Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Glossary: Luções

Luções was the Portuguese name for the people of the island of Lução, which is still the Portuguese name for Luzon island in the Philippines.

In Latin maps, Luzon was known as Luçonia or Lussonia both derived from Lução.

The word originates from Lusung (呂宋)), the Chinese name during the Ming dynasty for a kingdom in Central Luzon. Present-day Chinese in some areas still use the name Lusung for the city of Manila, the area surrounding Manila Bay, the island of Luzon and more generally for the nation of the Philippines.

Lusung (or Lusong) probably originates from a native word referring to a mortar used to pound rice. This device seems to have made it all the way to Guam along with rice culture from the Philippines.

A Chamorro woman in early Guam with a stone lusong rice mortar

Among the Chamorros, the term can also refer to artificial pools created along rivers. It is postulated these may have provided water for people pounding rice in the stone mortars. The lusong were usually carved out of river rock and may have also acted as bathing pools.

I have suggested that the name Lusung may be derived from a lake that once existed at Pinatubo, the sacred volcano of Central Luzon and different than the current one, that was thought of as a type of baptismal pool similar to the Krater of the early Greek alchemists.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, stone metates were found in the famed Pandanan wreck off the coast of the Philippines. The metates resembled the lusong of the Chamorro. Why were these simple mortars sought as trade items? Could it have been their value was augmented by the perceived sacred nature of the stone used to make them as I have also suggested was the case with earthernware Luzon jars?

Whatever the case, the name of the kingdom seems to have been derived from these rice mortars. Other theories postulate that the island of Luzon or the Manila Bay was perceived as having the shape of a lusung, or that the kingdom was famed as a rice granary.

The importance of the Luções during the Ming dynasty period and the arrival of early European explorers in Southeast Asia is apparent in their role as intermediaries throughout the region.

Luções were everywhere during this period acting as merchants, mercenaries, adminstrators, etc. from India to Japan according to varied sources.

In the 1500s, Portuguese writers mention a colony of Luções in Malacca sponsored by the Sultan of Malacca. They included many important personnel in the government of the sultan and merchants like one Surya Diraja a pepper trader who annually sent 175 tons of the valued spice to China. The sultan also hired a Lusung fleet when he attempted to wrest control of his city from the Portuguese in 1525.

The Sultan of Aceh hired Lusung ships and warriors when he attempted to gain control of the Straits of Malacca in 1529. The Luções also reportedly fought for the Menangkabau kingdom, and for both sides during the war between Burma and Siam in 1547.

In 1550, the Ming dynasty banned overseas trade as part of their overall anti-trade policy. According to Spanish sources during the Philippine invasion of Miguel Lopéz de Legaspi it was the Luções who filled in the gap handling the trade in Chinese goods throughout the region from their ports in Lusung. Apparently some junks still managed to reach Lusung Dao ("Golden Luzon") famed for its gold despite the Ming ban.

In 1545, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fidalgo was driven to Luzon from Brunei by a storm and describes it as lying between nine and 22 degrees north latitude at its most southern and northern tips respectively. According to Fidalgo, the island was so rich in gold that the natives would give two pezoes in gold for one in silver despite the fact that they were acquainted with the relative value of these metals in China.

The gold was an important part of trade with the sultanate of Brunei with which Lusung had special relations. When Magellan arrived in this area, the Sultan of Brunei was highly dependent on a Lusung prince, who was widely feared throughout the region and who acted as "captain-general" of the sultan's fleet. Even across the bay from Brunei, the sultan reportedly had a fearsome "heathen" enemy whose city equaled that of the sultanate's capital.

Lusung ships carrying spices, gold, Chinese goods and other items regularly plied the seas of Southeast Asia and their pilots became important to the Portuguese in making contacts with both China and Japan. Lusung ships including some of Surya Diraja played a vital role in the first official Portuguese visit to China.

Bras Bayão, the Portuguese crown representative in Brunei, recommended Lusung pilots as "discoverers" for missions beyond China to Japan and indeed these seafarers played that role in the first official visit to Japan in 1543.

Lusung was known to the Japanese as Rusun, probably stemming from the native Kapampangan term lusung rather than Tagalog lusong.

According to the historical work the Tokiko, Japanese tea lovers cherished the Rusun no tsubo (Luzon pots) and Rusun no chaire (Luzon tea canisters). Multiple sources confirm that the most valuable of these were simple earthernware containers that the Japanese often gilded and embellished with gems. Like the metates/lusung, the value of these pots as trade items was not readily apparent. One master trader known as Rusun Sukezaemon made a fortune selling Luzon wares including some that he presented to the sengoku daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The record of the Luções in the 16th century indicate that they were very actively involved in the geopolitical events of the region, which was now the focus of the eyes of the "Old World." According to the Ming annals, the kingdom of Lusung was considered important enough for emperor Yung Lo, in the second year of his reign, to send the famed admiral Zheng Ho to attack Lusung and neighboring regions. The Chinese fleet made three attempts to subjugate Luzon prior to the arrival of the first Europeans on the scene about a century later.

Paul Kekai Manansala