It is quite a sad commentary that the once-mighty royal house of Sulu has had to resort to what Malaysians see as extra-legal means to impose what it steadfastly believes as a simple misinterpretation of a treaty signed over a century ago that has led to decades-long injustice.
Unlike the nine sultanates under the federal states of Malaysia, unfortunately, the Sulu sultanate and its other counterparts in Mindanao, the Maguindanao and Maranao royal houses, have not been accorded a distinct legal status in the country’s geopolitical set-up.
Just how mighty was the Sulu sultanate? Consider this: in 1417 Sultan Paduku Batara of Jolo visited Zhu Di, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (best known as the Yongle emperor) at the reestablished Imperial Palace in Beijing. Batara brought with him 300 of his followers including his sons Dumahan, Wenhala and Andulu. This visit was intended to strengthen trade relations between China (given her vast supplies of porcelain and ceramics traded in all of Asia and the Arab world at the time) and Sulu, which was right along the sea trade route that Chinese merchants were navigating since around AD 900.
On his way back to Sulu, however, the sultan fell ill and died in Dezhou, Shandong Province. His remains and those of his sons Wenhala and Andulu who stayed behind with him (eventually siring generations that still exist today) are still there in Shandong, where an epitaph appropriately commemorates his visit. Emperor Yongle himself reportedly ordered a period of mourning to mark the untimely demise of what would have been a commercial partner in the burgeoning maritime trade in ceramics, iron and silk in exchange for gold, beeswax, slaves and other priced commodities from islands in southeast Asia. Trade relations did not die with the sultan, however, as Dumahan, his eldest son, returned with his escorts to Jolo, taking over his late father’s throne.
That the Sulu sultanate was welcomed into the Forbidden City in Beijing is testament to its standing in the maritime trading community of the time and of its wealth and resources, coming all the way from faraway Sulu just to enkindle ties with China. The Yongle reign, incidentally, is best remembered as the period when Admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) embarked on a period of exploration, between 1405 and 1433) that brought hundreds of Chinese ships to Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and parts of Africa.
The might of the sultanate would be seen continuously during much of the Spanish period as Jolo increasingly emerged as the center of slave trading from the 1600s to around the 1860s, without the sultanate being directly involved, as it were, in the raids that were devastating coastal settlements in the Visayas and Luzon. The story goes that these raids were actually carried out by a band of Muslims from the Lanao area of Mindanao who had moved to the Sulu archipelago, somewhere near Basilan, in the island of Balangingi. These people evacuated to the area following a devastating volcanic eruption or some cataclysmic event. A kind of tacit agreement seemed to have then there emerged between the sultanate and the men of Balangingi wherein Jolo would become “drop-off” point for all captives to be sold to buyers from all over the region.
At was at this point, some time in the early 1600s, when Spanish authorities became keenly interested in subjugating the sultanate, if only to end the decimation of settlements, most of whose native inhabitants had had recently converted to Christianity only to be captured and sold into life-long slavery. At least two important military campaigns were eventually carried out toward this end, one in the 1638 (the Corcuera military expedition to Jolo) and the other in 1848 (the mildly successful Claveria military expedition). The latter, while successful in defeating the Balangingi raiders and in placing the Sulu Sultanate on the verge of subjugation, strangely ended with Gov. Gen. Narciso Claveria leaving post-haste for Manila after routing the Moro fleet, without establishing a permanent foothold in Jolo. It took other governors-general to continue the drive to bring the sultanate under Spanish rule even as the French and the British were offering huge sums of money to the reigning sultan, Jamalul A’lam, to buy or lease whole islands of the Sulu archipelago, including that of Basilan.
In 1878, two treaties were eventually concluded by A’lam, one with the British to lease (‘padjak’, see my column last week) and another, a peace agreement with the Spanish resulting in the establishment of a Spanish fort/garrison in Siasi, occupying about 6 hectares of the area, in exchange for recognition by Spain of the sultanate and rent in the amount of 1,500 Mexican silver pesos annually. When the Americans arrived in Jolo in 1899 to claim the garrison (which the Spaniards, perhaps to spite the Americans, hastily gave to the sultanate), the reigning head, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II, insisted that a separate treaty be drawn as the Americans were a different entity from the Spaniards. This agreement became known as the Bates Treaty of 1899 (named after the American Gen. John Bates who led the negotiations) where America promised to pay rent to the sultanate in exchange for quelling Moro resistance.
A few more agreements followed the wake of this treaty, and this column is too short to tackle them one by one. This came as the Sultanate was left in the 1930s without a clear heir as Jamalul Kiram II died without any children. While a succession struggle ensued, new players emerged as the post-war years marched on, marked most especially by the ascendance of the Tausug-dominant Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari, which challenged the traditional governing role of the sultanate. It was at that point that president Ferdinand Marcos in 1973 propped up the sultanate once again, giving it due recognition to use it to serve as the alternative power center amid the growing MNLF threat at the time.
Since then, given its long history and its status as a distinct though hitherto silent corporate entity in the Sulu archipelago, the sultanate, in asserting what it thinks is fully justified, has finally emerged from the shadows. I do not think this impasse will end pretty soon even if those in Lahad Datu will be convinced to return to Jolo. Rather, this is just the beginning of another chapter in the colorful journey of the Royal House of Sulu.