Piracy in the Sulu Sea

  (Redirected from Moro pirates)

Piracy in the Sulu Sea historically occurred in the vicinity of Mindanao, where frequent acts of piracy were committed against the Spanish. Because of the continual wars between Spain and the Moro people, the areas in and around the Sulu Sea became a haven for piracy which was not suppressed until the beginning of the 20th century. The pirates of that period should not be confused with the naval forces or privateers of the various Moro tribes. However, many of the pirates operated under government sanction during time of war.[1][2]:383–397 Following the end of World War II, piracy in the Sulu Sea reemerged as a phenomenon that persists to this day.

An Iranun pirate armed with a spear, a kampilan sword, and a kris dagger

Historical piracyEdit


The pirate ships used by the Moros include various designs like the paraw, pangayaw, garay, and lanong. The majority were wooden sailing galleys (lanong) about ninety feet long with a beam of twenty feet (27.4 by 6.1 m). They carried around fifty to 100 crewmen. Moros usually armed their vessels with three swivel guns, called lelahs or lantakas, and occasionally a heavy cannon. Proas were very fast and the pirates would prey on merchant ships becalmed in shallow water as they passed through the Sulu Sea. Slave trading and raiding was also very common, the pirates would assemble large fleets of proas and attack coastal towns. Hundreds of Christians were captured and imprisoned over the centuries, many were used as galley slaves aboard the pirate ships.[3][4][unreliable source?]


Other than muskets and rifles, the Moro pirates, as well as the navy sailors and the privateers, used a sword called the kris with a wavy blade incised with blood channels. The wooden or ivory handle was often heavily ornamented with silver or gold. The type of wound inflicted by its blade makes it difficult to heal. The kris was used often used in boarding a vessel. Moros also used a Kampilan, another sword, a knife, or barong and a spear, made of bamboo and an iron spearhead. The Moro's swivel guns were not like more modern guns used by the world powers but were of a much older technology, making them largely inaccurate, especially at sea. Lantakas dated back to the 16th century and were up to six feet long, requiring several men to lift one. They fired up to a half-pound cannonball or grape shot. A lantaka was bored by hand and were sunk into a pit and packed with dirt to hold them in a vertical position. The barrel was then bored by a company of men walking around in a circle to turn drill bits by hand.[1](Ch. 10)


The Spanish engaged the Moro pirates frequently in the 1840s. The expedition to Balanguingui in 1848 was commanded by Brigadier José Ruiz with a fleet of nineteen small warships and hundreds of Spanish Army troops. They were opposed by at least 1,000 Moros holed up in four forts with 124 cannons and plenty of small arms. There were also dozens of proas at Balanguingui but the pirates abandoned their ships for the better defended fortifications. The Spanish stormed three of the positions by force and captured the remaining one after the pirates had retreated. Over 500 prisoners were freed in the operation and over 500 Moros were killed or wounded, they also lost about 150 proas. The Spanish lost twenty-two men killed and around 210 wounded. The pirates later reoccupied the island in 1849. Another expedition was sent which encountered only light resistance.[citation needed]

In the 1840s, James Brooke became the White Rajah of Sarawak and led a series of campaigns against the Moro pirates. In 1843 Brooke attacked the pirates of Malludu and in June 1847 he participated in a major battle with pirates at Balanini where dozens of proas were captured or sunk. Brooke fought in several more anti-piracy actions in 1849 as well. During one engagement off Mukah with Illanun Sulus in 1862, his nephew, ex-army Captain Brooke, sank four proas, out of six engaged, by ramming them with his small four-gun steamship Rainbow. Each pirate ship had over 100 crewmen and galley slaves aboard and was armed with three brass swivel guns. Brooke lost only a few men killed or wounded while at least 100 pirates were killed or wounded. Several prisoners were also released.[4][5]

Despite Spanish efforts to eradicate the pirate threat, piracy persisted until the early 1900s. Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States as a result of the Spanish–American War in 1898, after which American troops embarked on a pacification campaign from 1903 to 1913 that extended American rule to the southern Philippines and effectively suppressed piracy.[6]:12

Modern-day piracyEdit


Piracy reemerged in the immediate post-WWII period as a result of the detoriation of the security situation and the wide availability of military surplus engines and modern firearms.[6]:37 The British authorities in North Borneo recorded 232 pirate attacks between 1959 and 1962.[6]:38 During this early period of piracy, pirates primarily targeted barter traders engaged in the copra trade, but also attacked fishing and passenger vessels and conducted coastal raids on villages. As an example, in 1985, pirates caused chaos in the town of Lahad Datu in Sabah, killing 21 people and injuring 11 others.[7][8]

The armed insurgencies of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), founded in 1972, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), founded in 1977, provided a new impetus to piracy, with both organisations engaging in piracy to fund their armed struggle.[9]:154 16 out of 155 pirate attacks taking place in the Philippines in 2003 were attributed to MILF,[10]:42 and MNLF has engaged in the extortion of fishermen, threatening to attack them if they did not pay protection money.[6]:111 Similarly, Abu Sayyaf, founded in the early 1990s, has frequently perpetrated piracy attacks, both to fund the organization and for personal financial gain.[9]:155


Piracy in the Sulu Sea is mostly perpetrated by small teams of less than ten people,[11]:276 which are usually well-armed, and tend to be more violent than their counterparts in other areas of the world,[9]:154 often killing their victims by shooting them or having them jump over board, leaving them to drown.[6]:42 Weapons used by pirates include normal handguns and rifles such as AK47, M16, M1 Garand, and FN FAL.[10]:42 Pirates almost exclusively target small vessels, including fishing vessels, passenger ships and transport vessels.[9]:151 While the pirates primarily aim to steal personal belongings, cargo and fishers' catch, they also sometimes take hostages for ransom.[9]:152 Further, pirates sometimes take the vessels' outboard motors or the vessel in its entirety, either to sell later or to keep for themselves[12]

Piracy statisticsEdit

Statistics on the amount of piracy incidents taking place in the Sulu Sea are unreliable due to various factors. On the one hand, incidents in the Sulu Sea are usually counted into statistics for the entirety of the Philippines and Malaysia. On the other hand, the reliability of statistics suffers from underreporting. Since the primary targets of pirates in this area are small vessels, these incidents are often not counted into the official statistics, which are primarily concerned with attacks on commercial vessels.[6]:102 Victims are also often reluctant to report incidents to the authorities because they feel that their reports would not result in anything or because they do not trust the authorities.[11]:275

It has been estimated that during the 1980s, around 100 pirate attacks took place in the Sulu Sea each year.[13]:60

Factors behind piracyEdit

Despite efforts by Malaysian and Philippine authorities to curb piracy in the Sulu Sea, the problem continues to persist.[9]:155 Weak maritime law enforcement, corruption, rivalries between the involved states, and unresolved territorial claims are major barriers to an effective suppression of piracy.[12]:19–20 Security forces sometimes are involved in organising piratical activities as well, supplying weapons and intel to pirates.[11]:278–279 The littoral nature of the Sulu Sea makes it easy for pirates to surprise victims and evade law enforcement. On land, the poor economic conditions in the area drive people to resort to various forms of crime to make a living, including piracy. Piracy, in turn, exacerbates the economic deprivation of the population, as the primary targets are locals themselves.

The continued existence of groups like Abu Sayyaf and MILF is also to blame for the prevalence of piracy. Not only do these groups engage in piracy themselves, efforts by security forces to suppress them have also drawn resources that could be used to deal with piracy.[10]:38–39 These efforts may also drive the local population towards piracy, as security forces frequently harass farmers, depriving them of their livelihood.[13]:234 Small arms proliferation in the area is also high as a result of weak state authority and the armed struggle of these groups, making it easy for pirates to acquire weapons.[9]:153

Cultural factors may also play a part, with most of modern-day pirates in the Sulu Sea being descended from their historical predecessors, adding an element of cultural sanction to piracy. It has been suggested that piracy may in part be motivated by associated virtues such as honor and masculinity, which pirates can display by taking part in an operation.[6]:41 Piracy is also not seen as an inherently criminal activity by the population living at the edge of the Sulu Sea, which is reflected in the local languages.[11]:273–274


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Hurley, Vic (Gerald Victor) (1936) [2010]. Swish of the Kris, The Story of the Moros (PDF). Christopher L. Harris 2010. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. ISBN 978-0615382425. OCLC 1837416.
  2. ^ Root, Elihu (1902) [2012]. Elihu Root collection of United States documents relating to the Philippine Islands. vol 91 pt 2. US Government Printing Office. ISBN 978-1231100561.
  3. ^ Scholz, Herman (2006). "Discover Sabah - History". Flyingdusun.com. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved February 6, 2013.
  4. ^ a b McDougall, Harriette (1882) [2015]. Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak. SPCK. ISBN 978-1511851268. Archived from the original on April 7, 2015. Retrieved February 6, 2013.
  5. ^ Sala, George Augustus & Yates, Edmund Hodgson (1868) [2011]. "The Career and Character of Rajah Brooke". Temple Bar – A London Magazine for Time and Country Readers. XXIV. Ward and Lock. pp. 204–216. ISBN 978-1173798765. Retrieved February 6, 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Eklöf, Stefan (2006). Pirates in Paradise. A Modern History of Southeast Asia's Maritime Marauders. Copenhagen, Denmark. ISBN 87-91114-37-3.
  7. ^ New Straits Times, K. P. Waran (September 24, 1987). "Lahad Datu Recalls Its Blackest Monday". p. 12. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
  8. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, Masayuki Doi (October 30, 1985). "Filipino pirates wreak havoc in a Malaysian island paradise". p. 11. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Liss, Carolin (2017). "Piracy and maritime violence in the waters between Sabah and the southern Philippines". In Liss, Carolin; Biggs, Ted (eds.). Piracy in Southeast Asia. Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. Abingdon, United Kingdom & New York, United States: Routledge. pp. 151–167. ISBN 978-1-138-68233-7.
  10. ^ a b c Santos, Eduardo Ma R. (2006). "Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the Philippines". In Ong-Webb, Graham Gerard (ed.). Piracy, Maritime Terrorism and Securing the Malacca Straits. Singapore & Leiden, The Netherlands: International Institute for Asian Studies & Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. pp. 37–51. ISBN 9789814515726.
  11. ^ a b c d Tokoro, Ikuya (2006). "Piracy in Contemporary Sulu: An Ethnographical Case Study". In Kleinen, John; Osseweijer, Manon (eds.). Pirates, Ports, and Coasts in Asia: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Singapore & Leiden, The Netherlands: International Institute for Asian Studies & Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. pp. 269–287. ISBN 9789814515726.
  12. ^ a b Abbot, Jason; Renwick, Neil (1999). "Pirates? Maritime piracy and societal security in Southeast Asia". Pacifica Review. 11 (1): 7–24. doi:10.1080/14781159908412867.
  13. ^ a b Liss, Carolin (2011). Oceans of Crime. Maritime Piracy and Transnational Security in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing. ISBN 978-981-4279-46-8.

Further readingEdit