Bangsa Moro, History, Newspaper article

Basilan: almost became a French colony

Below is an old newspaper feature I did for the Philippine Post. I am re-posting it here as I have already abandoned my websites while my blog at, which contained this article, had been removed.  This is quite an interesting historical incident, unknown to most Filipinos.

basilan-banner half

Today, industrialized countries are attracted to China for its huge market potential. To be in its good graces, Europeans are giving back their Chinese colonies — England gave back Hong Kong in 1997 and Portugal will give back Macao this December.

Back in the 19th century, European powers were also attracted to the huge market potential of China but they were scrambling for territories then. The British victory over China in the “Opium War” resulted in China’s ceding Hong Kong to Britain. French military officers immediately floated the idea of “French naval stations in the China waters”. The unlucky target: Basilan.

In October 1844, the French Admiral Cecille sent the ship Sabine, under Capt. Guerin, for a highly secret reconnaissance mission to Basilan. But the secret mission became highly publicized when on November 1, Ensign Meynard and a sailor were killed. His three other companions were taken captives.

According to the Macao Naval Minister, Ensign Meynard went ashore on a dinghy to get some potable water. “Ignorance of the language and the people’s predisposition led him to commit some offense which resulted in a scuffle.” One version says that a trap for the Basilan leader, Datu Usuk, had been prepared but the unfortunate Meynard fell into it.

The Frenchmen were incensed. They sent two letters to Datu Usuk; one threatening vengeance should harm come to the captives, and the other announcing the seizure of the Island by the King of France. The Frenchmen then headed for Zamboanga to request the help of the Spanish Governor Figueroa.

Figueroa obtained the release of the captives in exchange for some 1,000 piastres worth of mariners’ personal cargo and 2000 piastres in cash. But the Frenchmen were not appeased. Capt. Guerin declared a blockade of Basilan and demanded compensation for the double killing. He thus notified the Sultan of Sulu and the Governor of Zamboanga.

The Zamboanga governor protested the blockade and sent two small naval vessels to fire warning shots. He asked help from Manila but Governor-General Claveria could only oblige with one frigate, the Esperanza, which was immediately dispatched to Zamboanga.

Meanwhile, Sultan Muhammad Palau, whom the French described as ” a crafty dialectician”, told the French that the Basilan datus were rebellious and deserved to be punished. Taking the Sultan’s remark as a blessing, the French attacked Basilan with two corvettes and 160 men.

The attack failed. Two men were killed and several were wounded. Admiral Cecille himself immediately left Macao aboard the Cleopatre to take personal command.

Both Spain and Sulu claimed sovereignty over Basilan. The Spanish alleged that the people of Basilan had recognized Spanish sovereignty in February 1844. But the other European powers recognized Sulu’s long-standing rule over Basilan. Using strong-arm diplomacy, the imperious admiral put pressure on both the Spanish governor and the Taosug Sultan to convince Datu Usuk and his men to surrender or face the might of France themselves.

The admiral’s diplomatic efforts paid off. On January 13, 1845, the Basilan datus went aboard the French steamer, Archimede, and affirmed the “absolute independence of Basilan vis-à-vis Spain.” A week later, the datus signed an agreement ceding the island to France “within two years upon initial request,” presumably upon official royal request.

basilan quarter
The Philippine Post 21 Aug. 1999

The Cleopatre anchored in the northwest part of Basilan. Upon seeing the port, the Admiral became enchanted with Basilan. He wrote: “.. this wonderful port which some compare to Brest, but which would rather remind me of Bosphorus,.. I believe I would not be able to leave Basilan without having assured my country of some eventual rights to its possession.” The agreement with the Basilan datus was not enough for him. He wanted no less than a formal cession from the Sultan of Sulu.

The French fleet then sailed to Jolo to press for a cession. The Sulu ruler stalled, invoking “religious scruples.” The British, archenemy of the French, sent a corvette, the Samarang to Jolo to boost the morale of the young Sultan. But Cecille was not to be cowed. The Admiral was going to get Basilan, his own “Bosphorus”, come hell or high water. In fact, he insisted on an agreement that had no need for the French King’s ratification.

On February 20, 1845, the Sultan of Sulu ceded Basilan Island to France in exchange for 100,000 piastres or 500,000 French francs. Cecille was to come back by September, presumably to have a formal and grandiose annexation ceremony.

To celebrate their victory, the French, who were still crying for vengeance, sailed for Basilan on 27 February and attacked the island with ferocity. An extract from the French official report:

“…The Malays, driven back to the mountains, were able to witness in terror the chopping of their giant coconut trees – causing the ground to tremble from the trees’ enormous weight – the fire engulfing the entire plain, the detachments moving around everywhere; and everywhere they brought destruction: The heaviest possible deployment covered every point…Five hundred men at the beck and call of Commandant de Chande destroyed 6000 stooks of rice without the least protest, burned 150 houses, razed the entire banana plantation to the ground, and felled more than a thousand coconut trees….”

The French could not destroy Basilan’s people, so they took their vengeance on Basilan’s natural resources — the coconut trees, the rice field, the banana plantation, etc.

But all for naught. On June 30, the French Cabinet decided in favor of Basilan’s annexation. But on July 26, the King reversed the decision. There were many reasons given for the King’s decision, including Louis-Philippe’s desire to marry a Spanish princess. Admiral Cecille rejected all the official reasons; however, he could do nothing but obey his king.

Armed with its Basilan experience, France invaded Indochina thirteen years later.

Would it have been better for Basilan to be under France? Perhaps. In 1845, the French Cabinet approved an operational cost of 2.5 million francs and 1.7 million francs for Basilan’s first year budget. The French invested in their colonies. Maybe Basilan would not be one of the poorest provinces of the Philippines today. What if the Basilan cession is still valid? Admiral Cecille made sure that the agreement did not need royal ratification. Anyone for a Basilan-as-French-province movement?


P.S. :  It is strange that King Louis-Philippe of France approved the conquest of Algeria yet he disapproved the annexation of Basilan. He must have done it in deference to Spain. The Orleans-Bourbon/Borbon dynastic families were (and still are) closely intertwined. Louis-Philippe’s spouse, Queen Maria Amalia, daughter of the King of Sicily, was also a Bourbon. Too bad for Basilan! But then, the Basilan cession could still be valid. It had been signed and paid for!


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