MANILA, Philippines - In the busy corner of Ayala and Buendia in Makati City, the glass- and steel-framed Yuchengco Museum currently plays host to a collection of artifacts pertaining to Sulu. Yes, Sulu.
That little archipelago just off the Zamboanga Peninsula where a recent hostage drama played out. That impoverished province that actually used to be an economic center in Southeast Asia that took part in the boom of imperial capitalism in the late 19th century.
Called “Beyond the Currents: The Culture and Power of Sulu,” the exhibit showcases the richness of Sulu’s—and inevitably the Philippines’—history, a timely endeavor now that Sulu is in the news for something unfortunate like the kidnapping of journalists by bandits.
More than turning the spotlight on the other side of Sulu, however, the exhibit is an attempt to correct the “exteriorization” of Sulu in the writing of Philippine history, as UP arts studies professor and guest museum curator Abraham Sakili calls it.
National history, he says, was written in such a way that Sulu was relegated into a mere province, just any province, of the Philippines, when it was once a thriving entrepot, a trade and maritime center.
Sakili chose “power” as the central concept that holds together the pieces in the collection that have been loaned from sources like Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco, Ramon Villegas, and the Ayala Museum.
The collection features weaponry, armor, transcript of treaties, chinaware traded in the Sulu entrepot, among other things. In the classic historical study titled The Sulu Zone, James Warren chronicles the rise and decline of the Sulu’s political-economic machinery.
Thus, the exhibit rightly focuses on the theme of Sulu as a strategically located hub for the competing trading routes and imperialisms of the time. It emphasizes the fact that the military strength and naval prowess of the Sulu Sultanate was heavily interlinked with the maritime trade that it specialized with.
When the trade with China was still profitable, the British wanted to get its fair share. But to be able to trade in the ports of Hong Kong and Shanghai, the British needed another set of products to trade with China other than the opium that they had been producing in South Asia.
They needed to source other goods that the Chinese wanted. Meanwhile, as the British advanced in the Southeast Asia, the Spaniards in Manila closed Illana Bay, off the coast of Cotabato, to Chinese junk ships trading across the South China Sea.
A fort was established in Zamboanga and this effectively choked the Sultanate of Maguindanao, the economic competitor in the region of the Sulu Sultanate.
The confluence of these events put Sulu in a very lucky spot — it had mostly maritime and forest products that the Chinese had been trading with them for the longest time. The British gained access to these goods — to bring to the Chinese ports — by trading arms with the Sultan of Sulu. Thus, Sulu’s military prowess was enhanced.
The museum exhibits some artifacts that jibe with these details in Sulu’s political-economic history. An example is the brass lantakas (cannons) powered by Chinese gunpowder. There is an amazing array of body armor, along with spears that the Sulu troops used in their battles, on which prayers for protection were etched.
Interestingly, the body armor comes with headscarf on which prayers are written in similar strokes as those found in the amulets sold in Quiapo.The exhibit also displays an interesting collection of documents, like treaties written in both English and Arabic.
These treaties embody the negotiating points between the Sulu sovereign and the various imperial powers of the time.Located at the 3rd and 4th floors of the Cone Gallery, the Yuchengco Museum will run the exhibit until July 23. (Lou Janssen Dangzalan)