Datus, Rajahs, and Sultans: How Wealthy and Powerful Were the Pre-Colonial Filipino Nobility?


When 17th-century Spanish missionary Francisco Colin came to the Philippines, he mentioned that “there are no kings or rulers worthy of mention” in the islands. He made a common mistake among European observers at the time in searching for evidence of early wealth and power in authoritative law codes, centralized government, and temple complexes, which the Philippines then lacked.

They were surprised, however, when they discovered that Filipinos, commoners and nobility alike, wore gold jewelry or clothing as everyday accessories.

Historian William Henry Scott describes the regality of a certain Datu Iberein and his entourage in 1543. Upon seeing a Spanish vessel anchored off the coast of Samar, the datu wearing golden earrings and chains, rowed to the Spanish boat. His oarsmen wore gold necklaces.

Iberein is merely an example of some of the wealthy and influential rulers of the Philippines in pre-colonial times. Among the most wealthy and powerful were Rajah Sulayman and Lakan Dula of Manila (circa 1570), and Sultan Kudarat of Maguindanao (circa 1619 to 1671).

Not All Datus Were Powerful

Filipino datus did not ascribe wealth and power to territory, monuments, and centralized government, but rather, they were measured in terms of networks of connections, alliances, monopoly of trade, and control of people.

Not all datus were on equal footing. Some were significantly wealthier and more powerful than others, owing to the strategic position of their territory. Those who lived at the mouths of rivers and coastal areas such as Rajah Sulayman, who controlled the southern half of the Pasig River Delta that opens up to Manila Bay in the 1570s, were significantly wealthier than their upriver counterparts.


Lakan Dula, who ruled the northern side of the Pasig River Delta in Tondo, was an equally powerful and wealthy datu. According to Abinales and Amoroso (2005), Rajah Sulayman and Lakan Dula became very powerful datus who subordinated their upriver counterparts by controlling the entry of upriver goods into the trading system.

Datus who paid tributes or those who were subordinated to superior datus in coastal areas were called vassals, and typically settled in upriver communities.

Rajah Sulayman and Lakan Dula also demanded tributes from visiting merchants who wished to participate in trade.


The Sultan: An Even Wealthier More Powerful Ruler 

When Islam was introduced in the Philippines in the 13th century, a new form of ruler emerged: the sultan. A sultan is a ruler who is considered as “God’s shadow on earth,” according to Abinales and Amoroso. 

Unlike the datus who ruled by their physical and political prowess alone and were always exposed to being challenged by rival datus, the sultan invoked divine providence to retain moral rights to his leadership. 

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Rather than competing with the sultan’s spiritual power, religious leaders of Islam worked with the sultan to suppress evil spirits and rule over other datus. This also gave the sultan the moral justification for conquering rival datus.

Two of the largest and most powerful sultanates to emerge in the Philippines were the Sultanate of Sulu and the Sultanate of Maguindanao.


Map of the Sultanate of Sulu (left) and map of the Sultanate of Maguindanao (right)


Sultan Kudarat of Maguindanao became one of the wealthiest and most powerful rulers in the history of pre-colonial Philippines. During his reign from 1619 to 1671, the sultanate experienced its golden age.

According to Abinales and Amoroso, Sultan Kudarat engaged in international politics and trade. He forged an alliance with the Dutch East India Company to which he sold rice and slaves. He also played the Dutch the Spanish against each other, while he allied with the Sultan of Sulu to conduct joint raids on the Visayas.


Depiction of Wealth and Royalty

One of the reasons we know how Filipino rulers dressed is because of the Boxer Codex, a colored manuscript depicting the appearance and attire of various Filipinos during circa 1590.

In this manuscript, Tagalog and Visayan royalty are shown wearing fine silk and adorned with gold accessories.

Tagalog Royalty


Among the members of the nobility, red clothing was symbolic of their social status as rulers, especially in the Tagalog region. Notable in the pictures are the gold chains, bands, earrings, and trimmings.

Datus also wore fine cotton and silk, as opposed to the tree bark fiber worn by ordinary folk.

Other Status Symbols

According to Abinales and Amoroso, datus and their families were distinguished by the way they lived, looked, and dressed. Apart from this, their large entourage and the many dependents in their household were a symbol of their wealth and power.

Visayan datu and his wife


A datu earned his wealth by virtue of collecting tributes paid by his people and by other datus under his protection.

Comparable to today’s banquets, datus also sponsored feasts that validated their social status as the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in the community.  


People, Not Gold, Was the Standard Measure of Wealth and Power

While the Europeans considered gold and land as the standard of economic wealth especially in the age of mercantilism in the 1500s, the Filipino datus, who had a natural abundance of both land and gold in their domains, considered people to be the most important symbol of wealth and power. According to Abinales and Amoroso, this was the result of the Philippines’ abundance of natural resources and shortage of human resources.

It was crucial for datus to maintain control and accumulate dependents and alliances to maintain their power, around which society was built at the time.

So how wealthy were the datus, rajahs, and sultans of pre-colonial Philippines? 

In terms of gold, they could have well outranked all the European principalities of the 13th century, considering the Philippines was one of the top gold-producing countries in the world, as even common folk like timawas and warriors were shown wearing gold ornaments in the Boxer Codex.

For the datus, the more people they controled, the more alliances they forged, the more expansive their networks were, and the more dependents they had, the wealthier and more powerful they became. 

Abinales, Patricio N., Amoroso, Donna J. (2005). State and Society in the Philippines. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor-at-Large
Mario Alvaro Limos is features editor-at-large at Esquire Philippines, and heads the Lifestyle and Esports content of SPIN.ph as its section editor. Email him at [email protected] and [email protected]
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