Philippines History: The Moro Rebellion (1899-1913)

Figure 1.--This photograph shows a scene fromna Moro village or cotta. It came from an album put together by an American soldier working on Mindanao. It was taken about 1904. Notice the U.S. army hat the man in the background is wearing.

Often associated with the Philippines Insurection was the Moro Rebellion. But this would be an roneous assessment. The Spanish while claiming soverignity over the Philippines Islands, it was never in effective control of the southern islands, especially the Sulu Archipelago and the large island of Mindanao which were heavily popilated by Muslims. This area of the Philippines is sometimes known as Moroland after the Filipino term for Muslims--Moros. The Moros were not participants in the First Philippines Republic and Philippines Insurection which was primarily organized and conducted by Spanish-speaking Christian Filipinos. The Moro Rebellion refers to the Muslim Moro resistance to American rule. after the Spanish-American War. It essentially the continution of their resistance to the Spanish. The term "Moro Rebellion" conveys a unified resistance that was never the case. The Sultan of Sulu was the preminant Islamic fifure, but the Moro Rebellion was more of a struggle betwwen local leaders which were not under the effective control of the Sultan. As a result of the resistance by Muslim leaders, American military authorities did not hand over control of Moroland to civilan authorities until (1913).


The Spanish as part of the colonization process set about converting the Filipinos to Cathocism. They were largely successful except in the south among the Muslim population. Muslims dominated the population bith in the Suku Archipelago and on the large island of Mindanao. Here the Muslims who the Spanish called Moros ressisted the Spanish militarily an refused to accept either Spanish civil administration or Catholcism. The Spanish maintained only a few coastal garrisons. They would make occasional punitive expeditions into the interior, but were unable to establish any real control.

Sultan of Sulu (1450- )

The Sultanate of Sulu was a Muslim state that ruled over the islands surrounding the Sulu Sea. This included the islands of the Sulu Peminsual as well as Minanao (especially the westernn peninsula), Palawan, and Sabah (British Northern Borneo). The Sultanate was centered in Jolo in the Sulu Arrchepeligo. Jolo is the largest of tge Sulu Islands and the main settlement is Jolo. The early histotory of the Sutanate is not well documented. Many sources date the founding (1450). But some sources suggest an earlier date. Muslim historians in particular date the Sultanate several centuries earlier to the time of Raja Baguinda Ali. The Sultan's control over these areas, especially beyond Jolo and the Sulu Islands. Here it must be pointed out that even when the Sultan lost civil control of these islands, such as British Northern Borneo, he still retained Islamic religious jurisdiction. But without civil control, he had no way of enforcing his edicy=ts on local Muslim rulers (datus). European colonial powers in the early 19th cehtury began expanding their colonial control in the area. The British establish Singapore (1819) to contest Dutch control of the area. U.S. Navy Captain Charles Wilkes negotiated a trade treaty (1842). The French occupied Basilan Island (1845). King Louis Philippe decided, however, to honor Spanish claims and withdrew. The Sultan's control of Sabah was limited. (This was an area Spain did not claim.) The Sultan decided to lease lthe northern coast of Borneo along the Sulu Sea to the predecesor of the British North Borneo Chartred Company (1877). The British evebtually seized control of Sahah, making it a protectorate (1882). Sultan Badar Ud-Din II (1881-86) initiated several administrative reforms beginning with the appoinment of a prime minister. The Sultan declared Jolo a free port (1883).

Spanish Offensive (late-19th century)

Spanish authorities intensified efforts after several centuries to gain actual control of the southern islands. The Spanish finally occupoied Jolo, the seat of the Sultanate (1851). They fotified the city, but had little control beyond the city walls even on Jolo Island. The Sultan in an effort to eject the Spanish, contacted the Germans, seeking protection (1872). The Germans at the time were not interested. The Spanish expanded their control to all of Jolo Island (1876). THe Sultan under Spanish pressure finally ascented to becoming a vassal of the Spanish king (1878). The Treaty of Peace was signed (July 22, 1878). While the Sultan recognized Spanish soverigity, the actual administration of the Sulus beyond the Spanish garison at Jolo was left to the Sultan. And the Treaty itself was confusing. The Spanish version gave absolute sovereignty over the Sulus to Spain. The Tausug version described a protectorate, a lesser degree of dependency. Regardless of the Treaty details, the Spanish continued to have a very limited presence in Moroland and minimal control.

Spanish American War (1898-99)

The American Pacific Fleet commanded by Commodore George Dewey was ordered to engage the Spanish Fleet at Manila Bay. He was in Hong Kong and immediately sailed for the Philippines where an insurection against the Spanish was also underway. The Battle for Manila Bay began with Dewey's orders, "Fire when ready Gridley." Dewey destoyed the Spanish Fleet and harbor batteries (May 1). There were no American casualties. The United States did not want the insurgent Filipinos to seize power. Dewey had no land force, however, with which to occupy the islands. A land force of 11,000 ground troops was landed. There was at first an uneasy alliance between insurgent Filipino and U.S. forces led to a Spanish surrender (August 14 After tge Battle of Manila Bay, the United States occupied Luzon, the main island. The rest of the northern Philippines was occupied (1899). The Spanish forces in Moroland were thus cut off. They retired to the garrisons at Zamboanga (Mindanao) and Jolo. American forces relieved the Spanish at Jolo (May 18, 1899) and Zamboanga (December 1899). The Spanish despite their very limited control over Moroland ceded the Sulus and Mindanao as part of the Philippines Islands to the United States in the Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War.

Bates Treaty (1899)

Brigadier General John C. Bates was dispatched to Jolo to negotiate a treaty with the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram II. Kiram was displeased that Spain had given control of the southern islands which meant his sultanate to the Americans. He had assumed that with the defeat of the Spanish he had regained full soverignity ovr the Sulus. With the out break of the Philippines Insurection (Philippine-American War) was to ensure that the Suktan would not join rebel (First Republic) forces. Vates also wanted to guaeantee civil order in Moroland. What has come to be called the Bates Treaty was signed. It was essentialt based on the earlier 1878 Spanish Treaty. And there were similar differences in the English and Tausug versions. These have been called tranlations errors. It all liklihood it was differences the Sultan intentialled ordered. Yhe English version described thecSultanate's complete dependency to thevUnited States. The the Tausug phrsed the relationship as a protectorate. The Sultan in the Bates Treaty granted more powers to the Americans than had been granted to the Spanish. Even so, Bates was criticised for permitting too great a kevel of autonomy to the Sultan. There was even a clause recognizing slavery as still practiced by the Moros. Bates defending the Treaty as a temporary measure until the Insurgency in the north had been defeated and more American forces were available to establish control in Moroland. Bates however much criticized did manage to gain Moro neutrality in the Philippine Insurection. We are unsure if the Philippines insurrectionists attempted to gin the Sultan's support. The Americans established a few outposts in Moroland without any local interference. American forces established the military District of Mindanao-Jolo, under the command of General Bates. His forces as he pointed out were spread extremely thin. He had only 2 infantry regiments to control all of Mindanao--a huge island. Bates established his headquarters at Zamboanga at the tip of the western peninsula.

Sultan's Limited Authority

General Bates in negotiating with the Sultan was under the impression that the Sultan controled Moroland. While he did have nominal authority, in fact his actual authority was limited. The Sultanate of Maguindanao was actually independent and autonomous, but recognized the supremacy of Sulu in both religious and international matters. Actually the local leaders (datus) has acquired real power and were only nominally unfer thecSultan's control. Bates did not understand this and did not consult the datus. For their part the datus were affronted by being ignored and felt no obligation to be bpund by the Treaty. And the sutuation on the Sulus was simple compared to Mindanao. Here the situation varied from region to region. The Lake Lanao district alone was contested by over 200 s mutually antagonistic and constantly feuding datus. The the Cotabato area (watershed of the Rio Grande de Mindanao) was minimally cintrioled by Datu Ali. The Sultan of Sulu and Maguindanao might be considered true sultans. There were, however, 32 self-proclaimed Sultans on Mindanao who claimed the title of Sultan because they controled territory beyond the area controled by an ordinary datu.

First Phase of the Rebellion (1899-1901)

Mindanao was different than the Sulus. The Sulus were almost entirely Muslim. Mindanao had a mixed population. Muslims dominated the west of the island. Christisns dominated the east. There was support for the First Philippines Insurection among the Chritian east. Brigadier General William A. Kobbe took over from General Bates (March 20, 1900). American authorities upgraded the District of Mindanao-Jolo to a full Department. American forces on Mindanao were also reinforced with a third infantry regiment. A substantial increase, but still a totally insufficent force to control Mindanao. As a result, the initial focus was on the more manageable Sulus. The Americans established garrisons at Jolo and thirteen other coastal towns in the Sulus. The Americans also set up posts along the coast of Mindanao. It should be noted that these were very small and isolated posts. Radio had not yet been developed so they could not readily call for assistance if trouble developed. Fortunately for the Americans, the initial hostility resuktingvfrom the Bates Treaty lessened somewhat. The Americans drove the Ohillipes Insurectionist forces into the hills. They received little or not support from the Moros. Reports suggests that trade adversely affected by the War and Insurrection gradually revived. This also meant increased incidents of both slave raiding and piracy. There were attacks on the more isolated American posts on Mindanao. The motive of the attackers varied. Americabs referred to them as bandits. The principal Insurrectionist forces were commanded by General Capistrano. The Americans organozed an operation against him (winter 1900-01). Capistrano finally surrendered (March 27, 1901). Only a few days later Insurrectionist leader General Emilio Aquinaldo's surrendered on Luzon. This ended organized Insurrectionist resistance on Mindanao. And the victory in the north gave the Americans the ability to shift more forces south.

Conciliating the Moros

Brig. Gen. George Whitefield Davis was the next American commander in the Department of Mindanao-Jolo (August 31, 1901). Davis' approach was attemot to conciliate the Moros. He ordered American units to purchase Moro produce if possible. He conceived "heralds of amity" who were assigned to American patrols to enter village before American soldiers on scouting expeditions. Peaceful Moros were allowed to keep small arms. And Ameeican units were ordered not to move aggrwsively against slavery. Rather "polite" reminders of the America's anti-slavery policy were given. The principal commanders in the Philippines Ibsurectiojs had been involved in the Indian Wars. A new generation of Amderican officers began to energe iin the Philippines. One such individual was Captain John J. (BLack Jack) Pershing, the future commabder of the American Expeditionary Firce (AEF) during WOrld War I. He was assigned to the small garison at Iligan and showed considerable skill in established friendly relations with the Moro tribes. Other officers were less diplomatic and several indidents occurred after attacks on American outposts. Lake Lanao figured orominantly in this phase of the American occupation. The Lake is in west-central Mindanao, near the base of the western peninsula. It is situated south of Marawi, northwest of the Butig Mountains. Lake Lanao is the second largest lake in the Philippines. Many Muslim villages were located around the lake.

End of the Philippines Insurection (1902)

President Theodore Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring the end of the Philippine Insurrection (July 4, 1902). He exempted the Moro tribes in the south. Perhaps for this reason, Roosevelt promoted Davis and appointed him as the new supreme commander of American forces in the Philippines. Command of the Mindanao-Jolo Department was turned over to Brig. Gen. Samuel S. Sumner. Pershing's harrd work and diplomacy was recognized. His ability to pacify thecMoros diplomatically was legendary as was his actions against the war-like tribes. Tge Noros even made him datu, as far as I know the only non-Muslim to be so honored. He worked thecsouthern shore and Major Robert Lee Bullard worked the northern shore. Pershing marched around the lake (April-May 1903). The march was generally peaceful and impressed the Moro tribes. Two engagements convinced many Moros that resistance could be costly.

Moro Province (1902-03)

American authorities created Moro Province (June 1, 1903). The province consisted of "all of the territory of the Philippines lying south of the eight parallel of latitude, excepting the island of Palawan and the eastern portion of the northwest peninsula of Mindanao." A civil government was appointed, but many civil service positions, including the district governors and their deputies, were filled by mikitary officers, an indicatiin of the unsettled conditions. The governor of the province also served as the commander of the Department of Mindanao-Jolo. The Ameeicans also established a legislative branch: the Moro Council. YThe Concil was made up of th governor, a state attorney, a secretary, a treasurer, a superintendent of schools, and an engineer. The governor appointed all of the other members. This was a permanent body and began to provide foundation of laws. An administrative structure was created whivh involved the datus in the government.

First Govenor: Leonard Wood (1903-1906)

One of the best known individuals involved in the Philippines was Major General Leonard Wood. He took his office as governor of Moro Province and commander of the Department of Mindanao-Jolo (August 6, 1903). His stewardship has been variously evaluated. He certainly was not diplomatic with the Moros. He was offended with many Moro pracy=tices, such as blood feuds, polygamy, and slave tradeing. Woods also seemed affected by the Senate struggle over his appointment to the rank of Major General. This appears to hve drove him to seek military solutions and thus lauditory headlines. He led several punitive expeditions as aesult of minor incidents that a more flexible govenor could have assigned to the district governors who might have pursued diplomatic sollutions. As a result, the most untense fighting in Moroland occured during his governorship. Wood instituted many reforms during his tenure as governor of Moro Province. Most were well-meaning and in the best interest of the population. Some of these, including the abolition of slavery, were upsetting to the Moros on both religious and economic grounds and needed more diplomatic preparation. The superior American arms and military organization resulted in American victories, but often with horrifying civilian casualties, in part because Moro fighters often had their wives and children with them. Bud Dajo in particular was a public relations disaster.

Second Govenor: Tasker H. Bliss (1906-1909)

Major. Gen. Tasker H. Bliss replaced General Wood as the commander of the Department of Mindanao-Jolo (February 1, 1906). He also replaced him as govenor of Moro Province sometime after the First Battle of Bud Dajo. Biiss sought to avoid civilian casualties and another public relations castarophe. As a result, during his 3 years he did not order a single punitive expedition. This tenure is seen by many as the peace period in the Moro Rebellion campaign. This was, however, largely because he tolerated a higher degree of Moro lawlessness than Woods did. Constabulary forces pursuing Moros who had committed crimes were constantly frustrated and forced to abandon pursuits. The Filipino Constabulary was a small force and not equiped to maintain order without help from the Army.

Third Govenor: John J. Pershing (1909-1913)

John Pershing had left the Philippines as a captain (1903). Press reports had made him a notavle figure. President Roosevelt was particularly impressed and wanted to promote him, but promotions below the rank of general were the perogatives of the War Department and a system based strintly on seniority. After some several years of wrestling with the War Department, Roosevelt nominated him for Brigadier General. Pershing's marriage to Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of U.S. Senator Francis E. Warren, a Wyoming Republican and chairman of the U.S. Military Appropriations Committee helped gain Senate approval. Thus it was General Pership that took up his duties as the third and final military govenor of Moros Province (November 11, 1909). He proved by far the most effective and was able to finally end the Moro Rebellion with relatively little bloodshed..


Pershing enacted a series of reforms which were nuanced compromoses between American law and Moro traditional and Islamic customs. Compromises were made in areas such as slavery, conteact law, law enforcement, legal sysrem, changes, as well s other areas. The result was drawing more Moros into accomodation with the American administration as well as a very significant expansion of thececonomy.


Law enforcement was an ongoing problem in Moroland. The willingness of Moro communities to harbor law breakers and the fact that the Moros were heavily armed meant that the Phillipes constabulary was not equipped to deal with the situation. They often found that arresting a single individual meant that a large force had to be deployed. This was not feasible and carried the danger of a major fire fight. Pershing finally saw that the Moros would have to be disarmed (1911). Former Govenor and now Army Chief of Staff Leonard Wood objected to Pershing's plan. He argued that such an action was ill-timed and that the Moros would hide their best arms and turn in only their obsolete guns. Pershing delayed the disarmament order until a major road building program haad cut important roads into the interior. The reasoned that the Army could now protect disarmed Moro tribes from those who kept their arms. He met with important datus. The general consensus was that disarmament would be a good idea, reducing crime and intra-tribal conflict. Thir concern was that everyone be disarmed. Pershing issued tge disarmament order (September 8, 1911). A deadline of December 1 was set. Most Moros complied, but there was resistance., especially in Jolo Districr. The Army intervened leading to the Second Battle of Bud Dajo. This time there were only 12 Moro casualties. Another battle occurred at Bud Bagsak. The result was that the Moros were largely disarmed.

Final Transition to Civil Authority

Pershing's reforms and the disarmament of the Moros led to a greatly improved security situation in Moroland. Pershing thus reached the opinion that Moro Province could make the transition to civil government. A factir here was also the Moro personalistic view. Constant changes in mikitary govenors was disruptive. Civil governors would mean longer tenure in office. Pershing began the process of replacing militarybofficers with civilian civil servants. Pershing was replaced as governor of Moro Province by a civilian, Frank Carpenter (December 1913). His next assignment would be to hunt down Panco Villa in Mexico.


The Moro Rebellion resulted in fairly limited American losses despite the length of the campaign. American Army sustained 130 men killed and 323 wounded. More deadly was dusease which accounted for about 500 deaths. The Philippine Scouts who supported Army operations 116 killed and 189 wounded. The lightlybarmed Philippine Constabulary suffered the heaviest losses. They experiences over 1,500 casualties, half of which were fatalities. The Moro lossess are less well dicumented. No one one know the actual number. Estimates range widely, generallu 10,000-20,000 and even higher. Estimates onnthe wounded do not exist.


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Created: 1:23 AM 9/16/2008
Last updated: 1:23 AM 9/16/2008