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A short trip back to Cebu’s pre-colonial history lane

How much do we know about the history of Cebu, especially the period way before the Spaniards came? On my part, not much. I grew up with excerpts of my grandparents’ colorful life stories, as to how simple their childhood were and how their lives were greatly changed by war and extemporaneous urban development. But these were not enough, and they were hardly supplemented by academic lessons, which dealt mainly on general Philippine history. Much (or little) of what I know comes from recent personal efforts to catch up–reading books, listening to experts–and relearn Cebu’s history. This short post aims to share what I’ve learned with the hope of making you see and appreciate how Cebuanos have always been unique.

Cebu on the map (Image Source)

Cebu Province, with its rough terrains and fascinating shorelines, is located at the center of the Visayas, the middle geographical region of the Philippines. Its history is indisputably rich and dramatic, already happening before the Spaniards came and institutionalized various systems.

Before the Spaniards’ arrival in the 16th century, the early Cebuano settlers lived on the coastal areas of the islands of Cebu–main island, Mactan islands on the east, Camotes islands on the northeast, and Bantayan islands on the northwest. There were still few of them, around 35,000 to 50,000 during the 1500s. Many of them are of Austronesian origin who set up tribes and kingdoms in Cebu, and, like the rest of the provinces in the country, traded with China, India, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other Asian civilizations. Cebu then was called by different names–Sugbu, Zebu, Zubu, Sebu, Sibuy–by the merchants.

A view of Lake Danao in Camotes Island, Cebu (Photo by Nancy Cudis)

Since most of our ancestors were residing on the shorelines, the early Cebuanos fish and trade for a living. They consider the sea as a basic part of their lives (and up to now, many of us still love the sea). As art forms, tattoos, gold jewelries, and silk clothing decorated their bodies, men and women alike. The people in Cebu were called pintados because of the heavily tattoed men (and we could see them come to life through some costumed dancers worshipping the Sto. Nino during the Feast of Sto. Nino every January).

As early as 1500s, they already showed how advanced they were by organizing themselves into barangays whose members were mainly determined by kinship or clan relationship. However, there was no institutionalized supra-barangay political organization to unite the barangays together. The barangays were basically operating separately, only coming together temporarily if there was an external threat.

Datu Lapu-Lapu (Image Source)

The Cebuanos have had three social classes before the arrival of the Spaniards–datu (chieftain class), timaguas (freemen), and the oripen (dependents or debt peons).

The chief of the barangay was selected from the datu class, tasked with governing his barangay, settling disputes, making decisions, protecting his village, leading his people into battles, and receiving labor and tributes from his subordinates. He and his family lived on big townhouse-looking wooden structures.

The timaguas, on the other hand, were obliged to be of service during feasts and times of war but were not obliged to give a part of their harvest to the chief. The oripen refers to the person who became a dependent by being captured in war or by falling into debt.

Then the Spaniards came, and this socio-political conditions of the ancient Cebuanos were later altered significantly.

That’s about as concise as I could be in our short trip back to Cebu’s pre-colonial history lane. I would appreciate it if you have other facts you could pitch in and we could learn from. After all, this is part of knowing where we have come from to where we are now so that we could determine the path we in Cebu want to go.


Sy, Dionisio A. A Short History of Cebu 1500-1890s and The Anti-Spanish Revolution in Cebu. Cebu City: Southwestern University, 2008.

Welcome to Cebu. History. www.sinulog.ph

Official Website of the Cebu Provincial Government. History. www.cebu.gov.ph

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