October 5, 2010

Seafaring Traditions for Hari Ragat

As I research historical and cultural facts for inspiration in writing up the Hari Ragat RPG, I can’t help but be struck by the parallelisms between the Vikings and the Malay seafarers, which included the pre-colonial Filipino people.

A caracoa, or lanong

Vikings and Malays

Item: The Vikings were a coastal people renowned for their mastery of ships and sailing, and exploded upon Europe in a wave of piracy and colonization during the Dark Ages.  If we count the earlier irruptions of the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians as part of the ‘Viking’ historical phenomenon, we see that they had not one but several waves of expansion. 

Reconstruction of a Philippine Balangay, 2009

viking-shipReconstruction of a Viking ship: note the similarities.

Item: The Malay peoples were a coastal people known for their sailing abilities and skill at building vessels capable of navigating the treacherous waters of the South China Sea. Much of what is now Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia were settled by these seafarers, and the predatory activities of some peoples lasted well until the 19th century. 

Item: The Viking success was founded on their skill at nautical engineering.  The Viking longship (drakkar) and trading ship (knarr) excelled at sailing close to the wind, penetrating waterways with shallow draft, and were faster than other European ships at the time.

Item: The Malays built a bewildering variety of watercraft, which could sail close to the wind thanks to their rigging – more like modern or Arabian style than the simple square sails of the Vikings – and go up shallow waterways fraught with corals and sandbars.  Sounds familiar, eh?  Save my ancestors had it much better, as when they landed it would be at a balmy tropical beach …

I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Here’s  quote from historian James Francis Warren:  “The Iranun warriors, like the Vikings, were worldly raiders who traveled in search of slaves and work, sometimes for years on end, around the great ports of Manila, Makassar, Batavia, Penang, and Singapore. They often spoke a variety of languages, and were familiar with the traditions and religions of all quarters of Southeast Asia. Some were literate, able to negotiate ransom, or unravel the intricacy of [the] colonial legal system, and they were knowledgeable in martial arts, weapons manufacture and seamanship.”

Now the idea of Vikings is very popular as a fantasy gaming trope.  So why are there no games about the Malay seafarers? 

Researching Malay/Filipino Vessels

As you can probably tell by now, I’m set on coming up with my own game inspired by this.  The devil, however, is in the details.  In particular, ship names and descriptions.

I’m having trouble finding sources that give detailed descriptions of early Philippine Islands vessels (being a Filipino, I’m trying to keep my inspirations Philippine-centric).  I’m also finding that a lot of boat names that I took for granted as indigenous were actually Spanish, so I have to reject them and look for the local term.

For example, I’ve always wondered about the caracoa war galley, at first thinking it was Spanish, until I found the Indonesian kora-kora, which made me think it came from a Malay word; then I learned kora-kora was in turn a corruption of caracoa, and that it’s indeed Spanish after all, cognate with carrack.  Oops. Another oopsie was the falua of Batanes, which turns out to be a kind of whaleboat or pinnace common in Spain.

Fortunately I found James Francis Warren’s books on Iranun and Sulu  raiders, and William Henry Scott’s Barangay.  The boat descriptions I’ve gleaned from them are still skimpy, but at least Warren has good illustrations, including vintage photos. I can now come up with a classification of boats for Hari Ragat based on size and usage.

Watercraft for Hari Ragat

I’ll classify watercraft in the Hari Ragat game into three classes: Utility Boats, Voyaging Boats, and Warships.

Utility Boats
Utility boats are small craft used for short-range transport and fishing.  I’ll put here the generic Bangka, which in Tagalog can indicate anything from a two-seater dugout to larger ferries and fishing vessels carrying up to a dozen or more.  In Hari Ragat, the typical bangka will be a 2-4 man fishing boat.

Voyaging Boats
Voyaging boats are small to medium size craft used for long-range transport, trade, and sometimes war.  The workhorse of Hari Ragat’s maritime society is the Barangay, a medium to large sailing vessel the biggest of which can carry up to a hundred persons.  The Barangay is the Hari Ragat equivalent of the Viking knarr.

The Vinta is a small but fast coaster, capable of entering very shallow water with impunity, and thus makes a great transport for small groups of explorers, envoys, traders and raiders.  This is the type of boat most player characters should have – it’s good for just about whatever they want to do, short of a big sea battle.

Also included under voyaging boats is the Garay, a large sailing craft that’s designed to be faster than the Barangay, capable of carrying as many men but far less supplies. It can be used for fast trade runs, for deep sea fishing, and for raiding. 

The Lanong is an outriggered war galley, the Hari Ragat equivalent of a large Viking drakkar.  It is powered  by at least 2 masts with lug sails and oars, about 20-30 to a side, and can carry up to a 100 passengers.  Having such a vessel constructed and maintained should take the resources of a very wealthy datu (chieftain) or even a rajah (king), as it only pays to have one if you can profit from war – or if you’ve too much at stake not to have a warship’s power.

An Aside

As an aside, I have to note why this means so much to me personally.  Ships and sailing are actually a part of my family heritage, as in the 1700s and 1800s my ancestors were prosperous traders plying the Pasig River and Manila Bay in casco barges.  Members of the family joined the Revolution in 1896, whereupon Spanish colonial officials seized the family’s vessels and burned them. Hari Ragat may be a game for my players, but for me it is also a homage to the history and traditions of my people.

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