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How a Royal Marriage Saved Basilan From Becoming a French Colony

What if... Basilan became a French colony in 1844?
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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In the contemporary world of Filipinos, despite the scars we carry from our long, arduous history under colonizers, there is much adoration for anything foreign. This allure is birthed into existence, something we refer to now as the colonial mentality.

It’s our cross to bear, so to speak, and if there is any country more romanticized than others, it’s France. It’s home to delicious pastry. The Eiffel Tower serves as a backdrop setting for classic films. They have a fascinating language: it’s a culture that seems to exude luxury. And they were perhaps not the best colonizers in history, a little inept compared to Spain and England.

If they were a little less preoccupied with European affairs, they could have utilized their arsenal more without affecting their overseas policies. They weren’t the most consistent. At the time, they had the largest population as well as wealth, and their army wasn’t half bad. They had slower growth rates than the other colonizers, but they also planted their roots so deep that some national characteristics, like speaking French, are still done in former colonies.  

They never formally colonized us, but they came a little close. One of the least told stories of Philippine history is when the island of Basilan almost became a French colony in 1844. 

Basilan as an Undiscovered Treasure

The Philippines and France formally established diplomatic relations in 1947, but more than a century before that, the French were determined to seize the island. 

Basilan is the largest island of the Sulu Archipelago and was known as Tajima (or Taguima) Island in pre-Hispanic times. The indigenous and mountain people then were the Yakans, who are descendants of early Papuan settlers, influenced by the Muslims from Sumatra by the 14th century. In the 1840s, the tribe was under the process of Islamisation. However, Britannica also noted that their culture also included many non-Muslim beliefs and customs.

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An old photograph of Basilan.

Based on The Philippines and France: Discovery, Rediscovery, choosing the island came easy because Dr. Jean Mallat’s work made Basilan more desirable. Despite being a French physician who has been on three voyages to the Philippines, there were inconsistencies in the information he provided, due to no proper discussions or verification on the island itself. 

In October 1844, before the French politician became a key player in France colonizing Vietnam, Admiral Jean-Baptiste Thomas Médée Cécille felt the need to include Mallat in the discreet expedition to Basilan aboard the corvette, a small warship, Sabine. It was under the command of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, Captain Nicolas François Guerin, who is immortalized today through a plaque in Rochefort, France. 

What Were the French After?

Admiral. Jean-Baptiste Thomas Médée Cécille
Photo by Wikimedia Commons .
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In true Imperialist fashion, there was a desire to establish a permanent French Navy base near the South China Sea. It was a confidential task that Foreign Affairs Minister François Guizot oversaw before he was involved in the French Revolution of 1848. Other territories were considered, but the agricultural promise of Basilan and its fixture outside Spanish sovereignty was what sealed the deal. The Spaniards allegedly had reached the island many centuries ago in search of Moluccas (Spice Islands), dating as early as the 1521 expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan. The subjugation of this particular island took a longer time to materialize. 

An exploratory mission was made in 1943 to confirm the beauty of Basilan. It was a little friendly at first: the Sultan of Sulu Jamal-ul Kiram I and Lieutenant Commander Theogene Francois Page of France entered into the first commercial agreement; not knowing that it would take more than that to successfully purchase the island. 

Arising Tension with the French and the Natives 

A French corvette in the 19th century.
Photo by Antoine Roux (1765–1835).
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A delayed meeting between Rajak Usuk and Captain Guerin due to bad weather made the French quite impatient, causing conflict. Instead of waiting things out, they attempted to go into the mouth of the river where they were met by natives, but the French refused to take their suggestion that Guerin go on the journey to see the Rajah personally. He sent four men with an interpreter on the dinghy, a small boat, in his placea bad move that insulted the Tausugs. 

Meanwhile, the French continued collecting water samples from the river, with the goal of evaluating if establishing their base on the island was feasible through hydrographic surveys. 

While they were busy, one of the French men, a certain Meynard, refused to hand in his gun when they were approached by two Malay boats. It came quickly: He and a few others were struck down. Some were taken as hostages. Captain Guerin couldn’t wait for assistance, yet again, which would have made his life easier in negotiating with the natives. Instead, he immediately sailed to Zamboanga to enlist the Spanish Governor Cayetano Suarez de Figueroa’s help, not knowing its consequences to their mission.

The French were able to negotiate with Rajah Usuk through de Figueroa’s help. Now for a different reason than the amicable discussion they were supposed to have. The Rajah’s demands were, “2,900 piasters, 10 guns, a hundred razors, and other sundries,” which the French didn’t initially want to completely oblige. However, they ended up paying the ransom, and their mentreated fairly well, by the waywere released. 

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The corvette La Victorieuse finally arrived, and with Sabine, the two captains made the mistake of creating the blockade of Basilan. When a cannon was fired by the natives at two French boats in the Malosa River, all hell broke loose. The French returned the favor in vengeance.

Only this time, they wounded Rajah Usuk, among others.

The Spaniards Intervene

Since there was a lack of proof regarding Spanish sovereignty on the island, Governor de Figueroa went to inform others in Manila of what the French were up to. A Spanish warship was sent to the area. The Sultan of Sulu was informed of these events as well, but his title didn’t entail much power over the territory, deeming it nominal.

In Manila, diplomatic negotiations were still being made between countries by the end of 1844. The Spanish recognized Basilan as a part of the Philippines despite their absence in the territory, giving the French a hard time. 

Governor de Figueroa sought an informal alliance, the Balagtasan League, with some northern datus who were willing to be allied with the Spanish flag, for more leverage. More Spanish rights were asserted with the arrival of the frigate, a larger warship, La Esperanza in Zamboanga. 

France Stands Its Ground

In 1945, Admiral Cecille was back in Malosa Bay with his fleet. Much to de Figueroa’s chagrin, the datus declared that “they were loyal neither to Spain nor to the Sulu Sultanate,” to Cécille. With this, the French saw the opening they were waiting for so they could buy the island.

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On the 22nd of January, a treaty was signed with the French. This preference for French protection over the Spaniards was so the chiefs would not be bothered anymore by the latter. However, the French presence was met with resentment by the Sulunese. More negotiations ensued between them, and a memorandum of understanding was in place by February. 

The French got a little greedy despite their impending victory. They still wanted reparations from Rajah Usuk for the two murdered men in the form of 20,000 piasters for their families alongside a demand for the assassins to be surrendered. These demands were ignored, and declining Spanish assistance, the French went on to attack Malosa. Fast forward to mid-1845, the French Council of Ministers were approving the establishment of the base in Basilan.

Saved By the (Church) Bell

All of the fighting and negotiating were apparently for naught: true to their reputation of being a little more over the place than the other Western colonizers, the flippant decision-making of a French King turned into a saving grace for Basilan.

King Louis Philippe I of France
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
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Back in Paris, King Louis Philippe I, known as the last King of France, intervened to cancel it through a veto on the 26th of July 1845. He claimed that this post would mean tedious construction and maintenance, as well as some additional military and naval support, plus, taking into account the piracy in the region.

But there was also an ulterior motive for such a sacrifice. One of the main reasons for this abrupt cancellation was that the King’s son, Antoine, Duke of Montpensier, was set to marry a Spanish woman. According to the time frame and some reports, it was specifically the Princess of Spain, Infanta Luisa Fernanda who eventually did become Duchess of Montpensier. The marriage was under negotiation during those crucial times, and the King could not afford to offend Queen Isabella II in Madrid who had authority in the China Seas. Since he traveled before and spent some time in Spain, he’s a little close to Spanish royalty. 

La Familia Montpensier. Infanta Luisa Fernanda and Antoine, Duke of Montpensier with four of their children.
Photo by Jean Laurent.
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Admiral Cécille didn’t want to accept this decision, a little defeated in all that he went through. Ultimately, he had no choice. Adding salt to the wound, he was sent out to announce the French decision to the Spanish Governor-General, as well as the Sultan of Sulu. They say all is fair in love and war, but who knew that love–or at least marital alliances–could be the driving force in saving Basilan from French colonization?

On the Importance of Philippine Historiography

Not much about the French’s attempts at colonizing Basilan are in our history textbooks and it’s mentioned briefly online. Most of the retelling is based on The Philippines and France: Discovery, Rediscovery, a comprehensive book detailing the history of Philippines and France relations, released in 2019. It was in commemoration of 70 years and released by the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines in France. They even have a whole section dedicated to Jose Rizal and France, which makes for an interesting read for history buffs.

The Philippines and France: Discovery, Rediscovery
Photo by dfa.gov.ph.
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However, it would be interesting to learn more of the untold stories from the Filipino perspective. With the rise of historical revisionism, there is a pressing need for credible references that do more than just give us data but instead interpret it in the right way. Beyond the tripartite view of Philippine history, there is a growing interest in the untold stories in-between, the lesser-known heroes, and a critique of historical events by Filipino historians. 

Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil aptly summed up the earlier parts of our colonial history before the Japanese, with the observation that we have spent “300 years in the convent, and 50 years in Hollywood.” The French were known to invest in their colonies, and some would be prone to imagining an alternate universe when this fit of vengeance resulted in Basilan falling into French control. In a 1999 article published in the Philippine Post, one of the few sources regarding this matter, the author Datu Jamal Ashley Yahya Abbas hypothesized that perhaps Basilan would not be one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines today. 

The Philippine Post, 21 August 1999.
Photo by jamalashley.wordpress.com.
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Of course, like all missed chances, we have to ask: what if? Maybe Basilan would have suffered the same violence that Algeria endured when they were a French colony. Maybe we’d have adopted French as a language, or Basilan would have become a ‘little France’ in the Philippines, trading in their natural resources for French architecture. Maybe they would have split as an independent country eventually to become a tourist destination. Who knows?

However, realistically, it might be a disservice to claim that it would have been better had Basilan become a French province. The aspirations of emulating the same power and prestige that the West hold may be heavily misplaced or fueled by dreams of becoming as “sophisticated” as Europeans. Despite all the allure of the French empire, its imperial forces were known for brutality and ineptitude, so perhaps the Philippines dodged a bullet with this one. If only we could have escaped the Spaniards as well.

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