the Library of Congress romanization scheme for Devanagari as applied to Southeast Asian scripts like Kavi.
  • Transcription of the LCI text. It does not use special symbols or diacritics like the above romanization. It is more readable because you can read and pronounce it just like English.
  • Postma translation. This is Antoon Postma's December 1992 translation.
  • Santos translation. This is Hector Santos's April 1995 translation.
  • Ask about Sulat sa Tansô if you are interested in digging more into the mysteries of the LCI. It is a newsletter devoted to ancient Philippines.
  • Back to A Philippine Leaf, your introductory page to ancient Philippines.
To cite:
Santos, Hector. "The Laguna Copperplate Inscription" in A Philippine Leaf at http://www.bibingka.com/dahon/lci/lci.htm. US, October 26, 1996.
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Please send me your comments. I would love to hear from you.
Hector Santos <hectorsan@bibingka.com> Los Angeles
Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 1999