FAST BACKWARD: Datu Bago: A victim of historical error?

The burning of San Rufo, a merchant vessel that was plying between Maguindanao and Sulu, was a turning point in Davao’s colonial history. The pontin, a light commercial ship commissioned by a Manila business house, was manned by Spanish officers, and had among its passengers an Italian trader, and a native-born Spaniard, Antonio de Azaola. It anchored at Malipano Island and was carrying a recommendation letter from the sultan of Maguindanao that was addressed to Datu Bago, asking the latter to welcome the visitors and allow them to trade with the natives of the gulf. Pretending to respect the sultan’s request, the Muslims accepted the Spanish intent to barter by offering friendship and beeswax before killing most of the crew.

Peter Schruers, MSC., in Caraga Antigua: The Hispanization and Christianization of Agusan, Surigao and East Davao (1989) wrote: “[U]nwary of the Moros’ plot, the majority of the crew left their ship to go fishing in their ship’s skiff while some went ashore. Taking advantage of the opportunity, a good number of Moros, led by one Datu Ongay, presented themselves with bundles of wax and other trade products in which they concealed their weapons. The ship’s interpreter, seeing so many Moros arriving at a time when there were hardly any men left on board, became suspicious of their intentions. The captain said he did not fear the Moros. The pilot remonstrated saying it would not do any harm to take a few precautions.”

Fortunately, two crew members who were out fishing not too far away from the anchored vessel, saw the incident. They hurriedly fled and reported the incident to authorities in Surigao. Two others managed to untie themselves, jumped overboard, and safely swam to shore where they took a fishing craft and escaped. The stories told by the survivors became the turning point that compelled the Spaniards to bring down the rule of Datu Bago.

The news of the attack, as expected, incensed the colonial government in Manila, which demanded a satisfactory answer from the sultan of Maguindanao. But the chieftain cleansed himself of any involvement in the assault, saying “he had no subjects in Davao and that he did not consider the Moros of the gulf as such, because after all they had disobeyed his orders and therefore the Spanish government should deal directly with them.” In short, the sultan disclaimed any responsibility of the siege and waived his jurisdiction over the Muslims in Davao.

This disclaimer has been interpreted as a statement of cession on the part of the sultanate, which led the Spaniards to take action in curtailing the abuses of Datu Bago’s men. The cession actually started half a century earlier when the sultanate, with control over the gulf territories, yielded to Spanish aims for access to regions classified as vassal estates and the approval to allow Catholic missionaries to convert Muslims and tribesmen in tributary areas under the Maguindanao sultanate.

But there are threads in this tragic incident that remain ambiguous. For instance, it’s unclear who facilitated the issuance of the reference letter and why the letter was for “the datus of the sea of Davao” if, indeed, Datu Bago was the main addressee.

Interestingly, Datu Ongay is not mentioned anywhere in accounts except in the tragedy. He could be the murderous emissary of Datu Bago, but he could also be a leader of a lesser kingdom who wanted to exact revenge on the colonizers for some reason. One more, the burning of the ship could have taken place in the general area of the gulf where an intervention by adversarial natives was not possible on short notice.

Before the 1846 tragedy, San Rufo was already trading in areas within the Maguindanao sultanate, Cotabato, and Sarangani. In 1838, for instance, under Captain Don Inocencio Escrivano, it was forced to trade at Jolo after its four-month stay at Cotabato failed to complete her cargo requirement. That same year, the Manila traders protested against the government for tampering with their trade instead of appreciating the efforts of the governor of Zamboanga to help the drought-stricken sultanate. In retaliation, the merchants brought their rice to Jolo.

As a trading vessel, San Rufo’s commercial trips to Mindanao was dependent on the business contracts its proprietors got from merchants with interests in Sulu and Maguindanao, the key centers of trade in Mindanao. Lease of light ships was not exclusive to a single party. Often, the vessel was rented out to several merchandising firms whose desired destinations fell within regular itinerary and outside regions that were considered as perilous. Upon leaving port, the vessel usually carried cargoes in its holds and, upon its return, brought farm products, particularly rice, to be sold in Manila.

It was common knowledge among colonial bigwigs that Davao was ruled by a Muslim leader who was fierce and was governing his territory with a certain degree of severity. Most of the news about him was gathered at friendly ports where mail and trading boats periodically docked. The inhospitable regions, in general, were restricted.

The ship’s journey to Davao was calculated; as a precaution, it was properly armed. It carried goods from a Manila commercial firm “to barter them with beeswax and other native products from the small settlements along the coast of the Davao Gulf.” The vessel was captained by a Spanish officer, aided by another Spaniards as second officer. On board was an Italian shipper who rented the pontin. With a reference letter from the sultan of Maguindanao, the leasing party could have also assumed that with the sultanate already recognizing the Spanish control of Davao a year earlier, negotiating trade deals with Datu Bago, with the help of an able interpreter, could be sealed calmly. But the expectation turned bloody.

(Source: Datu Bago and the Kingdoms of Sarang-ine and Iyo)