Letter from Sultan Kuda of Manguindanao­­­ ­­­­­­­­ (r. 1699-1702) concerning the trading activities of Chinese nakhoda and the need for military support, 21 July 1700

Introduced Ruurdje Laarhoven, lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University

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Ruurdje Laarhoven, “Letter from Sultan Kuda of Manguindanao (r.1699-1702) concerning the trading activities of Chinese nakhoda and the need for military support, 16 November 1699”. In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 17. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2014.



At present Maguindanao is one of the provinces located on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. The majority of the population in this province is Muslim.

Maguindanao, as a sultanate, had its glory time during the 17th century when two successive sultans, Sultan Kudarat (1619-1671) and Sultan Barahaman (1671-1699) ruled with a firm hand. They were leaders with the necessary diplomatic skills to use and manipulate the Europeans expansionists: Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch, and traded lucratively with the help of their following. They expanded their sphere of influence through building alliances with the datus or local chiefs and increase their following. Through this network of alliances they received tributes in the form of agricultural-, forest-, and sea products as well as slaves which allowed them to build up their wealth and prestige.


The coming of Islam

From the tarsilas, the written genealogical accounts of the Maguindanao ruling clans, it is known that Islam had been introduced to the regions of southern Mindanao by Sharif Muhammad Kabungsuwan who arrived with the help of Samal boat people from Johore in approximately 1515. His father was a Sharif from Arabia who had married a royal princess of Johore.1 Sharif Kabungsuwan is given credit for establishing and spreading Islam in Mindanao although other ulama preachers from Ternate might have been there earlier. He married into the established local royalty. By the time the Dutch East India company interacted with the dignitaries of Mindanao starting with Matelief in 1607, it was noted that Islam was professed from Sibugay to Sarangany and around to the Davao Gulf and the islands further south.


Contenders to the sultan’s throne

When Sultan Barahaman died on 6 July 1699 he was succeeded by his ambitious younger brother, Sultan Kuda (r. 1699-1702). Sultan Kuda wrote a letter to Batavia dated 16 November 1699. This letter was signed by two of his ministers and included as a diplomatic letter in the Daily Journals on 21 July 1700. Sultan Kuda, as can be read in the letter, claimed to have stepped in his brother’s footsteps after Sultan Barahaman’s death on July 6, 1699. The raja muda, the sultan’s heir apparent, had unfortunately died on June 18, 1699, just a few weeks earlier.2

Five brothers of the raja muda, sons of Sultan Barahaman, were all contenders to the ultimate ruler’s position. Although Sultan Kuda had lived in discord with his brother most of the time, it had been anticipated that upon his brother’s death, he would cease his unreasonableness and mellow down, but to the contrary of expectations, he became impatient, temperamental, and monarchal. He made a political mistake of introducing “a new invention to raise money” by having his people pay for a pascedule3 to leave his town. The people refused his self-serving strictness and the panditas, ulamas, datus, shabandars, and all their following left him and set up a new political unit with some of the sons of the late Sultan Barahaman.4 Datu Bayan ul-Anwar , the eldest and in reality the next in line after Sultan Barahaman’s death, had opposed his uncle’s usurpation and refused to pay tribute to him. One of his wives being the daughter of the brother-in-law of the Sultan of Sulu and another wife the daughter of the raja of Buayan, Sultan Bayan ul-Anwar activated his connections to harass his uncle which eventually led to Sultan Kuda being krissed by the Sultan of Sulu.5

Through the external contacts, the Maguindanao datus had become significantly more powerful. Inland Buayan and coastal Maguindanao had contrasting albeit complementary and symbiotic ecologies. Their families intermarried in every generation and as Sultan Kudarat once said, “the two kingdoms are like husband and wife.” When one or the other ruler died the succession often gave rise to strife. This had been the case in 1699, above and again in 1702. Sultan Kuda was unsure what the Company had been told. Whoever could control the bio-network of sa-raya (Buayan) and sa-ilud (Maguindanao) would be at the apex of a very powerful socio-economic political system.

Sultan Kuda was a smart and learned man who spoke Chinese and Spanish fluently and a little Dutch and English. As a Kapitan Laut he was in charge of all matters pertaining to the sea during Sultan Barahaman’s lifetime and it this function he was able to enrich himself. VOC Captain de Roy verified his bragging about having many brass cannons hidden in Zamboanga. The messenger that de Roy sent out had found seven iron cannons and one metal piece along the quay and in trenches along the river, altogether close to 100 more brass cannons.6 Obtaining hardware wherever they could, had always been a priority for the Maguindanao rulers. Hence the request for two more cannons and muskets in the document.


Mindanau as a Buffer Zone

Throughout the 17th century, Dutch officers and representatives of the VOC had visited Maguindanao rather frequently. The Dutch came to trade, but with a secondary motive to spy and evaluate the situation from a socio-political perspective. They did not trust the sultan and vice versa. Until 1663, the Spaniards occupied a fort in Zamboa­nga on the most western side of Mindanao. They vacated it when they were called back to Manila because the Spaniards were in danger of an attack by a fleet of the renowned Chinese pirate Coxinga. They returned in 1718. The Spanish presence had always been perceived as a threat and danger; A threat for the Maguindanaos that they would be subjugated like the people in the islands north of them; A danger in the eyes of the VOC who fought tooth and nail to guard its spice monopoly in the Moluccas.

It was in the interest of Maguindanao to keep the Dutch at bay in Ternate and protect their independence from any Spanish or Dutch incursions. For the Dutch, Mindanao functioned as a buffer between “Spanish” Manila and the “Dutch” Moluccas. It should therefore be stressed that Sultan Kudarat did his people and the generations to come a great favor by having all the spice trees found in his domains extirpated and forbade his people to cultivate them.7 The Dutch regularly checked out the presence of nutmegs and cloves and under some pretense made excursions inland or rowed out on small boats while questioning the people. Their fears were ungrounded for it was confirmed that none were to be found.8


Dutch observations on Maguindanao

The Dutch Captain Cornelis Claasz Silver witnessed several events when he was moored before the Sultan’s house in the Simuoy River from June to November, 1699.9 He was invited to witness the installation of Sultan Kuda, a ceremony he described to be with much pomp and circumstance. To have this foreign captain attending must have given the event more prestige and hence the fondness by Sultan Kuda expressed for Capt. Cornelis Claasz in the letter to Batavia.

During a following visit by some VOC officials, Captain Paulus de Brievings and Ensign Jacob Cloeck, more observations were sent to Batavia. These two were in the Maguindanao harbor from 6 July 6 to 1 October 1700 and they thoroughly investigated the area. They listed 43 datus who paid tribute to the sultan or were beholden to him. They counted a force of 59,650 able bodied men that the sultan could draw from in times of need.10 Maguindanao also offered a safe haven to deserting soldiers and runaways from ships and tried to keep visitors from leaving. Foremost, the Chinese were subject to being enticed into marrying the local women which added to the increase of the population.

The best informants for the Dutch were indeed the Chinese who lived in Maguindanao. They often complained that they were subject to strict rules and regulations and not permitted to trade with the Dutch. However the Chinese were risk takers and disobeyed the rules. Illicit trade by the Chinese was very common. They came to trade in secret at dusk. When they were suspicious of a person hailing from Maguindanao aboard ship who could tell on them, they insisted to exchange the wax for the cloths through the cabin ports.11


Harbour and Trade

The harbor principality of Maguindanao was ideally situated at the mouth and tributaries of the largest river of Mindanao, the Pulangi River. It allowed for shipping and shipbuilding, fishing and many water resources. Products from the rich Pulangi agricultural valley inland, which consisted predominantly of rice, tobacco, wax, and victuals were brought down by small and large traders. From the mountain areas south of the river and foremost from the Davao Gulf region thousands of pounds of wax and bundles of tobacco were collected annually through tribute payments or exchanged for imported cloth and other foreign objects obtained through trade. For a large part of the 17th century annual trading expeditions were undertaken by the sultan himself and with his permission, the members of the royal family and datu clans sent their junks on missions to as far as India, Malacca, Siam, Johore, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Sulawesi. Many smaller vessels sailed annually to Manila and Ternate as well, often with the assistance of nakodas, ship captains, from the Chinese community.

The shipments from Maguindanao to the larger regional trade centers included, besides wax and rice in large quantities, thousands of bundles of tobacco, second grade cinnamon, coconut oil, clove bark, tortoise shell, sea cucumbers, seaweed, bird’s nests, and slaves12. They brought back predominantly all sorts of Indian cloths such as guinees lywaet, bafta, salempuri, muri, chintz, betille, chelas,13 etc. Iron objects, brass, scrap metal, cannons and weapons were sought after and often included. Junks from China brought silks and earthen wares.14 There was heavy traffic between China (Ch’uan Chou, Hokkien), Manila and Maguindanao every year.15 By 1700, the Chinese community at Maguindanao had grown considerably after the Dutch had started to enforce the monopoly on spices in the Moluccas. Many Chinese had left Ternate for Mindanao.16


The wax monopoly and Chinese traders

Sarangani was a central trading place in beeswas where the Sultan of Maguindanao had imposed strict rules and regulations. No outsiders were allowed to go there to trade. Since the 1660s the Maguindanao sultanate had exerted a monopoly on wax, which was still in effect in 1699.17 Only the Chinese, who were known to the sultan and the Saranganies, were allowed to trade 500 kati18 of beeswax and no more.19 Trading without the sultan’s permission would be punishable by death, that is beheading. Sarangani was the Sultan’s granary and a warehouse for his trade goods.

In Maguindanao it was also customary for all nakodas, ships’ captains, to pass by the sultan before leaving and receive instructions to run errands for him or other members of the household such as delivering letters or messages and bringing gifts. If that was neglected, one could expect to be killed, which luckily did not happen to the Chinese mestizo Loanko, mentioned in our document, who was forgiven.


Adventures of a peranakan Chinese

Despite all regulations imposed by the Minguindanao sultans, incidents appeared at a frequent basis. According to our document, an incident happened in July or early August 1688. By the time the sultan wrote his letter to Batavia in 1699, it was still remembered and not solved yet. A peranakan Chinese from Jepara named Tuwanko (Loanko in the letter) had left in a gonting, a small Javanese cargo vessel, with a pascedule from the Company in Semarang to sail to Pasir, Southeast Borneo to collect wax. The vessel belonged to the Chinese captains Pinco from Jepara and Kohanco (Concua in the letter) from Semarang. The crew consisted of eight Chinese: Saowanko, Ompo, Tsjonko, Tjejwko, Tiepko, Inko, Hayko, and Tsjin and two Javanese: Aowangsa and Marompang. Strong contrary winds and a possible lack of a sense directions, Saowanko, the navigator, brought them ashore in Manguindanao after more than two months.

When the Sultan Barahaman learned about the trespass, he ordered the crew of the gonting to come to Simuay and asked them for their pascedule, but theirs was for Pasir, so Hayko, who could write, prepared a different one that applied to Sarangani. The sultan accepted it and this guaranteed the safety of the Chinese. In the meantime Tuwanko had already collected 100 pikul of wax, and 3 pikul of tortoise shell. He invested half his capital of approximately 15-1600 rixdollars in this purchase. The sultan took possession of all the Indian types of cloths that were left at a value of 727 ¼ rixdollars. His brother the later Sultan Kuda borrowed the wax that Tuwanko had brought and lent him a boat, a korakora, for Tuwanko to go to Manila where he had to sell the wax. The price of a pikul wax in Sarangani was much lower than in Manila, so the sultan pocketed the profit. He told Tuwanko to collect some debts for him in Manila which were to pay for the wax that Tuwanko had initially paid for in Sarangani. Tuwanko left for Manila, but refused to say farewell to the sultan who was offended and angry about that. He confiscated all Tuwanko’s tradegoods. Tuwanko stayed for one month in Manila where he bought leather, gold and reals-of-eight from the Spanish from Sultan Kuda’s money and some leather for himself .

While Tuwanko was gone, five of his crew, Tsjonko, Tjejwko, Tiepko, Inko, and Hayko had married. Saowanko, Tsjin and the two Javanese: Aowangsa and Marompang died at Maguindanao. Tuwanko settled down and began to ingratiate himself with the Maguindanaos. He married and inspired the trust of the sultan. He is known to have said to the Sultan “we have no other faith except in the Sultan, and whatever the Sultan wishes to command we shall obey”.20 Thus in 1691 Tuwanko managed to leave with permission from the Sultan. Ompo, another crew member who never married went with him. The crew also included a Ternatan Chinese, named Hieuwko, his slave, and two Muslims form the Coromandel coast in India. All were debt free, otherwise one could not receive permission to leave Maguindanao. The five married surviving Chinese were “kept by the sultan”.21

The information provided in the sultan’s letter shows how existing trading networks, from Minguindanao to Java, functioned only with the support and interference of a local ruler. It also shows how individual participants, like the peranakan Chinese Tuwanko from Jepara, operated in those networks. Only these concrete stories bring us closer to the fascinating world of Southeast Asia, in this case the souther Philippines.




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Ruurdje Laarhoven, “Letter from Sultan Kuda of Manguindanao­­­ ­­­­­­­­ (r. 1699-1702) concerning the trading activities of Chinese nakhoda and the need for military support, 21 July 1700”. In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 16. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2014.