Prelude to war

For the ancient CHamorus warfare was sporadic and functioned primarily to resolve political, economic, and social conflicts among different clans or villages. Although these confrontations were not large in scale, nor extremely violent, the ancient CHamorus took warfare seriously. CHamoru warriors trained themselves from an early age to develop skills with the sling or spear, their primary weapons of choice. In battles between villages, warriors would be mobilized and honored through communal feasting prior to combat. But no war preparation would be complete without appealing to the ancestral spirits or mananiti for spiritual strength and ultimate victory.

Pre-war ritual

Historical accounts by Spanish missionaries provide a glimpse of the prewar rituals of the ancient CHamorus. Jesuit missionary Father Peter Coomans observed that disputes between families could quickly lead to battles between various villages. He described the sounding of a shell trumpet (kulo’) to call and excite the warriors, who were mostly unmarried young men (uritao). Upon arriving at the meeting place, village women would serve a special feast, as well as wash the bodies of the warriors with fresh water from the river.

In the prewar gathering, a kind of rice drink, called laulau, and a delicacy of dried salted swordfish (guatafi) were given to the warriors.

Then, seated upon mats, the chiefs, or maga’ låhi, would meet in a nearby house and vie for the opportunity to carry the battle standard or banner (babao), which was a long stick with a palm branch attached to one end like a flag. The battle standard would fly about, and with much shouting, the chiefs would try to grab it (Coomans 2000:40).

Nineteenth century French explorer Louis de Freycinet wrote that CHamoru warfare campaigns would begin with “terrible yells,” but these were more for cheering themselves on and to irritate, rather than to frighten, their opponents. Only the matua and achaot, the upper and middle classes, were actually allowed to take up arms, while the manachang, or lowest class, would carry supplies. The main strategy was to observe the enemy long enough to determine the best way to ambush them. When the fighting would actually begin, the warriors would “rush forward in confusion,” shooting their slings first from a distance, before resorting to their spears. The fighting continued until someone was killed. Although the Spanish found these battle scenes chaotic and unorganized relative to European war tactics, the battles were a means of resolving tension between villages, and were quickly ended so that peace could be arranged.

Peace-making ritual

At the end of battle, both sides would recede, and the ritual for peace negotiations would proceed. The defeated village would immediately send envoys with gifts. According to Freycinet, the victorious side took pleasure and pride in lording their triumph over their opponents.

They insult those whom they defeated, mocking them with satirical chants. These chants are both composed and performed during their feasts.

But, the victors in turn would provide a peace offering of turtle shell (alås) to their rivals in exchange for the spirits of the dead warriors. A formal meal served from giant cauldrons would be offered while negotiating peace. The peace would last for a little while, until the next dispute or conflict arose.

Spiritual war tactics

In addition to witnessing fights among the CHamorus, the Spanish also observed the spiritual aspect of native warfare. The CHamorus believed in the presence of the mananiti, or ancestral spirits, and the power of these spirits to assist them in fishing, farming, and even in battle. They believed the ancestral spirits lived on in the skulls of their deceased ancestors and that the makana—the practitioners of healing and magic—had the power to communicate with them. The makana would take out the skulls, lay them out and invoke upon them their requests for help and good fortune. In some cases, the makana would take the skulls and place them on the actual battleground. Victory, of course, was seen as a favorable response by the mananiti.

The CHamorus continued to rely on the skulls for spiritual strength, even in their battles against the Spanish in the late 17th century. The makana, in response to Spanish efforts to missionize and colonize the islands, motivated the CHamorus to fight against the priests and soldiers. Jesuit Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, who headed the newly established Catholic mission, worked hard to remove the authority of the makahna by criticizing them whenever possible and ordering the destruction of the skulls. In one account of a battle in 1671, the natives dug trenches at the advice of a council of makhana and placed in them the skulls of their ancestors. The CHamoru warriors fought with new spiritual vigor; however, the Spanish, with their advanced weaponry, defeated the natives. The Spanish then “cast the skulls on the ground and trampled on them.”

While the battle against the Spanish was a huge disappointment for the CHamorus, the destruction of these skulls most likely represented a great spiritual loss as well. Nevertheless, as Freycinet noted, CHamoru warriors “took care not to entrust their fortunes in war entirely to such talismans,” emphasizing the other plans the CHamorus made in preparation for battle.

By Dominica Tolentino

Did you know?

Laulau – According to Rodrigue Levesque, who translated many of the historical documents from the Spanish era, laulau is similar to a drink in the Philippines known there as lugau. Levesque also notes the literal translation of laulau is “to shake,” and may also be the word from which the name Raurau Bay in Saipan is derived.

For further reading

Bevacqua, Michael Lujan. “Warfare.” In Guampedia, last modified 7 February 2023.

Coomans, Peter. History of the Mission in the Mariana Islands: 1667-1673. Translated by Rodrigue Lévesque. Occasional Papers Series, no. 4. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2000.

Freycinet, Louis Claude Desaulses de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Translated by Glynn Barratt. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2003.

García, Francisco. The Life and Martyrdom of Diego Luis de San Vitores, S.J. Translated by Margaret M. Higgins, Felicia Plaza, and Juan M.H. Ledesma. Edited by James A. McDonough. MARC Monograph Series 3. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 2004.