Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Philippines and the sandalwood trade in the late pre-colonial and colonial periods

Video presentation for the Inaugural National Conference of the Philippine Association for the Study of Culture, History and Religion (PASCHR) on Feb.1, 2014 at Holy Angel University in Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines.


Few trade items were as valuable throughout human history as yellow sandalwood (Santalum album) also called white sandalwood.   In particular, the fragrant wood was an important ingredient in the production of sacred and medicinal incense and ointments[1].  Some scholars even believe that the "almug" wood mentioned in the Old Testament as a building material for King Solomon's Temple was either yellow sandalwood or red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus)[2].

Kingdoms in Luzon, Mindanao, Sulu and Butuan in what is now known as the Philippines played an important role in the old sandalwood trade going back at least to Yuan Dynasty up to colonial times.  In those days, yellow sandalwood came mostly from the island of Timor until Santalum album nearly became extinct there due to excessive logging.   The Philippine archipelago sat along the important shipping lanes known to the Chinese as the "Eastern Ship Route," which was the main conduit for sandalwood, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and other products from the southern Philippines and eastern Indonesia.

Although sandalwood today comes largely from India, numerous sources suggest that in early times, most sandalwood came from Timor.  Tome Pires, for example, stated:  "God made Timor for sandalwood and Banda for mace and the Moluccas for cloves, and that this merchandise is not known anywhere else in the world except in these places; and [Tome Pires] asked and enquired very diligently whether they had this merchandise anywhere else and every one said not."  Chinese sources generally agreed that sandalwood was primarily a product of Timor.[3]

In his diary, Antonio Pigafetta, one of the crewmembers during Magellan's fateful voyage, mentions a ship from Luzon trading in Timor.  Interestingly, even after colonization, a family with roots from Pampanga on the island of Luzon played an important role in Timor's sandalwood trade.

Sandalwood incense was an essential natural product in Buddhist, Hindu and other Asian religions. In the belief systems of South Asia, sandalwood paste would often represent the earth among the five elements.   Believers smear the paste on the face and use it make the tilak (dot) on the forehead associated with the area of the "third eye."   The sweet smell of burning sandalwood helps the dead depart from the body according to beliefs on the Indian subcontinent.  The sacred fragrance also makes the wood a favorite material for sacred statues and other types of carving[4]. 

In China, sandalwood is a key ingredient in joss sticks, and tradition states that the fragrant wood provides a calming influence together with aloeswood (agarwood).   The Japanese use sandalwood as incense during meditation practice[5].   Although many joss sticks use "sandalwood" in their product names, only the expensive varieties contain actual sandalwood or aloeswood.

Sufi Muslims borrowed the use of sandalwood paste in India from other religious practitioners. The paste may serve as a incense and also as a decoration during religious festivals.  Among some Sufis sandalwood is believed to have healing or miraculous powers.  The paste may mark the graves of Sufis in the state of Tamil Nadu.

In his journal, Pigafetta describes the island of Timor in his time:  "In this island, and nowhere else, is found white sandalwood, besides ginger, oxen, swine, goats, poultry, rice, figs, sugarcanes, oranges, lemons, wax, almonds, and other things, and parrots of divers sorts and colors.[6]" Furthermore, he mentions seeing a trading ship at Timor while he was there:

All the sandalwood and the wax which is traded by the people of Java and Malacca comes from this place, where we found a junk of Lozzon [Luzon] which had come to trade for sandalwood[7].

Pigafetta's account of Luzon merchants venturing to Timor to trade for sandalwood concurs with other accounts of the time, although this is the only one to connect Luzon merchants specifically with the sandalwood trade.

The evidence suggests that the "Luzons," known to the Portuguese as Luções, were among the primary traders, if not the main ones, on three of the most important regional trade routes of the time.  The Luzons of that period had very close relations with the kingdom of Brunei according to various European sources. Rui de Brito Patalim even states in 1514:  "The people of that island [Brunei] call themselves Luções.[8]"   For the next decade, Portuguese sources continued to use the term " Luções" to refer to the people of Brunei even though they clearly knew of the Luções on the island of Luzon (Lução).

Tome Pires, writing in the early 1500s, described Lução as ten days sailing from Brunei[9], and Pedro Fidalgo, who landed on the island after a storm drove his ship off course while sailing toward Brunei in 1545, described Luzon as lying between the latitudes nine and 22 degrees North[10].

Pires also mentions a community of people from Luzon in Malacca including influential maritime traders, and he mentions that the Luzons and the people of Brunei were almost "one people."  The evidence seems to suggest that the merchants of Luzon were conducting a great deal of the trade across Southeast Asia and northward to China including possibly much of the sandalwood trade.  In order to understand how this came to be, we can examine how the trade routes developed in earlier historical periods. 

By at least the Sung Dynasty, the Chinese wrote of two maritime trade routes that handled traffic moving to and from Southeast Asia.   The Western Ship Route xi hanglu 西航 involved sailing along the mainland Southeast Asian coastline from Quanzhou in Fujian through Vietnam (Zhangcheng) and Cambodia (Zhenla) from which ships continued sailing southwest to Malaya, Sumatra and Java.  Not as well known is the Eastern Ship Route dong hanglu 東航 that followed the trade winds due south from Quanzhou and staying east of the Jiaozhi Sea (Vietnam Sea).  The necessity of staying east of the Jiaozhi Sea along the Eastern Ship Route was due to the existence of many shoals and coral reefs in this area.  We know these low-lying or submerged islands as the Paracel and the Spratly islands.  Historian Roderich Ptak explains these two routes in more detail:

Elsewhere I have demonstrated that this East / West segmentation can be related to the existence of two major trade arteries between China to Southeast Asia: the so-called xi hanglu 西航路 (western route) and the dong hanglu 東航路 (eastern route). Ships sailing along the first route went from Fujian and Guangdong to Hainan and Vietnam, passing the Paracel Islands on their western side; from Vietnam they proceeded to the Malayan east coast and finally around the peninsula’s southern tip to Melaka and the Indian Ocean; a further link connected the southern tip of Vietnam to Cape Datu; from there vessels could follow the Kalimantan coast down towards Java. The second route ran from Fujian – via the southern tip of Taiwan – to Luzon; from Luzon one would then go through the Sulu Sea to Brunei or, via the Sulu Islands and Celebes Sea, to Sulawesi, Maluku, Ceram, Timor, and so forth. The existence of this double route system is related to a very special geographical feature: the central part of the South China Sea was considered dangerous due to its many shoals and reefs.[11]

The Zhufan Zhi (諸蕃志) describes the shallow blue water of the area, a result of the coral habitat, where the "the sky and water meet with the same color."  He goes on further:  "Ships and boats sailing through the area are solely dependent on the compass to guide their navigation.  Days and nights the compass has to be carefully observed, because even an [sic] slightest error may make a difference between life and death.[12]"    The dangerous situation is common knowledge among mariners in this region up to today.  The many semi-submerged islands and shoals, and the low tide elevations make the Paracel and Spratly islands a hazardous area for shipping, especially for boats with deep keels.   Modern navigational charts, for example, mark the entire Spratly region as "dangerous ground.[13]"

Ptak notes that the Eastern Ship Route extends through the area of the modern Philippines southward to Maluku and Timor.  Maluku and the surrounding area was the main center for the production of clove flower buds, nutmeg and mace.  Timor, again, was the primary source of sandalwood during the medieval and early colonial periods.   Ptak believes that Butuan along with Champa were the main "re-exporters" of cloves during the Sung Dynasty[14].

During the Yuan Dynasty, Min-to-lang, a polity mentioned along with Sulu and Butuan, may refer to Mindanao or Mindoro in the Philippines.   Accounts from the time claim that sandalwood was one of the "natural" products of the island; however, it may be that Mindanao during this period actually acted as an entrepot for this trade item.  Archaeological evidence supports the idea of extensive Philippine trade with China and other Southeast Asian nation going back at least to the eleventh century.  Kenneth R. Hall mentions the layers of ceramic deposits that provide evidence of these trade networks at ports around the Philippines:  "Each of these communities' trade links with China are demonstrated by the communities' association with significant deposits of Song and Ming porcelain dating to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  The archeological remains of early Laguna, Mindoro and Cebu societies especially document the rapid growth of trade centers as people from the interior and other islands congregated around ports fortified with brass artillery – to protect against the piracy rampant in the region's sea channels – in response to the opportunities and demands afforded by foreign trade.[15]"

Additional evidence of maritime trade comes from the Pandanan and Lena Shoal shipwrecks off Palawan and the Santa Cruz wreck off Zambales that date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.   Unfortunately, the main items found in archaeological expeditions consist of ceramic and metallic objects as organic materials like sandalwood and spices quickly decompose in most conditions. 

When Martin de Goiti arrived in Manila in 1570, he found 40 Chinese and 20 Japanese families living in the city along with four trading junks in the harbor[16].   These connections were profound and probably had a significant impact on the future direction of trade between Asian and European nations that started in the 16th century.  Pires, for example, mentions that neither Javans nor Malays were allowed at the port of Guangzhou according to an account he heard from Luzons "who have been there."  The report suggests that the Luzons were trading in South China or at least in Guangzhou to the exclusion of two of the most important trading groups of Insular Southeast Asia at the time. 

The evidence provided by Portuguese writers suggests that the Luzons may have monopolized the trade between Malacca and China.  Miguel Lopez de Legaspi reported in the late sixteenth century that merchants from Luzon and Brunei were frequently mistaken for Chinese and that people in Maluku considered their ships to be "Chinese junks" because they carried Chinese goods.  Such reports indicate that the Luzons together with their allies from Brunei acted as "middlemen" for the trade between China and Southeast Asia.  The Ming bans on Chinese external trade combined with the close relationships forged in earlier periods may have helped the Luzons secure this position.   Both Legaspi and Villalobos report Chinese junks in Butuan, and it is noteworthy that the expeditions of Magellan and Villalobos sailed to the Moluccas, Ambon and Timor via the southern Philippines[17].

International relations including royal intermarriages may also have helped cement ties between Luzons and others in the Philippines with people throughout the Southeast Asia region.  Pigafetta, for example, mentions that a prince of Luzon acted as admiral for the king of Brunei.  Rajah Soliman of Manila's son married the daughter of the Sultan of Brunei, and many relatives of the Rajahs Lakandula, Soliman and Matanda fled to Brunei along with their entourages after the Spanish invasion of Luzon.  Humabon, the King of Cebu during Magellan's visit, was fluent in either Malay, Cham or Thai, which he used to speak with a merchant from "Ciama[18]."   The Luzon spice trader Regimo de Raja,  based in Malacca, was highly influential and the Portuguese appointed him as Temenggong (Sea Lord) of the Muslims of Malacca.  His father and wife carried on his maritime trading business after his death. Another important Malacca trader was Curia de Raja who also hailed from Luzon.  The "surname" of "de Raja" or "diraja" could indicate that Regimo and Curia, and their families, were of noble or royal descent as the term is an abbreviation of Sanskrit adiraja[19].

We can surmise from the available information that these relationships, some of which may have been cultivated for centuries, helped Manila later on during the colonial period in becoming the epicenter of the global galleon trade.  By 1589, nearly half of the South Seas (Nanyang) trading licenses had Manila as their destination.  By 1603, there were about 20,000 Chinese residing in Manila alone while in comparison there were only 400 Chinese in Batavia in 1619, and 400 in Malacca in 1649[20].

In addition to royal marital ties with regional polities, there is also evidence of the possibility of other types of political relationships.  Portuguese and other writers frequently mention Luzons serving in the navies or armies of foreign kingdoms.  While many modern commentators label these Luzons as"mercenaries" suggesting that they were basically "soldiers for hire," this may not be the correct judgment --  at least not in all cases.  For example, the Prince of Luzon's command of the Brunei fleet surely was not connected to any type of "freelancing."  The political family relationships between nations in the region may have fostered the deployment of Luzon soldiers and sailors to other countries in fulfillment of alliances and treaties.  A Luzon named Sapetu Diraja, for example, was commander of the King of Aceh's garrison on the Aru archipelago in Maluku[21].

Even during the colonial period, the people of Luzon and other parts of the Philippines were essential in allowing the Spanish to maintain the Manila Galleon trade for 250 years.  A number of researchers have suggested that the "Indios" played the major role in making the galleon enterprise successful.  In a sense, it may be the role played by the Luzons in earlier centuries prepared them for the demands of the world's first global trade system.  Historians like Dennis O. Flynn, Arturo Giraldez and Andrew Peterson contend that the indigenous Filipinos provided the raw materials, the galleon-building labor, the mariners and soldiers, and even the financing required to maintain the seagoing enterprise[22].

According to one report, for a galleon that cost P60,000 to the royal treasury, the people of Pampanga would pay P150,000[23].  Pampanga supplied the molave wood and most of the rice and other food supplies needed to feed the workers, soldiers and seafarers involved in the galleon trade.   The compulsory vandala system required that the people of Pampanga and other parts of the Philippines sell goods to the government that the latter was often late in repaying.  Because of the fertility of the region, Pampangans had to pay tribute in rice while other provinces could substitute cash for rice[24]. The situation became so onerous that a revolt broke out in Pampanga lead by Francisco Maniago forcing the Spanish governor to compensate his Kapampangan financiers. The Manila trade demonstrated that the people of Luzon were fully capable of undertaking daring maritime ventures that most seafarers from other nations were unwilling to accept.  One can easily see how the intense trading activity of the Luzons during the Ming and earlier periods helped prepare the people for the Manila Galleon trade.

Archaeological data attests to a surge in trade during the late Ming period as a direct result of the open door policy of that dynasty.  Particularly in the late Ming phase in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, we see a dramatic increase in the quantity of ceramics from Philippine trade port sites in some cases reaching magnitudes of ten-fold over earlier periods.   The evidence clearly shows that this upswing in trading activity predates the Spanish colonization, and the quality of the imports ranged from the highest grades for special elite customers to poorly crafted items probably meant for the average Philippine consumer[25].

What we know from European and Chinese accounts of the time indicate that there were three important routes used by the Luzon traders:  one that extended to Brunei through the "Palawan Strait" and onward to Malacca; one that went southward toward Maluku and as far south as Timor; and one that went northward to Guangzhou[26].  In this setup, it appears that Chinese traders, particularly during certain periods, mainly traded at Luzon or other Philippine ports like Butuan while relying on Luzon "middlemen" to handle trade with other countries[27].  Since much of the sandalwood from Timor headed for Chinese markets, we can surmise that Luzon traders would have managed much of this trade, if they did not indeed monopolize the trade.  Sandalwood may have come to Chinese ports either directly through the Eastern Ship Route, or the products could have come re-exported through Malacca, but again traveling in the ships of the Luções.

Regimo De Raja dispatched trade ships to China, Brunei, Siam, Java and Sumatra. His father sent trading ships to China and his widow sent at least one junk to Sunda[28].  Surya de Raja sent one trading ship annually to Luzon.  He also sent a yearly junk to China with 1,000 bahar or about 200 metric tons of pepper.  Surya personally owned a plantation and one of his junks accompanied the first Portuguese maritime mission to China in 1513.  Indeed, the Portuguese appeared to employ Luzons to help them navigate in the area with Bras Bayao describing the Luções as "discoverers" and as "good pilots.[29]"

Logically, given the statement by Pigafetta on Luzon traders dealing in sandalwood at Timor, the fragrant wood would have been one of the products brought to Malacca and directly to China.  When the Spanish established the Manila Galleon trade, we know that sandalwood was often one of the items found on ships coming from China.  The Portuguese generally carried the items to the Macau from Timor for trade with Chinese.  The Chinese then re-exported the product to Japan, Korea and even the Philippines[30].

During the union of Spain and Portugal under Philip II, the trade between Manila and Macau was brisk.  After the dissolution of the union, the trade fell into disrepair until the Viceroy in Goa decide to resurrect it in 1672 to take advantage of the treaty with the Hapsburgs[31].  Interestingly enough, the Captain-general at that time in Timor, the source of sandalwood, was a person of Kapampangan descent known as Mattheus da Costa[32].  

Da Costa traced his descent from the Papangers (Kapampangans) who served with the Spanish in Ternate in the seventeenth century[33].  His forebears eventually moved to Larantuka, which may have harbored a sizable Papanger population who made up part of the population of Mardikers known as Topasses.  Da Costa established himself as Topass lord, and his descendents intermarried with another important clan, the De Hornays, to form the hereditary lineage that ruled Timor during much of the colonial sandalwood trade[34].

Da Costa was a "Black Portuguese" of Kapampangan descent who likely spoke Portuguese.  No information is available about any connections he may have had with his ancestral homeland of Pampanga in Luzon.  The mixed race Topasses managed to hold off both the Dutch and the Portuguese despite claiming allegiance to the Portuguese crown.  They effectively controlled the sandalwood trade from the middle of the seventeenth century until late in the nineteenth century.  Although they only controlled the whole island of Timor for about a century, they had a powerful influence among the Timorese royal, noble and aristocratic families that allowed them to foil Portuguese and Dutch designs on the island.  The Topasses continued to resist colonial powers in the interior of Timor until the early twentieth century.

Excessive exploitation of sandalwood trees on Timor, however, led to their near extinction by the early nineteenth century.  As sandalwood stocks on Timor dwindled, explorers sailing mostly out of Manila discovered a new source of the fragrant wood in Melanesia and Polynesia in the late eighteenth century.  Before long, mostly British and American companies were shipping sandalwood from the Pacific islands to trade in Manila and Canton for tea and other products[35].

Eventually, sandalwood in the Pacific region also declined markedly due to overexploitation.   White and yellow sandalwood dropped out of view from the trade scene in the Philippines although the widely used word for "sandalwood," i.e., sandana still occurs in languages of Pampanga and the Bisayas where it refers to fragrant wood and not specifically to Santalum album[36].   The Philippines does have a form of the red sandalwood in the narra tree, known as apalit in Pampanga that may have taken the place of Santalum album.  Like the latter, the wood of the narra tree is highly valued for religious carving.

Sandalwood has an important history as one of the major trade items of ancient and medieval times.   The odiferous wood was particularly important for religious purposes in the regions of East Asia, South Asia and West Asia. 

Sourced primarily from Timor, one natural route for this product, particularly for Chinese ports, involved the shipping lanes known as the Eastern Ship Route in medieval Chinese literature.   The route went northward from Timor to Maluku and then to southern Philippines and Borneo northward to Luzon.  From there, it reached the ports of South China like Guangzhou and Quanzhou. 

Evidence from at least the Sung Dynasty suggest that this Eastern Ship Route was vital for transporting goods from Eastern Indonesia north to China and other destinations.  China and other nations would often re-export goods like sandalwood to other countries that did not have easy access to Southeast Asian traders.

The evidence points to polities of the Philippines playing an important role in the sandalwood trade from medieval times until well into the colonial period in which it eventually also became an entrepot for sandalwood sourced from the Pacific islands.


[1] Kew.  "Sandalwood," Plant Cultures:  Exploring plants & People, <>.
[2] "almug." Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary. 21 Dec. 2013.
[5] Howard, Michael C. Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2012, 119.
[6] Pigafetta, Antonio, and R A. Skelton. Magellan's Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation. New York: Dover, 1994. Print, 141.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Brunei Museum Journal, Vol. 5, Issue3. Brunei: The Brunei Museum, 1969. Print, 52.
[9] Pires, Tomé, and Francisco Rodrigues. The Suma Oriental of Tome Pires: An Account of the East, from the Red Sea to Japan, Written in Malacca and India in 1512-1515, and the Book of Francisco Rodrigues, Rutter of a Voyage in the Red Sea, Nautical Rules, Almanack and Maps, Written and Drawn in the East Before 1515. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1990. Print, 133.
[10] Galvano, Antonio, Summary of the discoveries of the World. <>.
[11] Ptak, Roderich. The Sino-European Map (“Shanhai yudi quantu”) in the Encyclopedia Sancai tuhui. <>.
[12] Moore, John N, and Myron H. Nordquist. Security Flashpoints: Oil, Islands, Sea Access, and Military Confrontation. The Hague [u.a.: Nijhoff Publishers, 1998. Print, 157.
[13] Beckman, Robert, Gault I. Townsend, Clive H. Schofield, Tara Davenport, and Leonardo Bernard. Beyond Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Legal Frameworks for the Joint Development of Hydrocarbon Resources. , 2013. Print, 48.
[14] Ptak, Roderich. China's Seaborne Trade with South and Southeast Asia (1200-1750). Aldershot [u.a.: Ashgate, 1999. Print, 47.
[15] Hall, Kenneth R. A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development, 100-1500. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011. Print, 332-3.
[16] Cortes, Rosario M, Celestina P. Boncan, and Ricardo T. Jose. The Filipino Saga: History As Social Change. Quezon City, Philippines: New Day Publishers, 2000. Print, 24.
[17] Junker, Laura L. Raiding, Trading, and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chiefdoms. Honolulu: University of Hawaiì Press, 1999. Internet resource, 109; Antony, Robert J. Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. Print, 76.
[18] Junker, 400.
[19] Wilkinson, R J. An Abridged Malay-English Dictionary (romanised). London: Macmillan and Co, 1948. Print, 291.
[20] Ooi, Keat G. Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to Timor. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Internet resource, 473.
[21] Scott, William H, and William H. Scott. Prehispanic Source Materials for the Study of Philippine History. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1984. Print, 80.
[22] Peterson, A. (2011). What really made the world go around?: Indio contributions to the Acapulco-Manila galleon trade. Explorations: A graduate student journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 11(16), 3-18, <>.
[23] The American Chamber of Commerce Journal. Vol. 21, Manila: The Chamber, 1921. Print, 318.
[24] Peterson, 7.
[25] Junker, 198.
[26] Goddio, Franck, Lost at Sea: The Strange Route of the Lena Shoal Junk, 2002.
[27] Junker, 197.
[28] Scott, 80.
[29] Brunei Museum Journal, 52-3.
[30] Ptak, Roderich. " The transportation of sandalwood from Timor to Macau and China during the Ming dynasty," Review of Culture (Macao) no. 1 (Apr-Jun 1987). Print, 31-9; Majewski, Teresita, and David R. M. Gaimster. International Handbook of Historical Archaeology. New York: Springer, 2009. Print, 477.
[31] Ames, G.J. Renascent Empire?: Pedro Ii and the Quest for Stability in Portuguese Monsoon Asia Ca.1640-1682. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999. Print, 134.
[32] Ames, 135.
[33] Hägerdal, Hans. Lords of the Land, Lords of the Sea: Conflict and Adaptation in Early Colonial Timor, 1600-1800. Leiden: BRILL, 2012. Print, 108.
[34] Hägerdal, 143-158.
[35] Jolly, Margaret, Serge Tcherkézoff, and D T. Tryon. Oceanic Encounters: Exchange, Desire, Violence. Canberra ACT: ANU E Press, 2009. Print, 40.
[36] Bergaño, Diego. Vocabulario De La Lengua Pampanga En Romance. Reimpreso: Manila: Impr. de Ramirez y Giraudier, 1860. Print, 205; Mentrida, Alfonso . Diccionario De La Lengua Bisaya Hiligueina Y Haraya De La Isla De Panay. Manila: Imp. de D. Manuel y de D. Felis S. Dayot, 1841. Print, 325.