Global Economy and Sulu Zone

The Global Economy and the Sulu Zone:

Connections, Commodities and Culture*

James Warren


This late eighteenth century intrusion of the world capitalist economy was not resisted by the Taosug who made their society relatively open to outside influences and social change, but, largely on their terms. The coastal traders were mostly aristocrats who recognized the advantage in accepting and “borrowing” foreign technology, new ideas, luxury imports and trade goods. The impact of this maritime expansion and growing influence of the outside world on Taosug political organization was significant. The rapid increase in trade goods and revenues, and the control and dissemination of improved firearms to mobile marauding communities residing in the Zone, encouraged the development of a more coercive bureaucratically organized economy and state.34

What the Europeans and Chinese sought at Jolo and from the fisheries and forests of the Zone was, above all, tripang, pearls and birds nest. Between 1768 and 1848 hundreds of vessels visited Jolo, almost all of them trading in either one or two seasons. Tripang was obtained, at first, in return for cloth, clothing, iron and other metals; soon after for gunpowder, musket and cannon. The Taosug traders were mostly coastal datus or “chiefs” who mobilized their factions and contacts throughout the Zone to deliver the products, and whose power and wealth grew together with the development of the trade. One must note here, however, that this rapid trade expansion did not entirely dovetail with pre-existing Sulu circuits of exchange, as their basic structure was altered somewhat by global-regional trade, Islam and the way slavery could be used to bring in more commodities. Of particular importance for Sulu were guns and gunpowder and other imported manufactures, textiles and also opium which contributed to the Sultanate’s centralizing coercive power and integration of the economy with other social institutions. Taosug merchants or chiefs on the coast and their descendants developed an extensive redistributive trade in which they wrested the function of the collection and distribution of commodities for the China tea trade from traditional competitors – the Sultanates of Brunei and Cotabato. This inter-regional commerce – involving trade with the Bugis of Samarinda to the south, with Manila to the north, and with Singapore to the west – formed a complex set of inter-relationships, entangled commodities and transactions through which the Sultanate was able to consolidate its dominance over the outlying areas of the Zone along the northeast Borneo and western Mindanao coasts.

However, the relationship between trade, power and culture – the meaning of force – was wholly different in the Sulu world of the 1760s that Dalrymple encountered than that depicted in Marryt’s stunning portrait of an 1840s “Malay Chief” of Jolo whose wealth and power was by then based on the careful regulation of global-local trade (ill. ). It is clear that particular goods traded to a Taosug datu in 1768, goods that carried prestige as well as consumption value, were catalyst for a wholly different set of possible political and social interactions from those traded to Taosug merchants in the 1840s. In the 1760s, for example, never far from the surface was the intent of gaining alliance and wealth by redistributing merchandise such as opium for purposes of politics and prestige. Opium in the 1760s had not yet been adapted into a Taosug system of practice and belief, it had no ritual or ceremonial role. Opium traded to a Taosug leader at the peak of the redistributive network of the 1840s was a different matter. In less than two generations, partly due to the interdependent ecological balance of the Zone, the China tea trade and the world economy had become a road to riches and power for the strategically located Taosug; both aristocrats and merchants could make an exceptional living. Yet, ironically to many of these wealthy Taosug, opium was now less a business than an addiction – a sinister friend and a new way of life. The trade in opium by then had wreaked a devastating social transformation almost as significant for understanding the meaning of force, and, reframing the idea of culture itself and heterodox practices, as the technological and social innovations introduced by improved firearms.

By 1800 redistribution had become the organizing pattern of the regional economy of the Sulu Sultanate. Indirectly, it was a demand for tea that could not be satisfied that animated European interest in Sulu’s commodities and its sudden rise to regional primacy. During the eighteenth century tea replaced ale as the national beverage in England and was especially popular among the artisan and labouring classes. China was almost the sole supplier of aromatic tea to England. The British were quick to recognize the potential of participation in the long standing Sino-Sulu trade as a means of redressing the one-way flow of silver from India to China. Marine and jungle products, highly valued in China, were needed to stem it. Sulu’s ascendancy towards the end of the eighteenth century developed out of global economic inter-connections and inter-dependencies of the world capitalist economy between British India, Southeast Asia and China. Commercial and tributary activity became linked with long distance maritime slave raiding and incorporation of captured peoples in a redistributive system which made Jolo a principal entrepôt for large scale delivery of natural commodities for the China tea trade.

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