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Moro raiding, then and now

/ 11:02 AM October 03, 2013

The latest round of incursions in parts of Central and Southeastern Mindanao by the so-called Bangasoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (or BIFF) brings to mind tales of Moro slave raiding that pretty much accompanied Spanish colonialism in the Philippines.

A direct comparison is not, however, feasible as the motives then as now are quite divergent. The BIFF is rampaging across Midsayap and other nearby towns in a bid to be noticed in their claim to sovereignty. Alas, the land they are claiming is already occupied by a majority of Ilonggo settlers whose forefathers came in droves in the 1930s. The Moro raiders of the Spanish era, on the other hand, did not bother with the niceties of sovereignty and independence. They were merchant-warriors dealing in the illegal trade of slave labor, plucking unfortunate residents of coastal villages all over the Visayas, Luzon and even parts of Mindanao to be sold to the highest bidders in Jolo and Malacca.

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If there is one thing common between these two, it would be that the victims were both Christians and Muslims.

Among the papers kept at the National Archives of the Philippines that will be displayed in an upcoming exhibition of Spanish documents at University of San Carlos (USC) Museum is a report in 1848 of the depredations brought about by a Moro raid that affected the towns of Barili and Poro (Camotes) and Jagna (Bohol). Written in the usual cursive style that makes it doubly challenging for one used to reading online in Times New Roman font, the six-page document is but a mere report by the alcalde mayor (today’s governor) of Cebu, indicating that even as late as that period in our colonial history, Cebu and Bohol remained under threat.

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The first of these so-called Moro depredations, however, go back a long, long time ago, when in 1590 to 1591 about 50 caracoas raided the coastal villages of Cebu, Negros and Panay. One can imagine the huge number of these surprise raids: the caracoa was a wooden ship with two rudders, one on each end of the boat, powered by 100 oarsmen paddling to the sound of a gong even as 20 other men carried firearms and brass cannons always on the ready for battle. At 50 caracoas on this particular raid one can imagine the huge expense and the need to succeed.

These raids, as history bared, were not in retaliation for Cebuanos and other natives becoming Christianized in lieu of their animist religion of old. Faith had, unfortunately, nothing to do with a thriving business that would continue until the 1870s. But the devastation wrought by these raids was tremendous. By the mid-1700s, Spanish missionaries would estimate about 20,000 of their recent converts in coastal towns were forever lost to slavery, working either as musicians, household helpers, land tillers or even as concubines of highest bidders not just in Jolo but in many parts of what is today modern Malaysia and Indonesia.

The historian Luis Camara Derry’s book ‘From Ibalon to Sorsogon: A Historical Survey of Sorsogon Province to 1905’ (New Day Press, 1991) chronicles the raids that turned many places of Kabikolan into ghost towns. Equally interesting are his explanations as to why these raids continued and lasted for so long, covering roughly 300 of the 333 years of Spanish colonialism. This part is an extremely interesting read: tales of corruption, smuggling, and the business interests of alcaldes mayores that ran counter to efforts to protect coastal villages. I am most surprised by the reports made against these alcaldes mayores that entered the archival record of, for example, how instead of maintaining 10 fully-armed boats in the light navy for a particular province with funding from the capital, 11 were actually built and maintained, the odd one out being for the commercial and personal use of the governor. Then there were also reports of supposed defenders and soldiers selling their arms and ammunition to the enemy for profit. Worse, the naval forces sent to run after Moro raiders sometime in 1750 decided to pursue smuggling operations even as the raiders were destroying an island nearby!

How very little has changed in times of war! More so because, then as now, it is the civilians caught in these depredations and destructive marauding that suffer in the end. When in the 1930s, the Commonwealth government started opening Mindanao to Visayan and Ilocano settlers, this huge wilderness then was called the Land of Promise. Today as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, the promise alas continues to elude the people of Mindanao.

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“Internacion/Integracion: Urbanity, Urbanization and Its Discontents” a joint exhibition of the USC and the National Archives of the Philippines will be inaugurated in the evening of Oct. 21 at the USC Museum, USC Downtown Campus (formerly USC Main Campus). The exhibition will be open to the public, subject to the usual museum admission fees, from Oct. 22, 2013 to April 21 2014. Kindly call Tel. 253-1000 loc. 191 for reservations and guided tours or, for updates, visit and like the USC Museum page on Facebook.

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TAGS: BIFF, column, Moro slave raiding, opinion
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