In this recent CBC First Person article, Alia Ceniza Rasul writes about her pride in her Tausug heritage. The Tausug (‘people of the current’) are a predominantly Muslim people living in Sulu, now a province of the Philippines. The Tausug have been branded as ‘pirates’ for their historical resistance to Spanish colonisers and sea-raids on Christian communities, equipped with the sort of ships depicted above in this 1850 print. Rasul refers to this 1993 article by Dominique M. Non, which details ‘Moro piracy’ in the Philippines; ‘Moro’ comes from a Spanish term applied to Muslims. What, then, motivated peoples like the Tausug to go Morogue?
By 2000 BCE, the islands of the Philippines were settled by Malay peoples migrating from southwest China. They were an important part of southeast Asian trade networks connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans via the South China and nearby seas by at least 1000 CE. Inhabitants of Mindanao and Sulu like the Tausug had converted to Islam by the late medieval and early modern periods, with Islam spreading to the central islands and Luzon by the 16th century. Spanish sailors under the explorer Ferdinand Magellan first arrived in the Philippines in 1521, as described in this issue of Early Modern Times. Despite sporadic conflicts including the one which ended Magellan’s life, relations between the Moros and Spanish Christians were generally cordial over the next fifty years. By the 1560s, recognising the ideal location of the Philippines in the spice trade and commerce with East Asia, the Spanish sought to assure their dominance over the islands, establish their own settlements, and convert the inhabitants. In other words, the Spaniards were all touchy-Philippines about the commercial prospects of their new colony.
In 1578, however, feeling threatened by the colonial, commercial, and religious agendas of the Spanish, the Muslim communities in the Philippines started to organise themselves into sea-raiding parties. Over the next two and a half centuries, the Moros conducted various raiding expeditions across the islands. As Non describes it, the initial raids were frontal attacks on Christian communities, which involved murder and rapine, as well as the capture and enslavement of converts. Such surprise attacks led to the construction of fortresses and stone churches for refuge. The raids then took the form of more scattered, small-scale assaults on fishermen, tradesmen, and less prominent settlements. These ‘pirates’, as their enemies called them, now ‘usually hid in mangroves and coves and posed as fishermen’ (p. 406) before striking. Larger and smaller raids on towns throughout the islands continued throughout the late sixteenth and into the following three centuries. Because of the threat of Morobbery and murder at the hands of these Moroding hordes, Christian communities in the islands were on Philippines and needles, and generally in a Morose state.
While thousands of Philippino Christians were subjected to Moro raiding, they were not without recourse. Besides Spanish fortresses, earthworks were erected and equipped with artillery. Christian towns also constructed ships known as ‘barangayanes’ to meet the Moro pirate ships at sea, as well as to engage in retaliatory expeditions on piratical strongholds. Only with the introduction of steamed gunboats, however, were European and then American forces able to gain the upper hand over the Moro raiders. Nevertheless, two and a half centuries of piratical raiding led to towns in ruins, the movement of coastal inhabitants into inland areas, further Christian colonisation, and mutual distrust between Christian and Muslim communities in the Philippines. To this day, Muslims are subjected to discrimination and marginalisation in the islands, and Philippino Christians and Muslims regard each other with pira-seething resentment. As Rasul urges, we can only hope that mutual dialogue about their shared postcolonial identity can result in a better to-Moro.
If you haven’t seen this, do check out this promotional video for my new course offered in Fall 2022, ‘Ideas of the Sea and Seafaring: Intercultural Perspectives’!
Till next time,
Early Modern Moroman-a-clef Studies Program