Tea, trade and tears: the Muslim slave raids of the 18th-19th centuries, Part 1 of 3

Tanon Strait between the southern tip of Cebu and the southwestern side of Negros. During the height of the Muslim slave raids in the 19th century, this was usually the homeward route taken by the raiders with their captives back to Sulu.

Tanon Strait between the southern tip of Cebu and the southwestern side of Negros. During the height of the Muslim slave raids in the 19th century, this was usually the homeward route taken by the raiders with their captives back to Sulu.

This 3 part post is an introduction to the Muslim slave raids focusing on the middle of the 18th – middle of the 19th centuries in the Philippines. It is important to understand and put into context the different watchtowers, fortresses and fortress churches that can still be found in the coastal areas of Luzon and the Visayas. Read Part 2 | Part 3

If not for the strange confluence of events in the middle of the 18th century, a volcanic eruption in Mindanao and a shift in the food and drink preferences in China and Britain, respectively, Sulu wouldn’t have risen into an international emporium and thus become the center of Euroasian trade. The Muslim slave raids that has engulfed the country and most of maritime Asia wouldn’t have been as wide and as devastating as before that time. It has precipitated one of the darkest history in the region and all because of the British’s insatiable need for a mildly addicting beverage, tea.

As early as 1590 Spanish chroniclers have already recorded a major Muslim raid in Northern Mindanao and the Visayas. But the raids from the late 16th to the middle of the 18th centuries, were not as extensive compared to the succeeding decades. This period, especially the later part was tied up with the rise of the Maguindanao Sultanate that employed the unique raiding talents of a sea/river dwelling people, the Iranuns in the coasts of Ilana Bay in Western Mindanao and upstream to the banks of Lake Lanao. This to fulfill the need for manpower to support trade with regional markets. After the Maketering Volcano erupted signaling the decline of the sultanate, these intrepid people relocated to Sulu due to hard economic times.

Tea has been consumed in China for centuries but when it was introduced in Britain in 1610 it took about 115 years to become popular. In 1750, the demand was so high that estimates of legal imports was around 40 million pounds and has displaced ale as the national drink. The commodity was imported by the English East India Company paid with silver from its colony in India, but in the long term, economically unviable. The British doesn’t have trade items that interested the Chinese and thus, they set their eyes in other parts of Asia. Beyond this point, most western accounts are silent on the pivotal role of Sulu in this trade.

Muslim Mindanao has always been a challenge for the Spanish colonizers. It was here that their hold was tenuous and shaky, if not unsuccessful and have been despised by the Muslims. After the British Invasion of Manila in 1762-64, a consequence of the Anglo-Franco Seven Years War with Spain dragged into the conflict by reason of an alliance with the latter. The Muslims of Sulu and the British found a more or less common ground.

Fortunately, Sulu was at the right place and with the relocation of the Iranuns, at the right time. Its strategic location made it the conduit of the Chinese-Indian/British trade. Britain by way of the East India Company traded with the Sultan of Sulu providing rich fabrics, utensils, other items and in succeeding decades, English manufactured steel products from knives to even the Mindanao kris to opium in exchange for camphor, pearls, bird’s nest, tripang (sea cucumber) and other forest/marine products that were highly coveted in China. These they traded for tea.

With skyrocketing demand for trade, the need for manpower to harvest the countryside, mountains, forests and seas became critical. And thus, with the Iranuns talent, they were once again deployed to harvest people not only in the Hispanized islands of the Visayas and Luzon but it spread across a wide swath stretching from New Guinea in the east to as far as the Andaman Islands in the West.

Read Part 2 | Part 3

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30 Comments

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  8. It’s more like British self-righteous greed! Thieving, cunning British mercantilist traders.

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