What Is a Lantaka?

What is a Lantaka?

By Robert W. Munson, Historian JM, Cabrillo National Monument

Okay, by now you have all noticed the new 76-pound paperweight on the south end of the visitor contact desk. It is called a lantaka.

Lantaka is a Malay word for a muzzle-loading swivel cannon. Our paperweight is the most common style of lantaka known. It can be mounted on the railing of a ship, on a swivel post on deck, and even on four-wheel carriages with swivel mounts for larger guns (these are rare).

Lantakas have been around since the 1300s and have not changed in 600 years; sort of Malaya’s version of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Before Vasco Da Gama of Portugal arrived in India in 1498, lantakas were being produced throughout Malaysia, Indonesia and perhaps the Philippines.

Throughout the years of lantaka production there has been a continuous tradition of bands of triangles going around the tube (as a primary decorative trait). Near the touchhole, an animal is part of the casting, most frequently a crocodile. The lifting lugs on the tube almost invariably are a pair of what the Europeans call “dolphins” at the center of gravity. Dolphins do not appear on European cannons until the 1600s. Our little lantaka predates this feature by at least a hundred years, suggesting the Europeans may have gotten the idea from the Far East. By the way, they aren’t “dolphins” they’re seahorses (although birds and dragons are known).

The lantaka was an effective defensive weapon for any size merchant vessel in Far Eastern waters. Pirates usually boarded from canoes, and rarely used anything bigger than a prahu (pronounced “prow”, the prahu was in effect a catamaran about 30 feet long). A lantaka firing bore shot could easily sink a canoe. Firing small shot, such as pea gravel, was deadlier than the biggest shotgun and did terribly antisocial things to your friendly, neighborhood pirates.

To illustrate how common these guns were, when the Duke of Albuquerque captured the port of Malacca in 1576, the booty included over 2000 lantakas.

In 1627 a Sulu fleet of more than 30 vessels and 2000 men under Rajah Bongsu attacked the new Spanish shipyard in Camarines, primarily to obtain lantakas “which they needed badly.”

Without a lantaka, a ship owner was advertising he was a nobody with no self-respect, and his ship was loaded with nothing worth stealing, except perhaps the crew who could be sold as slaves. He who used a lantaka had a frightening advantage over the poor schnooks trying to carry out a raid with arrows, spears, blowguns, kallis, and krises.

So this breed of gun had status value as well as defensive value. Distinguished visitors were saluted by the lantakas of everyone from the local Rajah down to the skipper of the lowliest junk. The guns displayed the wealth and status of the extended family that owned them. Then, as now, items of copper, brass and bronze in the Far East had/have tremendous value, especially to the light-fingered brethren. A bridal registration that didn’t include at least one lantaka was an insult to the family and, to make it easy, they came in only one pattern. Granting of treaties or awarding of titles would be sealed by gifts of lantakas. Of course such valuable items were also a primary element of trade, and prices of everything from rice to slaves could be measured in lantakas. A well-placed gift of a lantaka at the right time could usually get you out of virtually any legal problem except treason. Even honor could be satisfied with a lantaka.

The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English very quickly woke up to the value of these guns and began manufacturing them themselves. One source indicates that 17 of the swivel guns aboard Magellan’s fleet in 1519 were lantakas.

By the 1600s everybody was in the business of making lantakas: Austria, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia and Turkey. The Portuguese, of course, made their trade lantakas in Goa and Macao. However, after 1840 the biggest producer of lantakas was the Sultan of Brunei in Borneo.

Lantakas were still in widespread use during the Moro Rebellion on Mindanao, 1899-1913, when the Sulu’s armed their forts and stockades with them.

I have a photograph taken in Hong Kong in 1935 showing a junk armed with lantakas. During the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in World War II most families buried their lantakas to prevent them from being confiscated and melted down.

Lantakas can still be purchased all over the Far East, only now they are made of PVC pipe and plastic drink bottles igniting two squirts of denatured alcohol in the chamber. They make a very impressive noise so they are still widely used for ceremonial occasions. Traditional combat lantakas have been replaced with AK-47s and M-79s. The available lantakas are often originals, some dating back to the 16th century, going for anywhere between $1000 and $50,000. Cheaper lantakas, very difficult to reveal as modern guns, are being widely produced for the tourist market. Modern reproductions are virtually impossible to identify as such without expensive lab tests. The one possible method is how much does the gun weigh? The modern reproductions are generally about twice as heavy as comparable original historic guns, should you find yourself in the market for a lantaka to mount on your car or truck.

Last revised 05-Aug-14