The Sultanate of Sulu was a Muslim state that ruled over many of the islands of the Sulu Sea, in the southern Philippines. Though Muslim historians believe the Sultanate of Sulu existed centuries earlier, in the time of Raja Baguinda Ali, genealogical sources place the founding of the Sultanate in 1457. During the seventeenth century, an increase in Western commercial activity in China resulted in a rising demand for maritime and forest products from Sulu, and during the eighteenth century, Sulu maintained a steady tributary relationship with China. By 1768, Sulu had become the center of trade network extending from Mindanao and southern Palawan to the northern coast of Borneo, and southward into the Celebes Sea. Jolo emerged as an exchange center for slave trading throughout Southeast Asia. Based on slave raiders, the economy of Sulu expanded, and its export trade increased. Between 1768 and 1848, foreign trade increased until Sulu’s hegemony extended over the islands that bordered the western peninsula of Mindanao in the east, to the modern Malaysian state of Sabah (formerly North Borneo) in the west and south, and to Palawan in the north.
In 1851, the Spanish in Manila began launching attacks which destroyed the Sulu trade network, and Spanish troops overran the city of Jolo and built a walled garrison there. In 1898, after the Spanish defeat in the Spanish American War, United States troops occupied Jolo. In 1903, Sulu was made part of Moro province, but it remained under military rule until 1914. In 1915, Sultan Jamal ul-Kiram II (r. 1894–1915) relinquished all claims to secular power, and sovereignty formally passed to the Philippine state. The region, known today as Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, continues to be plagued by political unrest and poverty. The issue of who would be the legitimate Sultan of Sulu is disputed by several branches of the royal family, although the line of succession fell in the Kiram branch of the royal family from 1823 up to the death of the last sovereign Sultan in 1936.
The Tausug first appeared in the Sulu islands in the eleventh century. Sulu is mentioned in Chinese sources as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), and the Ming Annals contain an account of a tributary mission from Sulu. Genealogical sources place the founding of the Sulu Sultanate in the mid-fifteenth century. During the 1450s, Shari'ful Hashem Syed Abu Bakr, an Arab born in Johore, arrived in Sulu from Malacca. In 1457, he married into the royal family of Sulu and founded the Sultanate of Sulu; he then renamed himself "Paduka Maulana Mahasari Sharif Sultan Hashem Abu Bakr." "Paduka" is a local term for "Master."
During the seventeenth century, an increase in Western commercial activity in China resulted in a rising Chinese demand for products from the sea, particularly trepang (sea slugs, Holothuria spp.), a popular ingredient for soups and medicines. Trepang fisheries developed throughout the Sulu islands, and it is believed that at one time, as many as 20,000 persons were employed in the labor of harvesting and drying sea slugs for export to China. Other valuable commodities for trade with China were pearls from coral reefs around the islands, shark fin, rattan, birds’ nests for soup, camphor, and during the eighteenth century, mother-of-pearl. Between 1727 and 1763, the Sulu Sultanate sent at least five missions to offer tribute to the Chinese court, indicating that regular diplomatic relations existed between them.
In 1703 (other sources say 1658), the Sultanate of Sulu received North Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei, after Sulu sent forces to assist him against a rebellion in Brunei. In the same year, Sulu gave Palawan to Qudarat, Sultan of Maguindanao, who married a Sulu princess, and formed an alliance with Sulu. Sultan Qudarat eventually ceded Palawan to the Spanish Empire in 1705.
By 1768, Sulu had become the center of trade network extending from Mindanao and southern Palawan to the northern coast of Borneo, and southward into the Celebes Sea. Jolo emerged as a center for slave trading throughout Southeast Asia. Ships were outfitted in Sulu’s harbors with munitions, and slaves were traded there for cloth and firearms. Based on slave raiders, the economy of Sulu expanded, and its export trade increased. Between 1768 and 1848, foreign trade increased, with Sulu harvesting more maritime and jungle products to trade for war supplies, cotton cloth, and opium, brought by British merchants from Singapore and Calcutta, Chinese from Manila, and Portuguese from Macao.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, Sulu faced increasing competition from Manila, and sought to expand its trade with the Western powers. In 1848, James Brooke, Governor of Labuan, signed a treaty of friendship with Sultan Muhammad Fadl (r. 1848–1851). The Spanish government in Manila launched retaliatory attacks, and in 1851, Sulu defenses were overrun and the Sultan was forced to sign a treaty that would have made Sulu part of the Spanish colony of the Philippines, if it had been honored. The Spanish pursued this treaty no further until 1871, when they attempted to subjugate Sulu by bombarding coastal villages, blockading Jolo, destroying native boats and taking their crews prisoner. Sulu did not capitulate. In 1875, the Spaniards sent 9,000 soldiers to destroy Jolo town and several Tausug outposts, then establish a garrison and rebuild Jolo as a walled city. These attacks effectively destroyed the Sulu trading network and put an end to slave raiding. Chinese merchants began to leave Sulu, and by the end of the 1880s Sulu had ceased to be a significant trading center.
In 1898, after the Spanish defeat in the Spanish American War, United States troops occupied Jolo. In 1903, Sulu was made part of Moro province, but it remained under military rule until 1914. In 1915, Sultan Jamal ul-Kiram II (r. 1894–1915) relinquished all claims to secular power, and sovereignty formally passed to the Philippine state.
Today, Sulu, together with Lanao del Sur and Maguindao, comprises the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
In the 1970s, a Muslim secessionist movement, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), emerged and began engaging government troops in violent clashes. In 1976, the Tripoli Agreement, brokered by Colonel Muamar el-Qaddafi of Libya, brought about a temporary truce, but the MNLF split and fighting began again. After the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, President Aquino sought to end the sixteen-year secessionist war. Nur Misuari, chairman of the MNLF, and the leaders of the MNLF agreed to end their demands for complete independence in return for autonomy for four Muslim provinces. In 1987, a new Philippine Constitution made provision for the creation of an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, which was formally established in 1989. It did not received public support or adequate funding, and in 1992, fighting broke out again. A peace agreement was signed with the MNLF in Jakarta in 1996, and Nur Misuari was elected governor.
Non-Muslims in Mindanao felt anxiety over the agreement, and the Muslims did not feel that they had received the promised benefits of autonomy. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had been left out of the negotiations, rejected the new government and vowed to continue armed struggle. In 1999, peace talks with the MILF disintegrated, and the Philippine government stepped up military operations against them. Abu Sayyaf, another group of insurgents suspected of links with radical groups in the Arab world, began a series of kidnappings of foreigners for ransom. An assault launched on Abu Sayyaf in September 2001, resulted in the flight of about 50,000 civilians to Malaysia. In February, 2002, the United State sent 650 military advisers to assist with counter-terrorism exercises.
The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao remains one of the most impoverished areas in the Philippines, with a per capita gross regional domestic product of only 75.8 percent lower than the national average in 2005. The incidence of poverty was a high 45.4 percent in 2003, almost twice the national average of 24.4 percent. Significant progress has been made in reducing poverty in the region, which was reduced by 10.5 percent from the 2000 figure.
Currently, the issue of who would be the legitimate Sultan of Sulu is disputed by several branches of the Royal Family, although the line of succession fell on the Kiram branch of the royal family from 1823 until the death in 1936, of the last sovereign sultan, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II who died leaving no direct male heir. More than a dozen men claim to be the heir to the throne of Sulu. One of these, Prince Rodinhood H.J. Kiram, has mounted a legal challenge alleging that the British were obligated return Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu instead of ceding it to Malaysia, since the disputed territory came under British dominion through a temporary lease agreement negotiated by the British North Borneo Company. Another challenge claims that when the Philippines was annexed by the United States in 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War, the Sulu islands and the island of Mindanano were not specifically included.
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