The Bates Treaty
(The author thanks Ernie Garcia, former director of ABS/CBN in the Philippines, and Jim Kaplan for their editorial comments.)
A relatively unknown but significant detail in Philippine history is the Bates Treaty, signed between the U.S. and the Sultanate of Sulu on August 20, 1899. This article looks into the background of that treaty and its consequences.
The Filipinos had been waging their War of Independence from Spain when the U.S. “won” the Spanish-American War in the battle of Manila Bay. Despite the opposition of anti-imperialist forces, the U.S. took possession of the Philippines. Disappointed by and bitter about this unexpected and unforeseen move by the country he had considered an ally, Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo then turned the war into the Philippine American War. Now labeling the ongoing independence war an “insurrection,” the U.S. proceeded to establish control of the Philippine Islands through force. Filipino forces were increasing in the north and becoming a growing concern of the U.S. military. In order to concentrate its limited forces in the north, and to hold at bay the Moro resistance to its colonization in the Sulu Archipelago, the United States resorted to the device of a treaty. Known as the Bates Treaty, it was the first step towards the dissolution of Moro (Muslim population of the southern Philippines) sovereignty and the dismantling of the Sulu Sultanate.
The Bates Treaty had promised to uphold mutual respect between the U.S. and the Sultanate of Sulu, to respect Moro autonomy, and to not give or sell Sulu or any part of it to any other nation. In addition, under this treaty the Sultan and his datus (tribal chiefs) were to receive monthly payments in return for flying the American flag and for allowing the U.S. the right to occupy lands on the islands.
A year prior, in December 1898, and with the Tausug (people of Jolo and neighboring islands) unaware that they were among the pawn peoples whose fates were being decided at a table thousands of miles away, the Treaty of Paris was signed, which included their beloved string of islands. In the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam to the U.S.; and for $20 million the entire Philippines. Included in this cession were the territories of Mindanao and Sulu, which actually had not been in full Spanish control. About two years later, on November 7, 1900, the U.S. paid an additional $100,000 to Spain to include in the 1898 cession the Sulu islands stretching as far west as Sibutu and Cagayan de Sulu.
After their defeat by the U.S., the Spaniards turned over a garrison on the island of Siasi, southwest of Jolo, to the Sultan, who personally went from his seat in Maimbung on the island of Jolo to Siasi to oversee the transfer. It was not until May 1899 that the U.S. sent troops to take over the Spanish fort in Jolo. The Americans had not been able to get troops to Jolo sooner because, as General. E.S. Otis wrote to Admiral Dewey on May 14, 1899, they could not afford to send any troops outside the Luzon area.
The fighting in Luzon was peaking at this time. In the south, the Filipino revolutionary forces had already taken over from the Spaniards a fort in Zamboanga at the southern tip of the island of Mindanao. General Otis estimated it would require 2,000 men to retake the Zamboanga fort. The Spanish fort in the town of Jolo was much smaller and, he surmised, would require only 600 men for its defense after the Spaniards left. “[It] would be a good scheme to send the garries to Jolo immediately, or the Moros would destroy the fortifications and guns and turn them upon us when we appear.” So, U.S. troops were immediately sent to Jolo. It was a timely move. The Moros, as he feared, could easily have taken over the fort from the Spaniards. The Sultan had a standing army of 26,000 men.
When the Americans arrived in Jolo, they told Jamalul Kiram II, the sultan of Sulu, that the U.S. had taken over the affairs of Spain and asked the Sultan to recognize the U.S. in the place of Spain, and honor the 1878 provisions of the treaty, which the Sultan had signed with Spain. But the Sultan refused, stating that the U.S. was a different entity and that the U.S. should enter into a new treaty with the Sultanate.
The Spanish Treaty of Peace, signed on July 22, 1878, was the last one signed by the Sultan during the Spanish occupation of the town of Jolo. The treaty had allowed Spain to set up a small garrison, covering about 15 acres, in the town of Jolo. Outside the wall, the Sultan still ruled. Scholars fluent in both Spanish and Arabic found the treaty to have translation flaws, which would have implications in the 1898 cession of the Philippine Islands to the U.S. The Spanish version states that Spain had sovereignty over Sulu, whereas the Tausug version describes a protectorate relationship rather than a dependency of Spain. The treaty says that the customs, laws, and religion of the Moros would not be subjected to Spanish jurisdiction. It made Jolo a protectorate of Spain. This treaty also provided the sultan and his datus monthly payments of 250-1500 Mexican pesos. The sultan had the mistaken impression that the agreement with the Spaniards would be similar to the one he signed six months earlier with the British North Borneo Chartered Company, which paid him $5,000 annually for the use of his North Borneo territories (now Sabah). (The Philippines, under President Diosdado Macapagal in the 1960s, tried to reclaim Sabah in the world court. This continues to be a source of irritation between the Philippine and Malaysian governments.)
In place of the Spanish treaty, the sultan presented Brig. General John Bates with a 16-point proposal. The proposal allowed the U.S. to fly its flag side by side with the Sultanate’s and required the U.S. to continue monthly payments to the sultan and his datus. The U.S. was not to occupy any of the land without the permission of the sultan. The sultan’s proposal was rejected by Bates, because it did not acknowledge U.S. sovereignty.
Bates then countered with his 15-point proposal, which included the recognition of U.S. sovereignty over Sulu and its dependencies, the guarantee of non-interference with Moro religion and customs and a pledge that the “U.S. will not sell the island of Jolo or any other island of the Sulu Archipelago to any foreign nation without the consent of the Sultan.”
The sultan resisted Bates’s offer for several months, but he could not get unanimous support from his ruma bichara (ruling council) to press for his demands to the Americans. Because of this internal dissension, led by his own prime minister and adviser Hadji Butu and two of his top ranking datus, Datu Jolkanairn and Datu Kalbi, the sultan on August 20, 1899 conceded to the Americans. The treaty terms were much more favorable to the U.S. than what the Spanish treaty provided. According to Sixto Orosa, “The people did not wish to come under American sovereignty; but Hadji Butu recognizing the folly of armed resistance, exerted all his influence to prevent another useless and bloody war.” Hadji Butu and his son, Hadji Gulamu Rasul would later become favorites of northern Filipinos for opposing the Sultan’s agama court and for favoring integration of Moros into the Philippine republic.
By this time, the Sultanate was financially drained and weakened. From1830 when Spain cut off the lucrative Manila-Jolo trade, because it felt threatened by the sultan’s friendly relations with other European powers like Germany, France and Great Britain, it had to fight Spain’s unrelenting attacks to subjugate it. Class differences was also beginning to tear at the seams of the monarchy. The sultan never gave up his scheming against the U.S. despite his datus’ friendliness to the Americans. John Bass of Harper’s Weekly reported that the sultan was importing a large cache of rifles and ammunition “evidently to maintain his sovereignty.” This would later be borne out by a series of cotta (bunker or trench) wars against the Americans by the sultan’s subjects. This might not seem plausible as the sultan had denied any knowledge of his subject’s doings when the U.S. accused him of promoting an insurrection against the U.S. But, in August 1999, I received an e-mail from a friend of Ben Han, a Jolo native, who informed me that Ben Han’s grandfather was an Afghan mercenary hired by the sultan as an officer in the fight against the Americans between 1906-1913.
Whether the Bates treaty made a difference in later years, it is worth mentioning that there was a very critical translation error from English to Tausug. The word sovereignty was not used anywhere in the Tausug version. Article I of the Treaty in the Tausug version states “The support, aid, and protection of the Jolo Island and Archipelago are in the American nation,” whereas the English version read “The sovereignty of the United States over the whole Archipelago of Jolo and its dependencies is declared and acknowledged.” Najeeb Saleeby, an American of Lebanese descent who was assigned to Mindanao and Sulu, caught the translation flaws and charged Charlie Schuck, son of a German businessman, for deliberately mistranslating the treaty. Schuck was acquitted of all legal charges. Whether mistranslated, the wording of the treaty provided the justification for the U.S. decision to incorporate the Sulu Archipelago into the Philippine state in 1946.
The Bates Treaty did not last very long. After the U.S. had completed its goal of suppressing the resistance in northern Philippines, it unilaterally abrogated the Bates Treaty on March 2, 1904, claiming the Sultan had failed to quell Moro resistance and that the treaty was a hindrance to the effective colonial administration of the area. Payments to the Sultan and his datus were also stopped. But in reality, Bates never intended to ratify the treaty. As Bates would later confess, the agreement was merely a temporary expedient to buy time until the northern forces were defeated. “The Treaty was made at a time when nearly all the state volunteers had been sent home and other troops had not arrived to take their places. It was a critical time, as all the troops were needed in Luzon. The Government could not afford to stir up trouble with the Moros. The Treaty was made as a temporary expedient to avoid trouble. It has served its purpose for three years, and there is now no reason why the treaty which was but a temporary measure at a critical time, should not be changed in accordance with the conditions.”
The sultan protested vehemently and payments were reinstated. He argued that he could not stop the Moro attacks against the Americans, because the U.S. had imposed poll and land taxes on the population, a practice which the Moros were not used to. In a letter to Governor General Luke Wright in April 1904, the sultan urged the Americans not to “put yokes on our necks that we cannot bear, and don’t make us do what is against our religion, and don’t ask us to pay poll tax forever and ever as long as there is sun and moon, and don’t ask taxes for land which are our rights of the Moro people, including all that grows in Jolo and its islands.”
Now securely in a position of power and strength after the defeat of the northern Filipinos, the U.S. launched a determined campaign to suppress the ever-defiant Tausugs, who were as opposed to U.S. rule as they had been to the Spanish occupation. Known as the Moro Campaigns, this ferocious war between American soldiers and Moros continued in the south of the Philippines for the next thirteen years, making it the longest war in U.S. history. It was a bloody war; neither side took any quarter, nor gave any. During its course, two infamous massacres occurred on the island of Jolo: Bud Dajo in1906 and Bud Bagsak in 1913.
The Battle of Bud Dajo on March 7, 1906 was a consequence of the U.S. “Policy of Disarmament” as implemented by General John “Black Jack” Pershing. The Moro Wars taught the U.S., albeit costly, the inseparability of a Tausug and his weapon. In turn, what the Moros had to reckon with in the American soldier was the motivation that had fueled the Indian wars in America. The cry “A good Indian is a dead Indian!” became “A good Moro is a dead Moro!” Passions raged and collided, and blood flowed during that crimson period in Jolo. In the Dajo Massacre, some 900 men, women, and children were slaughtered atop an extinct volcano in the municipality of Danag on the island of Jolo. The Americans spared not a single life of the brave Tausugs who defended their mountain retreat — not a man, woman or infant! Though the bloody campaigns against the Moros officially ended in 1915, U.S. troops continued to encounter sporadic Moro attacks for the next two decades.
Recognizing a flaw in the wording of the Bates Treaty, Governor Frank Carpenter asked the sultan, his heirs, and his council to sign another agreement with the U.S. on March 22, 1915–this time, for the Sultan and his heirs to abdicate their claims to the throne. Article IX of the treaty refers to the “government of the sultan.” More importantly, the new agreement was meant to put an end to the existing parallel government of the sultan; the sultan continued to rule as before exercising his powers in all aspects of Moro life, collecting taxes, and trying civil and criminal cases. When the U.S. protested the sultan’s practice, he simply demurred that his status as sovereign head was reinstated when the U.S. abrogated the treaty in 1904. Thus, Carpenter wrote in his 1916 report that it was “necessary and opportune definitely to extinguish all claims of the sultan to any degree of temporal sovereignty.”
Implementation of the 1915 Agreement was further delayed by negotiations over what the sultan and his heirs would receive in exchange for their giving up their temporal powers. The negotiations which concluded in May 1919 gave the sultan a life-time payment of P12,000 per annum and allowed him and his heirs the usufruct use of public lands. Carpenter was confident that with the settlement final, the sultan would now cooperate with the U.S. by fully recognizing U.S. sovereignty over Sulu. In his 1919 Report, Carpenter stated that “this satisfactory conclusion has resulted in the forward advance of the policy of amalgamation and in the complete triumph of the ideals of the Government and the Filipino people.”
As the U.S. was preparing to give the Philippines commonwealth status in preparation for its independence in 1946, some Moro leaders favored integration into the republic but majority from both Sulu and Mindanao protested the plan to incorporate their homeland into the Philippine state. “Our public land must not be given to people other than the Moros,” they urged. “[I]f we are deprived of our land, how can we then earn our own living? A statute should be enacted to forbid others from taking over our land, a safe and reliable way to forestall a tragedy.” But their pleas fell on deaf ears. The U.S. went ahead and turned over the islands to Filipino hands. In 1946, contrary to its promise under the Bates Treaty “not to give or sell Sulu or any part of it to any other nation,” the U.S. incorporated Mindanao and Sulu against the will of the Moro people into the state now known as the Philippine Republic.
(Madge Kho is a native of Jolo and presently resides in Boston, Massachusetts where she is co-chair of the Friends of the Filipino People, an organization founded in 1973 to oppose U.S. support for the Marcos dictatorship. Madge is also a director of the Jolo Culture and Historical Society. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.)
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