First published in 1981, The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State deals with a fascinating geographical, cultural and historical “border zone” centred on the Sulu and Celebes Seas between 1768 and 1898, and its complex interactions with China and the West. The author examines the social and cultural forces generated within the Sulu Sultanate by the China trade, namely the advent of organized, long-distance maritime slave raiding and the assimilation of captives on a hitherto unprecedented scale into a traditional Malayo-Muslim social system.
His work analyzes the dynamics of the last autonomous Malayo-Muslim maritime state over a long historical period and describes its stunning response to the world capitalist economy and the rapid “forward movement” of colonialism and modernity. It also shows how the changing world of global cultural flows and economic interactions caused by cross-cultural trade and European dominance affected men and women who were forest dwellers, highlanders, and slaves, people who worked in everyday jobs as fishers, raiders, divers and traders. Often neglected by historians, the responses of these members of society are a crucial part of the history of Southeast Asia.
By creating “The Sulu Zone”, the book produced a new way of conceptualizing the sultanate itself. A fundamental principle of the book is that historians must not allow the boundaries of contemporary nation-states to shape the way they look at the past. Instead, they must map out the connections people actually had with one another. Thus, much of the book is devoted to a painstaking reconstruction of the trade-in opium, guns, bird’s nests, tripang (bêche-de-mer), and slaves centred on Jolo, the seat of the sultan of Sulu. The zone expanded and contracted according to the sultan’s ability to command the obedience of outlying chiefs, who were fairly autonomous within their own realms. At its peak, it included much of the east coast of Borneo as well as the Sulu Archipelago and the western and southern coasts of Mindanao. Its reach even extended upriver into the interior of Borneo, where tribal leaders were quick to take advantage of the ever-increasing demand for jungle products at Jolo. The zone, therefore, extended far beyond the area actually controlled by the sultan to encompass all the places oriented towards Jolo.
In addition to mapping out The Sulu Zone, the book presented a vision of the zone as part of a larger world. Specifically, it challenged the widely held view that the sultanate was a decaying backwater by portraying it as a fragmented but nevertheless thriving polity vigorously taking advantage of the growth of the China trade. As the British demand for Chinese tea grew in the late 1700s, country traders based in India looked for alternatives to silver to pay for the tea. Selling Indian opium to the Chinese provided part of the answer, but these traders also exploited the great demand in China for the sea and jungle products of the Malay Archipelago. Thus, on their way to China, the country traders could stop at Jolo to exchange opium, firearms, and Indian textiles for pearl shell, tripang, bird’s nests, and other local products that they could sell in China. Soon, Chinese traders based in Manila and Singapore, as well as Bugis traders from the south, began to arrive as well.
But who collected all the sea and jungle products traded at 1010? The key to the whole book is the argument that Sulu’s booming economy depended on the labour of people captured by Iranun and Balangingi raiders and pm to work in the zone as slaves. In short, the people collecting tripang, pearl shell, and other products in various parts of the $qu zone were part of a larger economic system along with the sultan and his chiefs, slave raiders, powerful merchants in London and India, country traders, and consumers of opium and fine food in China.
The book also changed the common view of the slave raiders. Like earlier books, The Sulu Zone portrays them as brutal marauders, describing in great detail how the Iranun and Balangingi scoured the coasts of the Philippines, Borneo, Celebes, and even the Malay Peninsula in search of their prey. Unlike its predecessors, however, The Sulu Zone demonstrates that they were an integral part of the whole economic system, for they procured the labour on which this system depended. The Balangingi in particular had a powerful motivation to become raiders. Inhabitants of a small barren island in the Sulu archipelago, they braved the seas and colonial navies in a search for captives they could hand over to the sultan and chiefs in exchange not only for opium and guns but also for rice and other necessities of life. Understanding these circumstances does not make their brutality any more palatable, but it goes a long way towards explaining it.
Most of all, The Sulu Zone presented a new view of the captives and slaves. More precisely, it brought into view people who had been barely visible except as anonymous victims of the raiders. In this respect, The Sulu Zone is part of a larger project. The author has seen it as his mission to bring to life people forgotten by later generations and ignored by other historians: the voices of the “little people” deserve to be heard as much as those of sultans, governors, captains, and tycoons. In all his major books the author has shown not only how they endured discomfort, cruelty, death, loss, and injustice but also how they had some mastery over their own fates, whether they decided to endure, to adapt, to run away, to resist, or in extreme cases to escape by ending their lives. These people may have been victims but they were also individual human beings with their own pasts, dreams, and fears.
This outlook is most pronounced in the author’s later books on the rickshaw pullers and prostitutes of Singapore, but it certainly comes through as well in the final chapters of The Sulu Zone, where he presents the stories of the many thousands of people taken into captivity and put to work collecting sea and jungle products for their masters.