October 6, 2014

Origins of Philippine Armor?

Surviving specimens of Philippine armor are rather few, and mostly rather recent, many of them from the 19th century captured by American forces in Mindanao. While there are sources stating that Philippine armor was copied from Spanish models, anyone familiar with Indo-Persian armor will immediately see that’s not the full story.


Here is a suit of Moro armor from Mindanao. It’s a plate-and-mail shirt of brass, designed to close in front so it would be very easy to don or doff quickly. It’s topped by a helmet that looks very much like a copy of a Spanish morion, and very likely is – which may have led to the assumption that Philippine armor is derived from Spanish. However, I’m quite sure the model for the body armor is something more like this:

zira baktar sindhi e2c54ed8d42584e32381a7fa4a24c74c

This is a zirah bakhtar from Sindh, in India. The design and construction techniques are very similar, save that this one is mostly steel, though the plates look like they have brass borders. It’s also long-sleeved and comes with bazu bands, arm protectors integrated with hand coverings. I’ve yet to see any long-sleeved suits of Moro mail, nor Moro armguards. I believe the prevalence of short sleeves and lack of arm or leg protections in Moro mail is due to the fighting styles and conditions here; less armor is better for amphibious operations in tropical, jungled terrain, and a lot of that action was in the form of raiding by sea.

Now, if Philippine armor were indeed copied from Spanish styles, what should it look like? When the Spanish invaded, they would’ve been wearing mostly breastplates, or jacks and brigandines. Here’s a brigandine from that period, c. 1500-1600:


There are American photos of Bagobos in padded armor, and W.H. Scott mentions padded armor along with breastplates of carved hardwood, batung. I’ve also seen scale armor vests in the Villa Escudero museum, some made with coins, most with lacquered carabao hide scales, and even one with oyster shell scales! There were probably a lot more of those than of metal armor, but they of course don’t last in this climate so few have been preserved.

The wet tropical climate and scarcity of iron seemed to be the main limiting factors in development of local armor, and the reason why Moro mail is almost always of brass. Use of zirah bakhtar-style vests wasn’t limited to Mindanao, though, as shown by this Bugis specimen from Indonesia:

Baju Perang BUGIS Inggris

But what about that very Spanish helmet? It is Spanish. Were there no local helmet designs? It’s also very interesting that Indo-Persian designs influenced body armor, but I’ve yet to see local helmets of the kulah zirah/kulah khud styles. Scott mentions Chinese-made helmets, probably of the Ming chapel de fer styles, called kupyangan, used by the Tagalogs:


There were also a wide variety of salakot, the pan-East Asian conical hat, which could be made of gourd, hardwood, lacquered leather, or tortoiseshell:



The Spanish design may have proven more practical than either, and if the Spanish had given away a few of the beautifully chased officers’ morions as gifts, there would’ve been a prestige motive to copy them. Here’s a European parade morion, followed by a Moro helmet:


The Moros further adapted the Spanish style by adding elaborate plumes of rooster feathers or horsehair:


It’s interesting that I’ve yet to see helmets that look more purely indigenous in design like these Nias and Poso helmets:

Helm Perang NIAS - Versi INGGRIS

Topi Perang POSO - Versi INGGRIS

Was it simply because none were preserved? Because all who could afford armor – and they were never many – converted to using the Spanish helmet design? Or was it simply because collectors ignored the plainer examples in favor of the flamboyant Moro brass helms? I’d really appreciate pics and links if you find more interesting pieces of Philippine armor.

Anyway, that’s it for this morning’s ramble. I’ll leave you with some more ‘mail pawrn’ …





  1. The second helmet from the Wilwatikta museum reminds me a a lot of a japanese kabuto.

    Very nice blog, by the way. Your insights are always very interesting.

  2. Most ancient helmets in our country were mostly round shaped (ala skull cap) made from plant material or metal if they can get hold of it. Some I found in the interwebs:



    nice blog too. very informative about our country's pre hispanic history.

    1. both helmets above are more recent though (19th century) but I believe probably little has changed from their typical design after the Spaniards arrived, especially the ifugao one.

  3. Wow, thanks for these! Looking up the origins of these now.


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