Panglima: The Power of Five



Often mentioned alongside datus, rajas, and sultans, certainly, the panglima is one of the most intriguing characters in the 16th-century Philippines. Even its name elicits interest. The panglima’s root word is the Malayan number five, meaning the fifth. And why not the third or the fourth?


Apparently, the panglima title came from the Malayan Islamic kingdoms — for Allah likes the odd numbers — as they believed. Also, historically, a sultan or raja would divide his territory into five districts, and each was to be governed by a panglima on his behalf.


The emergence of a panglima indicated that the classical Philippine barangay-type chiefdoms had evolved into full-fledged Malayan kingdoms, which were comparable to the complexities of the European monarchies.

Gone were the early years of a traditional datu in being a chief of a barangay or a village. For when the datu prospered in his domain — conquering rival villages, consolidating power, and ruling a nation — he would ascend to the rank of the datu of datus, the paramount datu, also known as sultan or raja: the Malayan king.

We can surmise that the roles of a traditional datu in a sultanate or rajanate drastically changed, for he now faced new challenges in leading his Malayan kingdom, such as competing in the global trade, interisland law and order, and the problematic 16th-century European invasion. And this went the same with the roles and ranks of the other datus who acknowledged him as their paramount datu.

Hence, a large part of the responsibilities of a traditional datu — and more — were assigned to the panglimas. For a panglima was a district leader of several barangays under a kingdom. Thus, as part of his salary, a panglima enjoyed a due portion of the collected tribute intended to his king, while his native community benefited the protection and prosperity that were provided by a sultanate or rajanate.


Among the ancient Philippine Malayan kingdoms, the Tausugs and the Maguindanaons were able to form the most successful sultanates that rivaled the Spanish Empire for the rest of its colonial occupation.

Also, these Philippine sultanates were able to form globally acknowledged royal councils: the Ruma Bichara for the Tausugs, whereas the Bichara Atas for the Maguindanaons. These royal councils, which a member was called a mantiri, were composed of the finest and most powerful royal datus or the barabangsa datus.

The Tausugs and the Maguindanaons — through their superb entrepreneurial skills, naval and military prowess, and their unity in managing their respective sultanates — became the masters while their royal councils were the supreme governments in the ancient Philippines.

Through their royal councils, the Tausugs and the Maguindanaons would deliberate and select suitable panglimas to govern their controlled territories or the lands of their vassals — such as the Samal, Yakan, Palawan, Tagbanua, Cuyonon, Kalagan, Jama Mapun, Bajau, Subanun, and other Moro chiefdoms. Thus, a panglima was a royal appointment.


These vassals, as observed, were recent Muslim converts, who had their own animistic faiths, political systems, traditional laws, armed forces, economic means, vernacular languages, territories, means of livelihood — and most importantly — forms of nobility.

It is strongly plausible that the panglimas were chosen from the vassals, and they were the native chiefs of these peoples. Thus, the panglimas were nobles by right, basing from their localized aristocratic lineages or leadership roles.

Hence, whether through a bloody conquest, a peaceful allegiance, or a religious conversion, the Tausugs or the Maguindanaons had taken control of these peoples, and they chose the best five native chiefs to be their panglimas who continued their localized governance but with the assimilation of new laws, the influence of a new religion, the fealty to a new king, and the administration of new turfs.


Collecting taxes, settling disputes, peace and order, overall command of infrastructure projects, officiating weddings, strengthening naval and military forces, and propagating the Islamic faith were some of a panglima’s administrative, judicial, military, and religious chores.

Therefore, being honest, wise, fair, brave, and other leadership qualities must be present in a panglima candidate — having known magical powers were given weight — and most all, he should have a great command of warriors, followers, and slaves.

In the fast-changing world of the precolonial and early colonial Philippines, the success of a sultanate or rajanate greatly depended on the selection of the best panglimas, for they acted as the conduit of tribute, warriors, and commodities from the vassals to the masters. Hence, this royal-appointed nominee should have these following qualifications:

  • A Muslim convert
  • A well-known leader
  • A respectable judge
  • A wealthy aristocrat
  • An expert administrator
  • A seasoned battle commander
  • A proven warrior


To assure that the vassals were performing as they should, there was always a datu from the Tausugs or the Maguindanaons who supervised and supported a panglima.

Most likely, this datu was either a gullal or a barabangsa. The gullal datus were appointed datus, whereas the barabangsa datus were from a royal lineage of datus. However, the barabangsa datus had higher offices to fill, such as the royal councils and their supporting agencies. So, in theory, the gullal datus were the most suited in co-governing the districts with the panglimas.

For law enforcement, the panglima had the makabil who performed as the police. And the orang kaya, a man of great wealth and means, performed as his village leader.

On religious matters, the panglima was advised by a pandita who was well-versed in Koran, whereas a bintala or a district supervisor of priests assisted the panglima in managing the requirements of a mosque.

In times of war, the panglima could assemble warriors and lead them in battle. And he was aided by a nakib, his lieutenant; while a parkasa, his aide-de-camp; and a nakhoda, his sea captain.


Basing from the roles and responsibilities of the mentioned ranking officers, we can reconstruct the early Philippine political structure of a Moro kingdom with this hierarchy:

  • King: Sultan or Raja, paramount datu
  • Minister: Mantiri, royal datu
  • Governor: Gullal, appointed datu
  • Mayor: Panglima
  • Police: Makabil
  • Village Leader: Orang Kaya


With the emergence of the panglimas, we can appreciate that the early Filipinos practiced the merging of ruling houses of kingdoms and chiefdoms. And the panglimas were integral in forming a powerful sultanate or rajanate that could challenge the 16th-century European superpowers.


  • Laarhoven, Ruurdje. The Maguindanao Sultanate in the 17th Century: Triumph of Moro Diplomacy. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1989.
  • Majul, Cesar Adib. “Political and Historical Notes on the Old Sulu Sultanate.” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 38, no. 1 (1965): 23-42.
  • Mednick, Melvin. “Some Problems of Moro History and Political Organization.” Philippine Sociological Review 5, no. 1 (1957): 39-52.
  • 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 “Moro Man: Jolo — 1901” in Photographs of the Philippine Islands, retrieved from the University of Michigan Library Digital Collections; the image remix is brought to you by Datu Press®.

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