Boxer Codex: This Is What 16th Century Filipinos Looked Like

"The Bisayans are accustomed to paint their bodies with some very elegant tattoos. They do this with iron or brass rods, the points of which are heated on fire. These are done in the manner illuminations, paintings all parts of the body, such as the chest, the stomach, legs, arms, shoulders, hands, and muscles, and among some, the posteriors."

What is the connection between a British Peer, World War II, a historian, and the Philippines? A 307-page manuscript which is full of colored drawings, superstitions, norms, and descriptions of flora and fauna that is known today as the
Boxer Codex.

The twenty-month British occupation of Manila and Cavite from 1762-1764 saw a massive sacking of academic and historical materials that were brought back to the United Kingdom by the forces of Brigadier General William Draper. A huge percentage of that plunder came from the Augustinian library

In the next century or so, the manuscript would end up in the private collection of the Earl of Ilchester. Due to the blitz bombing by the Germans of Britain in 1940, Holland House the main estate of the Earl suffered irreparable damages. He had to auction off his heirlooms to cover repairs. Professor Charles R. Boxer ended up buying the book that eventually carried his name.

The Boxer Codex is now with the Lilly Library of the University of Indiana. You may view a digital copy of it online. 

Local Publishing Company, Vibal, has produced an edition of the modern translation in both English and Spanish by Ma. Luisa Garcia, Carlos Quirino (Philippine National Artist), and Mauro Garcia. Quirino worked closely with Boxer in the 1950s during the production of this undertaking.

In her essay about the Boxer Codex, Patricia May Jurilla has entertainingly written the history of this manuscript. Historians have speculated that the Boxer Codex was authored by either Luis Perez Dasmarinas, the son of Spanish Governor-General Gomez Perez Dasmarinas; a Spanish soldier or Juan de Cuellar, the governor's secretary. 

And the owner could have been Gomez Perez Dasmarinas. Only someone who was rich and influential could have owned this expensive body of work. 

The Philippines during the late 16th-century was the farthest colony of Imperial Spain. The book provided a visual depiction to satisfy the curiosity of the mind. The exploratory nature of the manuscript illustrated, not just the Philippines but also China, Japan, the Moluccas, Ladrones, Siam, and Java. 

Several of the eyewitness accounts that were included in the manuscript came from Spanish and Portuguese explorers, priests, merchants and civil servants. The last entry was dated 1590 and the Boxer Codex could have been printed thereafter. 

There are at least 15 pictures of the types of inhabitants that you may encounter in the Philippines. Even before, the various regional differences of the Filipinos were apparent. 

The Visayans had tattooed bodies or fair-skinned while in Zambales, they were darker and had a hairstyle that involved shaving the forehead and front half of the head but retaining loose long hair at the back.

Even the class system practiced by the ethnic groups were portrayed in the Codex. The social ranking was distinct from one place to another. Clothing (or the lack of it) discretely distinguished the differences.

Another thing that you would notice while looking at the illustrations is the abundance of gold jewelry worn by the Filipinos. The Spaniards were obsessed by gold. In their belief that the islands were full of gold, they willingly exchanged Brazil for the Philippines in one of their treaties with Portugal. 

If you study the path of conquest the Spanish conquistadors made through the Philippines, they would always push for explorations towards the mountains in search of gold. This realization came to me while writing my article about the Franciscan churches in Laguna

The images are beautifully rendered and framed in a style that is reminiscent of European art. But historians have concurred that the artist was either a Sangley (Chinese) or Indio (Filipino). 

The following gallery shows what the 16th-century Filipinos looked like in the eyes of the Europeans. 


A pair of gold-embellished Visayan Noble couple. Woven gold adorned them in sashes with ornate repousse buckles, cord weights.  

A Tagalog Noble couple dressed in gold accessories. "The dress of the women is not as neat nor as elegant as that of the Bisayans, because they wrap a cotton or taffeta mantle around the body with very little polish. They wear jackets and skirts in the same way we have described of the Bisayans. They also wear their dress skin tight, gathering it at the waist and breast because they use no chemise or stockings...All carry over their dress some small mantles, which reach to the waist, these are of colored cotton, and some are of satin, taffeta, and damask obtained from China."

Naturales Tagalos Noble couple. "The women carry much gold jewelry because they are richer than the Bisayans. Men and women also wear many bracelets and chains of gold in the arms. They are not used to wearing them on the legs. Women likewise wear around their necks golden chains like the men do." 

A pair of male and female hunters from Zambales. "..if some close relative dies or is killed, they have to kill other men to avenge the death of their kinsman, and until mourning is done, they cut off their hair at the back and in front, and they stop eating rice, and promise not to do other things until they have achieved their revenge."

Visayan Principal couple covered in tattoos. "They have another type of clothing, which consists of cotton blankets. The men carry on their heads some very fine multi-colored head scarfs which they wear as some sort of Turkish turban. They call these in their language purones...The young men wear them finely with many inserts of strips of gold...The garments and dresses of Bisayan women consist of some blankets with diverse colored stripes made of cotton...They wear a pezuelo, a chemise with half sleeves that reach the elbows...They are close fitting, without collars, and are low-necked or low-cut and are fastened at the front with braids or cords of silk. Many wear a lot of gold jewelry that they use as fasteners and small golden chains, which they use as best as they can."

A Cagayan warrior in a feathered headdress. "They wear their hair long up to the shoulders and cut short at the front up to the temples. They wear on their heads crowns or garlands made of fragrant herbs. Their weapons are lances and shields a fathom long and three-fourths (of a fathom) wide. They have some quilted weapons and a cap like a colored morrion or helmet and some daggers more than eight fingers in width and a palm and a half in length, with hilts of ebony, with which they can cut off a head with one stroke."

Negrillos or Negrito hunting couple. "...the majority of these bowmen or archers are Negritos. They have many herbs a drop of which, introduced into the bloodstream, would cause quick death, unless remedied by another herb." 

Naturales Tagalos

Tagalog common men. "The Moros (Islamized Tagalogs) are dressed with clothes of cotton and are not naked like the Bisayans...from the calfs of the knees they wear many chainlets often made of brass, which they call bitiques (bitik). These are worn only by the men who regard them as very stylish."




Zambales Hunting Team

Zambales Warriors

Visayan Couple

For further readings, you can find my references here. Photos from the Kasaysayan Series and the Lilly Library Digital Collection. Photo descriptions from Boxer Codex, transcribed and edited by Isaac Donoso, translated and annotated by Ma. Luisa Garcia, Carlos Quirino, and Mauro Garcia.















Comments