Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Manila, Melaka, Maluku - Remembering the Triangular World of Southeast Asia

By: Eric Casiño (From Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 12 & 16, 2001)

The recent visit of President Gloria Macapagal to Malaysia and the forthcoming visit of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri to the Philippines is a rare historic occasion to reflect on how Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, are historically and geographically articulated. The three, together with Brunei, share deep ethnic and cultural relationships worth re-discovering and remembering.

From a regional, Southeast Asian perspective, the Philippines is not a single linear chain of island consisting of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Rather, the archipelago has a bifurcate structure, like a letter A with two legs pointing to aligned centers farther south in Borneo, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The left or western Luzon, Mindoro and Palawan, is aligned with the ancient kingdoms of Brunei and Malacca (Melaka). The right or eastern leg facing the Pacific, which includes eastern Luzon, Bicol, Visayas and Mindanao, is aligned with Ternate in the Moluccas (Maluku). And Melaka and Maluku have been aligned in trade and commerce in pre-colonial times. The resulting pattern is thus a triangular matrix whose corners – Manila, Melaka, Maluku – provide three key points of reference or reflecting on regional history, anthropology and geography.

The interconnections among these reference points in nusantara were facilitated by sea-lanes used for two-way maritime commerce, travel and migration. The Melaka-Maluku alignment may be called the “southern trading corridor”, the Melaka-Manila connection the “western trading corridor” and the Maluku-Manila linkage the “eastern trading corridor”. The southern, western and eastern trade routes facilitated maritime trade, travel and transmigration over centuries before and during the early colonial periods.

The “connecting bar” of the Philippines “A” is the Sulu chain strung between Mindanao and Borneo. The historically critical position of Sulu lies in being equidistant between the western and eastern legs passed through Mindanao and Borneo respectively. The Tausugs linguistically are affiliated with Visayan speakers from the Butuan-Surigao of Northeastern Mindanao. Yet the Sulu Sultanate shared strong Islamic traditions with the Brunei Sultanate, and historically exercised hegemony over North Borneo.

The Matrix and Moorings

The geo-historical moorings of the Philippines thus rest in this triangular matrix linked by relations of trade, travel, migration, intermarriage and political alliances in pre-colonial and early colonial periods. Unfortunately ethnic affinities, cultural linkage and commercial relations and political alliances that used to characterize this region have been lost from the racial memory of many Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians. Filipinos have instead tended to look across the Pacific towards Spanish-Mexico and Anglo-America just as Indonesian elites have oriented themselves towards The Netherlands and Malaysian intellectuals towards Great Britain, for much of their colonial social history. It is time these moorings be rediscovered, and these forgotten affinities and linkage reestablished.

The Philippine archipelago with more than 7,000 islands is better seen in conjunction with the Indonesian archipelago with more than 13,000 islands, and with the Malaysian Peninsular and island territories containing several hundreds more. This massive explosion of over 20,000 islands is the largest in the world, spreading out for thousands of miles between continental Asia and Australia. The island galaxy is covered by a rich pattern of sea lanes, straits, bays, gulfs, rivers, mangrove swamps and all sorts of maritime and riverine nooks and crannies. For some good reason some Indonesian political visionaries referred to these massive universe of islands as nusa antara or nasuntara – the island galaxy in between (i.e. between Asia and Australia; and between Pacific and the Indian Ocean).

Although the geophysical diversity if nasuntara is great, the languages and ethnicity of its inhabitants show a marked homogeneity. That is to say, the people were neither Indians nor Chinese; and their languages were descended neither from Sanskrit nor Chinese. The people on nusantara spoke varieties of a language popularly known as “Malay”. This led some cultural historians to coin the term “Malayo-Polynesian” to describe the language family spoken by the Southeast Asian and those Pacific islanders who have migrated out of nasuntara into Polynesia and Micronesia.

The effort to achieve a more holistic grasp of the region’s linguistic, cultural and ethnic similarities has been rendered particularly difficult because of conflicting nomenclature and identity labels developed by European scholars and perpetuated by their nationalist successors. Language historians have largely abandoned “Malay-Polynesian” in favor of the term “Austronesian” to refer to the family languages that includes Malay, Javanese, Tagalog, Visayan, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Maori and the language of Madagascar, among many others.

While the term Austronesian has been quickly accepted as a linguistic descriptor, no comparable general term, other than “Southern Asia” has been universally accepted for the race of the people inhabiting island Southeast Asia. The closest general term is “generalized Malay” a practice that allowed Jose Rizal to be classified as belonging to the Malay race. Unfortunately “Malay” has acquired a restricted meaning in the context of the Malaysian nationalist discourse vis-à-vis Indiana nd Chinese citizens. Similarly, the terms “Indonesian” and “Filipino” likewise are generally restricted to national communities. Thus the need for a region-wide descriptor that could override the more restricted, localistic labels remained unmet among scholars and the regional general public.

One recently suggested region-wide descriptor is “nusantao (from nusa, island and tao, people). Originally proposed by prehistorian Solheim, nusantao attempts to serve as a general term for people to nusantara,a llowing the term Austronesian to continue as a general descriptor only of the language family. For lack of a better term, we will use the name nusantao for discussing the triangular demographic, cultural and commercial alignment of Manila to Melaka, Melaka to Maluku and Maluku to Manila.

Over the centuries the regular movement of goods and people throughout nusantara resulted in the spread of a broadly common culture complex, a pattern of similarities in languages, technologies and cultural ideas and practices, especially among communities in the trading ports and in the hinterland communities surrounding these ports. This nasuntaran culture complex thus provides the infrastructure of base of the Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos and Borneans.

A major feature of this base culture is the distribution of the nasuntaran population along the lowland-highland continuum, i.e. some were coastal dwellers, others inhabited the interior and the highlands. Early European scholars called the coastal dwellers “coastal Malays” a term later translated as pasisir peoples. Notwithstanding the divergent terminology, a clear summary of this lowland-highland cultural pattern was given by the Spanish Loarca sometime in 1582.

                “There are two kinds of people in this land, who although of the same (nasuntaran), race differ somewhat in their customs and are almost always on mutually unfriendly terms. One class includes those who live along the coast, the other class, those who live in the mountains; and if peace seems to reign among them, it is because they depend upon each other for the necessities of life.”

Another Spanish report written around 1663 added that the lowlanders and coastal peoples in the Philippines were the “civilized nation” who came from “Sumatra, the Javas, Borney, Macazar” and other isalnds in Southeast Asia. This remark is the strongest suggestion that population movement was going on all over nusantara, facilitated no doubt by maritime trade routes.

THE SOUTHERN TRADING CORRIDOR – Melaka, Java, Makasar, Maluku

The most famous corridor is the southern one linking Melaka to Maluku via the Java Sea lane and touching trade ports 
in Java and Makasar. Prior to its capture in 1511 by the Portuguese, Melaka was a major port principality, an international entrepot, serving traders from China, India and other surrounding countries in Southeast Asia. The Portuguese historian Pires “estimated about 100 large ships and 30-40 smaller ones in the port of Malacca each year… the harbor was so big that some 2,000 large and small ships could lie together”.

Enterprising traders, like those from Makasar and Java, yearly sailed to Maluku to barter textile for spices, which were then sold internationally at great profit. One historian described the trading activities along the Melaka-Maluku corridor:

“From Melaka, the traders would sail to the Moluccas by way of java, Sumbawa, Banda and Ambon, doing much valuable trade on the way, selling their Indian textiles at Gresik and Panarukan in exchange for caxas (Chinese copper coins)with which they purchased rice and cotton cloth for inferior quality at Bima in Sumbawa. The cloves were bought in Banda or the Moluccas chiefly in exchange for this rice inferior cotton and also Chinese caxas and porcelain… the cloves sometimes fetched in Melaka thirty ties their cost in the Moluccas, and in India one hundred times, while in Lisbon during periods of scarcity they were sold for as much as 240 times their original price.”

Because of its long exposure to influential Muslim traders from India and the Middle East, Melaka converted to Islam and its Muslim rulers then became advocates and facilitators for the spread of Islam to other parts of the nasuntaran world. The pagan ruler of the Ternate in the Moluccas is known to have travelled to Melaka and on his return via Java he married a Javanese princess. The first Ternatan Muslim ruler, Sultan Zainal Abidin (1486-1500) thus became Muslim due to Melaka’s influence and example.

Intermarriages and commercial alliances were commonly practiced among the traders and the common people surrounding these ports. One Dutch report in 1609 mentioned some 1500 Javanese in the Banda Islands in Maluku, among an indigenous population of less than 15,000. Multi-ethnic visiting traders – Arabs, Chinese, Javanese and Malays – stayed for months at a time in the Maluku Island and took wives from local women, Their mestizo children look fair-skinned and straight-haired compared to the darker, frizzy-haired neighbors in the other less frequented islands.

Sensing the importance of the east-west trade along this southern corridor, the Dutch commercial strategists established a central control point at Batavia (now Jakarta) on the north coast of Java to monitor and capitalize on the commercial traffic between Melaka and Maluku.


Much has been written about the Manila-Acapulco trade across the Pacific. Often forgotten is the older and more significant trade connection between Manila and Melaka. Melaka, because of its strategic position between China and India, and a large multi-ethnic population of resident and visiting merchants from China, India, Arabia and Persia; as well as indigenous nasuntaran traders from the Philippines, Borneo and Indonesia. In the following quotation, you may read “Filipinos” where it says “Lucoes”.
        The Lucoes (Filipino from Manila dn Luzon) are about 10 days’ sail beyond Borneo. They are nearly all heathen; they have no king, but ruled by group of elders. They are a robust people, little thought of in Malacca. They have two or three junks at the most. They take the merchandise to Borneo and from there they came to Malacca.
       The Borneans go to the land of the Lucoes to buy gold and foodstuffs as well, and the gold which they bring to Malacca is from the Lucoes and from the surrounding islands (Sulu, Mindanao, Visayas, Palawan) which are countless; and they all have more or less trade with one another.
        The Lucoes have their country plenty of foodstuffs, and wax and honey, and they take the same merchandise from here as the Borneans take. They are almost one people; and in Malacca there is no division between them. They never used to be in Malacca as they are now, but the Tumunguo whom the governor of India appointed here was already beginning to gather many of them together, and they were already building many houses and shops. They are a useful people; they are hardworking… in Minjan there must be five hundred Lucoes, some of them important men and good merchants, who want to come to Malacca.

Pires’ observation that the Borneans and the Lucoes were “almost one people” is most intriguing and instructive. Iot provides a good sociological background for the fact that Rajah Sulayman of Maynila is known as the nephew of the Sultan of Brunei. And it throws light on the spread of Islam from Melaka to Brunei, and from Brunei to Manila and Sulu. The Brunei royal house, just like Ternate in the Maluku sector, traces its origin from Islamic Melaka via Johore. Thus the Islamic heritage of Pre-Spanish Manila, through its Brunei connection, is ultimately derived from Melaka.

THE EASTERN TRADING CORRIDOR – Maluku, Mindanao, Visayas, Bicol, Manila

The commercial linkages along the eastern trading corridor is less understood compared to the other two, and yet are as historically significant for understanding the resulting fabric of similarities in language, culture and ethnic characteristics. The people of Maluku had close links with those of Davao and South Cotabato. In fact, they used to refer to Mindanao as Maluku Besar, “the larger Maluku”. The islands between Mindanao and Maluku, that includes Talaud and Sangihe, have contributed Sangil-speaking population to Mindanao.

Visayan linguistics is part of the evidence for long-standing linkage along the Maluku-Mindanao-Visayas-trade routes. Visayas and Mindanao have languages that are closely related. Recent archaeological findings also indicate that Butuan, Bohol and Cebu had thriving trader communities in active commercial communication with Maluku, the southern terminal of the Melaka-Maluku trade corridor. The Islamization of the Maguindanao and the Maranao peoples appear to have originated from Ternate warriors came to the aid of the Maguindanao people. Piratical raids from Mindanao into the Visayas, though negative incidents, still points to long standing familiarity with communities and ports along eastern corridor between Maluku and Luzon.

The establishment of a Spanish naval station at the tip Zamboanga opposite Basilan is a left-hand tribute to the existence of commercial activities along the eastern corridor. For the Zamboanga fort was designed not just to intercept Moro slave raiders headed to the Visayas, but also to stop southbound Chinese junks plying the eastern corridor along the Bicol-Visayas-Mindanao-Maluku commercial connections.

Contemporary Implications

Currently there is much talk of developing the Maluku-Mindanao-Sulu-Borneo are through economic cooperation programs under BIMP-EAGA. This acronym stands for Borneo, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines-East Asian Growth Area. These border areas happen to be the farthest from Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila, which partly explains why they have lagged behind in development. One cannot continue to blame the inward-looking Dutch in the Indonesia, the British in Malaysia and the Spaniards and Americans in the Philippines for dismembering the ancient triangular matrix of nasuntara. The real issue now is how to remember and rebuild a new circle of reciprocity. This is the task that the current and future generation of regional leaders and citizens must face together. It is encouraging to see this task of regional reconstruction being started by Macapagal of the Philippines, Megawati of Indonesia, Mahathir of Malaysia, and the Sultan of Brunei.

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