Throughout Philippine recorded history, the Moro proved, time and again, that he is capable of outstanding feats of enterprise and bravery.
Twice a year, when the wind was right, and for almost three centuries during the Spanish regime, fleets of as many as one hundred vintas sailed out of Jolo. Navigating by the stars, these voyages brought the intrepid Moro around the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagos. Sometimes, they reached the Indian Ocean, other times as far south as Papua New Guinea.
If the Moro was engaged in legitimate trade and commerce, Jolo today might be a trade hub like Singapore. But the voyages were not trading missions. They were out to loot, pillage and plunder. For example, they would land in Albay to claim the annual rice harvest from the rich Bicol valley.
But the main mission of the voyages was to capture natives to be sold in the slave market in Jolo. An adult male fetched P40; an adult female, P20, and a child, P10. Sometimes, after a slave raid, the ravaged community simply disappeared from the map. The shores of our archipelago are still dotted with stone watchtowers – mute witnesses to that terrible era.
Jolo was a slave state. It is estimated that 300,000 slaves were sold in Jolo. Every household had slaves to do housework, tend to the fish pens and till the rice fields. Slaves ran the family business, and, for this purpose, a Tagalog was supposed to be the best. On a raid, slaves were used as weapons carriers.
The raids were state-run joint ventures. The sultan provided the boats and weapons, a labor contractor provided the men. The proceeds were divvied up according to a pre-agreed schedule.
Slave trading was highly profitable. Even when the colonial government introduced the canonero, a steamboat with deck guns, in mid-1800, the raids went on. The slave trade finally ended in 1903 when General Pershing declared slavery illegal. He freed the slaves and closed down the Jolo market.
Spoiled by a slave culture, the Moro lost his appetite for hard work. Today, a century later, he is still seen as a lazy and inept farmer or a double-dealing peddler.
He also remains uninsurable. Life insurance companies do not insure people who have no birth certificates issued by the civil registrar, and no written marriage contracts.
During the 10-year pacification campaign waged by General Pershing from 1903, the Moros engaged the Americans, and later the American-led Philippines Scouts, in numerous battles. The Moros lost all those bloody battles.
But Pershing wrote, “They are absolutely fearless, and once committed to combat, they count death as a mere incident.”
Finally, in 1913, the Moro made his last major stand in Mount Bagsak, Sulu. When the Datu knew the battle was already lost, he ordered his gallant men to put on their best clothes. Everybody was to die well-dressed.
Pershing, who personally led his forces, wrote later in his official report, “Let us not forget the vanquished foe…He fought with an unswerving courage and superb gallantry that was the admiration of all. Let our assurance of goodwill be extended to him in his defeat, and let no opportunity be allowed to pass by to do a kindly act, or to extend a word of encouragement to these brave people.”
But the bravery and gallantry were misplaced. Throughout the campaign, the Moro always fought for his Datu, not for a higher purpose such as freedom and liberty. Also, the datus never trusted each other. They never banded together to present a stronger front against the Americans.
It was not until the 1970’s when Nur Misuari, with his Bangsa Moro battle cry, was able to pull the major tribes together. But, when he became governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), he spent his time enjoying the trappings of a potentate. Now he is in jail, on trial for rebellion.
The Moro continues to fight, as kidnapper in Sulu, and as a rebel in Cotabato out to carve an independent state, which is nothing but a pipe dream. This is the never-ending tragedy of these enterprising and brave people. (More later.)