Brief memorandum on the government of the Sultanate of Sulu and powers of the Sultan during the 19th century


Brief Memorandum on the Government of the Sultanate of Sulu and
Powers of the Sultan during the 19TH Century*


The internal government of the Sulu Sultanate has often been misunderstood or misinterpreted by outsiders — especially during the past half-century, when Spanish, American and Filipino controlled administrations in Manila have been endeavoring to limit the powers of the Sulu rulers, and to incorporate the Sultanate into the regular Philippine Government.

Unlike many of the southern Malay states where the sultan is despotic, in Sulu the government is an oligarchy — vested-in the sultan and datus, in the Ruma Bechara assembled. This condition has existed for a long time, and has been noticed or described in the 17th and 18th centuries by such well-known Spanish, Italian, French and English writers as Combes, Gamelli-Carreri, Dampier, Sonnerat, and Forrest.

In the first half of the 19ch Century, it has also been described in the excellent reports on Sulu and Borneo prepared by J. Hunt, Esq., for SirThomas Stamford Raffles, in 1812 (and revised in August, 1814) —which have been included in J.H. Moor’s “Notices of the Indian Archipelago, etc.”, Vol. I, printed at Singapore in 1837. Another excellent account, written by an unnamed American merchant-trader, is included in Vol. V of the “Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition to the East Indies”, by Commodore Charles Wilkes, U.S. Navy (printed at Philadelphia in 1845).

Hunt’s account is substantially as follows (with a few omissions and corrections of later date):

Even at this day, the Sultan is a mere cipher, neither feared nor respected . . . unable to decide on the most trivial points, without the aid of his Ruma Bechara. All the royal Datus and Princes (entitled to be called Paltik) – the whole of these had formerly a right to seat and voice in the Ruma Bechara; but their overgrown number became inconvenient, and when the Sultan Aliyud Din ascended the throne (c. 1802) he ordered a Council of six members… “whom he invested with such powers, that even the Sultan’s commands, without their sanction, should, in commercial affairs, be deemed null and void” … “But as several powerful chiefs were dissatisfied with this arrangement not relishing a total exclusion of power, a considerable extension of the Ruma Bechara has taken place (recently) consisting not only of Datus but of other chiefs, not descended from the blood royal.” In 1814 the Ruma Bechara consisted of 17 members (12 Datus, and 5 orangkaya andpanglima, as follows:) …

Forest’s account (written in the late 18th century, c. 1776) clarifies some of the powers of the Ruma Bechara:

“About 15 datus … make up the greater part of the legislature … They sit in council with the Sultan. The Sultan has two votes in this assembly, and each datu has one. The heir apparent… if he sides with the sultan, has two votes; but if against him, only one. There are two representatives of the people, called mantiris, like the military tribunes of the Romans. The common people of Sulu … enjoy much real freedom, owing to the above representation.”

In another part of this account (p.40) Hunt further says:

“The Sulus are certainly more polished than the generality of the Malays … The form of their government stamps in great measure the character of these people and makes the difference between them and the Malays. The slender power of the sultan and the freedom of their mode of government give an unlimited latitude to commercial industry and the life interest which every slave retains to his personal acquisitions, gives the united mass of people a far greater proportion of activity and industry than what is to be found among any of their neighbors. But this unshackled liberty renders the chiefs and people haughty, overbearing, and insolent, to an inconceivable degree.”

The account given by Commodore Wilkes (written 1812) runs as follows: (p. 353)

“The government has also undergone a change; for the sultan, who among other Malay races is usually despotic, is here a mere cipher, and the government has become an oligarchy. This change has probably been brought about by the increase of the privilege class of datus, all of whom were entitled to a seat in the Ruma Bechara until about the year 1810, when the great inconvenience of so large a council was felt, and it became impossible to control it without great difficulty and trouble on the part of the Sultan. The Ruma Bechara was then reduced until it contained but six of the principal datus, was enlarged; but the more powerful, and those who have the largest numerical force of slaves, still rule over its deliberations. The whole power, within the last thirty years, has been usurped by one or two datus, who now have monopolized the little foreign trade that comes to these islands. The sultan has the right to appoint his successor, and generally names him while living. In default of this, the choice devolves upon the Ruma Bechara, who elect by a majority.”


Such was the state of affairs down to the middle of the 19th century. On April 30, 1851, Sultan Mohammed Pulalun (father of Sultan Jamalul A’lam) signed the first important Sulu treaty with the Spanish Government. The following persons signed the treaty in representation of the Ruma Bechara of the Sulu Sultanate:


1. Maulana Sultan Mohammed Pulalun
2. Datu Mohammed Buyuk
3. Datu Muluk
4. Datu Amil Bahar
5. Datu Bandahala
6. Datu Muluk Kahar
7. Datu Amil Badar
8. Datu Tumanggung
9. Datu Johan
10. Datu Sauja’an
11. Datu Na’ib
12. Datu Mamancha
13. Tuan Sharif Mohammed Binsarin

On January 22, 1878, Sultan Jamalul A’lam (son of Sultan Pulalun, above) signed a one-page document, written in the Malay language in Arabic characters, giving to Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and Alfred Dent, Esq., and their Company, a permanent lease to the territories allegedly owned by him in northern Borneo, in consideration of a permanent payment of five thousand dollars per annum; and on the same day he signed another document investing the said Baron de Overbeck as Datu Bandahara and Raja of Sandakan, with full powers to govern said territories as delegate of the Sultan of Sulu. These two documents bear only the signature and official seal (witnessed by W.H. Treacher, H. B. M. Consul-General for Borneo) of Sultan Jamalul A’lam — and are not officially witnessed or signed by any other member of the Ruma Bechara.

A question therefore arises as to the legality of the above two documents, and this question will be duly discussed on a later page. First, however, we may look into the status of the Ruma Bechara in later years.


On the 20th of July, 1878, only six months after the date of the Borneo lease, Sultan Jamalul A’lam and his Council signed another treaty with the Spanish Government — the document bearing the following signatures in representation of the Sultanate of Sulu:

1. Padukka Mahasari Maulana Sultan Mohammed Jamalul A’lam
2. Padukka Datu (i.e., Royal Datu) Mohammed Badarud Lin
3. Padukka Datu Raja Lawut Mohammed Zaynul ‘Abidin
4. Padukka Datu Muluk Bandarasa Mohammed Pula
5. Padukka Datu Mohammed Harun ar-Rashid

Saleeby, in his “History of Sulu” (Manila, 1908) states that Jamalul A’lam always kept a firm control over the datus, but during the last years of his reign (1880-81) the power of the state council was considerably increased, and it became into two factions – the strongest being led by the greatest figure of later Sulu history, the Pangian Inchi Jamila (mother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram).

The power and influence of Inchi Jamila continued to increase, although – due to Spanish interference – she was not able to make her son Sultan of Sulu until 1893, but she then forced the Spanish recognition and remained as the dominant influence in the Sulu state council until the end of the Spanish regime.

On August 20, 1899, Brigadier-General John C. Bates, representing the United States Government, negotiated an agreement with the Sultanate of Sulu commonly known as the “Bates Treaty”. This document was signed for the Sultanate of Sulu by the following members of the state council:

1. Padukka Mahasari Maulana Sultan Hadji Mohammed Jamalul Kiram.
2. Padukka Datu Rajamuda Mohammed Muallil Wasit
3. Padukka Datu Atik
4. Padukka Datu Kalbi
5. Paduka Datu Zulkarmain

Although the Bates Treaty was tentatively abrogated in 1904, the Sultanate of Sulu was still regarded as in legal existence in 1915; and on March 22nd of that year a document was negotiated, now known as the “Carpenter Agreement” signed for the Sultanate of Sulu by the following persons:

1. Sultan Hadji Mohammed Jamalul Kiram
2. Datu Rajamuda
3. Bandahara Hadji Butu
4. Datu Mohammed
5. Abdullah Awang
6. Hadji Mohammed
7. Panglima Tahil

By the Carpenter Agreement, negotiated under the administration of Governor-General Harrison, the Sultan relinquished all temporal power over territory within the Philippines (except for certain specific grants of land to Sultan Jamalul Kiram and his heirs), but retained his rights of sovereignty over the territory of North Borneo and his religious authority as titular head of the Mohammedan Church in Sulu and Mindanao. The Sultanate of Sulu was in no wise abolished by the Carpenter Agreement; but the sultan and his council merely relinquished their temporal powers to be exercised by regularly appointed or elected officials of the Philippine Government. It is generally believed that only the Sulu people themselves (through a plebiscite or an elected popular assembly) could legitimately abolish the Sultanate.

The land grants and other obligations on which the Carpenter Agreement was predicated, were never properly carried out by the Philippine Government as originally agreed; although the Philippine Legislature had authorized the original arrangement by Act 2722, and the Sultan and his heirs had in May, 1919, signed papers accepting the arrangement authorized in the Act. (Actually these papers were signed five days before the Act became a Law, through signature of the Governor-General). The provisions of Act 2722 were never properly carried out — due partly to a change of administration in Manila, and partly to the fact that the placing of the lands on a revenue-paying basis (as the Government had guaranteed) proved impractical as an official project. This neglect, together with the over-persuasive methods by which the signatures to the original “agreement” had been obtained, led to a legitimate feeling on the part of the sultan and his council that they had been deceived and mistreated by the Philippine Government. Recognizing the general justice of this complaint, together with the impracticality of carrying out the original provisions of Act 2722, the Philippine Legislature in 1923 passed Act 3118 – giving the Sultan Jamalul Kiram and to his brother and to three of his nieces a total of 4,096 hectares of land in fee simple.

As to the somewhat doubtful legitimacy, under Sulu law, of the original “Carpenter Agreement,” Governor Carpenter himself expressed the matter quite frankly in an official communication to the Governor-General, dated March 23, 1915, in part as follows:

“… I do not recall ever having had a more trying and lengthy undertaking than have been these conferences and their objective. This has been due chiefly to the fact that so far as the Sultan will concede or I am informed there is no precedent of a sultan voluntarily giving up to (another) Government the prerogatives of trial of civil and criminal cases growing out of domestic relations, the determination of heirs and partition of estates, and especially the renunciation of the right to collect taxes for the support of the Sultan, his clergy, etc. He stated repeatedly that he had never signed anything of this sort and the most vexatious reason he gave for insisting on postponement of signature to the memorandum was in order that he might submit the matter to the datus and other representatives of the Sulu people.”

This indicates that Sultan Jamalul Kiram understood his responsibility to the Ruma Bechara, and doubted that the group then with him was sufficiently representative or comprehensive.

With regard to the Sultan’s sovereign rights in Borneo, and his position as head of the Mohammedan Church, Governor Carpenter made the following statement on May 4, 1920 (in a letter addressed to the Director of Non-Christian Tribes):

“It is necessary however that there be clearly of official record the fact that the termination of the temporal sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu within American territory is understood to be wholly without prejudice or effect as to the temporal sovereignty and ecclesiastical authority of the Sultanate beyond the jurisdiction of the United States Government, especially with reference to the portion of the Island of Borneo which as a dependency of the Sultanate of Sulu is understood to be held under lease by the chartered company which is known as the “British North Borneo Government’ …”

Throughout the remainder of Sultan Jamalul Kiram’s reign there were no very important departures from the general relations between the Sultanate of Sulu and the Philippine Government established under the Carpenter Agreement, as interpreted after 1923, except a constant jockeying between the Sultan and Datus, on one side, and the Governor of Sulu on the other, for definition of the boundary line between “ecclesiastical” and “temporal” rights and privileges. The Sultan has tried to maintain that all domestic relations cases come under the “ecclesiastical”, and should be tried in the agama or religious courts.

Even under the early Commonwealth Government (beginning in 1935) there was no important change of policy, until after the death of Sultan Jamalul Kiram on June 7, 1936.


Jamalul Kiram’s passing brought about an immediate dispute as to the succession, and again brought the Ruma Bechara into active function. It is their definite prerogative, under Sulu law, to decide the succession in all cases of dispute.

The obvious legitimate candidate was the Padukka Datu Rajamuda Muallil Wasit, long recognized as the heir-apparent — brother of Jamalul Kiram. But for some reason that has never been made clear a majority of the council appear to have opposed his succession; and support was divided between two other rival candidates – the late Dayang-Dayang Hadji Piandau and the Datu Tambuyong. As opinions seem pretty definite that a woman could not legally head the sultanate, the question was resolved by her marriage to the Datu Ombra Amilbangsa – who, through the Dayang-Dayang’s influence with the council, was finally elected sultan to succeed the deceased Jamalul Kiram, despite the strong opposition of a considerable section, of the legitimate members of the Ruma Bechara. At a later period, these last, with the support of a considerable section of the people, met separately and elected the Datu Tambuyong as head of the sultanate under the title Sultan Mahammed Jainal Abirrin II.

In an effort to resolve this state of affairs, an appeal was made to the late President Quezon as head of the Philippine Commonwealth — but the latter refused to take action in the matter, on the alleged ground that the Sulu Sultanate had ended with the death of Jamalul Kiram through his previous acceptance of the Carpenter Agreement and the benefits conferred under Acts 2722 and 3118. Unofficially, however, the claims of the Dayang-Dayang and her consort Datu Ombra were recognized by majority of the Philippine Government officials in Sulu down until the outbreak of the war in 1941. There are still two rival claimants to the title Sultan of Sulu, neither of whom enjoys official recognition; but with the events of the war, and the death of the Dayang-Dayang, the Ombra party has been weakened — and at the present time it is probable that Sultan Mohammed Jainal Abirrin II has the support of a considerable majority both of the legitimate members of the Ruma Bechara and of the Sulu people themselves.

The question as to whether the present Government of the Republic of the Philippines should take any definite action in the way of officially recognizing the existing Sultan of Sulu is a matter of public policy on which I have no desire to make specific recommendation. In the interest of the peace and welfare of the numerous Mohammedan citizens of the Sulu Archipelago, however, I believe that it is a matter that should sooner or later receive serious consideration from the President and his Cabinet with a view to arriving at some just solution of this vexatious question.


Returning now to the question of the legality of the lease of the North Borneo territories, signed by the Sultan Jamalul Alam on January 22, 1878, two subsidiary questions arise: First, were the North Borneo lands property of the Sultan personally, or were they state property of the Sulu Sultanate? Second, if the lands were property of the Sultanate, could they be legally leased or alienated by this Sultan alone without the signed concurrence of the Ruma Bechara or other representatives of the people in a popular assembly?

As to the first question, there can be no doubt but that the North Borneo territories were state property of the Sulu Sultanate and not personal property of the Sultan and his heirs. They were acquired at the beginning of the 18th century (c. 1710) as a reward for Sulu aid in a war between rival sultans for the throne of Brunei (See full account in the “History of the Sultans of Brunei.” by Sir Hugh Low; in Joun. Straits Branch, R. A. S., No. 5, Singapore, 1880; pp. 9-23) Portions of the lands were afterwards granted (with certain reservations as to mineral rights, etc.) to various Sulu chiefs and datus who had aided in the war, by the then Sultan of Sulu (c. 1715). Furthermore, various existing documents mention administration of the Borneo territories by successors in the Sulu Sultanate.

As to the second question, it should be clear from the quotations and citations given in the earlier pages of this memorandum that both before and after the time that Sultan Jamalul Alam signed the 1878 lease it was generally accepted in Sulu that the written concurrence or consent of the state council or Ruma Bechara was necessary to legalize and authenticate the sultan’s more serious acts — and certainly the leasing of several tens of thousands of square miles of North Borneo land was a matter of more than ordinary concern to the whole Sulu people. Furthermore, I do not remember ever seeing any other important Sulu document with the Sultan’s signature alone; practically always at least the Datu Rajamuda and the Prime Minister, and frequently other royal datus as well, signed with him. In the case of treaties, trade agreements, and life formalities, there are never less than five or six signatures.

One exception to the above is the type of passport or temporary permit which the Sultan used to grant to Englishmen, Germans, and other non-Spanish foreigners who wished to travel or trade in the Sulu Archipelago. These documents used to consist of a single sheet each, with the seal of the Sultanate at the top and the Sultan’s personal seal at the bottom, just as in the case of the lease and of the separate commission or title of nobility given to the Baron von Overbeck. This would seem to indicate that the Sultan Jamalul Alam made the arrangements with the Baron von Overbeck on his own personal responsibility and authority, and was not desirous of submitting the matter for discussion and action by the Ruma Bechara, or even by the Prime Minister and royal datus. The Ruma Bechara and the people of Sulu certainly had good cause to protest this highhanded alienation of a goodly section of their state property without their consent and in a manner contrary to the accepted customary law of the Sultanate. The extent to which they may still have a right to protest this 68-year-old action is a matter which I will leave to others better versed in international law.

That Overbeck and Dent fully admitted the sovereign rights of the Sultans of Sulu and’ Brunei over all the territories administered by the British North Borneo Company is sufficiently clear from Dent’s own statement made before the Royal Colonial Institute on May 12, 1885:

“As to the charter, some friends of the enterprise seem to believe that the enormous powers we hold were given by Her Majesty the Queen. It is not so at all. All our powers were derived entirely from the Sultans of Brunei and Sulu, and what the British Government did was simply to incorporate us by Royal Charter, thus recognising our powers, which recognition is to us, of course, of vital importance.” – (In JSB-RAS, No. 14, 335; Singapore, 1885.)

With this we may leave the question. This memorandum is submitted to accompany the translation by Harold G. Conklin of the Malay text of the lease of January 22, 1878.

December 8, 1946


* Borneo Records, Department of Foreign Affairs, Manila
** Former Head, Department of Anthropology, University of the Philippines.

Source: The Philippine Claim to a Portion of North Borneo