The British Once Controlled Islands in Mindanao When the Philippines Gained Independence

Everybody knows the story of how the British peacefully relinquished administration of Hong Kong and Macau back to China in the 1990s, but not many know a similar handover involving islands it controlled here in the Philippines.


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In the late 1800s, North Borneo was a protectorate of the British government. It was actually founded by an Austrian-German businessman and diplomat named von Overbeck, who acquired land concessions to the area from the Sultanate of Brunei and Sulu. Eventually, von Overbeck ceded his rights to the area to the British, who were the only ones to express interest when he was promoting it to countries and territories in Europe. It became a British protectorate soon after administrators expanded North Borneo to include other territories. 

Of course, during that time, the Philippine archipelago was under Spanish rule, so clashes between the two European powers in that area was not uncommon. As a result, an agreement called the Madrid Protocol was signed between the United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany to prevent further conflicts. 

Two groups of islands that British North Borneo administered at the time were the Turtle Islands and the Mangsee Islands. According to an article from the Sydney Morning Herald from 1947, the islands were leased in 1903 to the North Borneo Company by the Sultan of Sulu, whose heirs reportedly received 75 British pounds annually until 1939. (The Sultanate of Sulu also claims the whole of North Borneo on similar grounds, but that's another story). 


The Turtle Islands are about 273 kilometers west of Jolo, Sulu and are so-named because they are a breeding ground for the amphibious reptiles, which lay millions of eggs there that were once harvested and exported. The Mangsee Islands are about 177 kilometers away.

From the Spanish to the Americans 

After the United States won the war with Spain in 1898, the Americans gained control of the entire Philippine archipelago. The UK acknowledged the US’s sovereignty over the islands, but, like a child meekly asking permission from his parents, the British politely asked the US if it would be willing to forego their rights to these islands “out of consideration for the fact that the North Borneo Company had during many years carried on the administration of [the islands] under the apparent belief the islands formed part of the company's territory, and as the company attached importance to being permitted to retain control over them.”

According to the U.S. Treaty Series 856 of 1907, both sides agreed that the islands would continue to be administered by the British North Borneo Company, “with that arrangement to end should an international boundary treaty end it or should either government give the other government one year's notice.” 

In essence, both the UK and the US agreed that the Turtle Islands (composed of the islands of Sibuang, Boaan, Lihiman, Langaan, Great Bakkungaan, Tanganak and Banguan), as well as the Mangsee Islands, were part of the Philippine archipelago and therefore under the sovereignty of the US, but that they would remain under the administration of the British North Borneo Company.

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The Philippine claim 

The Philippines achieved independence from the United States on July 4, 1946, effectively taking over sovereignty of its own territory. Except for the two groups of islands, which, at the time was still technically under British control.

The fledgling government of the Philippines sought to correct this a few months later, when it notified the UK that it wished to take over administration of the Turtle Islands and Mangsee Islands. Similar to its move with the Americans, the British wrote back and tried to persuade the Philippines to reconsider its position, arguing that “because these islands are so far from the nearest Philippine administrative base…it would be in the best interests of both the Philippines and North Borneo for the latter to remain responsible for the administration of the islands.” 

A joint committee led by British and Filipino delegates inspected the administration of the islands, but afterwards, the Philippines insisted on taking over the islands from the British.

Unilke the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the UK’s handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, there was no big event to mark the formal transfer of sovereignty of the two groups of islands from the British to the Philippines. Instead, it all happened through a cordial series of notes between diplomats of the two countries. 

“I have now received the report of the Philippine Committee who conferred with the British Committee at Sandakan and made an ocular inspection of the Turtle Islands,” wrote then-Vice President Elpidio Quirino to the King’s Minister in Manila on September 24, 1947. “Upon a study of the report and the whole situation, I wish to inform you that it is the decision of my Government to take over immediately the administration of the Turtle and Mangsee Islands.” 


Quirino initially wanted the transfer to take effect on October 2. However, the British Minister, LH Foulds, proposed a different date.

“With reference to your Note of 24th September on the subject of the Turtle and Mangsee Islands, I have been instructed by His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to state, for the information of the Government of the Philippines, that His Majesty's Government agree that the transfer of the administration of the said islands shall take place on Thursday next, 16th October, 1947…”


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And that’s how the Union Jack was replaced by the Philippine flag over Turtle Islands and Mangsee Islands, two groups of islands located on a remote part of the Sulu Sea.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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