Sultanate of Sulu
كاسولتانن سين سوڬ
Kasultanan sin Sūg
  • 1457–1915
Flag of Sulu
Flag (19th century)
Lesser coat of arms of Sulu
Lesser coat of arms
Map showing the extent of the Sultanate of Sulu in 1845, with Northeast Borneo lowlands being under its nominal control.
Map showing the extent of the Sultanate of Sulu in 1845, with Northeast Borneo lowlands being under its nominal control.
StatusBruneian vassal (1457–1578)
Ming tributary (1417–1424)
Sovereign state (1578–1851)
Qing tributary (1726–1733)
Spanish protectorate (1851–1899)
U.S. protectorate (1899–1915)
Common languagesTausug, Sama–Bajau, Malay
Sunni Islam Ash'ari Shafi'i Sufism
GovernmentAbsolute monarchy of Ba 'Alawi sada ancestry
• 1457–1480 (first)
Sharif ul-Hāshim
• 1894–1915 (last)
Jamalul Kiram II
• Ascension of Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim
• Temporal power ceded to the United States
22 March 1915
CurrencyBarter with foreign traders
Sulu coins for local use[3]
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Ancient barangay
Lupah Sug
Bruneian Sultanate
Spanish East Indies
Insular Government
of the Philippines
Zamboanga Republic
North Borneo
Bulungan Sultanate
Dutch East Indies
Today part of

The Sultanate of Sulu (Tausug: Kasultanan sin Sūg; Malay: Kesultanan Sulu; Filipino: Sultanato ng Sulu) was a Sunni Muslim state[note 1] that ruled the Sulu Archipelago, coastal areas of Zamboanga City and certain portions of Palawan in the today's Philippines, alongside parts of present-day Sabah, North and East Kalimantan in north-eastern Borneo.

The sultanate was founded either on 17 November 1405 or 1457[5][note 2] by Johore-born explorer and Sunni Sufi religious scholar Sharif ul-Hashim, a follower of the Ash'ari Aqeeda and Shafi'i Madh'hab. Paduka Mahasari Maulana al Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim became his full regnal name; Sharif-ul Hashim is his abbreviated name. He settled in Buansa, Sulu. After the marriage of Abu Bakr and a local dayang-dayang (princess) Paramisuli, he founded the sultanate after approval and recognition through the "Gibha" ceremony done by the Sayyid Balfaqi Alawi, this practice of "Gibha" ceremony was thereafter passed to his descendants among the family of Panglima Bandahala of Sulu and Ligaddung of Tawi-Tawi.[9][10] The sultanate gained its independence from the Bruneian Empire in 1578.[11]

At its peak, it stretched over the islands that bordered the western peninsula of Zamboanga in Mindanao in the east to Palawan in the north. It also covered areas in the northeast of Borneo, stretching from Marudu Bay,[12][13] to Tepian Durian (in present-day Kalimantan, Indonesia).[14][15] Another source stated the area included stretched from Kimanis Bay, which also overlaps with the boundaries of the Bruneian Sultanate.[16] Following the arrival of western powers such as the Spanish, the British, the Dutch, French, Germans, the Sultan thalassocracy and sovereign political powers were relinquished by 1915 through an agreement that was signed with the United States.[17][18][19][20] In the second half of the 20th century, Filipino government extended official recognition of the head of the royal house of the sultanate, before the ongoing succession dispute.

In Kakawin Nagarakretagama, the Sultanate of Sulu is referred to as Solot, one of the countries in the Tanjungnagara archipelago (Kalimantan-Philippines), which is one of the areas that is under the influence of the mandala area of the Majapahit kingdom in the archipelago.



Map of the Sulu Archipelago

See also: Hinduism in the Philippines, Religion in pre-colonial Philippines, Indosphere, and Indianisation

The present area of the Sultanate of Sulu was once under the influence of the Bruneian Empire before it gained its own independence in 1578.[11] During the 13th century the people of Sulu began migrating to present-day Zamboanga and Sulu archipelago from their homelands in northeastern Mindanao. Scott (1994) writes that the Sulu are the descendants of ancient Butuanons and Surigaonons from the Rajahnate of Butuan, which was then Hindu, like pre-islamic Sulu. They moved south and established a spice trading port in Sulu. Sultan Batarah Shah Tengah, who ruled as sultan in 1600, was said to be an actual native of Butuan.[21] The Butuanon-Surigaonon origins of the Tausugs are suggested by the relationship of their languages, as the Butuanon, Surigaonon and Tausug languages are all members of the Southern sub-family of Visayan. Later, the earliest known settlement in this area soon to be occupied by the sultanate was in Maimbung, Jolo. During this time, Sulu was called Lupah Sug.[10] The principality of Maimbung, populated by Buranun people (or Budanon, literally means "mountain-dwellers"), was first ruled by a certain rajah who assumed the title Rajah Sipad the Older. According to Majul, the origins of the title rajah sipad originated from the Hindu sri pada, which symbolises authority.[22] The principality was instituted and governed using the system of rajahs. Sipad the Older was succeeded by Sipad the Younger.

Some Chams who migrated to Sulu were called Orang Dampuan.[23][unreliable source?] The Champa civilization and the port-kingdom of Sulu engaged in commerce with each other which resulted in merchant Chams settling in Sulu, where they were known as Orang Dampuan in the 10th–13th centuries. In contrast to their cousins in the Butuan Rajahnate, who considered themselves diplomatic competitors of Champa for China trade,[24] (under Butuan's Rajah Kiling); instead, Sulu freely traded with the Champa civilization. The Orang Dampuans from Champa however were eventually slaughtered by envious native Sulu Buranuns due to the wealth of the Orang Dampuan.[25] The Buranun were then subjected to retaliatory slaughter by the Orang Dampuan. Harmonious commerce between Sulu and the Orang Dampuan was later restored.[26] The Yakans were descendants of the Taguima-based Orang Dampuan who came to Sulu from Champa.[27] Sulu received civilization in its Indic form from the Orang Dampuan.[28]

During the reign of Sipad the Younger, a Sunni Sufi scholar and mystic[29] named Tuan Mashā′ikha[note 3] arrived in Jolo in 1280 CE.[note 4] Little is known to the origins and early biography of Tuan Mashā′ikha, except that he is a Muslim "who came from foreign lands" at the head of a fleet of Muslim traders,[31] or he was issued from a stalk of bamboo and was considered a prophet, thus well respected by the people.[32] Other reports, however, insisted that Tuan Mashā′ikha together with his parents, Jamiyun Kulisa and Indra Suga, were sent to Sulu by Alexander the Great (who is known as Iskandar Zulkarnain in Malay Annals).[22] However, Najeeb Mitry Saleeby, a Lebanese American doctor who wrote A History of Sulu in 1908 and other studies of the Moros, dismisses this claim by concluding that Jamiyun Kulisa and Indra Suga were mythical names.[32] According to tarsila, during the coming of Tuan Mashā′ikha, the people of Maimbung worshipped tombs and stones of any kind. After he preached Islam in the area, he married Sipad the Younger's daughter, Idda Indira Suga, who bore three children:[33] Tuan Hakim, Tuan Pam and 'Aisha. Tuan Hakim, in turn, begot five children.[34] From the genealogy of Tuan Mashā′ikha, another titular system of aristocracy called "tuanship" started in Sulu. Apart from the Idda Indira Suga, Tuan Mashā′ikha also married another "unidentified woman" and begot Moumin. Tuan Mashā′ikha died in 710 A.H. (equivalent to 1310 AD), and was buried in Bud Dato near Jolo, with an inscription of Tuan Maqbālū.[35]

A descendant of the Sunni Sufi Shaykh Tuan Mashā′ikha named Tuan May also begot a son named Datu Tka. The descendants of Tuan May did not assume the title of tuan, but instead, used datu. This was the first time datu was used as a political institution.[33][36] During the coming of Tuan Mashā′ikha, the Tagimaha people (literally means "the party of the people") from Basilan and several places in Mindanao, also arrived and settled in Buansa. After the Tagimaha came the Baklaya people, (which means "seashore dwellers"), who are believed to have originated from Sulawesi, and settled in Patikul. After these came the Bajau people (or Samal) from Johor. The Bajau were driven towards Sulu by a heavy monsoon, some of them to the shores of Brunei and others to Mindanao.[37] The population of Buranun, Tagimaha, and Baklaya in Sulu created three parties with distinct systems of government and subjects. In the 1300s the Chinese annals, Nanhai zhi, reported that Brunei invaded or administered the Philippine kingdoms of Butuan, Sulu and Ma-i (Mindoro), which did not regain their independence until later date.[38] According to the Nagarakretagama, the Majapahit Empire under Emperor Hayam Wuruk invaded Sulu in 1365. However in 1369, the Sulus rebelled and regained independence and in vengeance assaulted the Majapahit Empire and its province Po-ni (Brunei), as well as the northeast coast of Borneo[39] and thereafter went to the capital, looting it of treasure and gold. In the sacking of Brunei, the Sulus stole two sacred pearls from the Bruneian king.[40] A fleet from the Majapahit capital succeeded in driving away the Sulus, but Po-ni was left weaker after the attack.[41] Since Chinese historiographies later recorded there to be a Maharaja of Sulu, it is assumed that the Majapahit did not take it back, and it was a rival to it. By 1390 CE, Rajah Baguinda Ali, a prince of the Pagaruyung Kingdom, arrived at Sulu and married into the local nobility. At least in 1417, when Sulu rivaled Majapahit according to Chinese annals, three kings (or monarchs) ruled three civilised kingdoms in the island.[42] Patuka Pahala (Paduka Batara) ruled the eastern kingdom (Sulu Archipelago) -- he was the most powerful; the western kingdom was ruled by Mahalachi (Maharajah Kamal ud-Din), ruler of Kalimantan in Indonesia; and the kingdom near the cave (or Cave King) was Paduka Patulapok from Palawan Island.[43] The Bajau settlers were distributed among the three kingdoms. During this time, Sulu avenged itself for Majapahit Imperialism by encroaching upon the Majapahit Empire as the alliance of the three Sulu kings had territory that reached East and North Kalimantan, which were former Majapahit provinces.[44]

Moumin's descendants the son of Tuan Mashā′ikha populated Sulu.[clarification needed] After some time, a certain Timway Orangkaya Su'il was mentioned by the second page of tarsila; he received four Bisaya slaves (people from the Kedatuan of Madja-as) from Manila (presumably Kingdom of Maynila) as a sign of friendship between the two countries. The descendants of Su'il also inherited the title Timway, which means "chief". On tarsila's third page, it accounts the fact that the slaves were the ancestors of the inhabitants in the island to Parang, Lati, Gi'tung, and Lu'uk respectively.

The fourth page then narrates the coming of the Buranun (addressed in the tarsila as "the Maimbung people"), Tagimaha, Baklaya, and finally the drifted Bajau immigrants from Johor.[45] The condition of Sulu before the arrival of Islam can be summarised as such: The island was inhabited by several cultures, and was reigned over by three independent kingdoms ruled by the Buranun, Tagimaha, and Baklaya peoples. Likewise, the socio-political systems of these kingdoms were characterised by several distinct institutions: rajahship, datuship, tuanship and timwayship. The arrival of Tuan Mashā′ikha afterwards established a core Islamic community in the island.

Islamisation and establishment

See also: Islam in the Philippines

Main article: List of Sultans of Sulu

The Sulu Archipelago was an entrepôt that attracted merchants from south China and various parts of Southeast Asia beginning in the 14th century.[46] The name "Sulu" is attested in Chinese historical records as early as 1349,[47] during the late Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), suggesting trade relations around this time.[48] Trade continued into the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644); envoys were sent in several missions to China to trade and pay tribute to the emperor. Sulu merchants often exchanged goods with Chinese Muslims, and also traded with Muslims of Arab, Persian, Malay, or Indian descent.[46] Islamic historian Cesar Adib Majul argues that Islam was introduced to the Sulu Archipelago in the late 14th century by Chinese and Arab merchants and missionaries from Ming China.[47][48] The seven Arab missionaries were called "Lumpang Basih" by the Tausug, and were Sunni Sufi scholars from the Ba 'Alawi sada of Yemen.[49]

Around this time, a notable Arab judge, Sunni Sufi and religious scholar Karim ul-Makhdum[note 5] from Mecca arrived in Malacca. He preached Islam, particularly the Ash'ari Aqeeda and Shafi'i Madh'hab as well as the Qadiriyya Tariqa, and many citizens, including the ruler of Malacca, converted to Islam]].[50] Sulu leader Paduka Pahala and his sons moved to China, where he died. Chinese Muslims brought up his sons in Dezhou, where their descendants live and have the surnames An and Wen. In 1380 CE,[note 6] Karim ul-Makhdum arrived in Simunul island from Malacca, again with Arab traders. Apart from being a scholar, he operated as a trader; some see him as a Sufi missionary from Mecca.[51] He preached Islam, and was accepted by the core Muslim community. He was the second person to preach Islam in the area, after Tuan Mashā′ikha. To facilitate conversion of nonbelievers, he established a mosque in Tubig-Indagan, Simunul, the first Islamic temple to be constructed in the area, or in the Philippines. This later became known as the Sheik Karimal Makdum Mosque.[52] He died in Sulu, although the exact location of his grave is unknown. In Buansa, he was known as Tuan Sharif Awliyā.[22] On his alleged grave in Bud Agad, Jolo, an inscription reads "Mohadum Aminullah Al-Nikad". In Lugus, he is referred to as Abdurrahman. In Sibutu, he is known by his name.[53]

The differing beliefs about his grave's location came about because the Qadiri Shaykh Karim ul-Makhdum travelled to several islands in the Sulu Sea to preach Islam. In many places in the archipelago, he was beloved. It is said that the people of Tapul built a mosque honouring him and that they claim descent from Karim ul-Makhdum. The customs, beliefs and political laws of the people changed and adapted to adopt the Islamic tradition.[54]

Sulu abruptly stopped sending tributes to the Ming in 1424.[48] Antonio Pigafetta recorded in his journals that the sultan of Brunei invaded Sulu to retrieve the two sacred pearls Sulu had previously pillaged from Brunei.[55] A sultan of Brunei, Sultan Bolkiah married a princess (dayang-dayang) of Sulu, Puteri Laila Menchanai, and they became the grandparents of the Muslim prince of Maynila, Rajah Matanda. Manila was a Muslim city-state and vassal to Brunei before the Spanish colonized it and converted it from Islam to Christianity.[citation needed] Islamic Manila ended after the failed attack of Tarik Sulayman, a Muslim Kapampangan commander, in the failure of the Conspiracy of the Maharlikas, when the formerly Muslim Manila nobility attempted a secret alliance with the Japanese shogunate and Bruneiean sultanate (together with her Manila and Sulu allies) to expel the Spaniards from the Philippines.[56] Many Tausugs and other native Muslims of Sulu Sultanate already interacted with Kapampangan and Tagalog Muslims called Luzones based in Brunei, and there were intermarriages between them. The Spanish had native allies against the former Muslims they conquered like Hindu Tondo which resisted Islam when Brunei invaded and established Manila as a Muslim city-state to supplant Hindu Tondo.

Maritime power

Main article: Piracy in the Sulu Sea

An Iranun pirate.

The Sulu sultanate became notorious for its so-called "Moro Raids" or acts of piracy on Spanish settlements in the Visayan areas with the aim of capturing slaves and other goods from these coastal towns. Tausug pirates used boats known collectively by Europeans as proas (predominantly the lanong and garay warships), which varied in design and were much lighter than the Spanish galleons and could easily out-sail these ships, and also often carried large swivel guns or lantaka and also carried a crew of pirates from different ethnic groups throughout Sulu, such as the Iranun, Bajaus and Tausugs alike. By the 18th century, Sulu pirates had become virtual masters of the Sulu seas and the surrounding areas, wreaking havoc on Spanish settlements.[57] This prompted the Spaniards to build a number of fortifications[58] across the Visayan islands of Cebu and Bohol; churches were built on higher ground, and watchtowers were built along coastlines to warn of impending raids.

The maritime supremacy of Sulu was not directly controlled by the sultan; independent datus and warlords waged their own wars against the Spaniards and even with the capture of Jolo on numerous occasions by the Spaniards, other settlements like Maimbung, Banguingui and Tawi-Tawi were used as assembly areas and hideouts for pirates.

The sultanate's control over the Sulu seas was at its height around the late 17th to early 18th centuries when Moro raids became very common for the Visayans and Spaniards.

In Sulu and in the Mindanao interior, the slave trade flourished and majority of the slaves that were being imported and exported were of Visayan ethnicity; the term Bisaya eventually became synonymous to "slave" in these areas. Its maritime supremacy over the Spaniards, at the time, the Spaniards acquired steam-powered ships that began to curb Muslim piracy in the region, the Moro piratical raids began to decrease in number until Governor Narciso Clavería launched the Balanguingui expedition in 1848 to crush the pirate settlements there, effectively ending the Moro pirate raids. By the last quarter of the 19th century, Moro pirates had virtually disappeared and the maritime influence of the sultanate became dependent on the Chinese junk trade.

Spanish and British annexations

(Left) The first concession treaty was signed by Sultan Abdul Momin of Brunei on 29 December 1877, appointing Baron de Overbeck as the Maharaja Sabah, Rajah Gaya and Sandakan.[59]
(Right) The second concession treaty was signed by Sultan Jamal ul-Azam of Sulu on 22 January 1878 also appointing Baron de Overbeck as Dato Bendahara and Raja Sandakan, approximately three weeks after signature of the first treaty.[60]

In the 18th century, Sulu's dominion covered most of northeastern part of Borneo. However areas like Tempasuk and Abai had never really shown much allegiance to its earlier ruler, Brunei, subsequently similar treatment was given to Sulu. Alexander Dalrymple, who made a treaty of allegiance in 1761 with Sulu, had to make a similar agreement with the rulers of Tempasuk and Abai on the north Borneo coast in 1762.[61] The Sultanate of Sulu totally gave up its domain over Palawan to Spain in 1705 and Basilan to Spain in 1762. The territory ceded to Sulu by Brunei initially stretched south to Tapean Durian (now Tanjong Mangkalihat) (another source mentioned a southernmost boundary at Dumaring),[62] near the Straits of Macassar (now Kalimantan). From 1726 to 1733, the Sulu sultanate restarted their tributary relationship with China, now the Qing Empire, about 300 years after it had ended.[63]

By 1800–1850, the areas gained from Brunei had been effectively controlled by the Sultanate of Bulungan in Kalimantan, reducing the boundary of Sulu to a cape named Batu Tinagat and the Tawau River.[64]

In 1848 and 1851, the Spanish launched attacks on Balanguingui and Jolo respectively. A peace treaty was signed on 30 April 1851[66] in which the sultan could only regain the capital if Sulu and its dependencies became a part of the Philippine Islands under the sovereignty of Spain. There were different understandings of this treaty; although the Spanish interpreted it as the sultan accepting Spanish sovereignty over Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, but the sultan took it as a friendly treaty amongst equals. These areas were only partially controlled by the Spanish, and their power was limited to military stations and garrisons and pockets of civilian settlements. This lasted until they had to abandon the region as a consequence of their defeat in the Spanish–American War. On 22 January 1878, an agreement was signed between the Sultanate of Sulu and British commercial syndicate of (Alfred Dent and Baron de Overbeck), which stipulated that North Borneo was either ceded or leased (depending on translation used) to the British in return for payment of five thousand Malayan dollars per year.[67][68]

On 22 April 1903, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II signed a document known as "Confirmation of cession of certain islands", in which he granted and ceded additional islands in the neighbourhood of the mainland of North Borneo from Banggi Island to Sibuku Bay to the British North Borneo Company. The confirmatory deed of 1903 makes it known and understood between the two parties that the islands mentioned were included in the cession of the districts and islands mentioned on 22 January 1878 agreement. Additional cession money was set at 300 dollars a year with arrears due for past occupation of 3,200 dollars. The originally agreed 5,000 dollars increased to 5,300 dollars per year payable annually.[70][71][72][note 7]

Madrid Protocol

Sultan Jamalul Kiram II with William Howard Taft of the Philippine Commission in Jolo, Sulu (27 March 1901)

The Sulu sultanate later came under the control of Spain in Manila. In 1885, Great Britain, Germany, and Spain signed the Madrid Protocol to cement Spanish influence over the islands of the Philippines. In the same agreement, Spain relinquished all claim to North Borneo which had belonged to the sultanate in the past to the British government.[73]

The Spanish Government renounces, as far as regards the British Government, all claims of sovereignty over the territories of the continent of Borneo, which belong, or which have belonged in the past to the Sultan of Sulu (Jolo), and which comprise the neighbouring islands of Balambangan, Banguey, and Malawali, as well as all those comprised within a zone of three maritime leagues from the coast, and which form part of the territories administered by the Company styled the "British North Borneo Company".

— Article III, Madrid Protocol of 1885


Main articles: Moro Rebellion, Battle of Bayan, First Battle of Bud Dajo, Second Battle of Bud Dajo, Battle of Bud Bagsak, and Kiram-Bates Treaty

Datu Amil (sitting left), an influential leader of the Tausūgs in discussion with Captain W.O. Reed, US 6th Cavalry Regiment during the American Moro Campaigns. Amil was later killed by the Americans which marking the starting end of the sovereignty of the Sulu Sultanate when the Americans relinquished their powers until the end of the last battle with the Moros in which their region fell under the American rules.[74][75]
Darul Jambangan (Palace of Flowers) in Maimbung, Sulu before it was destroyed by a typhoon in 1932. It used to be the largest royal palace built in the Philippines. A campaign to faithfully re-establish it in Maimbung town has been ongoing since 1933. A very small replica of the palace was made in a nearby town in the 2010s, but it was noted that the replica does not mean that the campaign to reconstruct the palace in Maimbung has stopped as the replica does not manifest the true essence of a Sulu royal palace. In 2013, Maimbung was officially designated as the royal capital of the Sultanate of Sulu by the remaining members of the Sulu royal family. Almost all Sulu royals who have died since the 19th century up to the present have been buried around the palace grounds.[76][77][78][79]

The sultanate's political power was relinquished in March 1915 after American commanders negotiated with Sultan Jamalul Kiram II on behalf of Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison. An agreement was subsequently signed, called the "Carpenter Agreement". By this agreement, the sultan relinquished all political power over territory within the Philippines (except for certain specific land granted to Sultan Jamalul Kiram II and his heirs), with the religious authority as head of Islam in Sulu.[20][80]


Status within the Philippines

In 1962, the Philippine government under the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal officially recognised the continued existence of the Sultanate of Sulu.[81] It has been asserted that Macapagal was a cousin of the Sulu sultan due to his royal descent tracing to Lakandula of Tondo,[82][unreliable source?][83][84] Lakandula was the uncle of the Muslim king of Manila, Rajah Sulayman,[82] and they had a grandmother from Sulu in the person of the Tausug princess, Laila Mechanai, wife of Sultan Bolkiah of Brunei and ancestor of Rajah Matanda and Rajah Sulayman of Manila.[82] On 24 May 1974, the reign of Sultan Mohammed Mahakuttah Kiram began and lasted until 1986. He was the last officially recognized Sulu sultan in the Philippines, having been recognized by President Ferdinand Marcos.


After the death of Mahakuttah A. Kiram, the Philippine national government has not formally recognised a new sultan. Mahakutta's crown prince Muedzul Lail Kiram, the heir to the throne according to the line of succession as recognised by the Philippine governments from 1915 to 1986, was 20 years old upon his father's death.[85] Due to his young age, he failed to claim the throne in a time of political instability in the Philippines that led to the peaceful revolution and subsequent removal of President Marcos. The gap in the sultanate leadership was filled by claimants of rival branches. Therefore, the succeeding claimants to the sultanship were not crowned with the support of the Philippine government nor received formal recognition from the national government as their predecessors had until 1986. However, the Philippine national government decided to deal with one or more of the sultan claimants regarding issues concerning the sultanate’s affairs.[citation needed]

Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram claims that he is the legitimate successor as the 35th sultan of Sulu based on Memorandum Order 427 of 1974, in which former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos recognised his father, Mahakuttah A. Kiram, as the sultan of Sulu.[86][87]

North Borneo dispute

Main article: North Borneo dispute

W. C. Cowie, managing director of BNBC with the sultan of Sulu.

The dispute is based on a territorial claim by the Philippines since the era of President Diosdado Macapagal over much of the eastern part of Sabah in Malaysia. Sabah was known as North Borneo prior to the formation of the Malaysian federation in 1963. The Eastern Sabah territory was allegedly gifted by the Brunei Sultanate to the Sulu Sultanate due to Sulu intervention in the Brunei Civil War. However Brunei historian Leigh R. Wright has claimed that Sulu never really provided assistance during the civil war.[88][89] The Philippines, via the heritage of the Sultanate of Sulu, claim Sabah on the basis that Sabah was only leased to the British North Borneo Company with the sultanate's sovereignty never being relinquished. The dispute stems from the difference in the interpretation used on an agreement signed between Sultanate of Sulu and the British commercial syndicate (Alfred Dent and Baron von Overbeck) in 1878, which stipulated that North Borneo was either ceded or leased (depending on translation used) to the British chartered company in return for payment of 5,000 dollars per year. Malaysia views the dispute as a "non-issue", as it not only considers the agreement in 1878 as one of cession, but it also deems that the residents had exercised their act of self-determination when they joined to form the Malaysian federation in 1963.[90][91] As reported by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the independence of North Borneo was brought about as the result of the expressed wish of the majority of the people of the territory as supported by the findings of the Cobbold Commission.[92]

Moreover, a later 1903 Confirmation of Cession agreement between the sultan of Sulu and the British government, has provided reaffirmation regarding the understanding of the sultan of Sulu on the treaty in 1878, i.e. it is of the form of a cession.[93][94] Throughout the British administration of North Borneo, the British government continued to make the annual "cession money" payment to the sultan and its heir and these payments were expressly shown in the receipts as "cession money".[95] In a 1961 conference in London, a Philippine and British panel met to discuss the Philippine claim to North Borneo, the British informed the Congressman Salonga that the wording of the receipts had not been challenged by the sultan or his heirs.[95] During a meeting of Maphilindo between the Philippine, Malayan and Indonesian governments in 1963, the Philippine government said the sultan of Sulu wanted the payment of 5,000 from the Malaysian government.[19] The first Malaysian Prime Minister at the time, Tunku Abdul Rahman said he would go back to Kuala Lumpur and get on the request.[19] Since then, the Malaysian Embassy in the Philippines issues a cheque in the amount of RM5,300 (approx. 77,000 or US$1,710) to the legal counsel of the heirs of the sultan of Sulu. Malaysia considers the settlement an annual "cession payment" for the disputed state, while the sultan's descendants consider it "rent".[96] These payments however have been stopped as of 2013 in light of the attempted invasion of Sabah since Malaysia viewed that as an act of violation of the 1903 Confirmation of Cession agreement and its earlier 1878 agreement.[97]

Republic Act 5446 in the Philippines, which took effect on 18 September 1968, regards Sabah as a territory "over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty".[98] On 16 July 2011, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that the Philippine claim over Sabah is retained and may be pursued in the future.[99] As of 10 May 2018, Malaysia maintains that their Sabah claim is a non-issue and non-negotiable, thereby rejecting any calls from the Philippines to resolve the matter in the International Court of Justice. Sabah authorities sees the claim made by the Philippines' Moro leader Nur Misuari to take Sabah to International Court of Justice as a non-issue and thus dismissed the claim.[100]

In February 2022, an international court ruled that Malaysia had violated a treaty signed in 1878 of annual cession payment and would have to pay at least US$14.92 billion (RM62.59 billion) to the descendants of the Sulu sultan, which Malaysia ceased payment in 2013 as it deemed that the Sulu counterpart had first violated the treaty through the 2013 Sabah incursion. The award was reportedly issued in an arbitration court in Paris, France by Spanish arbitrator Gonzalo Stampa.[101] In March 2022, Malaysia filed an application to annul the final award over claims by Sulu sultan’s heirs since the appointment of Stampa had itself been annulled by Madrid High Court in June 2021, rendering any decisions by him to be invalid including the 2022 award.[102] Lawyers for the heirs indicated that they will seek the award’s recognition and execution, citing a 1958 U.N. Convention on Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.[103][104] In July 2022, court bailiffs in Luxembourg served Petronas Azerbaijan (Shah Denis) and Petronas South Caucus with a "saiseie-arret," or a size order or behalf of descendants of the Sulu sultan. Petronas said it would defend its legal position.[105]

In June 2023, the Paris Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Malaysian Government's appeal against the French arbitration court's 2022 decision to award US$15 billion to the claimants to the Sultanate of Sulu. The Court of Appeal also ruled that Stampa and the arbitration tribunal did not have jurisdiction over the case. In addition, the Court of Appeal annulled the US$15.9 billion award. The decision was welcomed by Malaysian law minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman.[106][107][108] Stampa also faces legal proceedings in Spain for ignoring the decisions of earlier Spanish courts. However, Stampa's award remains enforceable outside of France due to a United Nations treaty on international arbitration. The Sulu claimants have also filed claims to seize Malaysian assets in the Netherlands and Luxembourg.[107]

On 27 June 2023, a Dutch court of appeal dismissed a bid by the claimants to the Sultanate to enforce the US$15 billion arbitration award against the Malaysian Government. While the Malaysian Government welcomed the court's ruling, the Sulu heirs' lawyer Paul Cohen expressed disappointment.[109] On 9 November 2023, the Paris Court of Appeal dismissed legal attempts by the Sultanate's claimants to seize Malaysian diplomatic properties in Paris.[110] On 10 November, the Madrid Court filed criminal charges against Stampa over his role in handing the US$14.92 billion arbitration award to the eight Sulu claimants.[111] On 5 January 2024, Stampa was convicted for contempt of court.[112] He was sentenced to six months in prison and banned from acting as an arbitrator for one year for “knowingly disobeying rulings and orders from the Madrid High Court of Justice”.[113] According to Law360, the Spanish courts’ decision to move ahead with criminal proceedings against Stampa marked a significant “victory for the Malaysian government”.[114] On mid-May 2024, the Madrid Court of Appeal upheld the Madrid Criminal Court's 2023 judgement finding Stampa guilty of contempt of court.[115]

  Territory in the 1878 agreement – From the Pandassan River on the north west coast to the Sibuco River in the south.[116]


Outside the North Borneo dispute, the heirs and claimants of the Sulu sultanate have been involved in contemporary Philippine politics such as the lobbying for the creation of a constituent state called Zambasulta within the Philippines under a federal form of government.[117]


Weapons and slave trade

A Moro brass lantaka or swivel gun.

Chinese who lived in Sulu ran guns across a Spanish blockade to supply the Moro datus and sultanates with weapons to fight the Spanish, who were engaging in a campaign to subjugate the Moro sultanates on Mindanao. A trade involving the Moros selling slaves and other goods in exchange for guns developed. The Chinese had entered the economy of the sultanate, taking almost total control of the sultanate's economies in Mindanao and dominating the markets. Though the sultans did not like one group of people exercising exclusive control over the economy, they did business with them.

19th century illustration of a lanong, the main warships used by the Iranun and Banguingui people of the navies of the sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao for piracy and slave raids

The Chinese set up a trading network between Singapore, Zamboanga, Jolo and Sulu. The Chinese sold small arms like Enfield and Spencer Rifles to the Buayan Datu Uto. They were used to battle the Spanish invasion of Buayan. The datu paid for the weapons in slaves.[118] The population of Chinese in Mindanao in the 1880s was 1,000. The Chinese ran guns across a Spanish blockade to sell to Mindanao Moros. The purchases of these weapons were paid for by the Moros in slaves in addition to other goods. The main group of people selling guns were the Chinese in Sulu. The Chinese took control of the economy and used steamers to ship goods for exporting and importing. Opium, ivory, textiles, and crockery were among the other goods which the Chinese sold.

The Chinese on Maimbung sent the weapons to the Sulu sultanate, who used them to battle the Spanish and resist their attacks. A Chinese-Mestizo was one of the sultan's brothers-in-law, the sultan was married to his sister. He and the sultan both owned shares in the ship (named the Far East) which helped smuggle the weapons.[118] The Spanish launched a surprise offensive under Colonel Juan Arolas in April 1887 by attacking the sultanate's capital at Maimbung in an effort to crush resistance. Weapons were captured and the property of the Chinese were destroyed while the Chinese were deported to Jolo.[118]

Pearling industry

A painting from 1880s depicting Sultan Jamal ul-Azam having a conversation with the French visitors.

After the destruction of the pirate haunts of Balanguingui effectively ending the centuries of slave raids, which the Sulu sultanate's economy had so depended on, along with the economy of mainland Mindanao, the sultanate's economy experienced a sharp decline as slaves became more inaccessible and the islands' agricultural produce wasn't enough, thus it became dependent on the Mindanao interior even for rice and produce.[119] The Spaniards thought they had dealt the death blow for the sultanate when they captured Jolo in 1876, rather, the sultanate's capital and economic and trading hub was moved to Maimbung on the other side of the island. Up until the American occupation, this was the residence and economic centre of Sulu. This is where the Sultan Jamalul Kiram II and his adviser Hadji Butu began the Sulu pearling industry to increase the sultan's wealth, they organised the Sulu pearling fleet. The sultan's pearling fleet was active way into the early 20th century, when in 1910, the sultan reportedly sold a single giant pearl in London for $100,000.[citation needed]


Social class system

Among the people of the Sultanate of Sulu, nobility could be acquired only by lineage, a closed hereditary system.

Sulu vessel carrying pilgrims to Mecca, 1899.

The two main social classes of the sultanate were:[120]

Commoners or maharlika do not trace their descent from royalty. The Wakil Kesultan's, Panglimas, Parkasa's and Laksaman's who are commoners hold responsible positions involving administrative matters.

The males who hold the offices above are addressed by the title of nobility tuan (the title is directly attached to the office), followed by the rank of the office they hold, their given name, surname and region. The females who hold offices above shall be addressed by the title of nobility Sitti (the title is directly attached to the office), followed by the rank of the office they hold, their given name, surname and region.

A very large part of the Sulu society, as well as in the Sultanate of Maguindanao were slaves captured from slave raids or bought from slave markets. They were known as the bisaya, reflecting their most common origin – the Christianized Visayans from Spanish territories in the Philippines – although they also included captured slaves from other ethnic groups throughout Southeast Asia. They were also known as banyaga, ipun, or ammas. It is estimated that as much as 50% of the population of Sulu in the 1850s were bisaya slaves and they dominated the Sulu economy. For the most part, they were treated like commoners, with their own houses and were responsible for cultivating farms and fisheries of Tausug nobility. But there were harsh punishments for attempts to escape, and a large number of the slaves were sold to European, Chinese, Makassar, and Bugis slavers in the Dutch East Indies.[121][122]

Visual arts

Main article: Okir

A kutiyapi (lute) from Mindanao bearing Ukkil motifs.

The Sultanate of Sulu, along with the rest of Mindanao, has a long tradition of decorative arts known as okir or ukkil. Ukkil is the Tausug word for "wood carving" or "engraving". The Tausug and Maranao peoples traditionally carved and decorated their boats, houses and even grave markers with ukkil carvings. Aside from wood carvings, ukkil motifs were found on various clothing in the Sulu archipelago. Ukkil motifs tend to emphasise geometric patterns and a flowing design, with floral and leaf patterns as well as folk elements. The Tausug also decorated their weapons with these motifs, and various kris and barong blades have finely decorated handles as well as blades covered in floral patterns and the like.[123] Bronze lantaka also bear some ukkil patterns.


A yellow-colored flag was used in Sulu by the Chinese.[124]

See also


  1. ^ According to WH Scott that followed the Ash'ari aqeeda and Shafi'i Fiqh from their Ba 'Alawi sada ancestors. Even though the sultanate was ruled by Tausūg people, the subjects of the kingdom were a mix of Butuanon, Samal and Malays.[4]
  2. ^ The generally accepted date of the establishment of the sultanate by modern historians is 1457. However, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines list the date as "around 1450", or simply "1450s",[6] due to uncertainty. On the other hand, independent Muslim studies marked the day to a more exact date 17 November 1405 (24th of Jumada al-awwal, 808 AH).[7][8]
  3. ^ Mashā′ikha is an Arabic term which originated from mashā′ikh, which means "an intelligent or pious man".
  4. ^ The generally accepted date for the coming of Tuan Mashā′ikha is 1280 CE, however, other Muslim scholars dated his coming only as second half of the 13th century".[30]
  5. ^ Also Karimul Makhdum, Karimal Makdum or Makhdum Karim among others. Makhdum came from the Arabic word makhdūmīn, which means "master".
  6. ^ Another uncertain date in Philippine Islamic history is the year of arrival of Karim ul-Makhdum. Though other Muslim scholars place the date as simply "the end of 14th century", Saleeby calculated the year as 1380 AD corresponding to the description of the tarsilas, in which Karim ul-Makhdum's coming is ten years before Rajah Baguinda's. The 1380 reference originated from the event in Islamic history when a huge number of makhdūmīn started to travel to Southeast Asia from India. See Ibrahim's "Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia."
  7. ^ The Confirmatory Deed of 1903 must be viewed in the light of the 1878 Agreement. The British North Borneo Company entered into a Confirmatory Deed with the Sultanate of Sulu in 1903, thereby confirming and ratifying what was done in 1878.


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Media related to Sultanate of Sulu at Wikimedia Commons

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