The Datu’s Lordship



A datu is a ruler during the precolonial Philippines. He governed his territories, led his soldiers to war, commanded his armadas at seas, protected his villages from enemies, and settled disputes among his people.

The term datu is indigenous to Southeast Asia, originating from the Malays, and it may be spelled as dato or datuk. Today, the datu title is still being used in some parts of Mindanao, Sulu, Indonesia, and Malaysia.


The aristocratic datus came from the highest, ruling Maginoo class of the three-tier social hierarchy structure of the preconquest Filipinos.

Below the Maginoo was the freeman class, which was the Maharlika for the Tagalogs, while Timawa for the Visayans. They were the free folks who supported a datu in wars and trade.

Lastly, at the bottom of this social stratification was the Alipin class, the slaves. The most powerful datu had numerous alipins, and a datu could condemn a free folk to slavery as a punishment for a certain crime or to a debtor who could not pay their long-standing debt.


Every datu was expected to be skilled in martial, maritime, religious, political, judicial, and economic affairs. And as a datu exercised his leadership over his barangay or village, he was entitled to receive taxes, labors, gifts, and martial services.

A datu enforced his authority by collecting anchorage fees and other forms of buis or tax from merchants who wished to enter his harbors, river gates, or trading ports.

Also, a datu could call his subjects to harvest his farms, till his lands, build his houses, fill in his hunting and fishing parties, and attend to his various labor-intensive needs.

A datu who would bless a marriage would receive a himuka gift from the newlyweds. If he presided a lawsuit, that datu would receive a bawbaw gift from the winning party. And a datu would receive a handug gift, which was a symbol of allegiance, from someone who wished to live under his protection.

In times of wars, a datu could summon warriors from his Maharlika or Timawa subjects. And these free folks were expected to equip and supply the raiding vessels and other warring needs of their datu.

As a sign of respect, a datu was addressed in the third person by his subordinates. And when entering in the presence of a datu, the subject would bow down with palms raised alongside cheeks, and when the subject would speak, they would cover their mouth with their hand or a fragrant leaf.

The precolonial datu enjoyed special customs that were reserved for him in parades, marriages, feasts, funerals, and other life events. And this included exclusive designs of his clothing, adornments, parasols, ships, vehicles, houses, armaments, and everyday items.


However, not all datus were equal, for there were types of datus in the olden times. The highest type of datu was called the barabangsa or balbangsa, which was a datu that belonged to a noble lineage. Next was the giyulal or gullal, which was an appointed datu. And the last type was the hangan, which was a self-proclaimed datu.


In Mindanao, there was an honor-ranking system called the Maratabat — which quantified a datu’s lineage, wealth, size of territory, number of slaves, resources, intelligence, military and naval power, physical prowess, and sometimes, magical abilities — that dictated the superiority of a datu against other datus in the past.

The Maratabat became the basis of the selection and the legitimacy of a paramount datu. Becoming the paramount datu entailed ruling several barangays that would become a bayan, banwa, bansa, or nation, and this included the allegiance and the support of the other lower-ranking datus. Thus, when a paramount datu was coronated, he might likely be addressed as laka, raja, or sultan — the Malayan king.


The existence of datus in the olden times reveals that leadership is innate in the Filipino character and there was a strong governance during the precolonial Philippines.


  • McKenna, Thomas M. Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1994.
  • Tiongson, Nicanor G., ed. CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994.

Illustration Sources: The image detail at the top is from the Statue of the Sentinel of Freedom by Erick James Francisco (2004), Rizal Park; the photo source and the image remix are brought to you by Datu Press®.

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