HomeAbout UsCover Art GalleryContact UsSubscribe

Sulu: The Heart of a Trading Zone

E-mail Print PDF
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

The recent hostage situation in Sulu depicted the southernmost tip of the Philippines as an area people should stay away from. But today’s impoverished chain of islands was the center of international commerce during the height of Sulu’s glory. In the late 19th century, the Sultanate of Sulu took part in the bold European expansion throughout Southeast Asia, where the Dutch, British, and Spanish angled for a share of the highly profitable Chinese trade.

When Manila and Cebu were yet small settlements, the isles of the Sulu archipelago were home to one of the richest and foremost settlements in Spanish-era Philippines. Sulu bridged two distinct worlds and lay at
the most strategic point for maritime trade.

China, the Philippines, and Mindanao were situated to the north, Borneo to the southwest and, to the southeast, the Celebes and the Moluccas. A watershed on the landscape of insular Southeast Asia, Sulu separated the autonomous Muslim maritime world from the agrarian, Christianized Philippines administered by Spanish authorities from Manila.

The political and commercial advantages of the Sultanate’s location were both enviable and unique. Being situated at the crossroads of international trade and politics offered Sulu opportunities for development and challenges for defending what was right and just.

The Sultanate’s central position in relation to Asian routes of trade and exchange, as well as its abundant natural resources for export to China attracted the attention of the West, while Sulu’s sizable population attracted neighboring merchants.

Sulu’s supremacy as a market center and regional power depended on expansive trade. The archipelago’s location and natural resources fit perfectly with the requirements of Europe’s trade with China.
British conferring with Sultan.To barter for tea in Chinese ports, for instance, the British needed another set of products to trade, other than opium and manufactures. The maritime and jungle products found within Sulu—sea slugs, bird’s nest, and mother of pearl—were highly sought after and had been traded between Sulu and China for the longest time. The British gained access to these goods, which they brought to China, by trading arms with the Sultan of Sulu.

By fitting into the patterns of Chinese and European commerce, the Sultanate of Sulu established itself as a powerful commercial center, dominating trading activities involving Borneo, Celebes, Singapore and Labuan, as well as Manila, Palawan, and southern Mindanao.

The Sulu archipelago was stimulated by European expansion and commerce, but it gradually developed its own patterns of trade in defiance of the British, Spanish, and Dutch empires. Complex interrelationships from trading activities enabled Sulu to consolidate its power over areas of the Sulu trading zone in the margins of nearby European colonies and China. The trade Sulu established with Bengal, Manila, Macao, and Canton, and later with Singapore, initiated the large-scale importation of weapons, luxury goods, and foodstuffs. The annual arrival of Chinese junks and Bugis prahus at the capital city of Jolo reflected a regular demand for local products.

Throughout the 19th century, the Jolo market offered British-made brassware, glassware, Chinese earthenware and ceramics, fine muslins, silk and satin garments, Spanish tobacco and wines, and opium from India.

The recent hostage situation in Sulu depicted the southernmost tip of the Philippines as an area people should stay away from. But today’s impoverished chain of islands was the center of international commerce during the height of Sulu’s glory. In the late 19th century, the Sultanate of Sulu took part in the bold European expansion throughout Southeast Asia, where the Dutch, British, and Spanish angled for a share of the highly profitable Chinese trade.

When Manila and Cebu were yet small settlements, the isles of the Sulu archipelago were home to one of the richest and foremost settlements in Spanish-era Philippines. Sulu bridged two distinct worlds and lay at
the most strategic point for maritime trade.China, the Philippines, and Mindanao were situated to the north, Borneo to the southwest and, to the southeast, the Celebes and the Moluccas. A watershed on the landscape of insular Southeast Asia, Sulu separated the autonomous Muslim maritime world from the agrarian, Christianized Philippines administered by Spanish authorities from Manila.The political and commercial advantages of the Sultanate’s location were both enviable and unique. Being situated at the crossroads of international trade and politics offered Sulu opportunities for development and challenges for defending what was right and just.The Sultanate’s central position in relation to Asian routes of trade and exchange, as well as its abundant natural resources for export to China attracted the attention of the West, while Sulu’s sizable population attracted neighboring merchants.Sulu’s supremacy as a market center and regional power depended on expansive trade. The archipelago’s location and natural resources fit perfectly with the requirements of Europe’s trade with China.British conferring with Sultan.To barter for tea in Chinese ports, for instance, the British needed another set of products to trade, other than opium and manufactures. The maritime and jungle products found within Sulu—sea slugs, bird’s nest, and mother of pearl—were highly sought after and had been traded between Sulu and China for the longest time. The British gained access to these goods, which they brought to China, by trading arms with the Sultan of Sulu.By fitting into the patterns of Chinese and European commerce, the Sultanate of Sulu established itself as a powerful commercial center, dominating trading activities involving Borneo, Celebes, Singapore and Labuan, as well as Manila, Palawan, and southern Mindanao.The Sulu archipelago was stimulated by European expansion and commerce, but it gradually developed its own patterns of trade in defiance of the British, Spanish, and Dutch empires. Complex interrelationships from trading activities enabled Sulu to consolidate its power over areas of the Sulu trading zone in the margins of nearby European colonies and China. The trade Sulu established with Bengal, Manila, Macao, and Canton, and later with Singapore, initiated the large-scale importation of weapons, luxury goods, and foodstuffs. The annual arrival of Chinese junks and Bugis prahus at the capital city of Jolo reflected a regular demand for local products.Throughout the 19th century, the Jolo market offered British-made brassware, glassware, Chinese earthenware and ceramics, fine muslins, silk and satin garments, Spanish tobacco and wines, and opium from India.KalasagThere was a constant increase not only in the variety, but also in the quality of objects of trade. Luxury goods for personal adornment, pleasure, and households were used by the Sulu aristocracy to form the material basis of their social prestige. Firearms, weapons, and gunpowder further strengthened the Sultunate’s military might. Sulu’s economy was organized around collecting and distributing its labor-intensive marine and jungle products. This, in turn, drove the demand for slaves. Such needs further intensified Sulu’s retaliatory raids for captives, especially from Spanish-held areas in the Philippines, many of whom were later assimilated into the population of Sulu. This is how external trade became a vital element of the Sulu social system. Within a short span of several decades, the Sulu Sultanate established itself as a regional power.By the end of the century, Sulu’s population was heterogeneous and changing—socially, economically, and ethnically—as a direct result of external trade. The people of Sulu enjoyed active economic, sociocultural, and political interactions with their Asian neighbors, particularly China and the rest of Southeast Asia. Out of contact with these foreigners emerged a hybrid Sulu culture, which historically resisted assimilation into the heavy Spanish-American oriented Philippine culture.Traces of this hybrid culture are manifested in Sulu’s religious practices, customs, arts, and languages. From the Chinese, the Sulus learned culinary habits, use of porcelain dishes, umbrellas and white cloth for mourning. The exclusive use of the color yellow is believed to be influenced by the royal court of China.From the Hindus, the people of Sulu learned the burning of incense during rituals and the observance of panulak balah, a water-cleansing day traced to the Ganges River holy bath of the Hindus.Arab influence can be noted in the use of Arabic script locally called jawi, Moorish arts, and the use of firearms. The Arab’s most remarkable gift to Sulu and other Islamized people was the introduction of Islam and its accompanying legacies of beliefs, ritual practices, and organized socio-political institutions.ArmorThe story of the economic, political, and social forces that consolidated Sulu’s power as central to the trade between Europe and China is explored via a new exhibit at the Yuchengco Museum. Called “Beyond the Currents: The Culture and Power of Sulu,” the exhibit presents the independent Sulu Sultanate’s culture and geographical reach as the heart of a trade zone, market center, and regional power.Curated by a team led by University of the Philippines- Diliman Art Studies professor Dr. Abraham Sakili and cultural historian and antique collector Ramon Villegas, the exhibit presents an alternative picture of Sulu that can help change perceptions of the region.Special highlights of the exhibit are the artifacts of power—archival photographs, prints, tradeware ceramics, jewelry, and weapons of defense, to name a few—which are a testimony to Sulu’s power and pursuit of liberty.In the midst of the present volatile situation in parts of Mindanao, Sulu’s artifacts serve as reminders of the urgent need to bring social justice, lasting peace, and meaningful development to southern Philippines.


KalasagThere was a constant increase not only in the variety, but also in the quality of objects of trade. Luxury goods for personal adornment, pleasure, and households were used by the Sulu aristocracy to form the material basis of their social prestige. Firearms, weapons, and gunpowder further strengthened the Sultunate’s military might. Sulu’s economy was organized around collecting and distributing its labor-intensive marine and jungle products. This, in turn, drove the demand for slaves. Such needs further intensified Sulu’s retaliatory raids for captives, especially from Spanish-held areas in the Philippines, many of whom were later assimilated into the population of Sulu. This is how external trade became a vital element of the Sulu social system. Within a short span of several decades, the Sulu Sultanate established itself as a regional power.

By the end of the century, Sulu’s population was heterogeneous and changing—socially, economically, and ethnically—as a direct result of external trade. The people of Sulu enjoyed active economic, sociocultural, and political interactions with their Asian neighbors, particularly China and the rest of Southeast Asia. Out of contact with these foreigners emerged a hybrid Sulu culture, which historically resisted assimilation into the heavy Spanish-American oriented Philippine culture.

Traces of this hybrid culture are manifested in Sulu’s religious practices, customs, arts, and languages. From the Chinese, the Sulus learned culinary habits, use of porcelain dishes, umbrellas and white cloth for mourning. The exclusive use of the color yellow is believed to be influenced by the royal court of China.

From the Hindus, the people of Sulu learned the burning of incense during rituals and the observance of panulak balah, a water-cleansing day traced to the Ganges River holy bath of the Hindus.

Arab influence can be noted in the use of Arabic script locally called jawi, Moorish arts, and the use of firearms. The Arab’s most remarkable gift to Sulu and other Islamized people was the introduction of Islam and its accompanying legacies of beliefs, ritual practices, and organized socio-political institutions.

ArmorThe story of the economic, political, and social forces that consolidated Sulu’s power as central to the trade between Europe and China is explored via a new exhibit at the Yuchengco Museum. Called “Beyond the Currents: The Culture and Power of Sulu,” the exhibit presents the independent Sulu Sultanate’s culture and geographical reach as the heart of a trade zone, market center, and regional power.

Curated by a team led by University of the Philippines- Diliman Art Studies professor Dr. Abraham Sakili and cultural historian and antique collector Ramon Villegas, the exhibit presents an alternative picture of Sulu that can help change perceptions of the region.

Special highlights of the exhibit are the artifacts of power—archival photographs, prints, tradeware ceramics, jewelry, and weapons of defense, to name a few—which are a testimony to Sulu’s power and pursuit of liberty.

In the midst of the present volatile situation in parts of Mindanao, Sulu’s artifacts serve as reminders of the urgent need to bring social justice, lasting peace, and meaningful development to southern Philippines.

print ed: 08/08

 

On Newsstands Now

DECEMBER 2014:
The Asian Consumer Goldmine

14-12