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

Visayan Pintados Warriors

What is the connection between a British Peer, World War II, a historian, and the Philippines? A 307-page manuscript 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. 


Naturales Tagalos

Naturales Tagalos

Zambales Couple

Visayan Tattooed Couple

Cagayanes Warrior


Naturales Tagalos

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.