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 1 | Part 3.
The pirate wind, locally called the habagat or the southwest monsoon blows between May and October. It intensifies in August and September of which the Ilanun (or Iranun or Lanun) and later, the Balangingi (Iranun and their captives who were integrated into their community living in the island of Balangingi) took advantage. These were the months that communities across Southeast Asia were afraid of. In the Philippines, the prahus, sea vessels of the raiders, can number at an average of 40 – 50 with 2,500 – 3,000 armed raiders. In some years, the number of these boats reached 70-80 or at one time, a 100!
In the entire Southeast Asia, or where the slave raidings stretched from New Guinea to even as far as the Bay of Bengal, the brunt of the pillage and destruction was directed in Hispanized Philippines. The prahus usually travel from their base in Sulu and Balangingi and cross the Sulu Sea to Balabac in Palawan. They then follow the coast up until the Calamianes and cross to the Cuyo Islands to stock on food and other provisions. From there, once they reach the Sibuyan Sea, Romblon, Marinduque, Mindoro, other Visayan islands and southern Luzon were easy pickings. These areas suffered the most of all places in the country. They even had forward bases in Masbate, Burias and Mindoro where they launched their raiding activities venturing to Cavite and at a time, even rowed up near the capital, Manila. Sometimes, in search of captives, they head up north into the Ilocos, round off Cagayan and then to Bicol.
During December to March, the amihan or the northwest monsoon takes over and the raiders now use it for their return to Sulu with their captives. Samar and Leyte were frequently raided. Bohol, Cebu and Negros weren’t spared. Because of these slaving activities, much of maritime trade collapsed. In Leyte and Samar, trade with Manila was at a virtual standstill for decades. Churches and communities were burned and sometimes these towns were abandoned and the people fled to the interior. In the Visayas Islands, with not much to go inland, fortifications were built.
The slave raiders really were not picky. Fishermen and trading vessels were “fished” out at sea. Town fiestas and other major religious activities were favorite times since the people, lost in the revelry, were easy to capture and at a great number. Families were torn asunder. Men, women, children of different age from as young as 6 to as old as 50 were captured. Spaniards, foreigners and clergy were ransomed at great cost. The natives were sold in Sulu to work in the fields, forests, seas and mountains or bartered off to other merchants for other Asian markets. That’s why, a captive from Bicol can be brought to Borneo or to Indonesia where the chance of returning to one’s home was almost impossible. The sickly and elderly, unfortunately, were traded to some fierce forest tribes in Borneo, specifically the Dayaks who use human sacrifices for their many rituals.
One unique thing about the slaves, specifically those deployed in Sulu was that, unlike slaving in the rest of the world, they enjoyed relative freedoms, as long as they converted to Islam. Most of the time, their masters treated them well and if they don’t find their present master good, they can request to be sold to another. They can even win their freedom or purchase it. Women slaves were treated better and some even made it to be concubines of high ranking Muslims. Because many of the captives were literate, oftentimes surpassing their masters, they were highly valued because of their skill and were given high status in the household and most of the times, given a bigger role in the business. That’s why, at the peak of the raidings, integrated captives made up more than 40% of the population of Sulu. For most, their lot was better there than suffering under the yoke of Spanish abuses, backbreaking labor and taxes. Consequently, those captives also were employed in the raiding, often leading the prahus to their former communities and with their knowledge of timing during religious celebrations, proved to be devastating.
The Muslim slave raids had its peak during the early 19th century. By 1848, the beginning of the end of these piratical raids started with the introduction by the Spaniards of gunship steamboats that attacked the raider’s main base, Balangingi where many were captured and kept in Zamboanga. By the 1860s, these prisoners and their families were exiled to Isabela where they worked the tobacco fields in the hope that, with their dispossession and conversion to Catholicism they will eventually abandon their slaving way of life.