The Asian Division’s Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection counts among its most unique items 71 bamboo slats and six cylinders from the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. These items are etched with either verse or prose in the Mangyan script—a writing system that pre-dates the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines and persists to the present. They make up the Library of Congress’s “Mangyan Bamboo Collection from Mindoro, Philippines, circa 1900-1939,” which is now freely available online.
This collection preserves a link between the current living tradition of Mangyan writing and literature and its past. Despite its deep roots, most of the extant historical examples of Mangyan writing are no more than a century old. This is because Mangyan writing was carved on bamboo, a material that deteriorates quickly in the tropical climate of the Philippines. The Library’s Mangyan bamboo collection—assembled between 1904 and 1939 as a result of the collaboration between an American collector, Fletcher Gardner, and two brothers who lived on the island of Mindoro, Ildefonso Maliwanag and Eusebio Maliwanag—is kept in climate-controlled conditions. It preserves a historical record of a script and literary tradition that is a testament to the ingenuity of the Mangyan.
The term “Mangyan” is an umbrella term that refers to several Indigenous communities on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. Among these are the Iraya, Alangan, Tadyawan, Tawbuid, Bangon, Buhid, Hanunuo, and Ratagnon. While these groups are often referred to as “Mangyan,” they speak different languages, and only one of the ethnic groups—Hanunuo—refers to itself as Mangyan. “Hanunuo” is an exonym for both the ethnic group and the language, and is often tagged onto “Mangyan” to form “Hanunuo Mangyan.” “Hanunuo” means “truly, real,” or “genuine.” Hanunuo Mangyans tend to drop the descriptor “hanunuo” within their communities, and refer to themselves and their language as “Mangyan.”
Of the eight groups of Mangyan listed above, only the Hanunuo and the Buhid from the southern part of Mindoro Island have attested writing systems. Both writing systems, called “Surat Hanunuo Mangyan” and “Surat Buhid Mangyan” respectively, are thought to be of Indic origin, and perhaps introduced into Mangyan culture from what is now Indonesia around the 12th or 13th centuries. The Hanunuo Mangyan and Southern Buhid have similar syllabic scripts probably due to their geographical proximity. The Northern Buhid, on the other hand, have their own syllabary. These syllabaries, which date back to pre-Spanish times (before the early 1500s), are one of the few pre-Spanish writing systems in the Philippines that survived Spanish rule, and they enabled the Mangyan to preserve their perspectives and traditions.
The Library’s newly digitized Mangyan bamboo collection provides readers with ready access to some of these writings, and rare insight into Mangyan life during a period of transition—the end of Spanish rule and the beginning of American occupation in the Philippines. The bulk of the collection was authored by three Mangyan: Luyon, Kabal, and Balik. Luyon wrote 48 bamboo slats that cover various topics, ranging from life under Spanish occupation of the Philippines, to agriculture, education, and different stages of life (childhood, adolescence, courtship, marriage, and death). Kabal wrote 22 items in verse (called ambahan, a form of poetry with seven-syllable lines and rhyming endings). Balik was responsible for the six cylinders in the collection, which are in prose. Only one item (Item A1 of Set 1) in the collection, a complaint of slander dated 1904, was written by Sikadan, Chief of Pokanin and Pangalkagan.
Not much is known about the authors, but through Gardner’s descriptions we have some clues about two of them. Gardner tells readers that Luyon, mentioned above, was married to Yagao and had a son, and was “at least fifty years old” in 1939 since she wrote of “affairs under the Spanish occupation which ended more than forty years ago” (see footnote in “Indic Writings of the Mindoro Palawan Axis”).
We learn about another of the Mangyan authors—Sikadan, Chief of Pokanin and Pangalkagan—from Gardner’s article, “Three Contemporary Incised Bamboo Manuscripts from Hampangan Mangyan, Mindoro,” published in December 1939 in the Journal of the American Oriental Society. According to Gardner, Sikadan was one of the party of Mangyan who occupied one of the Philippine villages at the “Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1904 at St. Louis, Missouri” (p. 496). There is some confusion as to whether Gardner meant the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 or the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905 held in Portland, Oregon. Either Gardner misidentified the name of the exposition or the year and place. It is more probable that Sikadan was in St. Louis rather than Portland because contemporary American newspaper reports mention Mangyan among the Indigenous peoples at the St. Louis World’s Fair but not at the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Both expositions featured live exhibits of Indigenous peoples of the Philippines, which would today be considered racist. Reports placed several of these groups on the lower end of an imagined civilizational scale. A writer in the newspaper St. Louis Republic grouped the Mangyan with the “Negrito” people, considered to be the “lowest type” but noted the Mangyan were a “higher-type” with a “greater intelligence,” perhaps on account of their “written language,” which the reporter mistakenly described as consisting of “a mixture of Greek and Chinese characters, which they carve on bamboo.”
Given the racist attitude towards Indigenous peoples of the Philippines seen in American news reports, the collaboration between Gardner and the Maliwanag brothers stands out as unusual. This partnership produced a body of scholarly work on the Mangyan and their writing, which Gardner sent to the Library of Congress as accompanying documents to the inscribed bamboo items. These unpublished materials have been digitized and include typed and handwritten romanized transliterations and translations of the bamboo items in the collection.
In addition, Gardner also sent the Library three volumes entitled “Indic Writings of the Mindoro Palawan Axis.” The first two volumes were written by Gardner and Ildefonso Maliwanag and contain transliterations and translations of all the items in the Library’s Mangyan bamboo collection except for one item (Item A1 of Set 1), as well as some of those in other collections such as the Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library in Chicago. The third is a Mangyan vocabulary and grammar by Gardner.
The differences in transliteration and translation when comparing the published and unpublished material suggest the tentative nature of Gardner and the Maliwanags’ work. As editor of “Indic Writings,” Gardner—who first became interested in the Mangyan while working as a Contract Surgeon of the United States Army stationed at Bulalacao on Mindoro in 1904—relied on translations and transliterations provided by Maliwanag and others, as well as a card catalog of more than 5,000 Mangyan words. The end results were less than authoritative, but they represent a pioneering effort by an international partnership between an American and Filipinos to conduct a serious study of Mangyan script and literature within the larger context of a project to study the Indigenous writing of the Philippines. Indeed, Gardner and Maliwanag also made attempts to study the Tagbanua script of the island of Palawan. Their findings on the Tagbanua script are discussed in the first volume of “Indic Writings.”
To learn more about the collection, please see a recently published research guide, which is now available online. The guide discusses collection-related topics such as provenance, transliterations, and transcriptions, and also lists all items in the collection with links to the digital presentation.
For more information on the collection, or to learn more about other Mangyan holdings at the Library such as recordings of Mangyan poetry, please contact Southeast Asian reference staff using the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian service.
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