(Continued from Part I)

At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded control of the Philippine Islands to the United States for a mere $20 million. According to Articles III and IV of the Peace Treaty, the grid coordinates of the ceded territory included Mindanao and the Sulu islands, despite the fact that Spain never conquered these Muslim ruled territories. America technically owned an independent region of Muslims numbering some 300,000.

Unlike the Spanish, the Americans never tried to Christianize the Muslim population, but its administrative policies produced mixed results and often incited rebellions as much as subduing them.

When the Americans arrived, they signed the Kiram-Bates Treaty of 1899, which granted nearly absolute autonomy to Muslim rulers. The only condition was that the Sultan of Sulu and the datus had to control piracy and crime, and in return, they would receive a $3000 annual payment for their services. However, the Sultan had only symbolic importance. The many tribal datus who wielded genuine power. At best, a sultan was just a datu of a large town who claimed religious leadership over other datus. Howard Taft, Governor of the Philippines, wrote to President Roosevelt in 1903 about this situation:

The Sultan possesses little, or no authority… the principal dattos of the island ridicule the idea that the Sultan is in any way their master, or that he has the power to compel them to do anything (Howard Taft to Theodore Roosevelt, 20 September 1903. Papers of Theodore Roosevelt.)

The treaty was not enforced by the Sultan of Sulu due to his inherent weakness. The treaty would be officially abrogated in 1904, but American intervention into Moro affairs was a gradual escalation. One minor condition of the treaty allowed for small garrisons in the old Spanish coastal fortifications at Jolo City and a few other choice locations. These garrisons were too small to be serious threats to the Moros and were also too weak to stop pirate raids; one American base was even looted by thieves. Col. Sweet was calling for reinforcements to Jolo as early as 1901 to deal with these problems.

The increasing “lawlessness” convinced the Americans that direct rule would be necessary, either because the Moros signed the treaty in bad faith or were simply incapable of self-rule. The Taft Commission organized the Moro Province in 1901, consisting of five districts which were artificial constructions based upon convenient territorial boundaries rather than existing political realities of the Moro people. After the “Insurrection” was suppressed in the North in 1903, the colonial administration created a Moro Province government headed by the U.S. Army under General Leonard Wood. The government consisted of a legislature, a governor, an engineer, a Superintendent of Schools and a treasurer, all appointed by the ruling Philippine Commission. This government was part-civil and part-military, and ultimately was dependent upon the personality and viewpoints of the commanding general. Under such a system, the Department of Interior surveys of the Moros was unconnected with the central decision makers.

General Wood bluntly outlined the reasons for the abrogation of the Kiram-Bates Treaty:

Their faith teaches them that it is no sin to kill Christians, and they are taught by the priests to believe that it is commendable. They are nothing more nor less than an unimportant collection of pirates and highwaymen, living under laws which are intolerable, and there is no reason… why the so-called Bates Agreement should be longer continued….

This new government had only limited influence. It was particularly powerful at major ports and cities like Jolo City and the capital of Zamboanga in Mindanao, but had far less influence over the more isolationist Moros in the interior regions. The New York Times reported that the Moro Province was mostly an “autonomous colony” where Moro laws not in conflict with American laws were permitted (NYT 10 June 1903). The datus still held power and control over their tribes and local laws remained intact. The so-called American Empire was, in practice, a negotiated power-sharing agreement.

The Moro Government passed a series of laws that had potential to disrupt Moro self-rule over the long term.

First, in early October, the legislature banned the slave trade. All sea vessels involved in the trade would be confiscated, and military force was authorized against Moro raiding parties and pirates. Since the slave trade had already been severely curtailed by the Spanish, there were few immediate effects. Slavery persisted for at least a decade without major alterations. As example of how extensive slavery was, a datu and his slave visited the White House to speak with President Roosevelt and offer him gifts in 1907. (New York Times. “Datto takes Slave Into White House.” 3 November 1907.) Roosevelt accepted a Moro Kris blade to add to his weapons collection.

The American zeal to gradually abolish slavery, and its refusal to make a distinction between criminal debt bondage and chattel slavery, was the first strike against the traditional “pyramidal power structure” that provided for the existence of the ruling datu class. Imperialism was the only means of eliminating slavery – to give the Moros complete autonomy was to tolerate its continuation. The American military officers and civilians genuinely sought to abolish slavery and recognized that this required coercive force.

The second major change was in January of 1904 when General Wood, acting governor of the province, issued an executive order that banned the use of religious courts and substituted a “Court of First Instance” stationed at Zamboanga. A beneficial aspect of this was that the wards were organized according to tribes, so each datus would rule over his own tribal ward. The datus were responsible for policing their own territory and primarily used their own courts to enforce their own laws. But the newly formed secular court used American jurisprudence and deliberately replaced the Moro religious judges in settling all intertribal disputes and anything involving the Americans. But, much like the anti-slavery laws, this was to be a gradual encroachment on the authority of the datus. There were minor changes as well, such as the establishment of an egalitarian secular school system that competed with the Islamic schools.

The result of these actions destabalized the traditional tribal politics in the region. Slaves and debt-workers provided the labor in Moro society. The attempts to liberate these workers yanked the rug out from under the pyramid.

Aggressive US Navy patrols restricted piracy and sea trade of slaves in the region. This was once a major source of income for a number of the datus of the Sulu Islands.

The poor treatment of Islamic religious courts was apparently innocent in intent but had unfortunate repercussions. The Americans wanted to gradually install a central “nationalist” Moro government with a secular legal system – believing the Moros could be civilized into a modern democratic society. They intended to leave Islam as a religion intact, but they did not realize how incompatible their secular legal system was with Islam.

There were more complicated issues at hand, but this generally describes the initial American policies in the Moro Islands.

The Moros, interestingly, did not immediately resist American rule. The Americans gave them broad autonomy over most aspects of their life and enacted most policies through negotiations and diplomacy, unlike the Spanish who actually tried to conquer the Moros by force.

Still, the major reforms disrupted key aspects of the Datu’s base of power. Some datus began to rebel against American rule, starting a decade of on and off wars. Usually, the Americans fought only one or two tribes at any time and managed to isolate rebels from the broader Moro community.