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The Structure of Slavery in the Sulu Zone in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Warren, J.F. (2003) The Structure of Slavery in the Sulu Zone in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Slavery & Abolition, 24 (2). pp. 111-128.

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At the end of the eighteenth century, the world economic system came to dominate the Sulu Sultanate and its surrounding areas. The island of Jolo became an entrepot and the Sulu Sultanate flourished. This prosperity was made possible by economic interconnections between British India, South- East Asia and China. At that time in England, tea replaced ale as the national drink. Most of this aromatic tea was cultivated in the mountains of Fujian, China. The south Fukienese people who controlled the Amoy trading network on the South China coast had maintained contact with the Sulu Sultanate and eastern parts of the archipelago since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Because of this contact, the dominant ethnic group, the Taosug, had an initial outlet for their marine and forest products, especially trepang, pearls and birds' nest, which the junks carried on the return trip to China. When the British realized that they could participate in the Sino-Sulu trade, they also sought these Sulu zone exports.'

Among the richest sources of such products were the shores and wilderness along the northeast coast of Borneo. Kenyah and Kayan speakers of Borneo's east coast tropical forests and the Subanun of Mindanao's southern plateau were increasingly drawn into trade with the Taosug. They provided enormous amounts of wax, camphor and birds' nest in exchange for salt, textiles and other manufactured goods. At first, trepang was traded for cloth, clothing, iron and other metals; later, for gunpowder, musket and cannon. Guns, gunpowder and other imported products, including textiles and opium became very important to Sulu.

The efforts of ambitious datus, Taosug aristocrats, to participate in this burgeoning world-capitalist economy swelled the flow of global-regional trade and forced up the demand for additional labour, which was met by Iranun and Samal Balangingi slave raiders of the Sulu zone. From the end of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth centuries, South-East Asia felt the full force of these slave raiders who earned a reputation as daring, fierce marauders who jeopardized the maritime trade routes of South-East Asia and dominated the capture and transport of slaves to the Sulu Sultanate.* Tens of thousands of captives from across South-East Asia were seized by these sea raiders and put to work in the zone's fisheries, in the sultan's birds' nest caves, or in the cultivation of rice and transport of goods to markets. More than anything else it was this source and use of labour power that was to give Sulu its distinctive predatory character in the eyes of nineteenth-century Europeans.

It was powerful economic forces, energized by world commerce demands for a range of products, that pushed the Taosug aristocracy to acquire increasing numbers of slaves. In order to trade, it was necessary for the Taosug to have something to give in exchange and the only way to obtain commodities was to secure more slaves by means of long-distance maritime raiding. In the early nineteenth century, the rate of growth of the sultanate's population had not kept pace with its expanding international trade economy. Since the labour of slaves made global-regional trade possible, slavery rose markedly from this time and became the dominant mode of production.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Asian Studies
Publisher: Routledge
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