Attack on Cotta: Thoughts of an Iranun Warrior at Sunrise on the Day of Salakayan

Jonathan R. Matias
Sulu Garden
Miag-ao, Iloilo


Located along the shores of Moro Gulf, the Kingdom of Uranen (referred later in the literature as Iranun or Illanon) is among the oldest civilizations in Southeast Asia. The first Islamic missionaries, Shariff Aulia and Shariff Kabunsuan, cemented Islam as the primary religion through intermarriages with the Iranuns. Sultan Kudarat was a direct descendant from this union. The languages of the Maranao and Maguindanao are deeply rooted in the Iranun language, suggesting that the Iranuns predated these two tribes.

Piracy is a Western perception when it comes to our islands. Raiding other lands for reasons of war or for wealth and slaves was a common occupation throughout the archipelago. A native could be a pearl diver one day, a farmer the next, and a pirate later. Raiding as a profession was practiced by the Visayans, particularly the tribe called the Pintados, who were noted for raiding as far as Formosa and the South China coast. The Iranuns, Tausugs, and Maranaos were also raiders of Cochin China, Siam, and throughout the Malay and Indonesian archipelago. Raiding or piracy, if one wishes to use the term, was practiced by the American Indians against their tribal enemies. From their Scandinavian homelands, the Vikings raided as far as France, to the Mediterranean, and as far away as the Russian heartland. The Arabs captured slaves not only in the Middle East but also throughout Africa. Slavery was an institution and source of wealth for perhaps thousands of years and not merely practiced by Islamic tribes of the Philippine Archipelago.

Young Miagaowanons to the slave market. Pencil sketch by Leopoldo 'Ajin' Moragas II.

Young Miag-aowanons to the slave market. Pencil sketch
by Leopoldo ‘Ajin’ Moragas II.

The Battle for Miag-ao, referred in Miag-ao as Salakayan, occurred on May 7, 1754 during a period of intense warfare between the Muslims of Mindanao who resisted conversion to Christianity and the Spanish and Christianized allies of Visayas and Luzon. Islam, prior to the Spanish conquest, was a benign religion in the Visayas and Luzon, tolerant of natives practicing their own brand of religion, from animism to worship of ancestors. For this reason, the Christianization of the tribes in both Visayas and Luzon was relatively easy. The Muslims in Mindanao were more deeply religious and the call for jihad against Spain created a single enemy for the normally warring tribes. It was written that during the 300+ years of the Moro-Spanish wars, over two million Christianized Filipinos were enslaved or killed. However, there was no tally of how many Muslims died when the Spanish came to Mindanao. History often is one sided; the winners write their version of history. In this case, there was no real victor in Mindanao, just a stalemate. But our literature and records are also one sided since Islamic writings are not accessible or are lost during the centuries of warfare.

These are the circumstances that led to the Battle for Miag-ao 261 years ago . The timelines described in this fictional story are real and so are the historical figures. That the Muslims lost 2,000 warriors in a single battle the year before Salakayan is in the history books. Port Holland existed briefly in Basilan and was destroyed by a combined Muslim army. The island of Natura Besar, the State of Terengganu (Malaysia), the Indian cities of Thoothukudi (also known as Tuticorin) and Thiruvananthapuram (known as Trivandrum), of Aden and the typical route of the Hajj are all real. Thoothukudi and Thiruvananthapuram are most familiar to me because I have been there many times. Our marine research center is in Thuoothukudi. The culture and history of the Tausugs and Iranuns are described in the references below and are well worth reading.

The character of Haji Ranom is pure fiction. But the name is real in a personal sense. I named the main character after my Muslim friend. Decades ago we worked together on a biotech project in Port Dickson, Malaysia. Haji was fond of stories about his own pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca). We were testing a new strain of seaweed to propagate along the Strait of Malacca. I lost contact with Haji Ranom a long time ago. Even back then the Straits was a dangerous place because of piracy. Hardly anything had changed over the centuries. I hope Haji does not mind my use of his name as a character in this short story.

Raiders are coming ! Pencil sketch by Leopoldo 'Ajin' Moragas II

“Raiders are coming !” Pencil sketch by Leopoldo “Ajin” Moragas II

The date of Salakayan was recorded in Elias Failagao’s 1979 book “History of Miag-ao.” This book was vetted as a historical reference by the Philippine National Historical Commission. Cotta, the watchtower, was built about the same period, though it is a conjecture for now that this was the center of the battlefield. The third and present- day Church of Miag-ao was not built until 40+ years later after Salakayan. How the battle was fought remains a mystery too. Hopefully more will be known as people begin to appreciate our own local history.

This story is the second part of the series and it will be hard to appreciate this second one without reading the first—“Defending Cotta: Thoughts of a Comisario in the morning of Salakayan.” You can read it HERE.

Why write about Salakayan as a fictionalized history ? I suppose I can blame Michael Shaara for writing the fictionalized historical book, “Killer Angels,” a Pulitzer Prize- winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. The novel, which became the Hollywood movie “Gettysburg,” was written in such a way that it brought history to life by humanizing the historical characters on both sides of the opposing forces. If ever you have a chance, read the book and you will understand what I mean. It is my hope that by writing in the same way, you will begin to see that our old history is rich and not one sided. The “raiders” during the Battle for Miag-ao had their own point of view and unique cultural diversity.

Those combatants on both sides of this religious war suffered, bled, and died for their beliefs.

————————– The Story Continues ——————————


Map of PanayI am Haji Ranom of the Bantilan clan of the mighty Iranuns, leader of the flotilla of praus, caracoas, lanongs, and vintas of Iranun and Tausug warriors. I am sailing towards the east coast of Aninipay and towards the city of Irong-Irong.

Over 100 years ago the Iranuns, the Maranaos, and the Tausugs swore an oath to Sultan Kudarat when he declared jihad against the Spanish infidels. Since then, the various clan wars of the Iranuns have ceased and the wars among the Muslim tribes ended, replaced by constant warfare against the Spanish and their Christianized allies.

Just beyond the horizon, in the dark of night, my ships wait for the wind and sunrise to take us on the mad dash to the shores of Aninipay. The port city of Irong-Irong, the Spanish dogs call the place Iloilo, has an impregnable fortress and numerous Spanish warships. It would be costly to attack the City directly. Instead, we will hit them where they are weakest. Other fleets are lying in wait south of Aninipay and others in the north of the town they call Oton, places far enough for the Spanish to mount a quick response.

An “Iranun” sea-warrior attired in the distinctive thick cotton quilted red vest, and armed with a long spear and kampilan, a long heavy “lanoon sword” ornamented with human hair as described in The Global Economy and the Sulu Zone: Connections, Commodities and Culture.

An “Iranun” sea warrior attired in the distinctive thick cotton quilted red vest, and armed with a long spear and kampilan, a long heavy “lanoon sword” ornamented with human hair as described in The Global Economy and the Sulu Zone:
Connections, Commodities, and Culture.

My task on this invasion? To attack the center of the east coast, a town called Miag-ao.

When I was younger, I came twice to this seaside town. The first time, we burned their church and took many captives and war trophies. The second time, six years later, we burned the second church they built to replace the first one. They have not built any new one since. That’s too bad. I seemed to have found burning churches to my taste. Maybe these infidels had given up their church. Maybe they gave up the white man’s religion finally or were just too afraid we would come back again to burn the third one they might build.

These others around me on this prau come for slaves, gold, silver, guns, and any wealth the infidels might have. The young ones come for the glory of Allah.

I am here for revenge.

Remembering the Past

Last year, my two sons, Pahala and Maraguia, joined the combined fleet of Iranuns and Tausugs to attack the Visayas but were intercepted in the high seas by a massive fleet of Spanish ships and praus, manned by thousands of Cebuanos, Tagalogs, and the Pintados. Over 150 of our own ships were sunk, along with over 2,000 of Allah’s warriors. My two sons never returned from that sea battle. I can only hope that they died with their swords killing the infidels and not by drowning like Christian slaves chained to the oars of our prau.

iranum costumesMy revelry was interrupted by Muhammad, the Tausug datu whose men were on board with my Iranun warriors. Over a hundred of us crammed on the top deck of this prau, one of the largest in the fleet. “Maunu-unu na kaw?” says Muhammad, asking how I am feeling. I replied, “Marayaw.” I am fine. He asked if I wished to join the men. They could not sleep in anticipation of the big battle at sunrise. The Tausugs, who call themselves “men of the current,” are great seafarers and fierce warriors. But, they are also lovers of a good story they call katakata. The stories are mostly about tales they call Manuk-manuk Bulawan, describing the lives and deeds of the great sultans. But, they have funnier tales called posong about commoners tricking the sultans. The men are laughing hard. They must be telling posong tales.

I smiled to Muhammad but said no. I told him, “The sun is about to rise and the men should get ready soon. But, do let them finish their storytelling first.”

Looking into the darkness, I can see only the smiling faces of my sons on their first battle. It must have been a dozen years ago. They were so young, so eager. In the Iranun tradition, the training of sons for battle starts early at the age of 10. It was the Christian year 1744 when different kinds of white men came, called the Dutchmen, whose ships bombarded Jolo and then built a base called Port Holland in Maluso in the island of Basilan,. They proclaimed that the land belonged to the Dutch East India Company. Strange name for a country.

port holland maluso

Artist’s illustration of the short-lived Dutch base of Port Holland in Maluso, Basilan.

Even today, I do not know what they meant or who they were. Were they the same as the Spanish? They certainly looked alike. But then again, all white men seem to look the same to me. The Prince of the Tausugs, Datu Bantilan, called for a holy war against the Dutchmen of Port Holland. The Iranuns heeded the call and we sailed into Maluso with the Tausugs. We burned their ships and slaughtered the Dutchmen in the fortress. My sons came back from Port Holland with blood on their swords and faces and with their war trophies of slaves for the auction blocks of Sulawesi. They were so proud, singing their praises of Allah, laughing all the way home to the Bay of Iranun. I was proud of them. Finally, they became true Iranun warriors. The slaves would become the first of many, building up their wealth and stature. Soon they can marry with enough wealth to buy their wives, sire children—my grandchildren.

Now, they are gone. I missed so many years of not spending time with my sons. How many battles we could have campaigned together if not for my promise to see Makkah.

An Iranun warship of the late 18th century called ‘lanong’ is at least 30 meters long and comprised three banks of oars under full sail. With large bamboo outriggers, the ship is propelled more than 190 rowers. Photo by James Francis Warren,In “Pirates, Prostitutes and Pullers.” 2009.

An Iranun warship of the late 18th century called “lanong”was at least 30 meters long and comprised of three banks of oars under full sail. With large bamboo outriggers, the ship was propelled by more than 190 rowers. Photo by James Francis Warren, In “Pirates, Prostitutes and Pullers.” 2009.

Route to Mecca

Route to Mecca

Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Makkah

To pray in Makkah at least once in a lifetime is a fervent wish of all devout Muslims. It was a desire since my father began teaching me the Koran and about the fabulous land of Arabia, the desert,  Ka’aba, and the Grand Mosque. Those tales of Arabia were told by the descendants of Sharif Aulia, the Arab missionary, many generations ago. But my father had never made the Hajj. There was always a battle to fight, clan disputes to settle, or another land to conquer. And, it was a long, dangerous journey to Makkah. Now his eyes were failing, his body weak. His dying wish was for me, the eldest, to make the Hajj in his honor.

iranun ship cross section

Seven years ago, I set off to the Hajj with two comrades, Ali and Urangguwan. From our home in Parang in Iranun Bay, we sailed south through the Sea of Celebes, mindful of Chinese pirates that roamed this part of the world. Arriving in the port of Makasar in Celebes Island, we paid passage on a Chinese junk that carried us to the Javanese ports of Surabaya and Batavia. Then, through the great ocean they say was the Indian Ocean—vast, lifeless, rough. It took us a month to reach the City of Thoothukudi, almost on the southern tip of India, known for pearl diving and salt pans. It was the first time I saw dark-skinned people and elephants and  experienced the smell of curry everywhere. The women wore colorful clothing I had never seen before in all my life. The streets seemed alive with the vibrant colors of their sari as throngs of them walked the narrow streets.

There were hundreds of sailing boats coming and going to port and large ships which they said were owned by the Portuguese, another type of white people who warred against the Dutch and the Spanish too. From the seaward side, the spires of the basilica called Lady of Snows reached above all the Hindu temples. Strange to call a church that way when it is so hot here and no snow at all.

From Thoothukudi we went on a month’s miserable trek over the mountains to avoid the Portuguese ,who had converted most of the city into Christianity, to the port of Thiruvananthapuram on the east coast. There we boarded a ship they called a dhow, manned by Arab crews who took us through the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, paid bribes to the pirates in the “Horn of Africa” for our passage into the Red sea, finally docking in the port city of Jiddah, the gateway to Makkah.

All through this part of the trip, I was amazed at the seamanship of the Arabs, only using a tool they called kamal to guide them through the open ocean. It was nothing more than strings with knots passed through the horn of a bull. I wished they would teach me how it worked. Then I could sail with ease through the Sulu Sea, the Sea of Celebes, and the open ocean to China. For now in our homeland we hug the coasts, always keeping sight of the mountains to guide our ship to our destination.

Arab dhow

Arab dhow

Through each day of trials and tribulations, my comrades were beside me, protecting me from harm’s way. And each passing day I felt I was closer to the one true Prophet and closer to Allah.

Reaching Makkah via caravan through the desert was fascinating, the first time I had ever seen a camel and rode one over the sand dunes. Seeing the Great Mosque and walking around the Ka’aba was the most thrilling culmination of my Hajj.

I have done my father honor and I am now a Haji.

The Way Home

Going home via the same route was already familiar, though it seemed much longer. I missed my family and my homeland. It has been over a year since I left. The Arab dhow went by way of the Strait of Malacca rather than around Java to save time. The monsoon rains were coming. The shorter route took us into the pirate- infested Strait. One night on the 18th month of our trek, two ships stealthily came alongside, followed by musket fire and the clang of swords. The men of the dhow and I tried to fight off the boarding party to no avail. Both my comrades died fighting. I woke up tied to the mast, bleeding from a blow to the head. The pirates, mostly Chinese, Javanese, and Malays, were throwing the dead, old men, old women, children, and the badly wounded into the shark-infested waters. Shouts of hapless souls pleading for salvation were deafening. And those screaming as they were ripped apart by sharks were drowned out by the hearty laughter of the marauders. Strange that for the first time I was affected by this “show” when I too did the same to useless captives on past raids.

Taken to the slave markets, I was sold as a galley slave, tied to an oar of a pirate gang raiding the coast of Cochin China and Siam. The first month was torture for me. I could not believe that I, Haji Makaapen, was a slave on a ship owned by fellow Muslim Arab pirates. I protested. I am a Muslim too. But, no one cared. I was nothing but a worthless slave bought for a mere pittance.

Galley slaves on an Arab pirate ship.

Galley slaves on an Arab pirate ship.

But Allah was forever with me. For three long years, I saw the world through the port holes of the galley, wishing that death might come soon for me and as it had for the others. I endured. Then, one night the ship was overtaken by a violent storm and ran aground on a coral reef. My ship broke in pieces. The hard wood inside the galley was split in two by the shattering impact, allowing me to slip my shackled legs out. I swam out through the gaping hole on the side of the dhow. Slaves still in their shackles and pirates thrown overboard screamed for help as they drowned. Nature did not care whether one was a slave or master. The typhoon treated everyone equally that night.

Return of Haji Ranom

An old fisherman picked me up from the topside of floating debris in the ocean and brought me to his camp in the island of Natuna Besar in the middle of  the China Sea. I did not know how long I had been on the raft. The fisherman told me later that I was delirious for many days, calling for my children and for my wife Angintabu. When I finally came out of delirium, I asked for the fisherman’s name. He said his name was Ranom. He was once a warrior chief of the Rajah of Terengganu until the new ruler, Sultan Zainal Abidin, banished him and his family to this barren island in the middle of nowhere, a punishment worse than death. More than a decade has passed and he is the last one left alive, if one called that living.

For the next six months, we labored to make a bigger boat, large enough to make the sea voyage. The wood came from meager timber found in the other side of the island and from scraps of wood washed to shore from other shipwrecks. The land of the Iranun is just across the turbulent sea, just beyond the horizon.

I asked Ranom to come along with me for this last adventure beyond the sea. “My time has passed. I will die soon and I wish to be here with my family to the last,” said Ranom. He added that he will be just extra baggage on this long voyage and that I will need all the space for the provisions that can be carried on this little boat. Then, he handed me his sword, a kris forged in Terengganu by his forefathers. As I pushed the boat towards the forbidding sea, I shouted if I can add his name to mine so that his spirit will follow me as long as I live. He shouted back,” I thank you. This is an honor for me and my clan.” With those last words, I waved farewell to my friend and set my sights for my homeland.

I shouted to the wind, “I am Haji Makaapen Ranom of the Iranuns. I am coming home.”

Into the Battle of Miag-ao

My reminiscing was broken by the loud sound of the imam’s voice admonishing all the warriors to pray in the direction of Makkah as the first rays of the morning sun slowly crept out from the horizon. It was time.

Tausug warriors

Tausug warriors

After the morning prayer, the Iranuns and the Tausugs sat down, spears up in the air and their shields on their lap. The sails of all the boats were unfurled, taking wind. The fleet was moving slowly at first. Then the bows of the prau pounded the surf as the oars started their rhythmic paddling, matching the tempo of the drums. The wind was at our back, pushing us towards the shore, adding to the propulsion of the oars, each prau moving faster and faster as if we were all racing to the finish line.

As I looked at the faces of my warriors, I could not resist scanning the deck below filled with the faceless mass of men whose sole purpose was to row. I knew what they were thinking. I was just like them for three long years. Always in agony, forever in fear, and wishing to die as the final escape from the hell below decks—I know. Maybe my experience as a slave made me think about these men. Maybe it was a revelation after having completed the Hajj at the expense of my two comrades and years of suffering. Maybe slavery as a system that has always been part of this world for thousands of years will soon end but not likely in my lifetime.

Miag-ao’s coastline comes closer and closer to view. The men are excited. They begin striking their shields with their swords, every boat competing to be the loudest, each boat racing to be the first to reach the shore.

Photo of Cotta, 1907.

Photo of Cotta, 1907.

I can see the flash of sunlight against mirrors from the high ground they call Barangan-itip and another flash from the beach on the far right of the shoreline, from a place I knew as Calampitao. Perhaps they know we are coming!

My last big raid in Miag-ao was different. We came silently up the river and paddled as far as the boat could take us until the river became shallow. Then we disembarked and made a silent march until we reached the outskirts of town before the attack began. That way, hardly anyone escaped the raid. It always worked well, but the Sultan wanted us to go fast this time. Straight to the beach, kill everyone, no slaves to be taken. And, as soon as we were finished with Miag-ao  for us to rejoin the other flotilla attacking Oton where they expected more resistance.

swords and lances 1Our lantaka swivel cannons were sunk along with our praus on that same disaster last year that took my sons. Most of the cannons are at the bottom of the sea. On this raid, there are no cannons to support our men. The few we have left are on the praus headed for Oton. We are taking Miag-ao on a frontal assault without the benefit of knowing what awaits us. And the signals show they expect us. Disaster in battle is never caused by just one failure; it is often a combination of individual little failures that together add up to a catastrophic event. I fear that we have too many bad signs on this raid. But, too late to think of that now. No way to turn these boats around. Over a thousand warriors here are just too eager for battle. I was young like them too. I know what it was like.

Getting closer to the beach. The leading praus are almost there, heading directly to the Christian’s Cotta, a miniscule defensive watchtower made of coral stones normally too low to be much of a defense, but the infidels have added wooden palisades the height of two men on top of the watchtower. On our last foray into Miag-ao seven years before, this Cotta did not exist. These infidels did not fight. They simply ran as fast as they could into the hills and mountains.

This time I think they intend to fight. That’s good. For once we will have a real battle rather than the slaughter of chickens.

I can see men rushing to put up poles on top and in the front of the Cotta. Red flags on bamboo poles. I think they are taunting us to attack. Another bad sign to add to the list of bad omens.

 'The fight at the beach' Pencil sketch by Leopoldo 'Ajin' Moragas II.

“The Fight at the Beach.” Pencil sketch
by Leopoldo “Ajin” Moragas II.

Datu Masud’s prau is the first to reach the beach, another two not far behind. Our Iranun and Tausug warriors, the first 200, are jumping out and running towards the flags, their shields up, lances forward, swords unsheathed. On top of the Cotta is an infidel, shirtless, tattooed, raising a kampilan pointing towards us, a personal challenge that made our men roar even more loudly in defiance.

These infidels seem ready to stand their ground. I can see more movement up the hill. I do not think the townspeople are running either. They seem to be forming up for a fight. Merchants, farmers, clerks against my battle- hardened army ? The entire Spanish Army might be beyond the hill and I would not know until they come rushing down.

As my prau hits the sand, I jumped out along with the rest of my men. I shouted, “Allah Akbar !” And in unison, a thousand of us, on the beach and on the approaching praus, shouted, “Allah Akbar !” That single thunderous cry would have chilled the bones of these infidel dogs.

Towards Cotta I go, my friend Ranom’s kris swirling in the air, my lancers throwing spears towards Cotta. Any second now the battle will be joined.

This is a good day for a fight.

————————– To Be Continued——————————


  1. Kiefer TM (1973) Parrang Sabbil: Ritual suicide among the Tausug of Jolo. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. Deel 129, 1ste Afl., ANTHROPOLOGICA XV (1973), pp. 108-123.KITLV, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, publisher.












Special Note:

ajin sketching
The original sketches shown in this article are the contributions of Ajin (Leopoldo Moragas II), a 13-year old artist native to Barangay Caitib, Miag-ao. I had asked Ajin to read the article and come up with his interpretation of the events surrounding Salakayan. I am sharing with you here just a few of his pencil sketches to lend some measure of realism in the stories. Ajin is also our youngest “Artist in Residence” at Sulu Garden. His first oil painting , “The Tiger,” was completed when Ajin was 10 years of age. A few examples of his oil paintings are shown below.


Previous – Episode I. Defending Cotta: Thoughts of a Comisario in the Morning of Salakayan

Next – Episode III. The Captain from Gipuzkoa in the Battle of Miag-ao