Triumph of Moro Diplomacy: The Maguindanao Sultanate in the 17th Century.
This "misconception bordering on a myth" of the sultanate's decline is a misconception based on the failure of Philippine historians such as Majul to understand the nature of the state under examination. The Maguindanao polity was not a single, homogeneous state but rather "a semi-feudal, pre-industrial segmentary state". Here, Laarhoven builds upon the pioneering work of James Warren |The Sulu Zone 1768-1898 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981)~ in defining the Maguindanao sultanate, not in terms of fixed geographical frontiers, but as a cultural eco-system characterised by varying symbiotic relationships of ethno-linguistic groups (Iranun, Badjao, Tapean, Alforese, Manobo, Sangirese and Buayan) to a centre.
However, Triumph of Moro Diplomacy, as its name suggests, is concerned with more than merely describing and defining the nature of the state and examines the inter-relationship of the Maguindanao sultanate with its wider geographical region. And this is where the real strength of Laarhoven's work lies. She enlarges the accepted conception of Philippine history by dispensing with a Manila-centric and, therefore Euro-centric view, and creates a new map of the region, one in which the Eastern Indonesian archipelago was of far more immediate concern than the latent threat of Spain in the North. Europeans, of course, were important players in this seaborne world, but Laarhoven shows how the Maguindanao sultans were able to play one power off against another and so keep the Dutch, Spanish and English at arms length during the 17th century. In the process, she presents the reader with a new "geography from down under". These points make Laarhoven's book an important one in terms of the historiography of maritime Southeast Asia at a time before European commercial power in the region became dominant. But the study is not without problems, chief of which are paradoxically inherent in the book's main area of strength, its source materials. Undoubtedly, the records of the VOC reveal many "cracks in the parchment curtain" but, without corroborating evidence of other origins, the validity of these sources must be open to question. Just how well did visiting Company officials and naval personnel really understand the society around them, and how much did they only see what they were permitted to see? Laarhoven evidently has doubts herself when she admits that senior VOC officials "underestimated" the importance of religious and economic motives in shaping Maguindanao policy and lacked a "cultural understanding" of the Malay world. This problem of sources is most unaccountable when dealing with the English incursion into Maguindanao politics which, again, is drawn exclusively from the Dutch records.
Another, related problem, is Laarhoven's too ready reliance on supposition and conditionals to fill in the "blanks" left by her sources that detract, in the end, from the force of her argument. To cite just one example: the reader is told that it is "likely" that Ternate was used as a model for running Maguindanao affairs; that frequent contact between the two ports "might" have influenced Maguindanao chiefs in the formation of the sultanate; that the arrival of the Spanish in Manila "probably" affected Maguindanao trade with the North; and that the consequence "could" have been a more intense relationship with Ternate. In the face of so much uncertainty, it is better to place such material in content footnotes rather than include them in the main text. Other problems are more minor, being more "sins of omission" rather than ones of deed. The importance of slave-raiding to the structure of the Maguindanao state is only hinted at and not fully explained, which is strange given the emphasis Warren placed on this activity in his Sulu study and the fact that the Iranun (one of the coastal peoples within the sultanate) were notorious slavers. Even more curious is the seeming lack of weight Laarhoven attaches to the "anti-spice" policy of the sultans, who forbade cultivation within their domains "with the purpose of keeping the Dutch and other Europeans out". This strategy is only mentioned in the penultimate chapter of the book dealing with the economy, despite her conclusion that this "policy saved Maguindanao from being colonized at an earlier time". Again, the reader is left wondering whether these omissions, too, are not related to the exclusive nature of one source material. Problems inherent in the sources apart, Triumph of Moro Diplomacy is an historiographically important book deserving of commendation. Laarhoven has succeeded in illuminating an area of muslim history in the southern Philippines too often overlooked in the preoccupation with the christian culture of the North. More than that, she has managed to substitute van Leur's "history written from the deck of a ship" with one written from the ramparts of a cotta or fortified place of a sultan.
Greg Bankoff Murdoch University
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|Publication:||Journal of Southeast Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1993|
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