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The Moro Armor of the Philippines

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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Although the Philippines never had a united pre-Hispanic nation, the individual domains that existed were wonders in their own right. And these separate kingdoms had one thing in common—a strong warrior culture. Civilizations in the precolonial Philippines could range from tribal to domains with advanced governing systems. And providing defenses, policing and raids were feudal warriors comparable to other militarized classes, like knights and samurai. In the Tagalog kingdom, they were the maharlika, while the timawa belonged to the ancient Visayans.

In Mindanao, the warrior classes of the Moro people were known to engage in raids and piracy.

They fought with a variety of weapons, with their swords being the most well-known. But the Moro raiders were unique in the choice of equipment they wore. Do note that Song Dynasty China once described the Visayan pirates as naked and covered with tattoos when doing raids. On the other hand, the Boxer Codex showed the other precolonial warriors as clad in clothes while brandishing their shields and polearms.

The Moros were different. In addition to swords and other weaponry (sometimes firearms), they are noted for the protection they wore. They were clad in armor when engaging in battles and raids. While suits of armor were associated with the Spanish conquistadors, the Moros were already wearing their own versions.

 Moro armor

Moro armor

Moro Armor

When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, they brought with them plate armor, though they were also clad in brigandines. The degree of coverage varied, with the torso and the head being the most well-protected. But it was the style of helmets that made the Conquistador recognizable, their Castilian Morion.

On the other hand, the Moro warriors were protected differently. Few tangible samples of this Philippine armor survived, and the American forces captured most. But unlike the plate armor of the Conquistadors, the Moro armor uses a mix of mail and plate.

One could describe the outside appearance of the Moro armor as a shirt of mail, with bits of metal segments at the torso area. The material of choice for the plates and mail was brass, though nonmetallic materials were also used for the plates. In one sample, the plate segments were carved from water buffalo (carabao) horns. The armor is a typical Islamic type, which is opened at the front when taken on and secured by a hook and eye clasps. The clasps could be ornately decorated.

The material of the armor could be due to the limited supply of iron, and some used plates made from oyster shells. Overall, the armor covered only the torso, with the plates protecting the organs like the heart and lungs. The mail part never extended to the arms, but it had a skirt-style extension to protect the lower torso and the hips.

An example of a morion style Moro helmet.

An example of a morion style Moro helmet.

Armors captured by the American forces in the 19th century were noted to be paired with helmets similar to the Spanish morions. It was once suggested that the Moro armors were derived from the Spanish, but the very construction of the armors proved it wrong. The frontal openings were typical of Islamic armor, while the ornate claps were sometimes decorated with Bornean designs.

But through their engagements with the Spanish forces, the Moro later adopted their weaponry, such as firearms, and their helmet designs. Simply put, the morion was proven to be functional. Hence, we could say that the adoption of Morion style head protection was during the later period, and the Moro added a few aesthetic variations. The morions of Mindanao were decorated with plumes and horse hairs. There are samples of Moro armors that never utilized the localized versions of the morion. In one example, a helmet was fashioned from the same mail and plate design as the armor.

The adoption of armor by the Moro suggested more advanced knowledge of warfare. Nevertheless, its origin was traceable to the interaction of the people of Mindanao with the rest of the Islamic nations.

A similar Indonesian armor.

A similar Indonesian armor.

Except for the helmet, its Spanish origin was ruled out. The design and the build are typical of Islamic armor. Nevertheless, it resembled the type of armor found in India. The zirah bakhtar from Sindh, India, had the same plate and mail design, except the mail shirt extended to the arms. It also came with hand guards and hand protection.

The Indonesian armor baju lamina also bore a striking resemblance to the Philippine Moro armor. Like the said armor, the Indonesian type covered only the torso, with a skirt extension consisting of mail and brass plates. In fact, the mail and plate armor designs were common in Asia and the Islamic world. Hence, the mail and plate armor design were passed through the visits of Muslim missionaries and traders in Mindanao, before the arrival of the Spanish.

A Moro warrior in armor.

A Moro warrior in armor.

If a similar armor with arm protection existed, one might wonder why the Moros chose the vest-type design for their armor. The answer lies in the type of warfare they engaged in. The Philippines could be described as a tropical island with many coastlines, mountains and jungles. With that said, the form of warfare of the precolonial Filipinos evolved to adapt to such an environment.

The Moros of Mindanao were no different. With many coastlines separated by seas, the Moros became raiders and pirates. The uneven terrains of jungles called for less load for mobility, while being light and agile were needed for sea-based assaults. Hence, the Moros adopted a form of protection that won’t hinder their mobility while doing raids by sea or when fighting in the wilderness. The type of Moro armor has no arm extension; hence lighter and more flexible. There were no extra loads or awkward protrusions in their armors that might affect their movement during combat.

And the Moros still used the same type of armor at the end of the Spanish era. Most of the armor samples were actually captured by American forces from the Moros they encountered during the 19th century. Even in the age of newer battlefield technology, these warriors still stick to their traditional mail and plate armor.

References

1. Mail and plate armour from the Philippines, Asia. Collected by R. Hugh Chapman in 1893. Given to the Museum by Mabel How in 1940. (n.d.). Retrieved from Oceania (ox.ac.uk).

2. Origins of Philippine Armor? (6 October 2014). Retrieved from Origins of Philippine Armor? – Swashbuckling Planets (wordpress.com).