from the editor's laptop
welcome readerpoemsessaysshort storiesportrait of an artistbibliographybooksarchivesindex to issuesOOV readersabout us / submitcurrent issue


The Moro Province of the Philippines:
National Imagination and the Periphery
in Comparative Perspective


During all the long period of Spanish of the Philippines, the internal affairs of the Sulus remained absolutely in the hands of their chieftains. Spanish jurisdiction was merely an external one. They managed their own local affairs in their own way. We, having accepted Spain's sovereignty, had no more rights than she had among the Sulus.1

Jacob Schurman
Chairman of the First U.S. Philippine Commission, 1899

No discussion of the Filipino people would be complete without a reference to the Moros, a very picturesque and interesting people. Unconquered by the Spanish or by the Christian Filipinos, they surrendered to the United States Army because they thought they had an understanding that the American flag would govern and protect them from the Filipino flag forever.2

Carmi A. Thompson
Special Representative to the
President of the United States, 1927 

Throughout the imperial period, circumstances served to keep the “Moro Provinces” at a distance from their nominal political rulers in Manila. This remove engendered ongoing tensions between colonial authorities, nationalist elites, and local Muslim leaders.

In his influential work Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson defined the nation as an "imagined political community" wherein "members will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."3 This seminal reformulation spawned countless studies of nationalists and their imaginings of the nation. Less famously, Anderson also outlined an assumption that informs much subsequent work on the ideational creations of the nation. Noting an "isomorphism between each nationalism's territorial stretch and that of the previous imperial administrative unit," Anderson asserted a coincidence between the space of anti-colonial nationalist imagination and colonial statehood. This correlation captured much of the logic impelling anti-colonial nationalist movements in Asia and elsewhere, while also suggesting many contradictory impulses in colonial state formation and their important implications for anti-imperial agitation. Although colonial powers regularly consolidated unitary power within arbitrary boundaries, they also pursued "divide and rule" policies that required multiple and differentiated administrative structures. Such inconsistencies antagonized indigenous elites and provided a motor force for nascent nationalist movements, even as they contributed to lingering separatist sentiments in outlying provinces. Mindanao and Sulu in the Philippines exemplified these complex dynamics. Throughout the imperial period, circumstances served to keep the “Moro Provinces” at a distance from their nominal political rulers in Manila. This remove engendered ongoing tensions between colonial authorities, nationalist elites, and local Muslim leaders. By considering the interplay among these three groups, this paper will examine how the incongruities of imperial governance transformed the colonial periphery of Mindanao and Sulu into an integral, albeit bitterly contested, component of elite national imagination.

To elucidate the evolving position of the periphery in Filipino nationalism under colonialism, I will divide my inquiry into three parts. The first section will briefly summarize two theoretical frameworks indirectly suggestive of colonial contradictions and their significance for the idea of the nation: Jackson and Rosberg's juridical/empirical schema of statehood and Winichakul Thongchai's notion of mapping. The next section will focus on the primary object of this study, the relationship between Manila and the “Moro Provinces” in the Philippines. This analysis of the Philippines will be divided into three subsections: the later period of Spanish imperial rule in the nineteenth century; American military rule in Mindanao and Sulu between 1901 and 1914; and, the separatist administration of Governor General Leonard Wood between 1921 and 1927. The third and final section will examine the post-colonial ramifications of colonial administration for separatism and the future of the Filipino nation.

Theory, "Divide and Rule," and the Nation

In the pre-colonial period, many areas recognized today as nation-states lacked any semblance of political unity or cultural coherence. Few theorists of anti-imperial nationalism address the question of why, if imperial powers sometimes carved their contiguous holdings into administrative units of fundamentally different kind and type, did the concept of the nation become attached to the larger imperial holding rather than more local jurisdictions? Yet these same scholars often present a teleological relationship between colonialism and nationalism. In this view, the advent of imperial rule necessarily transformed the global map into states that corresponded with the boundaries of their previous colonial ruler. However, if colonial sub-divisions and strategies of "divide and rule" did not mirror colonial, indigenous state formations, they did offer alternative models and rationales for more local forms of statehood. To understand why a state system coterminous with broader European, American, and Japanese holdings developed, one must move beyond somewhat facile assumptions and investigate the aspects of the imperial international system that militated against the inclusion of Mindanao and Sumatra into the fellowship of world nations.

...the pressure of international norms and the relative incapacity of African states to govern demonstrated that juridical functions ultimately played the decisive role in shaping weak post-colonial states.

The political scientists Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg furnish an especially incisive analytical lens for understanding the emergence of nation-states with their typology of empirical and juridical statehood. Asserting in their article "Why Weak States Persist" that statehood "is an international legal condition rather than some kind of sociological given,"5 Jackson and Rosberg delineate a distinction between a state's empirical properties, i.e., the actual ability to control a stable population and to ensure effective government, and its juridical function of being a legal entity recognized by the international community.6 They further unpack these vague definitions, describing empirical statehood as the "authority to issue regulations and the power to enforce them,"7 and juridical statehood as a government's internationally sanctioned control over territorial "property."8 Jackson and Rosberg then proceed from this exercise in taxonomy to assess the relative importance of the two types of statehood in the creation of African nations. In their final analysis, the pressure of international norms and the relative incapacity of African states to govern demonstrated that juridical functions ultimately played the decisive role in shaping weak post-colonial states.

Although Jackson and Rosberg's concentration on Africa in the post World War II period does not lend their analysis, prima facie, to a study of colonial Southeast Asia, their framework is still highly applicable to the Filipino case of national identity. The crux of this connection hinges on the contention that "the European colonies were the only political vehicles that could give expression to African nationalism; as a consequence, these artificial jurisdictions acquired a vital legitimacy in the eyes of the most knowledgeable Africans."9 Jackson and Rosberg argue that this "vital legitimacy" derived from an international order that emphasized the centrality of sovereignty and conceived of the world as a membership of formally co-equal states. Thus, "however arbitrary and alien in origin the inherited state jurisdictions might have been," anti-imperial nationalism had little choice but to imagine its nation in terms of juridical colonial boundaries even if it could not mobilize the capacities of the empirical state.10

While Jackson and Rosberg adduce this reasoning from post-colonial Africa, it also possesses considerable relevance to colonial Southeast Asia. As sovereignty gained normative prominence and as empire went increasingly out of fashion in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, nationalists in Southeast Asia began equating their prospective nations with the broader territories of Empire.11 It did not matter that many indigenous leaders privately, and in some cases publicly, acknowledged the historical heterogeneity of "the Philippines." Demands for undiluted and unabridged sovereignty offered the best, and perhaps only, available avenue to challenge imperialism. In this global environment, Southeast Asian leaders could perceive administrative segmentation and imperial decentralization not as an effort to return power to more "traditional" units, but as a grievous affront to their nationalist aspirations. By dividing their territory into neutered cantons, the colonial powers could portray themselves as the protectors of oppressed minorities and undermine the juridical, "property" like, basis of their anti-imperialist competitors. Therefore there is a need to analyze how "Moroland" might have simultaneously threatened the basis for imagined post-colonial nations and stirred the embers of nationalism.

Beyond Jackson and Rosberg, Winichakul Thongchai's concept of mapping advances another complementary theoretical approach to comprehending the significance of the danger posed by peripheral regions like Mindanao and Sulu. Though starting from radically different premises and methodological backgrounds, Thongchai shares with Jackson and Rosberg an interest in explaining how the intellectual notion of the nation-state preceded and in fact predicted its empirical reality in the post-colonial world. Thongchai's argument centers on his notion of the "geo-body." Denoting this neologism as "a man-made territorial definition" which "is merely an effect of modern geographical discourse," Thongchai envisions the "geo-body" as existent "nowhere apart from the map."12 In other words, maps produce potent images of the bounded nation. However, Thongchai makes it clear that the "geo-body" does not exclusively belong to the realm of the imagination. The concept of the "geo-body" can also channel practices associated with statehood and reify the limits of the nation-state:

While scholars must resist the temptation to impute unbroken continuity to the conflict or overlook intervening circumstances like the rise of global Islam, the historical events of the late colonial period loom large in these troubles.

There are innumerable concepts, practices, and institutions related to it or working within the provision and limitation of a nation's geo-body: the concept of integrity and sovereignty; border control, armed conflict, invasions, and wars; the territorial definition of the national economy, products, industries, trade, tax, custom duties, education, administration, culture and so on. But the term geo-body is used to signify that the object of this study is not merely space or territory. It is a component of the life of the nation. It is a source of pride, loyalty, love, passion, bias, hatred, reason, unreason.13

By inextricably linking the sum of human activities to a bounded graphical representation on maps, modern cartography effectively acts as the handmaiden of the international state system. Moreover, the development of colonial cartography, often a major endeavor of the imperial project, served a very important role in reifying the legal fiction of Jackson and Rosberg's notion of the "juridical state" in the popular imagination. In effect, maps linked international legal convention to the imagining of nations. The intertwined production of the "juridical state" by legal regimes and the "geo-body" by cartographic regimes will thus inform much of the analysis in this study.

The Philippines: Mindanao and Sulu

Apparently, they did not resolve the issue on territory, particularly in the determination and delineation of areas to be placed under the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.14

—Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In the Kuala Lumpur Talks of February 2005, representatives of the Filipino government in Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from Mindanao met to negotiate a settlement on an issue that has plagued the region since at least the nineteenth century.15 How autonomous should Muslim regions of Mindanao and Sulu remain from their predominantly Catholic Visayan Islands and Luzon counterparts? Do independence and separatist movements constitute an intolerable challenge to the sovereign Filipino state, and how much autonomy will the Filipino state countenance? Can Mindanao and Sulu retain their cultural peculiarity within the Filipino nation-state? These highly contentious issues have been a source of endemic violence and warfare between separatist forces and Manila since the 1970s. Moreover, the 2006 comments of Eid Kabulu, the spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, indicate that sovereignty and borders in the proposed Muslim "Bangsamoro Juridical Entity" remain at the forefront of this debate. While scholars must resist the temptation to impute unbroken continuity to the conflict or overlook intervening circumstances like the rise of global Islam, the historical events of the late colonial period loom large in these troubles. From 1850 to 1926, Spanish and American imperial powers lurched between an unprecedented integrationist project and declarations of "Moroland" separateness.

Late Spanish Imperialism, 1852 to 1898:
Of Sovereignty and Slave Raids

In 1851, at the conclusion of the latest round of intermittent warfare whcih dated back all the way to 1565,16 the Sulu Sultanate and the Spanish agreed to a peace treaty. The core element of this agreement, in the eyes of the Spanish, rested with the recognition of sovereignty over the vast stretch of nine hundred islands that comprise the Sulu Archipelago.17 The Sultan agreed, nominally, to fly the Spanish flag, recognize Spanish government, and abstain from making treaties with other foreign nations—in other words, to cede all the trappings of independent sovereignty.18 However, these arrangements soon came undone, following the tradition of numerous other discarded treaties; periodic raiding continued, Spanish counterattacks ensued, and warfare obstructed the imposition of effective Spanish rule.19 Though they enjoyed more success in Mindanao, the Spanish encountered similar difficulties there and never were able to consolidate ruling power through local government.20 This begs the question: why did these Muslim regions remain so obdurate in the face of foreign aggression while the Visayan Islands and Luzon acquiesced to Spanish rule three hundred years earlier? And what import did the renewed effort at imperialist conquest in the late nineteenth century have for Manila-based nationalism and the recalcitrant Muslim lands of Mindanao and Sulu?

The notion of a solidifying "Moro" identity was largely an artifact of Spanish merchants and sailors, whose own experience with Islamic "Moors" in Europe predisposed them to viewing the inhabitants of Mindanao and Sulu as one devilish and war-like whole.

Recent scholarship has debunked the traditional explanation for resistance in Mindanao and Sulu: Islam. James Warren's Muslim Rulers and Rebels and James Warren's The Sulu Zone conclusively demonstrate that some sense of trans-local Islamic identity or solidarity in the face of Spanish incursions did not unify this area. Although there did exist a shared adherence to Islam, the variegated cultures, languages, clan groupings, and ethnicities of the area hardly cohered into anything resembling a common people. In the lowland Cotabato region of Mindanao alone, three cultural groupings organized around different languages competed for dominance,21 and a highland/lowland division further distanced the island's inhabitants from one another.22 Moreover, the Spanish sometimes managed to peel off sultanates in Mindanao as allies against the more powerful entity based in Sulu.23 The notion of a solidifying "Moro" identity was largely an artifact of Spanish merchants and sailors, whose own experience with Islamic "Moors" in Europe predisposed them to viewing the inhabitants of Mindanao and Sulu as one devilish and war-like whole.24 This perception thus stemmed more from Spanish biases than the reality on the ground.

The absence of a common "Moro Zone," however, should not lull historians into the belief that Mindanao and Sulu occupied a position in the Southeast Asian world comparable to that of the Visayans and Luzon. As James Warren shows in Sulu Zone and Iranun and Balangingi, eighteenth and nineteenth century phenomena in the global economy propelled the ascendance of the Jolo Tausugs and the Iranun, forging a new economic and cultural unit as the 'Sulu Zone.'" Concentrated mainly in Sulu, with subsidiary settlements in Mindanao as well as Sulawesi and Borneo in present day Indonesia, the Iranun adroitly exploited the arrival of European trading empires by satisfying their desire for exotic fish and forestry products. They accomplished this by embarking on a major slave raiding enterprise, culling chattel from distant places like Luzon and Melacca to harvest seafood, teak, and other products in Sulu and Mindanao.25 The Iranun also subordinated nearby ethnicities and sultanates in Mindanao not for the purposes of slavery, but for basic food production that could sustain the booming economy in the entrepôt of Jolo and Sulu Island more generally.26 While the devastating slave raids in the Visayan Islands and Luzon incensed Spanish authorities there, these strategies brought the Sulu Sultanate tremendous wealth in the late eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century. It also bound Sulu and Mindanao into an integrated, if differentiated economy oriented mainly toward the "Land Below the Winds."27 The Visayans and Luzon did figure into these structures, but except as an embittered hinterland which supplied slaves to a distant power. The emergence of the Sulu Zone, and not some essential cultural unity among Muslims, formed much of the basis for difference that estranged these two regions through much of the later colonial period.

While the Sulu Zone exercised considerable power in the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the enhanced power of European states encroached on their influence. The Dutch and British significantly enlarged their presence in Southeast Asia during the second half of the 1800s, and even the laggard Spanish bolstered their presence in the Philippines. In Siam Mapped, as mentioned earlier, Thongchai identifies the "fetishizing" of colonial boundaries as one key consequence of Europe's industrialization and outward expansion.28 Such pressures weakened the autonomy of the Sulu Zone in two ways. On the one hand, the imperative of defining borders prompted the Netherlands to claim formal and direct ownership over ever-greater swaths of Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, and Guinea. While the simultaneous hardening and growth of the Dutch empire never reached the Sulu Zone, it did induce the relatively weak Spanish to renew their efforts to subdue that region and establish firm, incontrovertible control.29 Interstitial areas between Empires stood markedly less chance in this historical moment of escaping foreign invasion, and the 1851 treaty mentioned earlier represented only the first of several Spanish campaigns to forestall potential rivals and integrate Sulu and Mindanao into their holdings. Meanwhile, the tightening of Spanish boundaries in Luzon and the Visayans posed the other major challenge to the Sulu Zone. Spanish coastal defenses, formerly so permeable, repelled the majority of the Sulu slave raids in the late 1800s and undermined the basis for the Sultanate economy.30 Thus, the heightened salience of borders in these two ways hastened Sulu and Mindanao's decline.

The Sultan's decision to spurn Filipino nationalists like Aguinaldo in favor of Bates thereby prefigured the intricate and often bitter triangular relationships between colonial authorities, Manila politicos, and Muslim datu that would develop under United States rule.

What implications would this strengthening of frontiers entail for the colonial entity known as the Philippines ? Though the Spanish continued to confront intense resistance and the extent of their true dominion in Mindanao and Sulu is doubtful,31 Spain did ratchet up its attempts to incorporate the region into the Filipino "juridical" entity and the Filipino "geo-body." With the introduction of the "Government of Mindanao" in 1860, Spanish authorities for the first time imbued their nominal sway over the region with a legal gloss, telegraphing their sovereignty to would-be competitors.32 Beyond this innovative political form, Spain also launched the unprecedented endeavor of mapping their Muslim holdings. In a 1909 article, the Director of the American Bureau of Mines in Manila, William Du Pre Smith, cited a magnetic survey by Jesuit geographers in Mindanao as one of the most significant cartographic enterprises undertaken by the Spanish in the Philippines.33 Although Smith does not mention a year, this presumably would have had to occur after the Spanish first sent Jesuits to Mindanao in 1859.34 Moreover, Smith also discusses the mapping of a remote Sulu Sea Island, Cagayan Sulu, by the crew of the British ship Marchesa in 1883.35 While the Spanish did not conduct this expedition, the British often cooperated with the Iberian nation at this time and supplied valuable technical expertise. Content with dominating the Filipino economy, the British generally found it expedient to pass off the hassles and costs of governance to a third rate power.36 It is thus not unreasonable to assume that the Marchesa enjoyed the blessings of Spanish authorities. In sum then, this burst of cartographic and juridical activity illustrates how Spain hoped to paper over the deficiencies of its rule and attach Mindanao and Sulu to the Filipino colonial polity.

On the eve of American conquest in 1899, the status of the "Moro" territories vis-à-vis the Philippines remained fluid. In one sense, rebellions and resistance afflicted Spanish efforts to assert its dominance, and Mindanao and Sulu remained largely beyond the ambit of Manila, Madrid, or any other colonial center. As in centuries past, Iberian assertions of sovereignty seemed devoid of substance. In another sense though, the circumstances of "high imperialism" effectively diminished the threat posed by the Sulu Sultanate, and the period witnessed new Spanish campaigns to map the region, literally and figuratively, onto the colony. Thus, relations between the Filipino center and the "Moro" periphery would remain susceptible to the policies of the next imperial overlord: the United States.

A Purely Civil Government is Quite Impossible:"37
—American Military Rule, 1899-1914

In the throes of bitter and ultimately futile battle against the Americans, one of the leading protagonists of the Filipino independence movement, Emilio Aguinaldo, initiated correspondence with the Sultan of Sulu. In a letter dated January 18, 1899, Aguinaldo wrote to assure his, "great and powerful brother, the Sultan of Jolo," that the new Philippine Republic would "respect absolutely the beliefs and traditions of each island in order to establish on solid bases the bonds of fraternal unity demanded by our mutual interests."38 Aguinaldo concluded by guaranteeing the Sultan "the highest assurance of friendship, consideration, and esteem."39 These entreaties went unrequited. Instead, the Sultan opted to negotiate with Brigadier General John Bates of the United States Army. Arriving in the Sulu capital of Jolo in July 1899, Bates concluded a treaty vouchsafing that the "rights and dignities of His Highness the Sultan and his datos shall be fully respected" and promising the protection of religious freedom in return for a recognition of American sovereignty.40 While many of Bates' colleagues criticized the deal for being unduly lenient and conferring too much legitimacy on "The Government of Sulu," it did succeed in cementing ties between leaders of the Sulu aristocracy and the American military establishment.41 The Sultan's decision to spurn Filipino nationalists like Aguinaldo in favor of Bates thereby prefigured the intricate and often bitter triangular relationships between colonial authorities, Manila politicos, and Muslim datu that would develop under United States rule.

With the Bates Treaty of 1899 and the arrival of American troops in Mindanao as well as Sulu by 1900, American troops and administrators found themselves charged with the supervision of a vast, mysterious stretch of real estate. Writing in 1931, Governor General Leonard Wood's biographer, Hermann Hagedorn, depicted these lands in ominously menacing terms:

In tropic waters, a vast, green crab stretches out an irritated claw after a school of minnows skipping out in the direction of Borneo. The crab is the island of Mindanao, the minnows are the Sulu Archipelago. Southward along the menacing claw the steamer bears the new governor.

On the left is a jagged shore rising three thousand feet or more to a dark ridge with forests.42

While academics should not overstate the pervasiveness of this island "Heart of Darkness" view, they should not discount it either. By inheriting these southern "Moro Provinces," the United States needed to grapple with an enormous and lightly populated area that comprised over half the territory of their new archipelagic possessions and was four times larger than any other Filipino province.43 Confronted with the unknown, it seems likely that American arrivals would resort to preconceived frameworks for making sense of the indigenous inhabitants. And the colonizers' new systems of classification suggested they did just that.

Little time elapsed before the appropriate American authorities arrived at an indubitable conclusion: the Muslims of the Philippines constituted a "wild" race.44 The official 1904 colonial census divided the Filipino people into the two overarching categories of "civilized" and "wild." The bulk of Filipinos enjoyed the status of "civilized" by virtue of their Christian faith, even if many other documents qualified this assessment with the prefix "semi," while the Census designated all the Muslim ethnicities, along with "Negritos" and other tribes, as "wild." This categorization corresponded with the viewpoints of many Americans on the ground. No sooner than he set ashore on Mindanao in 1903 did General John Pershing proclaim of the Muslim that "he is a savage,"45 and General George W. Davis castigated them as "born pirates."46

next page >>>

© Joshua Gedacht

back to toptop | about the author

powered by
The Moro Province of the Philippines: National Imagination and the Periphery in Comparative Perspective
By Joshua Gedacht

Marlboro Man
By Michael Caylo-Baradi

On Cooking, Moving, and Being Filipino
By Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

Last One to Know

A music review by Remé Grefalda

Uneven Foray Into A "Spectrum"

By Gem P. Daus, MA

Poet's Picturebook poetry art photography notes

by Remé Grefalda
  poems | essays | short stories | portrait | bibliography
from the editor's laptop | welcome reader | frontispiece
books | links | archives | index to issues | readers
about us | current issue