Costume of a family belonging to Principalía during the late 19th century. Picture taken from the exhibit in Villa Escudero Museum in San Pablo Laguna, Philippines.
The Principalía [i.e., chieftain class or nobility was the ruling class in the towns of Spanish Philippines composed of the Gobernadorcillo or the Municipal Captain who presided over it, the First Lieutenant, the former Municipal Captains or former Gobernadorcillos, the municipal judges, the cabezas de baranggay, the newly elected (cabezas reformados) and the awardees of the medal of Civil Merit. The distinction or status of being part of the Principalía could be both acquired or inherited as attested by the Royal Decree of December 20, 1863 (signed in the name of Queen Isabel II by the Minister of the Colonies, José de la Concha) regarding the requirement of proficiency of the Castilian language for those who are considered to be raised to this rank, unless they enjoy this distinction or quality by right of inheritance. Upon the change of regimes, from monarchy under Spain to democracy under the Americans, the Principalía and their descendants lost their traditional and legal powers and privileges.
This privileged upper class was exempted from forced labor during the colonial regime. It was the town’s aristocracy, which could be roughly comparable to the Patrician class of Ancient Rome or of the Italian city-states and towns, and other European territories during the Medieval and Renaissance Periods. The members of this class enjoyed exclusive privileges, e.g., only the Principales were exempted from paying tax, allowed to vote, be elected to public office and be addressed by the title: Don or Doña. They were also given certain roles in the parish Church, e.g., assisting the Spanish parish priest in pastoral and worship activities. For most part, the social privileges of the Principales were freely acknowledged as befitting their greater social responsibilities. And these responsibilities were great. It was from their ranks that the elective municipal offices were filled- offices which carried more burdens than emoluments. The Gobernadorcillo that time, for example, received a very nominal salary and received no public funds for public services he was expected to maintain, like the post office, jail house, construction and repair services of public infrastructure and buildings. So, he has to be a man of means and wealth.
From the beginning of the colonial regime, the Spaniards built on traditional local socio-political organization of the barangay and co-opted to empower the traditional local leaders and datus thereby ruling indirectly. In a law signed on 11 June 1594, Philip II ordered that the honor and privilege to rule pertaining to this native Filipino nobles should be retained and protected. He also ordered the Spanish governors in the islands to show these native nobles good treatment, and even ordered the natives to pay respect and tribute due to these nobles as they did before the conquest without prejudice to the things that pertain to King himself or to the encomenderos. The royal decree says: “It is not right that the Indian chiefs of Filipinas be in a worse condition after conversion; rather they should have such treatment that would gain their affection and keep them loyal, so that with the spiritual blessings that God has communicated to them by calling them to His true knowledge, the temporal blessings may be added, and they may live contentedly and comfortably. Therefore, we order the governors of those islands to show them good treatment and entrust them, in our name, with the government of the Indians, of whom they were formerly lords. In all else the governors shall see that the chiefs are benefited justly, and the Indians shall pay them something as a recognition, as they did during the period of their paganism, provided it be without prejudice to the tributes that are to be paid us, or prejudicial to that which pertains to their encomenderos.”
The system of indirect rule helped create in rural areas a Filipino upper class, referred to later as the Principalía or the Principales. This group had local wealth, high status, privileges, and prestige. The Principalía was larger and more influential than the pre-conquest nobility. It created and perpetuated an oligarchic system of local control.
In some provinces like, Iloilo, the ruling Spanish government encouraged foreign merchants to trade with the locals but they were not given certain privileges like ownership of land. From this contact and social intercourse between foreign merchants, e.g., Chinese, Indians, and especially with the Spanish colonizers, a new culture eventually came into being. A mestiso class was born from a few intermarriages of the Spaniards and merchants with the Malayo-Polynesian natives. Their descendants, emerged later as the more influential part of the ruling class or the Principalía.
At the later part of the Spanish Regime, this class of elite Christian landowners started to sport a distinctive type of salakot, a Filipino headdress commonly used in the Philippines during the pre-conquest and colonial periods. Instead of the usual headgear made of rattan or reeds, which ordinary Filipinos would wear, the Gobernadorcillos and cabezas de barangay would use more precious materials like tortoise shell and precious metals. The ornate salakots of this ruling class were usually embossed with silver and sometimes decorated with silver coins or pendants that hang around the rim of the headgear.