When the gold and cinnamon of Mindanao aroused the appetite of Spaniards (Butuan, April 1565)
The gold and cinnamon that arrived in Madrid in 1566 as evidence of the Philippines’ wealth came from the first trade exchanges between the Spaniards of the Legazpi expedition and the King of Butuan, a region in the northeast of the island of Mindanao. The precise instructions to establish peace and trade were quickly challenged by Spaniards still hungry for gold, more than 30 years after the battle of Cajamarca that ended the Inca empire.
Paz y Amistad with Lamonpot, Rajah of Butuan
Miguel López de Legazpi, the general of the 1564-1565 expedition to the Philippines, sent Captain Juan de la Isla with his patache, the San Juan de Latran, to lead a reconnaissance mission in Mindanao: instructions given before a notary public were precise:
- Establish diplomatic relations with the King of Butuan;
- Do not harm the junks of Chinese or Borneo merchants;
- Collect a series of information on local and neighbouring trade and production.
He was accompanied by Guido de Lavezaris (son of an Italian bookseller based in Seville, member of previous expeditions to the Moluccas and Florida, treasurer of the Philippine expedition) and Fray Andrés de Urdaneta (adventurer of Basque origin – like Legazpi – who participated in a previous expedition to the Moluccas, perfectly integrated into the Mexican colonial society, former Augustine friar, cosmographer and explicitly appointed by the king to find the way back from Asia to America). The patache left the group around March 15, 1565. In Butuan, they found two Muslims (Moros) junks from the island of Luzon and “Lamonpot”1 the “King of Butuan” : the Spaniards offered him presents (including a velvet jacket and a cochineal [grana] tinted cloak with three blue velvet bands), the king allowed them to trade, he proposed to sell three bahars (Indian measuring unit) weighing 12 quintals (552 kg) gold against Mexican silver (one gold peso against 6 silver) and wax.
The golden Kingdom of Butuan
Upstream of the Butuan River, gold deposits abound and have been exploited since the 2nd millennium BC, the region’s gold trade radius extended to China from the Song dynasty (960-1279) and diplomatic relations established in 1003 when King Kiling went to the Imperial Court to link trade agreements. The kings of Butuan are indianized maharajahs surrounded by an elite cosmopolitan society.
Among others is a region so rich in gold, that the amount is beyond estimation. And there is so great abundance of cinnamon that it is burned instead of wood by those people, who are as luxurious as those of Spain. They have a king there who has a constant body-guard of one thousand men, and who is esteemed so highly that none of his subjects see his face oftener than once a year. If they find it necessary to converse with him on any matter, they speak to him through a long wooden tube. And when he annually permits himself to be gazed upon, his subjects give him many valuable things. These people are quite advanced. They possess brocaded and silken fabrics of many different kinds. They hold gold in so little estimation that this king gave three barchillas of gold dust (for there all their gold is in the form of dust) for one string of hawk’s bells. Those three vessels loaded so much gold in that island that the king’s fifth amounted to one million two hundred thousand ducats.2¶
Lavezaris possessed capital provided by the Crown (brought from Mexico which he completed with the goods of the deceased of the outward journey… the Spaniards neglected no source in order to collect the maximum of money): he bought for 17 marcs and 6 ounces of gold, 20 quintals of wax (almost 1 ton). However, there was competition between the “Moros” and the traders of Butuán to exchange with the Spanish: Muslim traders acted as interpreters and trade intermediaries with the inhabitants of Butuan: they demanded payment in silver only. The Spaniards bought a pound of cinnamon, then they realized that they had been tricked: the wax blocks were made of clay… Meanwhile, the ship’s soldiers got impatient in front of junks full of gold belonging to “Moros”:
The soldiers of the patache were so desirous to plunder the junks, that they besought permission to do so from the captain; (…) [Moros] had uttered many lies and slanders against us—the soldiers said that this was sufficient to justify the war; and that the war would not be the cause of stirring up the natives, because the latter were not at all well-disposed toward the Moros.3
Los soldados que iban en el patax, como entendieron la gran suma de oro que los moros decían tener en los juncos (…) deseaban saltar en los juncos y daban razones diciendo que, demás de ser moros, trataban engaño con ellos (…) y que cada cosa por sí de ellas era bastante para justificar el negocio.
Legazpi’s expedition was originally conceived as a “discovery” to establish trade links and find the way back from Asia to America, the famous “tornaviaje”. This episode shows that Spanish soldiers and sailors had a completely different idea and that the old demons of conquest (raiding and looting) were reflexes for these men who came from New Spain and who often had experience in conquest in America.
Thanks to Jack Thomas for proofreading the text in English.
A Letter from the Royal Officials of the Filipinas Accompanied by a Memorandum of the Necessary Things to Be Sent to the Colony, Cebú, May xxviii, in the year MDLXV (Blair and Robertson, vol.2)
The specimens of gold, cinnamon, and wax were found in a port called Butuan, where we, the treasurer, and the factor, went by order of the general to investigate a certain report which we had heard concerning things to be found in the island of Beguendanao [Mindanao]. We found the aforesaid port, and in it two Moro junks which were trading there. According to orders received, we made peace with the lord of the said port, and gave him the message and the present which the general sent him. We gave him to understand that with his pleasure we were going to trade in his land, and that we would favor and protect him in everything in the name of his majesty. He answered us through the Moros, who served as interpreters, that he was pleased with our offers. We learned that the Moros felt very uneasy about the embassy, and we think that they influenced the said ruler and the natives by their vile designs. We were obliged to trade with them because they gave no opportunity to the natives to trade with us. The said Moros demanded in exchange for their goods nothing but testones, and it was agreed that for each weight of gold six of silver should be given. At this rate we bartered for the specimens of gold, wax, and cinnamon, which we send to his majesty and to your highness. The money belonged to some deceased persons, a memorandum of which we send to the officials of the royal exchequer.
To go further
- Blair, Emma Helen and Robertson, James Alexander, The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803; explorations by early navigators, descriptions of the islands and their peoples, their history and records of the Catholic missions, as related in contemporaneous books and manuscripts, showing the political, economic, commericial and religious conditions of those islands from their earliest relations with European nations to the beginning of the nineteenth century; vol.2. Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903
- The Ayala Museum – Gold of Ancestors – Makati City – Philippines
- Monbrison, Constance de, y Corazon S. Alvina, eds. Philippines, archipel des échanges. Paris, Actes Sud, Musée du quai Branly, 2013, p. 102-106
- Review: ‘Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms’, The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2015.
- I found the king’s name at the Archivo General de Indias, precisely in the expedition’s accounts: AGI, Contaduria 1195, f.64
- Copy of a Letter Sent from Seuilla To Miguel Saluador of Valencia. Which Narrates the Fortunate Discovery Made By the Mexicans Who Sailed in the Fleet Which His Majesty Ordered to Be Built in Mexico. With Other Wonderful Things of Great Advantage For All Christendom: Worthy of Being Seen and Heard. Printed in Barcelona, By Pau Cortey, 1566. (Blair and Robertson, vol.2
- M. López de Legazpi, Relation of the expedition, from November 19, 1564, to the end of May, 1565, in Blair and Robertson, vol.2