The Corporate Slave Part Two


Now, you’re an 18th century Taosug slave owner you can throw away the Labor Code right?

Wrong. Two hundred years ago there was a sort of ‘labor code’, too. Slaves had rights at least in practice if not in law. Remember, this is Filipino slavery and you really wouldn’t expect it to be like anyone else’s.

Most of our ideas about slavery are formed from images of Egyptian slave-drivers in old Cecile B. De Mille spectaculars and stories of Afro-Americans in the cotton fields of the US southern states. It wasn’t quite like that.

For starters, in the Philippines it was possible to be a part-time slave. If one parent was free and the other a slave you were one half slave. With on parent half-slave and the other free you’d be a quarter slave. You’d spend a week working for your master and the rest of the month farming your own patch or pretty much doing your own thing.

In the Sulu archipelago society was broadly split into three layers, the aristocrats who nominally owned the place, the freemen and slaves. Some slaves were acquired through debt servitude while others were captured in raids and bought and sold throughout the area.

Of course, nobody in his or her right mind would want to be a slave, would they? That depends on what you were doing before the raiders came and grabbed you because some slaves did very nicely indeed.

How nicely? One slave, or banyaga, who could have escaped, told William Pryor, administrator for the North Borneo Chartered Company, the people who started all the Sabah problems: “There is something to regret everywhere; here I am well enough, my master treats me as one of his kindred, I am well paid, and could save money if I wished; in my own country I know I could not do better, and perhaps should not fare as well, therefore I prefer remaining here.”

Another who had escaped, Antonio Juan, said: “I was very well treated throughout the period of my captivity so much so that my master tried to convince me to marry a female captive, stating that their society had neither the tribute nor personal services (polo), nor could anyone order me about in the same manner as in the Christian villages.”

There were some downsides. If your master died you might die, too. Your master could, in theory, kill you at will, sell you, swap you or give you away and on a really, really bad day you might have a boat launched over you, none of which enhance upward career development.

Slaves were a form of currency. You were worth three kilos of rice or the rental of one portable cannon. With three slaves one could rent a boat but one might be better off just buying the vessel for between six and eight slaves. Add 50 to 100 per cent if you’re a woman.

Think positive. Your in-house orientation might have been a bit rough going but, as the slavers remind you, gratefulness was in order because you’d no longer have to pay tribute to the Spanish nor work the annual personal service known as the polo. Your salary was tax-free and while you might occasionally go hungry when there were food shortages you wouldn’t starve, so there was food security, too.

Things are already looking up, especially since you could insist that your master sold you to another master more to your liking. It was, therefore, in the slave-owners interest to look after their slaves.


Position offers promotion, management opportunities, foreign travel’

When not fishing or farming for your master you might be called upon to crew slave-raiding prahus and trading expeditions throughout southeast Asia, as far afield as New Guinea, Indonesia and modern day Malaysia. If you showed courage and loyalty you could rise through the ranks to captain one of your master’s boats as a nakodah or even take command of an entire squadron of vessels. No-one ‘under the bells’ in the Spanish-controlled Christianized Philippines could dream of such heights.

Visayans were the better sailors and divers, Tagalogs had good endurance, made good rowers and boat-builders and had a flair for business, especially the women, but tended to escape the first chance they got.

Since few datus could read or write, slaves who could do so became bureaucrats running their outlying territories for them, diplomats handling treaties with foreign countries and business contracts. The rulers may have ruled but the slaves ran the show.


Generous emoluments, profit sharing’

If you had an aptitude for foreign languages and trade you could end up as a sort of marketing director for your master and undertake trading expeditions to foreign ports on his behalf. You were entitled to a share of the profits.

Female Banyaga often undertook small-scale local trading for their mistresses. Think ‘Avon calling’. They also became concubines and exerted power and influence.

Banyaga could own property, including houses, and even other slaves, although property reverted to the master on the slave’s death. Some Banyaga became so rich they were better dressed than the freemen and even, in some cases, than their own masters.

If you made enough cash you could buy your freedom, manumission, and a good few slaves did just that.


Accommodation Provided, Social Life ’

If you’re a fisherman or farmer you got your nipa hut and a patch of land to grow food and maybe make a bit of a sideline selling it. If you were educated, for instance, you could play a violin while everyone else chased the dragon – the Taosug datus were fond of European music and acquired taste for opium – or generally made yourself useful in managing the master’s affairs, you shared his house with him. But keep you’d keep eyes off the boss’s daughter, especially if she was married, getting caught could mean death.

If you were single your master might find you a wife from the same province in an arranged marriage. In those days there was nothing wrong with an arranged marriage. Even in the Christianized parts of the country, and in the west, marriages were often arranged. Read today’s Society columns and one might wonder whether those days have passed.

In fact, in Jolo and other towns the number of slaves significantly outnumbered natural-born residents by more than two to one. This means that many modern Taosugs owe their heredity not to the old datus or their followers but to the slaves from the Visayas, Luzon, New Guinea, Borneo and elsewhere who converted to Islam, stayed and became part of the ethnic mix. Given the very low population growth across southeast Asia it was the only way to increase manpower, sorry, human resources, to deal with the booming economy.

Health, however, was a problem, with widespread skin infections, intestinal problems and sexually transmitted disease.

For those who escaped and were lucky enough to get back home, the prospects were not good. A male slave might find his wife remarried and nothing of his old life left except a pile of debts.

Married women who were taken as slaves and later married off also looked at things positively. The wife of 25 year old Lantana who was taken from her village, where she already had two sons, one of whom already had two children at the time she was seized. After escaping onto a foreign vessel with her husband she informed an inquisitor that she wanted to return to her original village but would not be separated from her new husband, evidently a somewhat younger man. Being a pragmatic and sensible person she said she’d find her previous husband a new wife if he was still alive.

So, a good number of slaves among the Taosug of the 18th and 19th centuries, if they survived their capture, were better off than they were under the Spanish regime, had benefits that sound almost attractive to a modern employee, sorry, human resource, and could reach levels of responsibility, wealth and personal liberty they were denied elsewhere in the Philippines.

It’s easy to miss the good old days when men were men, women were women and humans resource managers were Iranun and Balangingi slave raiders.

Or maybe not.

2 thoughts on “The Corporate Slave Part Two

  1. This is indeed an amusing fact about the Tausug slavery, I have heard about it from my grandfather but I never really thought there was a written account about it–where Bob may have taken his knowledge about it. I am really, really proud of being a Tausug, my forefathers not only were great defenders of their lands, they were also sensible masters to their slaves…this is of course due to the fact that Islam was their strenght and guiding light for whatever they’d do. Fear in God will always point us to the right direction.

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