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DESPITE the fact of its remoteness from civilization, or perhaps because of it, we found Bongao most attractive. Situated on a dot of an island belonging to the Tawi Tawi group, it is the southernmost part of our new possessions to be garrisoned. West of it Borneo looms up on the horizon, and to the south is Sibutu, for which Spain was paid a good round sum because certain gentlemen on the Paris Commission lacked geographic accuracy; while to the east and north are coral islands belonging to the same group as Bongao. The garrison is situated on a mountainous spur of land running down steeply to the water. It is laid out like a park, the soldiers’ quarters, hospital, library, and storehouses being of bamboo and nipa, over which the men have trained vines and creeping plants, while before each door bloom beds of bright flowers.

The officers’ quarters are built higher up on a wind-swept slope overlooking the bay, where it curves around the point of the island, and while these houses are picturesque from the outside, they are roughly finished within, the “banquet-hall,” as they dignified the mess, being especially al fresco. Over the extemporized sideboard, consisting of some rude shelves, on which were piled a heterogeneous collection of tinned fruits and vegetables, hung a motto which read “God Bless our Home. If you don’t like it, get out!” On the reverse side of this somewhat suggestive placard was the pleasing gastronomic intelligence, “Chicken today,” chicken forming the staple of diet at Bongao, as of course fresh meat is to be had only at the rarest intervals.

For six months at a stretch the monsoon blows across the coral peninsula in one direction, and then changes and blows six months in the opposite quarter, so that, as an officer stationed there remarked, one could take his choice and be blown off to the crocodiles in the bay or to the sharks in the sea outside. This high wind moderates the climate perceptibly, however, and notwithstanding the fact that Bongao is situated within five degrees of the equator, we found it exceptionally cool, and the officers and men in splendid physical condition.

There was but one company of infantry stationed at Bongao when we were there, comprising perhaps fifty men and three officers. Because of the two hundred miles of treacherous ocean between him and higher authority, the young captain acting as military governor was, so to speak, a small Czar, and he ruled an unique kingdom, untouched by civilization, and peopled entirely by ex-pirates or the descendants of pirates.

The official letter-book of this functionary, at which he allowed us to peep, read like a story of adventure, while some of his own personal experiences, and those of the former commanding officer,  seem almost incredible when away from the glamour of the place. In the post records, sandwiched between such mundane things as requisitions for water-buckets or commissary supplies, one would read of atrocious murders committed by the Moros; piratical expeditions headed off, and their instigators punished; or attempted slave-raids against some neighbouring island.


Under the date of February 21, 1900, a thrilling story was told, it being the official and unvarnished account of a disastrous hunting trip taken by five of the post soldiers, the dispassionate routine language but giving it verisimilitude; while the subsequent happenings serve to show what kind of government seems most to appeal to these people.

The story, as nearly as I can remember it, reads that five of the garrison soldiers were given permission to go to a neighbouring island of the Tawi Tawi group on a hunting expedition after wild boar. Relations with the Moros on that island having been, at least, nominally friendly, there was not the slightest hesitation in granting the soldiers’ request, particularly as there had been no fresh meat in the garrison for some time.

The men left in a rowboat and spent the first few hours in Balambing, an ex-pirate community, where they were entertained in the best Moro fashion, leaving amidst mutual expressions of regret and good-will. The Moros’ love for firearms is well known, and about ten of them were so taken with the soldiers’ rifles that they accompanied the party, ostensibly to act as guides, but in reality to witness the sport. Delayed by a strong tide running to windward, they camped that night on a lonely beach, both Americans and Moros in the best possible humour.

After a supper cooked over the camp-fire, all the soldiers, with the exception of one man who was preparing for bed, indulged in a game of cards, the Moros watching the proceeding with apparent interest, but talking a great deal among themselves. Each soldier had his Krag on the ground beside him in case of danger, the rifle of the man who was undressing being in a far corner of the room.

Suddenly, at a word from their leader, the Moros seized their wicked barongs and simultaneously attacked the men playing cards, beheading one poor fellow at a single blow, and fearfully cutting the three others. One died almost immediately, and the second fell unconscious, while the third, who was cut across the side of the head and neck, feigned death and so escaped with his life.

The soldier who was partly undressed, seeing that he could not reach his rifle, felt it was only a matter of seconds before his turn should come. But the Moros, having obtained all the firearms, escaped into the forest, leaving him unharmed. As hastily as possible, he lifted the still unconscious man into the boat, which had been hidden in the bushes against just such an emergency, the wounded soldier who had feigned death helping with all his little strength, though he was so grievously hurt that he had literally to hold on his head with his hands, the cords on one side of his neck being severed. Fortunately, the jugular vein escaped the keen knife’s edge, else he would not have been alive; but it was with no little difficulty he helped the unwounded man push off from shore.

All night they rowed, the wounded man working with one hand, despite his fearful suffering, and all the next day, the blazing tropic sun shining down on their unprotected heads. Once they were beached on a coral reef, and it was all they could do to get the boat off again into deep water. Meanwhile the third soldier died, but at last the survivors of the massacre, in a pitiable condition, reached the post, carrying between them the already putrefying corpse of their comrade.

Scarce waiting to hear their gruesome story, the commanding officer and most of his company put off in bancas for Balambing, the unwounded man accompanying them for the purpose of identification. Arriving late in the afternoon, the soldiers quickly surrounded the town before any Moro could escape in his prau, and the rapidity with which the Philippine Mohammedan can drop from his house, built on poles over the water, and paddle away is little less than miraculous.

The head men of the village were then summoned by the American captain and ordered to hand over the murderers and the stolen rifles, or lead the way to the hiding-place of the criminals before eight o’clock of the following morning, the penalty for their disobedience being the burning of the town.

That night numerous lights and the sound of voices in the village testified to the earnest discussion that was proceeding, and at daybreak six of the offenders were delivered into American hands, the survivor of the outrage testifying to their identity; but the captain was not satisfied and consulted his watch so impatiently as eight o’clock approached that the head men, after much consultation among themselves, finally led the way to where the others were concealed along with the captured rifles.

Here the ten prisoners were rounded up and preparations made for the return to Bongao, when suddenly a simultaneous break for liberty was attempted, and the Moros had a lesson in the deadly aim of the American soldier, for a fearful fusilade was opened on them at short range, and not a prisoner escaped.

To one unacquainted with the Moros, this swift and sure vengeance would seem sufficient to cause the relatives of the dead men to hate Americans and plan blood feuds in retaliation; but it was not so, for they recognized perfectly the wrong that had been done, and accepted the death of their kinsmen as well merited, while any regret they may have felt was at the unlucky turn of fate which put them into the hands of justice. Being captured, it was inconceivable to a Moro that the offenders should be spared, and the break for liberty was doubtless induced by the belief that at the worst they merely advanced the day of execution. For had they not killed, and what is quite as bad in the Moro code of ethics, stolen? No punishment following this outrage, the Moros would have looked on the Americans as white-livered, cowardly, pusillanimous, and that first crime would doubtless have been succeeded by raids on the town, and massacres, and feuds, which only a bloody war could have ended.

As a result of his prompt action, this very efficient young officer had the satisfaction of knowing that the cordial relations with the citizens of Balambing rested on a new and more secure foundation than ever before. That no ill-will is harboured against the Americans may be seen by the large crowd of Balambing natives who weekly market their wares at Bongao, and the invariable respect shown by them to the uniform. Americans go freely without arms all over the island. In truth, it is asserted by different head men that the first attack would never have been made on the soldiery had it not been for the rifles they carried. Human life is cheap among the Moros, and the inconvenience of that life standing between them and what they want is soon remedied by a barong, unless fear of punishment, prompt and pitiless, stares them in the face.

From Balambing of bloody memory comes a Moro love story of some interest and no little humour. It appears that a rich woman there fell in love with a handsome young slave belonging to a man in a neighbouring town. After some difficulty she effected his purchase and married him, despite the fact of his being so far beneath her in the social scale. Not long after this the happy couple went to Bongao on a market-day. The lady, being an inveterate gambler, repaired at once to the cockpit, where she lost so heavily that her remaining funds were inadequate for the return trip to Balambing. Then a happy idea struck her. Why not pawn her husband, awaiting her next visit to Bongao, for although she was married to him, he was still a slave in the eyes of the law, and she could redeem him at her pleasure.

Acting on this happy inspiration, she sought an audience with the Governor, explaining through the interpreter her predicament, and offering her husband as a security for the loan of two hundred and fifty dollars, gold. The Governor, being a bachelor, was skeptical as to this marital transaction, especially as the couple had been wedded beyond the traditional honeymoon. He was afraid that he might have the bridegroom permanently upon his hands did he advance so great a sum. This was made plain to the bride, who protested that life would be quite unendurable without her liege lord, or more properly speaking, in this case, liege subject; but the Governor was unrelenting.

How the lady finally managed to reach Balambing is not told. Perhaps some trusting Moro accepted the risk of the marital loan. Perhaps she induced the owner of a prau to row her across. However the distance was accomplished, it is to be hoped she was less reckless in her subsequent gambling, a husband having proved so bad a hostage.

Another love story of different import comes from a village on the island of Simi-nor, just south of Bongao. There, it is said, lives an old Moro who so loved his wife, and strange to say, in this polygamous community, his only wife, that when she died he watched her grave long beyond the appointed time, after which he had his house built over her burial-place, and there lives to this day, still faithful to the mouldering bones beneath him. Surely a proof that great love sometimes stirs even savage breasts. Considering the environment, for this man lives in a country where polygamy is not only recognized but encouraged, and where women are bought and sold by the pound, like so much meat, his love is on a par with the idyllic attachments of history and fiction.

Speaking of buying and selling women among the Moros, reminds me of an old Maharajah in Bongao who had never seen an American woman until the arrival of the Burnside. Of course all white women are considered very beautiful by these dusky savages, an evidence of how much they admire Europeans being found in the fact that they firmly believe in the Sultan’s Seventh Heaven all the wives of his harem will have white skins. Noticing the Maharajah’s absorbed interest in our appearance, the Governor, to our intense disgust, insisted upon asking the old fellow what he thought the quartermaster’s wife should be worth in dollars and cents. The toothless Maharajah took it all quite seriously, looked at the lady in question with much discrimination, pulled at his wisp of a billy-goat beard in contemplative silence, and after some minutes of deep thought replied that she should be worth about a hundred dollars, Mexican, an abnormally large amount, as Moro women seldom average over forty dollars, Mexican, apiece.

Then the irrepressible young man turned to me, asking at what the Maharajah thought I should be valued. Without a moment’s hesitation, the old sinner, to my chagrin and the uproarious delight of the whole party, appraised me at only eighty dollars, Mexican, and this despite the fact that I had smiled my pleasantest, in the hope that he would rate me at least as high as the quartermaster’s wife.

Datto Sakilon, whom we met next day, proved more diplomatic, for when asked what he thought we women should be worth in the Mohammedan market, replied that it was impossible to tell, because if Moro women could be bought for forty dollars apiece, an American woman should be worth at least a thousand. Not bad repartee for a barbarian! In return for his consideration, I must admit that he was the best dressed Moro we saw in Bongao. On the day in question he wore a suit of gray drill, made with the conventional tight trousers and vest-like coat, broken out at regular intervals in an eruptive fever of gorgeously coloured embroidery. A fez topped off this costume and added to its picturesqueness, while clumsy tan shoes of undeniable American make well-nigh ruined the whole effect.

Balbriggan undershirts, hideously utilitarian, are much worn by these Moros of Bongao in lieu of the skin-tight gaily coloured jacket, which combines  so effectively  with the snug  trousers buttoned  up the side with gold or silver buttons, and the bright turban or scarlet fez. But fancy the shock to one’s æstheticism at seeing coarse balbriggan allied to barbaric splendour. The Moros really looked more undressed so attired than if they had appeared without any coat at all, but they thought these shirts very elegant, and would buy them of the soldiers at every opportunity.


The women’s dress in Bongao, unlike that of northern  Moros,  is  more  typical than the men’s, and shows an even greater variety of colour, but because of their blackened teeth, which are often filed to an arch in front, these women, as a rule, are anything but pretty. Their hair is nearly always fringed over the forehead and temples, while at the back it is drawn into a knot, from which one end invariably straggles, giving a most untidy effect. The wealthier women wear their finger nails very long, in some instances almost as long as the finger itself, and often this nail is protected by an artificial shield of silver. All the women have their ears pierced, and many of them wear a round bone or stick, resembling a cigarette in shape and size, thrust through the aperture. Altogether they are as unlike European women as one could well imagine, and I do not blame the Sultan for looking forward to white wives in the hereafter, though I hope the celestial harem won’t have to blacken its teeth!

There was one beauty in Bongao, however, a slave girl of eighteen, so graceful and lithe that her every attitude suggested a bird just alighted for an instant from a flight through space. Her dark eyes were fringed by the longest of black lashes, and even her stained teeth could not detract from the curves of her pretty mouth. She had a self-satisfied consciousness of her own attractions, and was as imperious and overbearing as any American beauty, stamping her tiny foot in rage at our photographer’s lack of haste in taking her picture, and once walking away from the camera with a disdainful toss of her head. When, after much persuasion, she was finally induced to return, it was only to scowl sullenly at everybody with the most bewitching ill temper, poised so lightly that the very wind seemed to sway her slender figure back and forth like a flower on its stalk.

We called her the Belle of Bongao, and said all manner of nice things about her, which she repaid with a bold stare from under those wonderful lashes, and a contemptuous manner which said as plainly as words that American women were not much to look at, what with their ugly clothes and still uglier faces. She was glad she wasn’t so large and clumsy, and that her teeth weren’t white, nor her throat all screwed up in high bandages, and she smiled a little as she thought of her own attractions, for the Belle of Bongao had not learned she was a beauty for nought; and then, too, had she not cost eighty dollars, Mexican, the highest price ever paid in Tawi Tawi for a slave? Small wonder the little beauty rated her charms high.

It was in Bongao we first made the acquaintance of Toolawee, the chief vigilante of Sulu. It seems this personage had been sent to the Tawi Tawi Islands as pilot of the launch Maud, which, under his careful seamanship, was then lying high and dry on a coral reef within sight of the little garrison.

Pirate under Spanish regime, chief of police under American administration, Toolawee is known to fame throughout the archipelago, though perhaps most of his reputation depends upon Mr. Worcester's delightful account of him in “The Philippine Islands.” As all may remember, Toolawee acted in the capacity of guide, philosopher, and friend to Mr. Worcester and Doctor Bourns on their second visit to Sulu, many moons before our occupation of the place. Toolawee was at that time acting as “minister of war” to the nominal Sultan, having for reasons of his own become a renegade. Mr. Worcester says of him:

“A Moro by birth and training, he had thrown in his lot with the Spaniards. As a slight safeguard against possible backsliding, he was allowed a fine house within the walls, where he kept several wives and some forty slaves. Arolas reasoned that, rather than lose so extensive an establishment, he would behave himself. Later we had reason for believing that the precaution was a wise one. . . .

“He was considered a ‘good’ Moro, and we were therefore interested in several incidents which gave us some insight into his real character. After satisfying himself that we could use our rifles with effect, he made us a rather startling business proposition as follows: ‘You gentlemen seem to shoot quite well with the rifle.’ ‘Yes, we have had some experience.’ ‘You say that you wish to get samples of the clothing and arms of my people for your collection?’ ‘Yes, we hope to do so.’ ‘Papa’ (the Moros’ name for their governor-general)  ‘told you if you met armed Moros outside the town to order them to lay down their weapons and retire?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Papa does not understand my people as I do. They are all bad. When we meet them, do not ask them to lay down their arms, for they will come back and get them, and probably attack us; just shoot as many of them as you can. You can take their weapons and clothing, while I will cut off their heads, shave their eyebrows, show them to papa, and claim reward for killing Juramentados.’ Toolawee never really forgave us for refusing to enter into partnership with him on this very liberal basis.

“Just before our final departure from Sulu, he presented himself before me and remarked, ‘Señor, I want to buy your rifle.’ ‘But, Toolawee,’ I replied, ‘you do damage enough with the one you have; what do you want of mine?’ ‘My rifle is good enough to kill people with, but I want yours for another purpose,’ my good Moro made answer. Pressed for details, he confided to me that he had heard ‘papa’ was soon going back to Spain, and, after the governor left, he should be ‘afuera,’ i. e. offshore, waiting for victims. He explained that he never fired at the people in a canoe, but shot holes in the boat itself, so that it would fill with water. The bamboo outriggers, with which all Philippine boats are provided, would serve to keep it from actually sinking, and the occupants, being up to their chins in water, could easily be despatched with the barong, thus economizing ammunition; and he added, ‘My rifle makes but a small hole in one side of a canoe, señor, while yours would make a much larger one, and the ball would go clear through.’ Toolawee was nothing if not practical.”


While in Bongao, a Moro dance was given in our honour at the house of the governor’s interpreter, a German, who at the time was away on a business trip. His wife, a plump and jolly matron of Moro descent, did the honours, and smiled her good-natured, indiscriminating smile on one and all, shaking each cordially by the hand and indicating where we should sit by many motions of her fat, brown wrists and many shrugs of her still fatter shoulders. Unlike other Moro women, our hostess’s hair was neatly arranged, her teeth were beautifully white, and her costume, which consisted of a nondescript skirt and loose dressing sacque, much affected by Spanish women throughout the islands, was daintily clean.

The other occupants of the big room were Moro — unadulterated Moro — fifty or sixty of them, all in gala dress, the women squatted on the floor, the men leaning against the side of the house, and all staring with unabashed interest in our direction, while we stared back at them quite as interested.

Every man there was armed with at least a barong stuck into his broad sash, and many of them boasted a kris and campilan as well, while the brilliant colours of their costumes, and the still more gaudy sarongs of the women, made them resemble a gathering of strange tropic birds, our European apparel looking singularly dull and sober beside their scarlets, greens, and purples. Over this strange scene flickered the dim light of cocoanut-oil lamps, and outside a shower beat softly against the trees, and the moon looked down at us whitely from a cloudy sky.

Presently a weird noise broke in upon our conversation. The orchestra had begun to play. Now, Moro music is strangely un-rhythmical to European ears, consisting as it does of a monotonous reiteration of sound, even a supposed change of air being almost imperceptible to one unaccustomed to the barbarous lack of tone. The Moro piano is a wooden frame, shaped like the runners of a child’s sled, on which are balanced small kettle-drums by means of cords and sticks. These more nearly resemble pots for the kitchen range than musical instruments, but each is roughly tuned, forming the eight notes of the scale.  Women,  crouching on  the ground  before this instrument, beat out of it a wailing sound with shaped sticks, while on larger kettle-drums, hung by ropes from a wooden railing at one side, two men accompanied the “piano,” an old woman in the background drumming out an independent air of her own on an empty tin pan.


Meanwhile the dancing had begun, or rather the posturing of the body, for the feet and legs are used but little in the Moro dances, which consist principally of moving the body and arms rhythmically and to music, the wrists always leading gracefully.

Among the women this attitudinizing was very pretty, the bangles tinkling on their round arms, while the sarong half-revealed, half-concealed the curves of their figures. Most of them danced with their heads turned away, but whenever the evolutions of their measured step brought them face to face with us, they would hold up the sarong so that it concealed all but the eyes, evidently a survival of the yashmak, for Moro women do not hide their faces at all times from the gaze of men, as do the women of India.

When the men danced it was far less graceful, and at times bordered on the grotesque. They contorted and twisted themselves out of all semblance to the human body; they made their abdominal muscles rise and fall with the music; they seemed at times to put the body out of joint, and then reset it properly with jerks and jumps and sudden fierce movements; they twitched, and twisted, and twirled, hardly moving their feet from the floor.

Then came sword-dances with naked blades, when some young Moro advanced and retreated, leaped high in the air, or crouched on the ground, waving his barong or kris aloft, now retreating, now coming uncomfortably close to the little party of unarmed Americans, the flickering light gleaming redly  on the glittering knife, and reminding one, with a horrid insistence, that the time and place were ideal for a wholesale slaughter.

As the necessities of the dance took the last of these lithe youths farther away, I must confess to a feeling of relief, which mounted to a nervous joy when, after apparently slaying his enemy and grinding him under heel, the dancing combatant gave place to a chubby youngster who stamped, and twirled, and gestured himself into our very hearts. This baby, for he could not have been over four years old, was also a prime favourite with the Moros, who yelled out their delight at his prowess, and even clapped their hands and jumped about in their enthusiasm. But the baby was stoically calm, and moved not a muscle of his little round face in response to their greetings.

Then came the old Maharajah, who had set his price on the American women. Wrinkled, white-haired, and toothless, he danced amidst great applause; and after him a tiny girl posed most picturesquely, throwing out her plump, dimpled wrists, on which twinkled innumerable bangles. Waving each wrist in turn, the little maid would fasten upon it a serious gaze, as if she were a snake-charmer and each arm was a serpent, her hand representing the head, which waved ever back and forth restlessly and in time to the strange music.

Before leaving, a mock marriage was performed for our benefit by the one-eyed Pandita. As is the custom at such times, all the Moro women, including the bride, who is never present at her own wedding, were hidden behind an extemporized curtain. On the ground before this curtain sat the Pandita and the prospective bridegroom, the bare soles of their feet touching and their hands closely clasped beneath an enshrouding cloth. The Pandita then chanted or intoned a service, the bridegroom occasionally joining in, and not infrequently some outsider introduced a facetious expression or joke, which was greeted with uproarious delight by the others, the Moro sense of humour being apparently well developed.

Of course, the mock marriage ended here, but we were told that at this point of the service in a real wedding the groom would go behind the curtain and seize his bride, who was supposed to struggle violently to escape. She would then be carried to the groom’s house, and for three days the feasting and merry making would continue — for everyone but the happy pair, as according to custom, the bride must quarrel violently during this time with the groom, and not allow him to come near her, though when he finally leaves her alone, she must bitterly weep and lament. At the expiration of the three days, this charming state of affairs is discontinued, and they are considered legally married, and thereafter may be as happy as they are capable of being.

On leaving the interpreter’s house to walk back to the ship’s boat, we were lighted by a misty moon which gave the effect of twilight, and in our half lethargic state could hardly be sure that what we had seen that evening was not, after all, a dream or a strange hypnotic memory — the dancing Maharajah, the Pandita performing the marriage ceremony, the terrible sword-dance, and the little snake-charmer fascinating her own plump hands! Was it possible such things had occurred in the twentieth century and on American soil?

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