Lantaka (rentaka in Malay, also known as Kanyon in Tagalog) were a type of bronze cannon mounted on merchant vessels travelling the waterways of Malay Archipelago. Its use was greatest in precolonial South East Asia especially in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The guns were used to defend against pirates demanding tribute for the local chief, or potentate.
Although most lantaka weighed under two hundred pounds, and many only a few pounds, the largest ones exceeded a thousand pounds with some weighing over a ton. Many of these beautiful guns were mounted on swivels and were known as swivel guns. The smaller ones could be mounted almost anywhere including in the rigging. Medium sized cannon were frequently used in reinforced sockets on the vessel's rails and were sometimes referred to as rail guns. The heaviest swivel guns were mounted on modified gun carriages to make them more portable.
Typically the earliest cannon with beautiful ornaments from this region are from foundries in the Malacca and Pahang, with later models from foundries in the Netherlands and Portugal, next from their respective settlements, and finally from Brunei and other local craftsmen. However, there were also double-barreled variants that were used extensively in the Philippines. In Malaysia, these double-barreled variants are called Meriam Lela (Malay for 'Lela Cannon') and appears to be longer than a typical Lantaka.
The local population was unimpressed with the might and power of the heavily armed trading vessels from the VOC Dutch East India Company and Portugal. De Barros mentions that with the fall of Malacca, Albuquerque captured 3,000 out of 8,000 artillery. Among those, 2,000 were made from brass and the rest from iron. All the artillery is of such excellent workmanship that it could not be excelled, even in Portugal. - Commentarios do grande Afonso de Albuquerque, Lisbon 1576.
The Dutch and Portuguese quickly learned that they could trade cannon not only for spices and porcelain, but also for safe passage through pirate-infested waters. Local foundries continued to produce guns, using local patterns and designs from other local brass and bronze objects. Stylized crocodiles, dolphins, birds and dragons were common motifs.
If a native vessel was unarmed, it was usually regarded by the local populace as improperly equipped and poorly decorated. Whether farmers, fishermen or headhunters, the villagers who lived in the longhouses along Borneo's rivers lived in fear of being taken by pirates who used both vessel-mounted and hand-held cannons. Villages and tribesmen that were armed with mounted or handheld cannon had a distinct advantage over those who could only rely on bows and arrows, spears, blowguns and Krises (swords).
Land transportation in 17th and 18th century Java and Borneo was extremely difficult and cannons were fired for virtually all types of signaling. Whether they were fired in celebration of a birth or wedding, or to warn another hilltop fortress or riverbank fishing village of impending attack, cannons were used to transmit messages telling of urgent or special events. Such events ranged from yellow fever and cholera epidemics to the start or finish of religious holidays such as Ramadan.
Distinguished visitors were ushered into longhouses with great ceremony, accompanied by the firing of the longhouse's cannon, much like today's twenty-one gun salute. These cannon were a display of the status and wealth of the extended family that controlled the longhouse.
All worked copper, brass and bronze had value and were used as trade items in early Borneo. Cannon were frequently part of the bride price demanded by the family of an exceptionally desirable bride or the dowry paid to the groom.
Many of the small cannon, often called personal cannon or hand cannon, had been received as honors and were kept and passed down in families, but in hard times they also served as a form of currency that could keep the family fed. As a recognized form of currency, cannon could be traded for rice, drums, canoes, tools, weapons, livestock, debts of honor, and even settlement of penalties for crimes ranging from the accidental death of a fellow villager to headhunting against another tribe.
Large cannon had the extra value of being used in both celebratory times and in warfare. The larger and/or more elaborate the cannon, the greater the trade value, and thus the greater the status of the owner.
Many of the finest cannon were given out by the Sultans of Brunei as part of ceremonies (such as birthdays or weddings) of the many princes and princesses of the extended Royal family. Cannon were frequently presented to guests along with awards and titles, and were meant to guarantee the recipients allegiance to the Sultan. Mortars, cannon and signal guns of all sizes were typically fired with colorful pyrotechnics on these occasions; the louder and more elaborate, the greater the honor.
Panday Pira of Pampanga, Philippines was also known for forging heavy bronze Lantakas to be mounted on Lakan's (Naval Chief/Commander) ships called 'caracoas' doing battle against the Spanish invaders and cannons were also commissioned by Rajah Sulayman for the fortification of Maynila.
In the 1840s, England began suppressing headhunting and piracy and Rajah James Brooke (a wealthy Englishman who established the dynasty that ruled Sarawak from 1841 until 1946) distributed numerous Brunei-cast hand cannon to guarantee the cooperation and allegiance of the local chiefs.
Lantakas were used by Moro soldiers in the Moro Rebellion against U.S. troops in the Philippines. They were also used by the Filipinos during the Philippine Revolution - this time copied from European models and cast from church bells. One cannon founder was a Chinese Filipino named Jose Ignacio Pawa, a blacksmith also.
Today these guns can be found on virtually all of the islands of the Pacific Rim, but they are most commonly found in the Muslim areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. The largest collection is in Brunei, where it is now illegal to export them. Even in other countries, a museum export permit is usually required.
These cannon are now highly sought after by collectors, with some of the realized prices exceeding $50,000 USD for a single gun. The more common guns can be bought for under $1,000. Replicas and forgeries of lantakas are known to exist in considerable numbers.
Today, most of the Christians in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines refer the word "lantaka" to bamboo cannons (a noisemaker) or any improvised home-made noisemakers of the same firing mechanism usually made of bamboo tubes, segmented cans of condensed milk, or PVC pipes. They are usually used during New Year's Day celebrations as noisemakers, or often in medium-scale gang wars. Firing mechanism is the same as of the original lantaka, with denatured alcohol or calcium carbide mixed with water as its "gunpowder" (fuel) and a small lighted torch or lighter as the igniter.
- A history of Greek fire and gunpowder, by James Riddick Partington.
- A history of Greek fire and gunpowder, by James Riddick Partington.
- A descriptive dictionary of the Indian islands & adjacent countries By John Crawfurd.
- Gaysowski, Richard (2000). "Lantaka’ Is One Of Several Names For Small Hand-Carried Rail Guns". The Artilleryman 22 (2). Retrieved 2009-07-05.
- "used cannon for sale". Retrieved 2009-07-05.[dead link]
- The Sea Research Society has a collection of over sixty of these guns, most dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
- The Temple of Proportions, an online cultural center, has three more pictures of a gorgeous Lantaka.[dead link]