By Go Bon Juan
Sulu political relations and cooperation with China dated back to the Yuan dynasty (1278-1368). The Sulu missions convinced the Chinese to view Sulu as an equal of Malacca. With Chinese co-operation, Sulu subsequently became an international emporium. The Sulu missions had convinced the Chinese to view Sulu as an equal of Malacca. With Chinese co-operation, Sulu subsequently became an international emporium. In the beginning of Chapter XI, Patanne wrote: “Sulu entered Philippine history as a place-man in the Tao-I-Chih-Lioh of 1349, a compilation of countries and islands that traded with China put together by the traveler and trader, Wang Ta-yuan (Wang Dayuan) toward the end of the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368 AD). In Chapter XI, page 154, of Patanne’s book, “Sulu featured prominently in the annals of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), being among the first country in the Nanhai (the Chinese term for the South China Sea) to send a tribute mission to China in 1370, two years after the founding of the Ming dynasty; then again in 1372. Sulu continued to send tribute missions to China in 1416, 1420, 1421, 1423 1424.”
Since only foreign countries tributary to the Chinese court were allowed to enter Chinese ports, many countries or principalities in Malaysia sent tribute. Among these was Sulu. Sulu appears in Chinese sources as early as the Yuan dynasty (1278-1368), and a lengthy account of a tributary mission in 1417 from Sulu to the celestial court is recorded in the Ming Annals. Book 325 of the “History of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643) of China,” as abstracted by Groeneveldt, speaks of the Kings (Sultans) of Sulu as attacking Puni (Borneo) in 1368.
Sulu’s first tributary mission to China in AD 1417 may have been in response to the Ming court’s attention to these northern polities. Sulu’s lavishly equipped mission included three Sulu rulers with a retinue of more than three hundred. Three Sulu rulers presented themselves at court in 1417, and one, Paduka Batara, was given an imperial jade seal recognizing him as senior to the other two. Book 325 of the “History of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643) of China,” as abstracted by Groeneveldt, speaks of one of them (Batdra Paduka Paha-la) died on 13 September 1417 in Te-chou (Dezhou, Shandong Province) on the Grand Canal (Shantung Province). The Emperor then recognized his eldest son, Tumohan, as Sultan of Sulu, in 1417. The brother of Pahala, who was named Suli, made a visit to China in 1421. Sulu rulers sent four trade missions (” tributary missions” according to Chinese sources) to China from 1417 to 1424.
After the last of the Sulus left in 1424, Chinese records indicate no further Sulu tributary missions until the eighteenth century. Through the 1733 embassy, the Sulu Sultan made it known that his ancestor was the Sulu ruler who had sent tribute to China in 1417 and died there in Shantung that year.
With regard to Java, the Chinese intercourse with that country seems to have been fairly continuous from the fifth century down to the European period. The Madjapahit rulers, however, were always jealous of China’s relations with their dependencies, and on several occasions killed or maltreated imperial envoys to tributary states. This attitude was partly justified, in that Madjapahit’s dependencies often appealed to the Chinese Court to forbid Java from collecting tribute, and sometimes even secured imperial decrees to that effect. Among others, both Bruni and Sulu appear to have tried this scheme of playing off China against Java for their own benefit.
Despite frequent communication and commercial relations, a state of enmity or jealousy appears to have existed between Sulu and Bruni from very early times. This probably arose from the fact that Sulu’s Sri-Yishayan political allegiance was through Bandjarmasin rather than Bruni. The exact time of Madjapahit’s conquest of these two states has not yet been deterrrined, but it seems likely to have antedated the year 1350. It is possible that the conquest of Sulu was not so thorough as that of Bruni, and that the former took advantage of the latter’s temporary weakness. In any case, the first heard of Sulu in official Chinese history reads somewhat as follows:
“The country of Sulu is situated near Bruni and Java. Shortly after the year 1368 they attacked Bruni, where they made a large booty and only retired when Java came with soldiers to assist Bruni.” In the eighth month of the year 1370, the Emperor sent two officers to go abroad as envoys. After first visiting Java, they came to Bruni early in 1371 and suggested to the King of that country that he renew his relations with the Chinese Court. The King, Maha Mosa, was haughty and did not show them any politeness, but one of the envoys reproved him and then he came down from his seat, bowed down and received the imperial orders. At that time the country had been plundered by those of Sulu, so that it was weak and poor, and the King excused himself on this account, asking permission to bring tribute after three years; but one of the envoys pointed out to him the magnitude of his duty and then the King assented.
“Now this country had hitherto belonged to Java and the people of the latter country tried to prevent him; the King was wavering in his decision, but the envoy remonstrated with him, saying: ‘Java has already a long time acknowledged itself a subject and brought tribute; why do you fear only Java and not the Celestial Court?’ The King then appointed envoys to bring a letter and to carry as tribute hornbill-crests [kalau heads], living tortoises, peacocks, camphor of two kinds, cloth from the West (that is, India or Arabia] and various sorts of incense. In the eighth month of the next year they followed the Chinese envoys and came to Court. The letter consisted of a sheet of gold; the characters were of silver and resembled those of the country Hui-ku (probably somewhere in India]; they were all engraved. The Emperor was much pleased, treated them and gave them presents in the most liberal way. In the year 1375 the Emperor ordered that the mountains and the streams of this country should be included in the sacrifices to the mountains and streams of the province of Fukien.”
Antedating the foregoing account, however, is a brief description of Sulu from the brush of a Chinese author writing in 1349. He says: “This place has the Shih-i Island as a defense. After three years’ cultivation the fields are lean; they can grow millet and other grains. The people eat sago, fish, shrimps and shellfish. The climate is half hot. The customs are simple. Men and women cut their hair and wear a black turban and a piece of chintz with a minute pattern tied around them. They boil sea-water to make salt, and ferment the juice of the sugar-cane to make spirits. They have a ruler.
“The native products include laka wood of middling quality, beeswax, tortoise-shell and pearls. These Sulu pearls are whiter and rounder than those got in India and other places Their price is very high. The Chinese use them for head ornaments. When they are off color, they are classed as ‘unassorted’. There are some over an inch in diameter. The large pearls from this country fetch up to seven or eight hundred (ing. All below this are little pearls. Pearls worth ten thousand taels and upwards, or worth from three or four hundred to a thousand taels, come from the countries of the western ocean and from Ceylon; there are none here in Sulu. The goods used in trading here are dark gold, trade-silver, Pa-tu-la cotton cloth, blue leads, Chu [or Choufu] chinaware, pieces of iron and such like things.”
In addition to the foregoing, there is the following other accounts of trade, etc., at the end of the fourteenth century: “Trade (with Sulu] is carried on in the following way: When a ship arrives there, natives take all the goods and carry them for sale into the interior, whilst they sell also to the neighboring countries, and when they come back, the native articles are delivered to our merchants as payment. When many pearls have been found during a year and our traders get large ones, they make a profit of many hundred per cent: but even if there are only a few pearls, still a profit of a hundred per cent is made. The natives are always afraid that our ships will not come there, and whenever a ship leaves, they detain some men as hostages to make sure that the ship will call again. . . . Near Sulu there is a country called Kau-yoh, from where tortoise-shell comes.”
Note: The original source of this article is Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest, the Gems of History column by Go Bon Juan. This particular piece, Sulu History and the Chinese appeared in October 19, 2004, page 5-6, volume XVII, no. 10.
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