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The Saga of the Sulu Sultanate

Posted by AhlussuluK on April 9, 2014

The Saga of the Sulu Sultanate and its claims over North Borneo

in Main Story
Published Date
by Abdullah Gabriel

Editors’ Note: The following story on the Sultanate of Sulu does not reflect the stand of this publication. Rather, the Philippines Graphic aims to give all the claimants to the Sulu Sultanate space to share their thoughts on the matter. The Philippines Graphic has kept close watch and written stories on the Sultanate of Sulu since 2002. The editors believe that following this story is significant to the overall pursuit of peace in the Mindanao region. And so the saga continues…

Raja Muda (Crown Prince) Agbimuddin Kiram, accompanied by numerous members of the Sultanate Royal Security Force, entered North Borneo on Feb. 12. Malaysian authorities consider Kiram and his security force to be “intruders” in the territory.

The Sultanate of Sulu, under the leadership of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, Sultan “Bantilan” Esmail Kiram II, and Raja Muda (Crown Prince) Agbimuddin Kiram, had decided on November 11, 2012 to finally bring their constituents to the Sultanate’s domain of North Borneo (now renamed Sabah).

The long-disputed area, based on the claims of the Sultanate, had been under the “illegitimate possession” of the Federation of Malaysia since 1963.

If true, this puts Malaysia and the Philippines in a conundrum, with contradictory positions.  Let us review the historical and political background of this fascinating drama. Who has sovereign rights over North Borneo and what is the political background of this current dilemma?


Sulu and Borneo in the late 19th century

North Borneo was once a territory of the Sultanate of Brunei. Its lineage is intertwined with the royal dynasty of Sulu. It was ceded in the late 17th century to the Sultanate of Sulu as a grateful reward for the timely help of the Sultan of Sulu, a cousin of the Sultan of Brunei, in quelling a long and bloody rebellion.

That territorial patrimony embodied the sacrifices of their ancestors. Therefore, North Borneo, for reasons other than its geographical proximity to Sulu, is forever etched in the heart of Suluks (inhabitants of Sulu Archipelago) with immense emotional attachments and a constant reminder of Sultanate grandeur.

The first American agreement with the Sultanate of Sulu was inked in 1842, when an American captain named Charles Wilkes and Sultan Jamalul Kiram I (r: 1823-1844) signed a peace & trade treaty.

Unfortunately, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the power of the Sultanate declined dramatically.

In 1848 Spain, using steam-powered gunboats, destroyed the Banlangigi strongholds on Tongkil island and eventually decimated the sea power of the Sultanate.  Sultan Mohammad Pulalun (r:1844-1862) signed a treaty with Spain in 1851.

The Spaniards built a strong fort in Tetuan (now called Zamboanga City) and established a free port there to undermine trade with Sulu. The Spanish authorities then forbade direct trading with Sulu without registering first in Zamboanga. This Treaty of 1851, however, comes short, since Spanish control was mere gunboat diplomacy and was never honored by Britain, Germany or, even, by the Sultanate itself.


The Lease of North Borneo

In August of 1865 an American consul in Brunei, Claude Lee Moses, obtained a 10-year lease contract of North Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei which he then transferred to a British-registered company called American Trading Company of Borneo, which was composed of Americans J.W. Torrey and T.B. Harris, plus other American and Chinese merchants.

After three months Torrey, as president of the company, was also vested by the Sultan with powers and rights of governance. The company, using Chinese workmen and coolies from Hong Kong, started a settlement.  When their enterprise failed—most likely from lack of sufficient capital and poor public relations with locals—the company broke up and Torrey decided to sell his rights.

A certain Baron de Overbeck was, at that time, an Austrian consul in Hong Kong and a close business associate of the London-based Dent Brothers & Company.  When he heard in Hong Kong that Torrey of the American Trading Company of Borneo was selling his leasing rights and administrative powers, he immediately asked for a written agreement from Torrey for the sale and transfer of these rights and interests to him and his partners.

In 1875 Overbeck, together with Torrey, went to Brunei to verify the validity of these leasing and administrative rights.  He left satisfied and felt positive at the tit-for-tat attitude of the reigning Sultan of Brunei.

It was his positive report of leasing and administrative rights from Overbeck that prompted Alfred Dent and others to form the British North Borneo Provisional Association, Limited, the main object of which was to acquire territorial grants and administrative rights in North Borneo and to develop the resources in that area.

Shortly after the formation of the British North Borneo Provisional Association, Overbeck returned to Brunei to negotiate new grants of territory, powers, and administrative rights for the Association.

On Dec. 29, 1877 Overbeck received three territorial grants from the Sultan of Brunei and a fourth grant from the Pangeran Tumongong of Brunei, the Sultan’s heir apparent.  Besides these four instruments, Overbeck was also given a Royal Commission vesting him authoritative powers over the granted territories.

Since North Borneo at that time was being claimed by both the sultans of Sulu and Brunei, Overbeck found it expedient to also get a similar agreement from the Sultan of Sulu.

Overbeck went immediately to Sulu that January and offered Sultan Mohammad Jamalul A’lam $3,000 as annual lease (padjak in Tausug, the language of Sulu) for North Borneo. The Sultan demanded $8,000.

After a recess, Overbeck reportedly used the threat of an impending Spanish decimation of Sulu and stressed that the Sultan of Brunei would sooner or later recover North Borneo from him.

Pressured by Spain at his home-base and, hence, unable to reinforce his forces in North Borneo, Sultan Muhammad Jamalul A’lam finally relented on January 22, 1878 and leased the territory to Overbeck and his associates for an annual rent of $5,000.

A Royal Commission, similar to the commission given by Brunei, was granted to Overbeck designating him as Datu Bandahara and Rajah of Sandakan.


British North Borneo Company

Through the efforts of Overbeck, the British North Borneo Provisional Association received the three grants from the Sultan of Brunei and one grant from the Sultan of Sulu, a monumental task which he accomplished within the time-frame of less than a month.

To give the company more control over locals, British subjects, and foreigners residing in the area and to ensure British naval and consular protection, the Association applied for a British Charter, which was granted on Nov. 1, 1882.

Based on the grants and commissions given by the Sultans of Sulu and Brunei, the authority and administrative rights given to Overbeck and his company were deputed by the Sultans.  These instruments, however, did not involve a transfer of sovereignty. They were merely a delegation of authority so that the commercial activity of the company would proceed unhampered.

As explained by British Foreign Minister Earl Granville, “the Company derived their title to the possession of the territories… and their authority to administer the government of those territories by delegation from the Sultans.”

The British government by conferring the Charter, he explained in his January 1882 letter, “merely confers upon the persons associated the status and incidents of a body corporate, and recognizes the grants of territory and the powers of government made and delegated by the Sultans in whom the sovereignty remains vested.”

The sovereignty of North Borneo remained vested in the Sultan of Sulu and the Sultan of Brunei, who just delegated their sovereign powers to Overbeck and his company for reasons of expediency.

However, the Protectorate Agreement signed on May 12, 1888 between the British government and the British North Borneo Company indicated that the chartered company was illegally conducting itself as an independent sovereign.

The preamble of the agreement said: “Whereas by virtue of certain grants and commissions from the Sultans, Chiefs, and Rulers of the territories in North Borneo… all rights of sovereignty over the said territories are vested in the British North Borneo Company… and whereas the said territories are now governed and administered by the Company as an independent State, hereinafter referred to as the State of North Borneo.”

Article II of the Protectorate Agreement declared: “The State of North Borneo shall continue to be governed and administered as an independent State by the Company in conformity with the provisions of the said Charter, under the protection of Great Britain.”

The rights of sovereignty are stated in this Protectorate Agreement as vested in BNBC.  This is the biggest sham perpetrated by the British and BNBC.  This is clearly a power grab.  It is obviously bad faith on the part of BNBC to claim independent sovereignty and quite insidious of the British to accept North Borneo as a “protected State.”

Three years later in 1891 the Dutch and British governments officially set up the boundaries of the territories in Borneo. They signed an agreement defining the so-called “Netherlands possessions” vis-à-vis “British Protected States,” which were Sarawak, Brunei, and North Borneo.

The premise for BNBC’s sovereign pretension was that, because Spain had occupied Jolo in 1888 and was about to decimate the Sultanate of Sulu, and because it had already renounced claims of sovereignty over Borneo in the Madrid Protocol of 1885.

The chartered company could, therefore, safely assume sovereignty without fearing a backlash from an impotent Sulu Sultanate. BNBC was, indeed, anticipating at that time the Sultanate’s immediate dissolution.

In fact the political and military scenario was really critical for the Sultanate of Sulu. The death of Sultan Jamalul A’lam in 1881 and the ascension of his son Badarud Din (reigned: 1881-1884) created a succession struggle, which was not healed during the new Sultan’s short reign.  He died in 1884 and left a widow and a daughter, who would become the influential Dayang Dayang Piandao.

The sultanship in 1884 was disputed between Rajah Muda (crown prince) Amir-ul Kiram of Maimbung and Datu Ali-ud Din of Patikul.

However, the Spanish government, acting as a third power broker, installed on Sept. 24, 1886 Datu Harun-al Rashid as Sultan of Sulu. The following year Spain ordered the capture of Maimbung, prompting Amir-ul Kiram, who took the title Sultan Muhammad Jamalul Kiram II, to transfer the Sultanate court to Palawan.

Harun-al Rashid abdicated in 1893 after failing to save Maimbung, a failure that threw Spanish political designs in Sulu Archipelago into a shambles.

Political turmoil in Luzon and a creeping nationalist movement soon kept the Spaniards focused on preserving their base in Intramuros. From then on, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II reigned uncontested and slowly consolidated the power of the Sultanate.


America arrives

After a brief naval battle on May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey, commander of the United States Asiatic Squadron, defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay; the Fort at Intramuros thereafter surrendered to American forces.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, signed on Dec. 10, 1898 thereby ending the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded for $20 million the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine Islands to the United States of America.

Americans replaced Spanish troops on the fortified walls of Jolo, Sulu on May 1, 1899.

Three months later, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II signed a treaty with General John Bates on Aug. 20, 1899. Under this pact, the Sultan accepted American sovereignty in exchange for a yearly pension and local rule for the datus.

Known as the Bates Treaty (Senate Document No. 136, 56th Congress, lst Session, Serial 3851), it was opposed by General Leonard Woods as giving too much authority to datus; Bates Treaty was annulled by US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.

After a “Pacification campaign” waged against the short-lived Philippine Republic, which ended on March 23, 1901 with the capture of President Emilio Aguinaldo, a civilian government was established nationwide.

The American establishment of democratic institutions in the Philippines wreaked havoc on the Sultanate, despite it being the longest and strongest regal institution in the region.

By 1907 the Philippine Legislature was inaugurated and was soon dominated by politicians from Luzon and Visayas, with Sergio Osmena as Speaker and Manuel Quezon as Floor Leader.

When the policy of ultimate independence was officially announced in 1913, Philippine politics boiled. The shape and future political structure of the country became hot issues.

Will it be federal or unitary? What will happen to the Sulu Archipelago? Will it be separated or be joined with the new republic?

In 1913 the Department of Mindanao and Sulu was created and headed by Frank W. Carpenter. The governance of Sulu Archipelago fell into Carpenter’s hands. Besides Sultan Jamalul, he worked closely with Datu Haji Buto, the Sultanate Prime Minister, and with Dayang Dayang Piandao.

When the Bates Treaty was abrogated on March 21, 1904, a series of conferences ensued between Carpenter and Sultan Muhammad Jamalul Kiram II on what to replace it. A replacement agreement was announced on March 22, 1915 officially called the Memorandum Agreement Between the Governor General of the Philippine Islands and the Sultan of Sulu.

This was negotiated by Governor Carpenter so it was known as the Carpenter Agreement.  It declared: “the Sultan of Sulu is the titular spiritual head of the Mohammedan Church in the Sulu Archipelago with all the Mohammedan rights and privileges… including the right to solicit and receive voluntary popular contributions for the support of clergy rites and other necessary lawful expenses of an ecclesiastical character…  the Sultan of Sulu on his own account and in behalf of his adherents… without any reservation or limitation… ratifies and confirms his recognition of the sovereignty of the United States of America, and the exercise by His Excellency the Governor-General and the representative of that government in Mindanao and Sulu of all the attributes of sovereign government… including the adjudication by government courts or its other duly authorized officers.”

Since the Sultan’s recognition of US sovereignty was limited only to Sulu Archipelago, therefore, Sultanate sovereignty over North Borneo continues as it is. The Sultanate of Sulu is hence a religious entity in Sulu Archipelago but a sovereign entity vis-à-vis North Borneo.

In fact, whenever Sultan Jamalul Kiram II visited Sandakan he was always greeted with a 17-gun salute, a visible acknowledgement of his sovereign status.



Carpenter’s official correspondence proclaims that the following political items are understood by the US government:

1)The sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu was terminated only within Sulu Archipelago;

2)This termination of the Sultanate’s sovereignty in Sulu Archipelago has no prejudice or effect as to the Sultanate’s sovereignty in North Borneo; and,

3)North Borneo is held under lease by the chartered company called British North Borneo Company.

On Aug. 29, 1916 the US Congress passed the Philippine Autonomy Act, a law creating an independent Republic of the Philippines after a transition of 10 years as a Commonwealth.  An independent bicameral legislature was established, but executive powers remained in American control.  Manuel Quezon was elected Senate President and Sergio Osmena became House Speaker.

The Philippine Commonwealth was inaugurated on November 15, 1935. During this interim period, Quezon was elected President of the Republic of the Philippines. In Sulu, Dayang Dayang Piandao’s husband, Datu Omra Amilbangsa, served as a Senator of the new Commonwealth.

Did the Sultanate die with Sultan Jamalul Kiram?

How did the sovereign title of the Sultanate of Sulu end up as the “claimed property” of Britain and Malaysia?

When Sultan Mohammad Jamalul Kiram (Jamalul II) died on the 7th of June 1936, the Sultanate was divided over who would be his successor.  Dayang Dayang Piandao, daughter of Badarud Din and adopted by Jamalul II, immediately assumed the title “Acting Sultan” and disallowed Raja Muda Mawalil Wasit’s proclamation in Maimbung, the Sultanate capital.

Datu Mawalil Wasit was finally proclaimed Sultan on July 17, 1936 outside Maimbung and immediately sent a letter on July 21, 1936 to Jardine about his succession. On the 24th, Jardine telegraphed the British consul in Manila asking if the Commonwealth government has recognized Mawalil Wasit’s proclamation as Sultan of Sulu.

The acting British consul on July 28, 1936 wrote to Jardine that “the Philippine Government had decided not to recognise the continued existence of the Sultanate.”

Jardine considered this the coup de grace for the Sultanate of Sulu. “It is clear that whoever may eventually be established as the religious leader of the Mohammedan inhabitants of Sulu,” he wrote on Aug. 12, 1936 to the president of the BNBC in London, “will be merely a private citizen so far as Philippine law is concerned. In other words, the Sultanate of Sulu has ceased to exist in the eyes of the Government in whose territory it is situated; and, in these circumstances, all rights appertaining to the Sultan of Sulu have presumably either passed elsewhere or have been extinguished.”

Jardine continued to explain to the BNBC president that “as the sultanate has ceased to exist, the late Sultan has no successor to whom the cession money can be paid; but presumably he had an heir or heirs. If a will exists, as is believed, it will presumably reveal who the heir is: He will not necessarily be the person chosen by the Mohammedan inhabitants of Sulu to be their religious leader. If no will exists, the heir or heirs will presumably be the person or persons so designated by Mohammedan law and custom.  Any such person or persons should establish their claim to inheritance of the cession money in the courts of this country.”

Moreover, he advised that “it would be incorrect for this Government, in future, to style either the religious leader of the Mohammedan inhabitants of Sulu or the heir of the late Sultan as the ‘Sultan of Sulu’ or to accord him the salute of 17 guns prescribed by Circular No. 169.”

Sultan Mawalil Wasit died under suspicious circumstances on Nov. 21, 1936, thereby plunging the Sultanate into a deeper crisis. A messy tug-of-war ensued among would-be successors.


Sultanate’s twilight

Amid the succession struggle came the desire to receive the annual lease payment (BNBC calls it “cession money”), which was quite substantial at that time.

Many would-be heirs not in the line of succession were said to prefer to “end the Sultanate” and receive their share of inheritance.

This kind of mentality was egged on by BNBC to encourage the further breakup of the Sultanate of Sulu. As early as August of 1936 Jardine was suggesting that “as the sultanate has ceased to exist, the late Sultan has no successor to whom the cession money can be paid; but presumably he had an heir or heirs.”

In this letter, Jardine implied that giving “cession money” to the heirs would finalize the end of the Sultanate.  Many considered it a clever maneuver.

When the annual rental payment for the North Borneo lease that was customarily paid to the Sultanate was withheld by BNBC, the heirs of the late Sultan Jamalul Kiram II – Dayang Dayang Haji Piandao Kiram, Putli Tarhata Kiram, Putli Sakinur In Kiram, Mora Napsa, Datu Esmail Kiram, Datu Punjungan Kiram, Sitti Mariam Kiram, Sitti Rada Kiram and Sitti Putli Jahara Kiram –  filed a claim case before the High Court of the State of North Borneo.

After Wasit’s death, Datu Tembuyong of the Shakirullah royal line was proclaimed Sultan of Sulu in February 1937 and he took the title Sultan Jainal Abirin (r. 1937-1950). Datu Omra Amilbangsa, then a senator and the husband of Dayang Dayang Piandao, was also claiming the title of Sultan. Datu Mohamed Maolana was another contender.

The High Court of the State of North Borneo, under Chief Justice Macaskie, parroted the BNBC view that the sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu had passed to the Kingdom of Spain in the Treaty of 1851.

This sovereignty was, in turn, given in 1899 to the United States of America, which then transferred it to the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935.

The 1878 Lease Agreement was interpreted as a “Deed of Cession” and a “complete and irrevocable grant of territories” in which the Sultan obtained merely “the right to a money payment.”  Since the Philippine government, viewed by BNBC as “successors in sovereignty of the Sultan,” declined to accept the “cession monies” then “the claims of the private heirs are valid.”  Ergo, the private heirs were to be the recipients of the “cession monies.”

The only convincing argument was that given by Datu Mohamed Maolana, who was aspiring to be proclaimed sultan and was mindful of the sovereign interests of the Sultanate.

Maolana pointed out that the 1878 Lease Agreement was “an act of sovereignty and the monies payable should be paid only to the successors (of the Sultan).”

However, his argument had no chance before the North Borneo court because it had to follow the official view of the so-called North Borneo Government (BNBC was now acting as government).  Macaskie decided in favor of the private heirs.


War and Transition

The available historical documents on the matter indicate clearly that the 1878 lease agreement between the Sultanate of Sulu and the BNBC was not a complete and irrevocable grant.

“Padjak” literally means “lease” in the Tausug language. Once the grantee of the lease contract or his business associates no longer want to continue the commercial administration over the leased territory, then the Sultanate homeland will have to be restored to the sovereign personality to which it is vested – in this case, the Sultan of Sulu.

It is very clear that the Sultanate of Sulu has survived the attempts by the Spanish colonial authorities to subjugate Sulu.

Sultan Jamalul Kiram eventually was able to consolidate the Sultanate. He even signed a treaty with General John C. Bates of the United States Army in 1899.  Though this treaty was abrogated in 1904 he had signed another agreement with the United States government called the 1915 Carpenter Agreement.

Carpenter had clearly indicated that the sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu over North Borneo was not prejudiced or affected by the termination of its sovereignty in the Sulu Archipelago and that North Borneo is a dependency of the Sultanate of Sulu and “understood to be held under lease by the chartered company which is known as the British North Borneo Company.”

World War II plunged the Sultanate into another crisis.  Datu Esmail Kiram, a son of Wasit, became a guerilla and fought the Japanese invaders in his area.

The Japanese invasion and the ensuing war years also wrought havoc over the BNBC.  Right after the war, BNBC was no longer in a position to administer North Borneo; hence it executed a so-called North Borneo Agreement (Colonial Document No. 202, dated June 26, 1946) transferring its ill-gotten “NORTH BORNEO SOVEREIGN RIGHTS AND ASSETS” to the British Crown.

After the so-called North Borneo Agreement on June 26, 1946 the British government immediately issued on July 10 the North Borneo Cession Order In Council, annexing North Borneo as a Crown Colony and the natives therein as subjects of Britain.

The chartered company had no transfer of sovereign title to them. Therefore BNBC had no authority to transfer even an iota of “North Borneo sovereign rights and assets”  to anyone.


Redeeming North Borneo

On the July 9, 1963 a formal agreement was signed between Britain and Malaya for the transfer of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore.

This agreement came under protest from the Republic of the Philippines, which was then representing the Sulu Sultanate’s sovereign interest in North Borneo. The Federation of Malaysia was formally declared on Sept.  16, 1963. The newborn federation renamed North Borneo as the State of Sabah.

Before Malaysia incorporated the disputed North Borneo into its territorial bounds, Sultan Esmail Kiram I (r. 1950-1974) executed on Aug. 29, 1962 a Transfer of the Title of Sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu over the territory and inhabitants of North Borneo to the Republic of the Philippines.

Through this transfer document the Philippine government was legally authorized to pursue the North Borneo claim.

Embedded in this transfer document was a revocation clause:  “That should the REPUBLIC fail to RECOVER North Borneo after exhausting all peaceful means, this TRANSFER document shall IPSO FACTO become NULL and VOID and the SULTAN OF SULU shall be FREE to ASSERT his SOVEREIGNTY over North Borneo by means available to all SOVEREIGN CLAIMANTS.”

Due to the failure of the Philippine government to recover North Borneo over 27 years, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and the Sulu Sultanate’s Ruma Bechara (Royal Council) formally invoked the revocation clause on Feb. 12, 1989.

The leaders of the Sultanate of Sulu, from then on, have reclaimed the right to assert the sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu over North Borneo.


Light at tunnel’s end

“Let the media and diplomatic community be reminded,” said lawyer Liasin Omar Basa, chairman of the Ruma Bechara of the Sultanate, “that the Sultanate of Sulu never ended with the death of Sultan Jamalul Kiram II in 1936, as the British and Malaysian governments pretend.”

“The thorough succession of Sultans has continued up to the present. In fact, President Diosdado Macapagal accepted the Transfer of the Title of Sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu over the territory and inhabitants of North Borneo to the Republic of the Philippines, which was signed on Aug. 29, 1962. The acceptance of this transfer of title binds the Philippine government to acknowledge the Sultanate’s sovereign title over North Borneo,” Basa explained.

In Photo: (1) Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III, center, and brother Ismael Kiram II, right, listens as Hadja Celia Kiram, wife of Jamalul, speaks to reporters at his house in suburban Taguig. President Benigno Aquino III had asked Kiram to order his followers to withdraw as soon as possible from Malaysian land they claim as their own, warning of legal action against them and potential trouble.(AP Photo/Aaron Favila) (2) Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III, left, joins prayers at the Blue Mosque in Maharlika, Taguig. Kiram said his younger brother and about 500 relatives and followers, including at least 20 armed escorts, recently traveled from southern Philippines to resettle in eastern Sabah, which he said his royal clan owns. Malaysian police have surrounded the Filipinos in a Sabah coastal village. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

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