Castilian War

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Spanish Expedition to Borneo / Castilian War
Expedición española a Borneo[1]
Perang Kastila
ڤراڠ كستيلا
DateMarch–June 1578
Result Strategic Brunei victory

Spanish Empire

Commanders and leaders
Sultan Saiful Rijal Francisco de Sande
Pengiran Seri Lela  
Pengiran Seri Ratna 
1,000 Royal Guards 400 Spaniards
1,500 Filipinos
300 Borneans

The Spanish Expedition to Borneo (Spanish: Expedición española a Borneo), also known locally as the Castilian War (Malay: Perang Kastila; Jawi: ڤراڠ كستيلا), was a military conflict between Brunei and Spain in 1578.


Since the middle of the 16th century, Europeans were eager to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia, the source of supply for spices. Spain also wanted to forcibly spread the acceptance of Christianity, the overwhelmingly dominant faith in Europe. Since the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the land routes from the Eastern Mediterranean to Southeast Asia through Central Asia and the Middle East were controlled by the Ottomans, Persians, Arabs, Indians, and the Malays.

The Portuguese, and later the Spaniards, tried to find an alternative route by sea to Southeast Asia, so they could trade in spices and other products with the Malays. The Portuguese in particular did this by conquering Malacca in 1511, two years after their arrival in the region.

The Spaniards arrived later in the mid-16th century. Their arrival to the archipelago now part of the modern-day Philippines, as well as Spain's intention to spread Christianity, caused a conflict with Brunei, then ruled by Sultan Saiful Rijal, which eventually led to the Castilian War. At the time, Brunei Darussalam was a powerful maritime empire extending from Borneo Island to most parts in the Philippines.[citation needed]

Spanish arrival in the Philippines[edit]

From their ports in Mexico, Spain sent several expeditions to the Philippines and in 1565 under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, settled in Cebu. For a time Cebu became the capital of the archipelago and the main trading post. It was also the first city for spreading Christianity in the islands.

Because of this, the Spanish aspirations came to clash with those of Brunei. Between 1485 and 1521, the Sultanate of Brunei led by Sultan Bolkiah had established the state of Kota Serudong (otherwise known as the Kingdom of Maynila) as a Bruneian puppet state opposed to the local Kingdom of Tondo.[2] Islam was further strengthened by the arrival to the Philippines of traders and proselytisers from present-day Malaysia and Indonesia.[3]

Despite the influence of Brunei, the multiple states that existed in the Philippines simplified Spanish colonisation. In 1571, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi of Spain attacked and Christianised Islamic Manila, which was made the capital of the Philippine Islands, also becoming a hub for trade and evangelisation. The Visayans, (people from the Kedatuan of Madja-as and Rajahnate of Cebu) which before the Spaniards came, had waged war against the Sultanate of Sulu and the Kingdom of Maynila, now became allies of the Spaniards against the Sultanate of Brunei.

The time the Castilian War broke out was a time of religious fervor in Europe and many parts of the world, when a single state religion was followed. In Spain, the state religion was Roman Catholicism, obliging followers of other faiths such as Jews and Muslims to convert to this religion. Spain had recently finished a 700-year-old war to reconquer and re-Christianise Spain, which had been invaded by the Muslims under the Umayyad Caliphate since the 8th century AD. The long process of reconquest, sometimes through treaties, mostly through war, is known as the Reconquista. The hatred of Spaniards against the Muslims that once invaded Spain fuelled the Castilian War against the similarly Muslim Bruneians. This war also started the Spanish–Moro Wars in the Philippines against the Sultanate of Sulu and Sultanate of Maguindanao.

In 1576, the Spanish Governor in Manila, Francisco de Sande, had arrived from Mexico. He sent an official mission to neighbouring Brunei to meet Sultan Saiful Rijal. He explained to the Sultan that they wanted to have good relations with Brunei and also asked for permission to spread Christianity in Brunei (Roman Catholicism in Brunei was a legacy brought by Spaniards). At the same time, he demanded an end to Brunei proselytism of Islam in the Philippines. Sultan Saiful Rijal would not agree to these terms and also expressed his opposition to the evangelisation of the Philippines, which he deemed part of Dar al-Islam. In reality, de Sande regarded Brunei as a threat to the Spanish presence in the region, claiming that "the Moros from Borneo preach the doctrine of Mohammed, converting all the Moros of the islands".[4][5]

The war[edit]

Spain declared war in 1578. In March that year, the Spanish fleet, led by de Sande himself, acting as Capitán General, started their journey towards Brunei. The expedition consisted of 200 Spaniards and 200 Mexicans, 1,500 native Filipinos (Luzones), and 300 Borneans.[6] The campaign was one of many, which also included action in Mindanao and Sulu.[7][8] The racial make-up of the Christian side was likely diverse, as documents a few decades later showed that the infantry was composed of Mestizos, Mulattoes, and "Indians" (From Peru and Mexico), led by Spanish officers who had worked together with native Filipinos in military campaigns across Southeast Asia.[9] The Muslim side though was also equally racially diverse. In addition to the native Malay warriors, the Ottomans had repeatedly sent military expeditions to nearby Aceh. The expeditions were composed mainly of Turks, Egyptians, Swahilis, Somalis, Sindhis, Gujaratis, and Malabars.[10] These expeditionary forces had also spread to other nearby Sultanates such as Brunei and had taught local mujahideen new fighting tactics and techniques on how to forge cannons.[11] Muslim migration from the Ottoman Caliphate, Egypt, Mecca and Arabia was so constant Melchor Davalos complained to the Spanish King of their prescence in Borneo and the Phlippines.

Persians and Arabs and Egyptians and Turks brought [Muhammad's] veneration and evil sect here, and even Moors from Tunis and Granada came here, sometimes in the armadas of Campson [Kait Bey], former Sultan of Cairo and King of Egypt... Thus it seems to me that these Moros of the Philippine Islands [are] mainly those who, as had been said, come from Egypt and Arabia and Mecca, and are their relatives, disciples and members, and every year they say that Turks come to Sumatra and Borneo, and to Ternate, where there are now some of those defeated in the famous battle which Señor Don Juan de Austria won.

— Melchor Davalos

The fighting was fierce but Spain succeeded in invading the capital of Brunei at that time, Kota Batu, on 16 April 1578, with the help of two disgruntled Brunei noblemen, Pengiran Seri Lela and Pengiran Seri Ratna. The former had travelled to Manila to offer Brunei as a tributary of Spain for help to recover the throne usurped by his brother, Saiful Rijal.[12] Spain agreed that if they succeeded in conquering Brunei, Pengiran Seri Lela would indeed become the Sultan, while Pengiran Seri Ratna would be the new Bendahara.

Sultan Saiful Rijal and Paduka Seri Begawan Sultan Abdul Kahar were forced to flee to Meragang, then to Jerudong, where they made plans to chase the conquering army away from Brunei. In the meantime, Spain suffered heavy losses due to a cholera or dysentery outbreak.[13][14] They were so weakened by the illness. However, this war entering the national conscience as a heroic episode, with the Spaniards being driven out by Pengiran Bendahara Sakam Ibni Sultan Abdul Kahar and a thousand native warriors in order to restore back the Sultan's power over the Empire. The Spanish return to Manila on 26 June 1578, after just 72 days. Before doing so, they burned the mosque, a high structure with a five-tier roof.

Pengiran Seri Lela died in August/September 1578, probably from the same illness that had afflicted his Spanish allies, although there was suspicion he could have been poisoned by the ruling Sultan. Seri Lela's daughter, Putri, a princess of Brunei, who even though had a claim to the throne, decided to leave with the Spanish group and abandon her crown and riches and went on to marry a Christian Tagalog. (Tagalogs were from Manila and the Sultanate of Brunei had enslaved them[citation needed] when Sultan Bolkiah conquered their state, they grew weary of subjugation and joined the Spanish.) The Christian Tagalog in question, considered a hidalgo (knight) by the Spaniards who proved his valor in combat, was named Don Agustin de Legazpi, the Lakan or the paramount ruler of Tondo. Putri, the imperial princess, bravely defied the Quranic punishment of stoning Muslim women who marry non-Muslims to death and they fell deeply in love, they had children in the Philippines and lived a simple life in Manila.[15]

The aftermath[edit]

Notwithstanding their retreat from Brunei, Spain managed to keep Brunei from regaining a foothold in Luzon.[16] A few years later, relations improved and Spain began trading with the Sultanate, as evidenced by a letter from Don Francisco de Tello de Guzmán, Governor General of Manila, dated 1599 asking for a return of normal relationship.[17] The end of the Castilian War also allowed Spain to focus their attention on the Spanish-Moro war.

The Sultanate of Brunei would cease to be an empire at sea, eventually turning into a city-state, letting aside any previous territorial expansion policies, and had to give the territory to James Brooke because of the riots in Brunei territory until becoming one of the smallest nations in the world today. This new policy of sustained caution in their dealings with European powers allowed it to survive and become the oldest continuous Islamic political state.[18]


  1. ^ Ollé, Manel (2000). La invencion de China / The invention of China: Percepciones Y Estrategias Filipinas Respecto a China Durante El Siglo XVI / Philippine Perceptions and Strategies Towards China During the Sixteenth Century. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 94. ISBN 3447043369. Retrieved 29 December 2015.
  2. ^ "Pusat Sejarah Brunei" (in Malay). Government of Brunei Darussalam. Archived from the original on 15 April 2015. Retrieved 4 March 2010.
  3. ^ Agoncillo 1990, p. 22
  4. ^ McAmis 2002, p. 35.
  5. ^ Nicholl, Robert (1975). European sources for the history of the Sultanate of Brunei in the Sixteenth Century. Muzium Brunei. OCLC 4777019.
  6. ^ United States. War Dept (1903). Annual reports. 3. Government Printing Office. p. 379.
  7. ^ McAmis 2002, p. 33
  8. ^ "Letter from Francisco de Sande to Felipe II, 1578". Archived from the original on 14 October 2014. Retrieved 17 October 2009.
  9. ^ Letter from Fajardo to Felipe III From Manila, August 15 1620 (From the Spanish Archives of the Indies): "The infantry does not amount to two hundred men, in three companies. If these men were that number, and Spaniards, it would not be so bad; but, although I have not seen them, because they have not yet arrived here, I am told that they are, as at other times, for the most part boys, mestizos, and mulattoes, with some Indians (Native Americans). There is no little cause for regret in the great sums that reënforcements of such men waste for, and cost, your Majesty. I cannot see what betterment there will be until your Majesty shall provide it, since I do not think, that more can be done in Nueva Spaña, although the viceroy must be endeavoring to do so, as he is ordered."
  10. ^ The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia by Nicholas Tarling p.39
  11. ^ Cambridge illustrated atlas, warfare: Renaissance to revolution, 1492–1792 by Jeremy Black p.16 [1]
  12. ^ Melo Alip 1964, p. 201,317
  13. ^ Frankham 2008, p. 278
  14. ^ Atiyah 2002, p. 71
  15. ^ Saunders 2002, p. 57
  16. ^ Oxford Business Group 2009, p. 9
  17. ^ "The era of Sultan Muhammad Hassan". The Brunei Times. 1 March 2009. Archived from the original on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  18. ^ Donoso, Isaac (Autumn 2014). "Manila y la empresa imperial del Sultanato de Brunei en el siglo XVI". Revista Filipina, Segunda Etapa. Revista semestral de lengua y literatura hispanofilipina. (in Spanish). 2 (1): 23. Retrieved 29 December 2015.