FAST BACKWARD: The gulf of Davao

Fast Backward by Antonio V. Figueroa

Davao Gulf’s impact in pre-colonial trading in southern Philippines remains a least studied subjects on ancient Philippine-Indonesian geopolitics. If someone talks about Mindanao in relation to northern Indonesia, the link between these two places predictably leads to regions from southwest to west of Mindanao where Islam, centuries before Catholicism reached local shores, was first introduced.

Indonesians in pre-colonial times frequented the gulf to trade and barter via the Sarangani islands from Celebes by using prevailing winds, moving north in the direction of Mindanao. Ancient mariners already called the gulf of Davao as Tagalooc. Jesuit priest Fr. Francisco Colin later confirmed this in Labor Evangelica (1663) by identifying the ‘bay of Tagalooc’ as the farthest part of Caraga district, one of four earliest divisions of Mindanao.

Tagalooc, a place that’s suitable for anchorage or docking is adopted in Indonesia from Malay as luuk, a remote place for berthing. The word is geographically used also throughout the Philippines, among them Luuk, a third-class town in Sulu; Lo-oc, a barangay in Malabuyoc, Cebu; and Caloocan City, from Tagalog kalook-lookan, which denotes ‘innermost region.’

In the 17th century, when European trade with Mindanao started to thrive, the importance of Davao and the gulf, known in Dutch records as Dabu and Butuan Bay, respectively, was highlighted in many records. Dabu (also the old name of Davao River) was known for its supply of biao (beeswax) that was in demand in Java for use in dyeing batik (Indonesian cloth).

While there was wax in the sultanate of Maguindanao, the Dutch wanted to buy the Davao commodity, which was cheaper, more abundant and was easily available in early October.

Sometime in the early 1660s, the Dutch, upon arrival in the gulf, witnessed forty to fifty foreign trading prahus, sailing boats waiting for their turn to barter local produce with trade goods they brought along. The presence of such huge contingent validates the accounts that the gulf of Davao at this time was already a commercial port long before Davao was colonized by Spain.

Not only that, Davao, who was ruled by the father of the king of Kandahar (Celebes), was also known for its sand gold, cinnamon and tortoise shells that were coveted by Dutch traders.

In 1693, Pieter Alsteyn, sub-merchant secretary of the Dutch East India Company in Ternate, Indonesia, and Ensign David Haak were sent to Mindanao “to investigate the presence of sand gold in Butuan Bay” and “to explore the idea of establishing a Dutch outpost there.”

(Known as Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, Dutch East India Company, a chartered company, was founded on March 20, 1602 with the objective of trading with India and the southeast Asian countries. As a mega-corporation, it monopolized the trade spice for over two decades.) 

A 1701 Dutch logbook report of Captain Paulus de Brievings and Ensign Jacob Cloeck cited Davao as source of sulfur used in the manufacture of ammunition of Spanish-type small arms.

Fr. Pablo Pastells, S.J., in his 1888 report to Spanish governor-general Don Valeriano Weyler, stated that on June 24, 1645, Fr. Pedro Tellez, S.J., with the help of the governor of Zamboanga, forged a peace covenant with Sultan Kudarat near the village of Simuay.

“In virtue of that pact,” he wrote, “the Spaniards were able to extend their dominion from the west up to Sibugey, from the east up to the Hijo river located in the bay of Tagloc, and as far as Caraga, and in the north up to the lake of Lanao and the rivers Didagun, Taraca and Buncayan which discharge in the lake [of Lanao].”

The renaming of the gulf to Seno de Davao, i.e., Davao Bay, could have probably taken place after Spain’s conquest of Davao in 1848. There is a school of thought which claims the change in appellation could have also been done earlier. When the Americans occupied Davao region, the first U.S. maps had relabeled the bay as Davao Gulf.

The gulf of Davao Gulf, with approximately 308,000 hectares, is situated on the southeastern portion of Mindanao and is surrounded by the five provinces of Davao Region. It also hosts two big islands, Samal and Talikud, and a handful of islets and atolls. This body of water is an vital maritime channel for interisland and foreign steamers doing trade in Mindanao, securing provisions, seeking emergency or simply refueling.

During the U.S. occupation, the gulf hosted Davao wharf, the second largest port in Mindanao, topped only by Zamboanga, then the directorial center of American administrators. When war broke out, dozens of allied and enemy planes found their end in the gulf waters. Some of the artifacts of these aerial machines have now become destinations of wreck divers.

“The gulf water,” Wikipedia says, is “one of the most diverse cetacean habitats in the nation, being home for at least 10 species of toothed whales and dolphins, such as sperm whales and beaked whales. Also, whale sharks are seen frequently. Furthermore, several ecological phenomena have been observed [here] such as a previously unknown predator of the crown-of-thorns starfish, new species records and species discoveries underlining the uniqueness of the marine resources in the Davao Gulf.”