The Sabah Invasion Insight: The Sulu Character.


First, it was the Brunei Sultanate. Then, the British. Followed by Spain, the United States, and the Republic of Philippines. NOW, its Malaysia.

What do these six countries share, in common? Each of the these countries had personally ‘tasted’ the treacherous characteristics of the people and sultanate of Sulu.

“The Sulus are a bloodthirsty and hard-hearted race, and when an opportunity occurs, are not always averse to kidnapping even their own countrymen and selling them into slavery. They entertain their own importance and are ever ready to resent with their krisses, at the slightest affront,” wrote the first Governor of North Borneo, William Hood Treacher.

“The Spaniards,” according to Najeeb Saleeby, in his 1908 book, The History of Sulu, pictured a Sulu “as a black devil incarnate, borne in mischief and conceived in iniquity; without a human characteristic, barbarous and savage as his second cousin the orang-utan of Borneo.”

Why so? The history of Sulu Empire, during its ‘glorious days’, was full of piracy, deceit, treachery, war, death, and misery to its people.

The Balambangan Massacre.

In 1763, the Island of Balambangan, Tulayan and northern part of North Borneo were ceded to the British, by Sulu’s first Christian Sultan, aka Sultan Alimud-Din I, as a show of gratitude for rescuing him from a Spaniard prison.

Ten years later, Alimud-Din son, Sultan Israel together with his council, secretly and treacherously attacked, destroyed and massacred the inhabitants of Balambangan.

Wrote Saleeby:

“A full description of this incident is given herewith in the words of Captain Forrest, who had an intimate knowledge of the conditions at Balambangan and the causes leading to the massacre.

When John Herbert, esq. went to Balambangan early in the preceding year [1774], he found great want of buildings to accommodate the company’s servants, civil and military; those gentlemen who had just been saved from the shipwreck of the Royal Captain on the shoals of Palawan, as well as the crew of that ship. About this time, one Tating, a Sulu datu, and first cousin to Sultan Israel, came with many of his vassals to Balambangan, offered his service as a builder, was employed by Mr. Herbert, and, in the whole of his behavior, gave satisfaction. The datu, falling sick, went home to Sulu for the recovery of his health. This blessing soon obtained, he returned to the prosecution of his task at Balambangan.

He now brought from the sultan and council letters recommending him as a trustworthy person, to erect whatever warehouses or buildings might be wanted. With him came two other datus, Muluk and Nukila. But Datu Tating took care to show only part of his numerous followers, concealing the rest in the Island of Banguey, and even in some recesses of Balambangan, which, being covered with wood, as those islands generally are, there was no great fear of discovery.

Surmises, however, had some days begun to spread reports of a plot, while Tating proceeded with such address, that the chief and council, who were not without their suspicions, apprehended no danger very nigh.

During the night strict watch was kept all over the settlement. At dawn, the gun, as usual, announced the morning, and for a few moments tranquillity reigned. A house at some small distance suddenly fired proved the signal to the Sulus. They rushed into the fort, killed the sentries, and turned the guns against the Bugis guard. The few settlers, lately rendered fewer by death, were fain to make their escape in what vessels they could find”.

Territorial Usurping.

The Sultan of Sulu, according to Spain’s Captain of Royal Army, was usurping parts of the Sultan of Brunei’s territories, as his own. In his written report to the Government of Spain, on April 30, 1753, he wrote:

“By letter forwarded to your Majesty through confidential channels, I reported that I had despatched an embassador to the King of Bruney, informing him of the arrest of the King of Sulu for his inveterate faithlessness, and pressing him to continue our long standing friendship and to form a new alliance against the said king as a usurper of part of his dominions, and against all his enemies, and to cede to your Majesty the Island of Balabak and the territory of Palawan, for the purpose of better waging war against the Sulus, Tirons and Kamukons.” (Saleeby, 1908)

In yet another colonial report by Jose Maria Halcon:

“While considering the protection granted the Sultan (of Sulu), I recognized the inexpediency of making the same include the lands which he has lately acquired in Borneo, and of determining definitely the line of the boundary in Palawan, the title to which island, as also that to Balabak and Balambangan, is very disputable, though at present, the lands where we have not established our settlements of the province of Kalamians are included de facto in his possessions.

Palawan was ceded to the Crown of Spain by the King of Bruney, and Balabak is likewise ceded by an instrument brought back by D. Antonio Fabean when he went there as Embassador under the administration of the Marquis of Obando, which should be in the archives of the Philippine Government; but since these cessions were made on an occasion when the Sultan of Sulu found himself in possession of the lands by virtue of a former cession made in his favor by another King of Bruney, such documentary testimony cannot serve as the basis of our arguments, especially since we did not proceed to found any settlements.

This matter of the cession of Balabak occurred upon the occasion of a visit to Manila, of Sultan Mohammed Alimud Din (Fernando I) who, asserting his right to the island, executed and ratified upon his part the gift, at least in word, through D. Manuel Fernandez Toribio, afterward Governor of Zamboanga, and the Secretary of the Government.

Our writers have misrepresented the subsequent conduct of the said Sultan, and concealed very important facts, but at any rate, the very concealment of the reasons for his fleeing from Manila betokens the lack of liberty in all of the instruments he granted during his stay in that place; moreover the facts in the case justify his later actions, which gave occasion for casting a doubt over the legitimacy of our title to the lands under consideration.”

In December 1848, Captain Henry Keppel together with Rajah Brooke of Sarawak, made a voyage to Jolo. Captain Keppel wrote in his book, Visit to the Indian Archipelago (1852), of their encounter with Sultan Pulalun Kiram.

“After a reasonable time passed by each party in admiration of the other, the conversation was opened by Sir James Brooke, who, as Her Majesty’s commissioner in these regions, submitted to the Sultan certain propositions on matters of business.

To these His Majesty expressed his willingness to accede; and he graciously reminded Sir James that the royal family of Sulu were under considerable obligations to the English; inasmuch as his great-grandfather, Sultan Amir, having been once upon a time imprisoned by the Spaniards in the fortress of Manila, was delivered from durance vile and reinstated on the throne of his ancestors by Alexander Dalrymple——A. D. 1763. This was now the more liberal on the part of His Majesty, because his royal ancestor had not at the time allowed the service to be altogether unrequited; for he ceded to the English Government a fine island adjoining Sulu (of which, by the bye, no use appears to have been made), together with the north end of Borneo and the south end of Palawan, with the intervening islands.”

Once again, the Sulu Sultanate gave away a territory which rightfully belonged to the Sultan of Brunei. In the case of Northern Borneo, Sultan of Brunei ceded ‘North Borneo Proper’ to representatives of a British Company in 1877, whereby Sulu ceded a small portion to the same representatives in 1878. In the case of southern Palawan, Brunei ceded to Spain as early as 1749, whereas the Sultan of Sulu ceded the same, to British (via Keppel and Brooke) in 1848.

The true characteristics of a Sulu is piracy. Robbing, usurping and claiming other people’s’ properties as their own, and they thought nothing of it. In fact, the Sulus were devoted to it. Evidently, they still are.


(Photo depicts Sultan Pulalun Kiram who ceded north end of North Borneo and southern Palawan to the British.)

Notice also, it was common practice (since the 1600s) for the Sultans to CEDE their territories in totality, to foreign forces in return to a ‘settlement’, being financial or military assistance, in nature.


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