the Slavery during Sulu Sultanate and the Impact to the Social


With the introduction of western colonial power in South-East Asia in the end of the eighteen century an increasingly demand of products and raw materials was sought after in the ever growing markets of the region and Europe. The Sulu Sultanate that was located in the Southern Philippines between Mindanao and Borneo had long been sea trading its local produce with neighbours other and trading partners as far away as China. The Sultanate with its favourable location for trade in all directions encountered an economic boom and grew its commercial power and influence rapidly. The Sulu trade was well established but all to a limited scale, something that changed dramatically with the growth of trade that in turn created consequences for the whole society. The region had long been home been home for traders and slave raiders, but due to the positive changes in the economy a labour vacuum was created. This vacuum did in turn open a new but much larger market for the slave traders and raiders, especially in a region where ones personal wealth was judged by how many slaves and servants one could support and own. To maintain and uphold this economy manpower was needed; manpower the region itself unfortunately had very limited resources of. The region was sparsely populated with great recourses so there was a shortage of labourers to gather the wealth, and the solution to this dilemma was by increase the usage of slaves. Slavery in Asian context of the time was very different from the western view of the same thing and there were two types of slaves in Sulu: bondage slaves, and debt slaves. The bondage slaves were brought back by the Sultans ships as well as private entrepreneurs during their raids and were forced into slavery. The debt slaves were people owing assets to others which they paid back with labour. This essay looks upon the reasons and demand for having slaves, how they became to be slaves, and life outlook of the slaves in the Sulu Sultanate. This essay will look at the different aspects of how the slaves and slavery was undertaken in the Sulu sultanate in the end of the eighteen century as well as their influence on the economy and daily life of the people of Sulu.

The Sulu archipelago is located in the Southern Philippines between Mindanao and Borneo. The archipelago consists of some 900 island of volcanic and coral origin and covers an area of 2,688 sq km. It contains of some 400 named islands and 500 unnamed and cover an area of nearly 3,000 sq km. In the mid 15th century the inhabitants of the island were introduced to and converted to Islam by Abu Bakr . There were attempts of limited success from the Spanish to control the island and its people they named Moros. The islands did finally become a Spanish protectorate in the 19th century and in 1899 it came under the control of the United States. These islands do at present day still endow smugglers and pirates with a free haven for their activities. The region is in fact home to a variety of subgroups of peoples with diverse differences in language and cultures, but the dominant group in the area is the Taosug, who are known to be seafarers with both military and merchant’s skills. Although surrounded by sea not all Taosug where seafarers, in fact many of them lived inland with agriculture as their predominate source of living.

The Sulu economy was build up on commerce and had established a network of trading partners over the regional area and history. The Sulu economy was build up on commerce and had established a network of trading partners over the regional area and history, and as described by Warren the Sultanate had a much favourable position in terms of trade with Mindanao on the east, Borneo on the west, and Celebes that attracted merchants as far away as China. These Chinese ships came to trade their textile, silks, ceramics, earthenware, and spices. In contrast to the evolving tin producing states in Malaya the Chinese entered Sulu only as merchants to trade luxuries what the Sulus along with their partners had to offer. The system of rule was built up by a complex set of relationships where ones wealth and status were depended on the amount of followers he could be in command of. The Sultan was in the top of the ruling structure and below him there was a class of datu, which functioned as semi-independent leaders that only served the Sultan only when he was strong enough to be respected. These datus was constantly encountered among themselves in the thrash for more influence and power and influence.

The population figures for South East Asia remained at a low level of growth in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and its calculated that the total population of South East Asia in 1600 where no greater than 22 million which gives a population density of about five persons per square kilometre. With this shortage of manpower raiders saw the lucrative market in trading slaves, and the whole idea was to supply labour in a resource-rich but people-poor environment. In the late 16th century Sulu came in the interest due to the European trade with China where jungle products from the region became increasingly asked for. The trading exchange involved the English from Bengal, Manilla, New England, Singapore and Labuan. This new way of trading the Taosug economy was boosted into levels never seen before in order to meet this new demand the Sultans ability to support raids contributed to the regions rise in influence and control.

The trading and shipping centre of the Sultanate was its Seaport Capital Jolo with its very much favourable location, for trading goods and hosting slave markets. Maritime raiding and trading in the South East Asian waters dates back as early as Srivijaya, Malacca, Aceh, Johor, Makassa as well as Sulu. The piracy was a complex socio-political-economic activity that was legitimised by rivalry and sometimes warfare, and its is not without difficulties the Asian type of piracy is understood in a western context, but can be described in similar manners as the privateering undertaken by European maritime states in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The types of pirates operating in the Sulu waters where of two different types: the ones that that operated under the Sultan as regular fighters, and those who operated independently. The crew of the regular pirate ships consisted of sailors and soldiers, and commander was usually a datu or panglima and the disposal of the booty was handed to the Sultan. The private ships and slave expeditions took place under the protection of the Sultan who in return received a 20 percent value of the booty taken. Pirate raids were however made outside the reach of the Sultans power where the pirates kept all the booty. There was a close connection between piracy and the slave trade in Southeast Asia , and long before the making of the Sultanate and the introduction of Islam the sailors of Sulu where raiding and seized any opportunity to loot and rob the weaker parts of the society. With water in all directions and timber supply from the jungle, the people of Sulu became expert ship makers. Their ships they used where long and narrowly build with a large sail with the capacity of a crew of forty to sixty men, all made with the purpose of piracy in mind. The Sulu archipelago was a suitable landscape for piracy with its small islands, reefs, and inlets that were like made for pirate attacks on any sighted ship. The raiders technique in action was to force the enemy to engage in hand-to-hand combat by getting as close to the enemy as possible. When this was made a barrage of sharp spears where thrown to put the enemy out of order and allowing boarding of their ships. These pirate attacks could continue without interference until 1848 when three Spanish steam gunboats entered the Sulu waters, and this event marks the beginning of the end of the piracy in the Sulu archipelago. The Sulu pirates where no match for the foreign power and the Spaniards used their ships to attack pirate islands and forts to break their control The Island of Jolo itself became the trading centre for these pirate routes, and an important hub for the regions slave trade.

As described by Dr Orosa (1923) The Sulu archipelago has a long tradition of being home and working ground to pirates, even long before the Europeans entered the stage. Slaves was captured or given as tribute was the main trading goods by these pirates. The word slavery itself raises certain images in the western mind, often pictures of people in chains receiving constant punishment and abuse. This traditional picture of a slave is however not applicable in the Southeast Asian world and a separate definition must be applied to the Asian slave system. In contrast to the western view of slavery the slave system in Sulu was mainly a property related establishment.

When Europeans encountered the Asian slave system in Sulu they negatively criticised the Malayo-Muslim way of slavery when they made rash conclusions and drew connections to the older and harsher European way of slavery. On the contrary the anti piracy campaigns by the British and the Spanish in the mid nineteenth century was carried out with aggression in the same manner as Sulu pirate raids at Bisayas and Borneo. In the region there were two main types of slaves, chattel slaves (banyaga, bisaya, ipun or ammas) and bond slaves (kiapangdilihan), and there was a clear distinction between these two types of slaves. Banyaga was either captured in slave raids or being the offspring of these victims, while Kiapangdilihan were ordinary people that had put themselves in debt. In very much contrast to the western view of slavery the Banyaga was entitled in Sulu to have families and even own property, and they were also found in positions of politics and economic roles such as bureaucrats, labourers, concubines and even slave raiders. Slavery was much used in the aim for incorporating and to increase the numbers of people in social system of Sulu, and were often put to give political support for local leaders and to be used as labourers in the fields and fisheries to uphold the economy. Even though the primary source of obtaining slaves was from raiding a considerable large amount of slaves was recruited as bond-slaves.

The skill of reading and writing among the Tausug aristocrats was funnily enough not well established, and banyaga slaves with these skills was used as scribes, interpreters or language tutors by the aristocracy. Males from various parts of the Malay world were in the majority of those who served as scribes but there were also female slaves of Filipino backgrounds that served at secretary positions from time to time at the Sultan.

The legal situation for slaves in Sulu was managed by the Sulu code of law based on the Muslim Sharia laws that allowed and accepted slavery. This law incorporated humane guidelines and strict guiding principles in the treatment of slaves. The laws against everybody and not only slaves in the Sultanate that committed crimes against the Sulu laws were severely punished and a few examples of punishment that was both hard and primitive are described by Orosa. Murder was punished by a fine of P105, and if the accused failed to pay the fine he became slave under the Sultanates law. Second offence murderers was tied to a tree and chopped and hacked until dead. Robbery was punished by a fine and all the stolen goods had to be returned or the perpetrator had to face slavery. If the offender was caught a second time he was to sentenced to death same way as a second time murderer. For theft a money-fine was the usual punishment, and if the criminal was caught again his right arm and foot where to be boiled in oil and amputated. A convicted adulterer was beaten with a stick in front of at least three witnesses and later exiled. A person convicted of incest was to be placed in basket filled by stones and put in the sea. On the contrary, being a slave did not always mean that one was socially or economically disadvantage to others in the society, but in many cases more safe and sound. Banyaga had the rights to purchase their freedom and obtain a new social status and ethnicity, and all slaves had the right to own property that upon the slave’s death was inherited by the slave master.

The conviction for numerous illegal offences was by heavy fines that forced people into dept-slavery, and this type of enslavement was common in the Sultanate. There was however not uncommon for an individual to put himself into dept in order to receive funds or goods for a funeral, wedding and even to liquidate a present debt. If the lender as explained by Steinberg failed to return to borrowed amount after the allowed time of borrowing he and his closest dependants became debt bondsmen in anticipation of the debt. While the debt slave was in this position he could be left to pay of his debt in his home village, but he could also be required to perform duties in the slave masters household where the slave was provided with food and other necessaries in return for labour. For this work the slave received no payment and some remained in debt for the rest of their lives. Debt slavery was particularly common in areas with a shortage of labourers, and it gave some excellent return to creditors that received cheap manpower.

One large difference between the slave systems in Sulu was the social relationship between the slave and his master. The relationship was more of a follower and lord relation rather than slave and master. The slave’s social status was also closely linked to his master position, and if the master faced a decrease on the social ladder his slaves followed. As a slave owner one was obliged to care for the slave and supply them with the necessaries, and the right to earn their own living. If this was not fulfilled the slave could demand to be sold. On the other hand a banyaga slave could be punished physically, put to death, sold, bartered, given away or sold by the master at any point, and slaves with repeatedly escape tries behind them was put to death or just given away. Slaves with special skills and knowledge were treated in a favourable way by their masters.

As described by Warren the slaves were incorporated in several of field to fill labour gaps in the society, they became anything from raiders them selves to nurses, fishers, peasants, craftsmen etc. Work that required strong muscles like building or clearing forest was performed by the male slaves while the female slaves had duties like sowing or rice farming. Many female slaves were also working with household duties and some did become concubines of principal datus. In the military and economical establishment the banyaga played an important role and was encouraged to take part in the state system, this opportunity helped some banyaga to climb on the social ladder. Banyaga slaves that showed additional forwardness was employed on the slave owners ships not only as ordinary crewmen but also as traders. The trade between the islands of Jolo, Balangingi, and Palawan was often dealt with by slaves for slave the slave owners. Female slaves was working with assisting aristocrat women in their daily businesses and notable is that women had was the most skilfully traders in Sulu. Trade goods like cloth, vegetables in the villages or foreign vessels were done by banyaga slaves. The women of Noble class did not have the means to barter on products so they in turned commonly send out slaves onto to do this duties on the roads or in canoes. Items especially sought after from European traders by the upper class women was cups, scissors, bottles, buttons, tobacco, and opium. This trading by the slaves for their masters was a lucrative way of earning for many people.

Slaves put to work with farming maintained the food supply in the community, and they did besides from growing for themselves providing the local chief with a set amount of what they could yield. While agriculture remained the primary duty slave’s owners in coastal areas also used their labour for trepang and pearl fishing. Every one of the slaves was constrained to serve in the military when necessary. It was the effort by Sulu datus who collected local produce to be sold and traded with Chinese merchants in Jolo in the same way as other datus among the IIanum and Balingingi´s prowling of the region. Their aim was to barter with slaves or to add them to their own ownership.

The aim for many of the slaves was to escape their new masters. New slaves were under strict supervision when the risk for the slaves to escape was as greatest in their first years as slaves. Slaves that decided to escape tried to find someone with similar plans to flee with. There is unfortunately not much known about them who managed to return home and escape the slavery, but certainly many escapees managed to get back to their villages only to discover that their families was dead and their wives remarried, and they were left with the only option to start a new life from the beginning again.

Trading goods in the Sulu archipelago was a long established feature but it was the immense economic explosion with its favourable strategic location that gave the region its importance. The old custom of holding slaves also benefited many peoples economical growth at the time, and the raiding for loot and slaves was already an old established custom in the Sulu Sultanate. The Sulu Sultanate social structure as well as economy was heavily depended on the slaves, and the increasing trade with China and other new actors on the economic stage in the Sulu region aided the economic growth to the highest degree.

Raiding for slaves to uphold the economy became the main resource of the region with thousands and thousands of people entering slavery on the premises of the Sulu Sultanate. For most of these slaves there were not much positive effects of this economic boom and they were taken from their homes and families to work for foreign masters. Although some slaves did actually benefit from being slaves one can not without wonder how the actual situation were for the most other slaves. On the contrary, the debt bondage must have seen reciprocal advantages for all parts. There was money in motion in the Sulu and there was plenty of work to be done, so one who needed to borrow could do so and repay with his labour.


Adam J. Young, and Mark J. Valencia, “Conflation of Piracy and Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Rectitude and Utility,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 25.2 (2003), Questia, 22 Apr. 2007 <>.

Bruno Lasker. 1972. Human bondage in Southeast Asia. Greenwood Press p. 18

David Henley, “Population and the Means of Subsistence: Explaining the Historical Demography of Island Southeast Asia, with Particular Reference to Sulawesi,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 36.3 (2005), Questia, 23 Apr. 2007 <>.

David J Steinberg A modern history in search of Southeast Asia. Perth, Murdoch University Press, p. 143-144

Dr. Sixto Y. Orosa. 1923. The Sulu Archipelago and Its People. New York, World Book Company pp.55-56

Helen Follett. 1945. Men of the Sulu Sea. New York: Scribner p.13

Jim Warren, ‘Who Were the Balangingi Samal? Slave Raiding and Ethnogenesis in Nineteenth-Century Sulu’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3 (May, 1978), p. 480

J.F. Warren, The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the
Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State, (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981), p. 3

J.F. Warren, The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State, (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981), p. 215

J.F. Warren, The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898, The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981), p. 216

J.F. Warren, The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898, The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981), p. 219

J.F. Warren, The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898, The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981), p. 220

J.F. Warren, The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898, The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981), p. 234

“Sulu Archipelago.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2006. 27 Apr. 2007.

The Sulu Zone 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State.James Francis Warren Review author[s]: D. E. Brown, Man, New Series, Vol. 18, No. 1. (Mar., 1983), pp. 235-236

The Sulu Zone 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State.
James Francis Warren
Review author[s]: D. E. Brown
Man, New Series, Vol. 18, No. 1. (Mar., 1983), pp. 235-236.
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Warren, James F. 1981. The Sulu Zone 1768-1898. Singapore, Singapore University Press p.xix
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