The Datu’s Lordship



A ruler during the precolonial Philippines, the datu 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; its spelling variations may be dato or datuk. And this title is still being used today in some parts of Mindanao, Sulu, Indonesia, and Malaysia.


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

Below the Maginoo was the freeman class: known as the Maharlika for the Tagalogs, while Timawa for the Visayans. They were the free folks who supported the datus in wars and trade.

Lastly, at the bottom of the social hierarchy was the Alipin class, the slaves. The most powerful datus had numerous alipins. And datus could condemn free folks to slavery as punishments for certain crimes or for debtors who could not pay their long-standing debts.


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

Datus exercised their authorities by collecting anchorage fees and other forms of buis or tax from trade merchants who wished to enter their harbors, river gates, and trading ports.

Datus could call their subjects to harvest their farms, till their lands, build their houses, fill in their hunting and fishing parties, and attend to other labor-intensive needs.

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

In times of wars, a datu could summon warriors from their 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. When entering in the presence of a datu, one should bow down with their palms raised alongside their cheeks. And to speak to a datu, one should cover their mouth with a hand or a leaf.

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


Not all datus were equal. A datu’s lineage, wealth, size of territory, number of slaves, martial and maritime power, and physical prowess dictated his superiority against his neighboring datus.

Over time, a datu who successfully expanded his territories by governing or conquering more barangays, which would become a bayan, would update his title to properly describe his achievements. This title might be lakan, raja, sultan, or other lofty appellations.


By understanding the role of a datu, we can conclude that leadership is innate in the Filipino character, and there was strong governance during the precolonial Philippines. Truly, the modern-day Filipinos can be proud of their noble heritage.


  • Blair, Emma Helen, and Alexander Robertson, eds. (1903-1909). The Philippine Islands 1493-1898. Reprint of the 1903-1909 edition, Michigan Library, 2005.
  • CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art. (1994). Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas [Cultural Center of the Philippines] Special Publication Office.
  • Francisco, Erick James. (2004). Statue of the Sentinel of Freedom. Manila: Rizal Park.
  • Majul, Cesar Adib. (1999). Muslims in the Philippines. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.
  • Saleeby, Najeeb M. (1905). Studies in Moro History, Law, and Religion. Reprint of the 1905 edition, Project Gutenberg, 2013.
  • Scott, William Henry. (1994). Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press.

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