The Chiefs of Balayan and Their Role in the 16th Century Spanish Invasion of Borneo
(Chapter VIII of a Batangas Historical Series)
It was no surprise that Spanish overtures of peace and friendship with the King of Borney in 1573 were received lukewarmly; and even this is an understatement. The Spaniards, after all, were encroaching upon lands where Borney, if it did not have direct sovereignty, at least wielded apparent influence.
In fact, Magad-china of Balayan, whose narrative was cited in the previous chapter, also divulged an abortive Borneyan plan to attack Manila in 1574: “The witness (Magad-china) knows that, in the former year, seventy-four, the king of Borney undertook to attack Manila, and to plunder and kill the Spaniards...”
The expedition was aborted, Magad-china related; but he also said that he had heard that the King of Borney had written to Raxa Soliman and Lacandora (Lakan Dula of Tondo) encouraging them to rise up against the Spaniards, promising them protection if they did.
The Spaniards were nothing if not dogged, however. In March of 1578, Francisco de Sande, acting on instructions from the King of Spain delivered through the Royal Council of the Indies, set sail from Manila with a fleet for Borney “to obtain the friendship of the King of Borney.” This mission, in the context of the time however, had all the markings of what was better known as “gunboat diplomacy.1”
De Sande was not stupid. He himself heard Magad-china’s narrative on board the galley “Santiago.” Apart from the plot against Spanish rule, the native of Balayan also disclosed that the King of Borney had “sent preachers of the sect of Mahoma to Cebu, Oton, Manila, and other districts, so that the people there might be instructed in it as were those of Borney.”
Thus, he would have sailed into Borney in April fully aware that he would not be extended any hospitality. If anything, the Borneyan fleet set out to meet him “three or four leagues from the city,2” forming a blockade which was as clear as a message could get. De Sande sent two Moro chiefs from Balayan, Magat and Magachina3, with a letter of peace to be delivered to the King of Borney.
The two were accompanied by six other Moros, five of whom were from Balayan and the other from Tondo. It has to be pointed out at this point that the role that the chiefs of Balayan had played in this expedition cannot be understated. Spanish documents do not state this explicitly, but obviously they enjoyed the trust of the Spaniards notwithstanding the fact that they apparently had not even embraced the Christian faith.
There was practicality in sending them ahead, given that de Sande’s message of peace was written in the Borneyan language and also “that of Manila” (Tagalog, or as it was spoken at the time). There was also risk, given that the King of Borney had a penchant for detaining chiefs of villages in islands to the north; albeit, there was some comfort in that de Sande’s fleet sat just outside the port.
A second narrative by the interpreter Joan Ochoa Ttabudo gave an insight as to exactly how real that risk was. The Borneyans feared that the letter brought by the chiefs from Balayan was witchcraft and refused to believe a word that Magat told them in reply to their queries. They
“bound him, and took him to the said house of the king, who asked him anew many questions concerning the Spaniards, which he does not remember, except that they threatened him that, if he did not tell the truth, they would kill him, and whether the said letter was witchcraft. Upon this witness asserting that he had told the truth, they took him to the prison and thrust both his feet in the stocks, put a chain about his neck, bound his hands, and set a Moro named Tumanpate to guard him.4”
Magat was eventually liberated by the Spaniards but his companion, Magachina, was not so fortunate. While in prison, a slave of the king named Haguandatan had told him, “Have no fear. I killed Magachina thus, and gave him a dagger-thrust near the neck, from which he died.”
De Sande’s message to the King of Borney, Saiful Rijal5, while ostensibly to convey a desire for peace, was also noteworthy for its utter lack of diplomacy and high-handedness. After the expected offer of peace, but naturally in Spanish terms as was always the case in the Visayas and Luzon wherever the Spaniards erstwhile came to make this so-called peace, he then proceeded to ‘instruct’ the sultan.
“What you are to do is to admit preachers of the holy gospel… send no preachers of the sect of Mahoma to any part of these islands… send me a Christian Spaniard, called Diego Felipe, whom I am told you have there, as well as others if you have them; and two Visayans, natives of Çubu, Christians whom we know that you have, and who were captured from their own country… allow those persons whom you have detained, because they are rich, to go about freely… forbid your people from asking tribute in these islands, inasmuch as I collect tribute in them, as it is the right of our king, my sovereign.6”
That the letter of peace would be rejected was always a foregone conclusion not just because of the way it was crafted but more because of what Borneyans stood to lose were they to accept the terms of peace. But while the fleet of Borney was brazen in firing the first artillery salvo at the Spaniards, in the end the latter’s superior firepower scattered the Borneyans and forced them into flight.
De Sande himself, in his letter to Felipe II, described the hostilities, “After we had fired a number of volleys, it was God's pleasure that the Moros should be conquered and take to flight.” Rijal was forced into hiding up in the mountains while “four or five thousand who settled there” (meaning in Borney) were subdued by the Spaniards.
De Sande obtained from the remaining chiefs in Borney “full obedience” to the King of Spain and a promise that land would be allotted to the Spaniards for the building of a settlement. This was April, however; and whilst the monsoons would not have come yet, the heat and humidity would have been a factor especially so close to the equator as Borney was.
As things happened, so many of de Sande’s soldiers fell ill, forcing a Spanish withdrawal and, therefore, a failure to consolidate their gains in Borney. While this is ultimately outside of the scope of this narrative, it is well worth pondering for a moment how present-day Philippine territory could easily have extended farther south had history panned out differently; and especially in view of the twentieth century Sabah dispute.
Notes and references:1 A concept in international politics in which the pursuit of an objective is made with a highly visible display of maritime might or power.
2 Letter of Francisco de Sande to Felipe II, as published in the Blair and Robertson series “The Philippine Islands: Volume IV: 1576-1582.”
3 Probably the Magad-china of the earlier narrative; as in many instances, there was no standardisation in the spelling of names, particularly non-Spanish ones, in historical Spanish documents.
4 Narrative of Joan Ochoa Ttbudo, as published in the Blair and Robertson series “The Philippine Islands: Volume IV: 1576-1582.”
5 Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1350-1800, Ooi Keat Gin and Hoang Anh Tuan, Editors. New York 2016.
6 Letter to the King of Borney from Francisco de Sande, as published in the Blair and Robertson series “The Philippine Islands: Volume IV: 1576-1582.”