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The Karakoa, the Traditional Pre-colonial Warship of the Philippines

Updated on June 21, 2020
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Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

By looking back at our proud heritage as Filipinos, we could say that we are special in our own rights.

Firstly, let’s look at how we play. The game of basketball is one of our many frustrations. I mean let’s face it. We got a fanatical following of that sports, and it became a part of our pop culture. But as much as we love basketball, it’s hard for us to get a world title for an obvious reason. I mean the Filipinos are not built for basketball to begin with! Yes, we got the passion, but cruel genetics denied us the height advantage.

But that does not mean that we are not good at anything.

Again, we need to look back at our proud heritage to awaken our hidden potentials. Filipinos tend to excel in combat sports (boxing), which comes as no surprise. We are smaller than most Asians, but the proud warrior tradition of our ancestors means we are suited in combat. We are a race of warriors after all.

But unnoticed by many, is our potentials in water sports like Dragon Boat racing. Yes, boating might not attract a large following, like basketball. But like combat sports, our success on Dragon Boat racing reflects our long-forgotten heritage with the sea. With a large body of water around us, our precolonial ancestors also sailed our seas both to trade and to wage war. We could say that they were indeed expert seafarers, and like the Vikings’ Longships, the ancient sea going Filipinos also have their own signature watercrafts.

The Traditional Filipino Boats

Modern reconstruction of the Balangay.
Modern reconstruction of the Balangay.

A mere mention of a Filipino sea-going vessel will surely put in mind the Balangay. This type of lashed-out lug boats is in wide use in the pre-colonial Philippines, up until the Spanish colonization. The oldest of them, the Butuan boat was dated at 320 AD. With that said, the Balangay is the first wooden ship discovered in Southeast Asia. These ships are mainly used for trading, and the building of which relies not on blueprints but simply through passed knowledge. And the Balangay was never a small boat. The hull measures 15 meters long and 4 meters wide. It was propelled either by rowing or sailing, and the ship was equipped with outriggers.

The Balangay will be covered in succeeding articles, as its name is now remembered when the smallest political unit was mentioned (the Barangay). The boat got a deeper influence both in our history and culture, and the Balangay was named the national boat in 2015. Yet our precolonial people got another form of sea-going vessel, and its usage is less peaceful than the Balangay.

When the ancient Visayans and Kapampangans will engage in a sea raid, they got a different form of watercraft. Unlike the Balangay, it was built for war and equipped for squads of warriors. Most Filipinos today probably were not familiar with the Karakoa, but that was the choice of ship of our ancestors when they went to war.

The Karakoa

18th century depiction of the Karakoa.
18th century depiction of the Karakoa.

In 1667, the Spanish priest Francisco Combes described the Karakoa as fast and well built vessels:

"That care and attention, which govern their boat-building, cause their ships to sail like birds, while ours are like lead in this regard."

Origin of the name “Karakoa,” which the Spanish spelled as Caracoa is unknown. It could be the Portugues term caracca for the Arabic qurqur, which lterali means “large sailing ship.” There are similar warships in the Southeast Asia, and their names are variants of the Karakoa, like the Kora Kora from Maluku Islands. Other name variants include caracora, or caracole. But according to the Spanish historian Antonio de Morga, the name Karakoa is a Tagalog word, and possibly a true Malayo-Polynesian word.

On the outside, the Karakoa is like the Balangay, only larger. Being sleeker than the Balangay, the ship is also faster (It can reach 15 knots). With a curved prow and stern, the overall profile is crescent shaped.

Though used in trade during peacetime, its main usage was sea battle. The Karakoa possessed a burulan or a raised deck to carry troops. In fact, larger Karakoas known as joangas could carry hundreds of warriors and rowers. They are even armed with Lantakas, or locally made bronze cannons.

In each sides of the vessel are outriggers, which are lateral support floats made to stabilize the craft. Like many outrigger vessels, they ride high in the water when in the sea, or simply they got shallow drafts.

Other Characteristics

The Lantaka cannon.
The Lantaka cannon.

The whole keel of the Karakoa was made from a single piece of hardwoods, carved in a form of a dugout boat. The hull was also made from hardwood, and it was formed by strakes built on either side of the keel. The strakes were reinforced by fiber lashing, and fitted to the keel by dowels, or wooden rods. Ribs connected the strakes together. Now, the hull was never fastened by metal nails, and the use of fibers and dowels made the hull flexible. It could absorb shock upon collision with solid objects. Curved planks carved in elaborate designs, such as the sea dragon Naga were fitted on both ends.

To propel the boat, the Karakoa used rectangular sails known as lutaw, or the triangular crab claw sails. Traditionally, they were made from linen, and sails like this rigged a tripod bamboo mast. Crews of usually alipins (slaves) also provide paddle powers for the ship, in addition to the sail. Like Dragon Boat rowers, where a drummer keeps the rhythm, the chants are used to keep the pace of the paddling. Large oars controlled by the helmsman (nakhoda) steer the ship.

Now, if a Balangay could measure up to 15 meters, a Karakoa was even larger. They could reach a length of 25 meters, or up to 82 feet.

Usage

A Kalis sword.
A Kalis sword.

As what is mentioned before, the Karakoa was always used as a weapon of war. Sea raiding was its preferred use, against enemy villages for the purpose of prestige and power. Its large size could transport hundreds of warriors, while its lantakas gave it fire power. Sometimes, a Karakoa could carry larger guns. Sea battles will be detailed in succeeding articles, but Visayans would perform rituals prior a raid which involved blood smearing on the prow and keel. During sea battles, a flotilla of Karakoas were accompanied by smaller ships (abays) and scout ships dulawan (meaning visitors). Dulawans (also known as lampitaws) will charge in advance of the abays. When intercepted by the enemy fleet, the Karakoa would then fight in a ship to ship battle known as Bangga. Warriors on board will engage each other with projectiles like javelins laced with venom and bows and arrows. Warriors are also armed with Kalis sword, wooden shields, and spears.

Usage Against the Spanish Invaders

The statue of Raja Sulayman.
The statue of Raja Sulayman.

During the pre-colonial years, the Karakoa was a raiding vessel used against rival tribes. But Rajah Sulayman brought a fleet of Karakoas during his fortification of Manila. And possibly, the Karakoas werr present during the Battle of Bangkusay Bay led by another Sulayman, Tarik Sulayman.

By the end of 16th century, the Spanish began to ban the building and use of the Karakoa. The tradition was nearly lost until recently, where efforts are made by scholars to resurrect the ship.

References:

1. Aurora Roxas-Lim (n.d.). "Traditional Boatbuilding and Philippine Martine Culture". Interntaional Information and Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region, UNESCO.

2.Patricia Calzo Vega (1 June 2011). "The World of Amaya: Unleashing the Karakoa." GMA News Online.

3. Junker, Laura Lee (2000). "Raiding, trading and feasting. The Political Economy of Philippine Cheifdoms." Ateneo de Manila University Press

4. Scott, William Henry (1982). "Boatbuilding and Seamanship in classic Philippines." Philippine Studies.

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