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The sultan who became Christian

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One of the most interesting figures ever to rule the Sultanate of Sulu was Muhammad Alimuddin I, who, in 1735, took over as sultan from his older brother Nasaruddin. He was a complex man with an advanced instinct for statecraft and diplomacy, which was not common among Sulu’s lesser nobility.

The late Jesuit historian Fr. Horacio de la Costa wrote a fascinating account of Alimuddin’s life that appeared in a few scholarly journals in 1965.  I recently found the wonderful essay in a compilation of Father De la Costa’s writings put together by Roberto M. Paterno and published in 2002. Alimuddin’s story transports us back to an era when being sultan meant something.

As soon as he became sultan, Alimuddin made calculated moves to put the administration of the sultanate on a stable foundation, free from the vagaries of a system of rule that rested on the uncertain loyalty of local chieftains. He signed a peace treaty with Spain, ratified no less by Philip V himself, which provided not just for a cessation of hostilities but also for a mutual obligation to come to each other’s aid in the event of an attack.

In 1749, he converted from Islam to Catholicism, assuming the name “Don Fernando Primero, Rey Christiano de Jolo.” The Jesuits who gave him religious instruction objected to his baptism until he could show strong proof of the sincerity and depth of his religious disposition. They suspected that he might have sought conversion in order to get the Spaniards to help him recover the throne that his younger brother Bantilan had seized during his prolonged absence from Sulu.

De la Costa argued that the question of motive wasn’t so simple. “On the other hand, the lively interest which Alimuddin had always shown in Christian belief, his friendship for the Jesuit missionaries, his refusal to close down the Jolo mission under severe pressure and, above all, his willingness to be regarded as a renegade by his own people, could scarcely have been feigned.”  Alimuddin remained a puzzle to him.

Wildly applauded in Manila, the significance of Alimuddin’s conversion to Christianity was not lost on the people of Sulu, particularly on Bantilan, who had meanwhile taken the name Sultan Mu’izzuddin. Accusing the Spaniards of interfering in the purely internal affairs of the Sulus, Mu’izzuddin ordered the resumption of hostilities against the Spanish forces. Spain responded by ordering the reinstallation of Alimuddin to his throne.

On May 19, 1751, a Spanish expedition left Manila for Jolo to help Don Fernando, the Christian sultan, regain his rightful seat in Sulu. They arrived in Jolo on June 26.

The Sulu datus quickly capitulated and agreed to meet Alimuddin in Zamboanga, and escort him back to Sulu. Governor Zacarias of Zamboanga, however, smelled something fishy. He doubted the authenticity of Alimuddin’s conversion. At the last minute, he decided to take both Alimuddin and Datu Asin’s welcoming party prisoner. The Spaniards shipped them back to Manila, hoping to swap them later for Spanish prisoners. Some were released a year later, but Alimuddin spent the next decade inside Intramuros, subsisting on a monthly pension given to him by the Spanish government.

His brother, Sultan Mu’izzuddin, saw that the British, who had ventured into Sulu, could be used as a foil against the Spaniards. He signed a treaty of friendship and commerce with Alexander Dalrymple of the English East India Company. The plan was to position Sulu as a transshipment point to China. Later, the British saw that there was greater potential for making money in North Borneo than in Sulu. In January 1763, Dalrymple obtained a treaty with Mu’izzuddin allowing the English flag to be flown over Balambangan in North Borneo.

Neither the East India Company, which Dalrymple represented, nor the Sulus expected the British attack on Manila in 1762 as a result of Spain’s entry into the Seven Years’ War.

Alimuddin volunteered to fight on the side of Spain, and was wounded in the defense of Manila. He asked to be allowed to return to Sulu so he could raise an army to fight the British. Simon de Anda ordered him instead to proceed to Pampanga, where the provisional capital of the Spanish government had moved. On his way to Pampanga, Alimuddin realized that the Spaniards, in fact, had been defeated.  He sent a note to the British informing them that he was a captive of Spain and that he wished to return to his own country. The British recognized his value, but they already had an agreement with his brother, Sultan Mu’izzuddin.

When the war ended, and Spain was poised to get back the Philippines as part of the settlement, the British saw the need to confirm in a separate treaty with Alimuddin all the concessions they had obtained from Mu’izzuddin.  The result was the cession of North Borneo and Palawan to the East India Company on July 2, 1764. Dalrymple kept his end of the bargain by personally accompanying Alimuddin to Jolo in May so he could retake his throne. Eight years later, the formidable sultan abdicated in favor of his son, Muhammad Israel.

De la Costa concluded his account thus: “The portrait of Muhammad Alimuddin that emerges from the available sources is that of a highly intelligent and sensitive individual, capable of conceiving large views on the government of his realm, but somewhat lacking in the resolution of will and the practical grasp of affairs necessary to carry them into effect.” Even so, one can only marvel at Alimuddin’s ability to get the attention and earn the respect of the European powers. But that was a time when the Sultanate of Sulu was a sovereign entity in its own right.

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