July 5, 2016

Ottoman Origin of Philippine Mail?

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I once found a blog claiming that the kurab a kulang, the signature brass mail and plate armor of the Mindanao Muslim tribes, was of Turkish origin. The blogger pointed out the Ottoman expedition to Aceh as the start of manufacturing this kind of mail in Southeast Asia. This is an interesting point, and with lack of clear evidence it’s hard to prove or disprove. Personally I don’t agree with it.

Item: The kurab a kulang was used by the Tausugs, Maguindanaos, Maranaos, and the Bugis people of Sulawesi. It was not found in large quantities by either the Spanish or the Americans, and was likely used only by leaders, very rich people and perhaps their bodyguards. However, there are still quite a few examples floating around, specially among American museums and collectors, and the Museo Armeria Real in Madrid.

Item: The kurab a kulang is mail and plate in Indo-Persian style, which does encompass the Turkish style. However, it is not fashioned after the Ottoman prestige style of the krug, which has a rounded or octagonal belly plate.

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The krug was the armor worn by Ottoman officers and its elite cavalry, the equivalent of European knights, called spahis. Had the Moros been imitating the Ottomans, and given the fact that Moro armor was made for the elites, why didn’t they adopt the round belly plate? All the Philippine and Buginese armors I’ve personally seen or found photos of have square or rectangular plates.

Item: Other styles of Ottoman armor are usually characterized by plates set very close together, even overlapping. This makes the armor really heavy, but that worked for the Turks because they were meant for mounted combat. The kurab a kulang however is characterized by plates spaced rather widely apart, likely to save weight and to remain cooler in the tropical heat.

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Item: The closest kind of armor I’ve seen to Moro armor is Indian, in particular the armor of Sindh.

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As you can see, this Sindhi armor consists entirely of rectangular plates spaced widely apart and connected by mail, very much like the kurab a kulang.

If the kurab a kulang owes its origin to the Ottoman expedition, it is not a Turkish design but rather derives from their allies and mercenaries, which included many Sindhis, Gujaratis, and Malabarese.

Chances are, though, that such armor was already being made in the islands well before 1565. For one thing, armor was known and used much more widely here than we think.

The indigenous epics often mention the heroes wearing ‘war-coats.’ These were mostly of fabric and padded with cotton or abaca fiber. Some were stiffened with scales of hardened carabao hide, brass, carabao horn and other materials. American forces found these in widespread use throughout Mindanao, and the Spaniards did mention some of the natives wearing ‘escaupilles,’ the same word they applied to the padded cotton vests used by the Aztecs.

For another, Malacca and Borneo had long been trading directly with India and Arabia, and by the time the Spaniards arrived the rajahnate of Manila was a Bornean vassal state, while Butuan had already passed its glory days as a rival of the Cham empire in Vietnam. Indian armorers were likely long in business already in the major ports and royal capitals when Magellan arrived, and their techniques were quickly learned by the locals.

These armorers had had time to adopt their design to tropical usage, stripping away the long sleeves and leg pieces, which would’ve been too hot and heavy to use here. And they had turned to working almost exclusively in brass, with non-metallic plates on some pieces (horn, lacquered leather, etc), likely due to the scarcity of iron and its tendency to rust easily. Brass mail rings were common in India, but there they were mixed with iron rings to form Ganga-Jumna mail, with alternating yellow and gray patterns.

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Perhaps another factor in the use of brass was the local affinity for it; brassworking is a well-developed art all over the Malay lands, specially but not exclusively among the Muslim Malays. Among the non-Muslim Lumad tribes of Mindanao entire villages would specialize in brassworking, existing in intricate trade networks with other specialist villages that produced basketry, pottery, weapons and tools, and so on.

The kurab a kulang though existed only among the Muslim tribes. Only these coastal traders could afford the sheer quantity of metal that went into them. So whether Turkish or not, these armors are really interesting examples of how Indian and Islamic arts influenced the Philippines. Maybe one day I’ll find evidence that’ll settle the question for good.

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