The Bates Mission: Sailing the Sulu Sea

Light Cruiser USS Charleston

    Bates was able to take advantage of the unplanned, serendipitous arrival of four US Navy ships in the Sulu Sea just as he was in the middle of his negotiations. They had been sent by Admiral Dewey to sweep the Sulu Sea for ships alleged to be running guns from Singapore to Aguinaldo. The most impressive was the USS Charleston, the largest and most modern warship ever to have visited the Sulu Archipelago. Even though by the standards of the great-power navies of the day only a light cruiser and at eleven years old technologically dated, to the Moros of Sulu, at 313 feet, 3,730 tons, and bristling with two 8" and six 6" cannons and numerous other weapons, she was the most fearsome warship they had ever seen. She was also fast, her 6,666-hp engines powering twin screws capable of 18.2 knots. The Charleston was commanded by Commander Charles Pigman and carried a complement of 300 officers and men.

    August 14, 1899 with General Bates and his staff aboard, the Charleston dropped anchor off Maibun, opposite the sultan's residence. The Sultan was invited to bring on board as many people as he would like, and a large delegation accompanied him. Reporter John Bass of Harper's Weekly observed:

 . . . big guns were fired for their benefit; one chief was allowed to pull the trigger of a Coltís automatic [a predecessor to the Colt machine-gun]; they took electric shocks with delight; they wondered how you could touch a button and kindle a light on the mast-head [electricity was unknown in the archipelago]; they stared at the mysterious box that produced the wind [the boiler]. In no instance did they show fear, but they understood the great power back of these details ó the power of civilization . . . What, asked one chief, could an ignorant people like the Moros do against you?

    But the biggest hit, next to the guns, was hearing the Victrola phonograph in Capt. Pigmanís cabin. The Moros kept looking under the table or anyplace that could hide the very small man they were convinced was doing the singing. In September of 1899, just after its Sulu cruise, the Charleston grounded on an uncharted reef north of Luzon. The pounding surf soon rendered her unsalvageable and she was abandoned by the crew, who sought refuge on a nearby island. The gunboat USS Helena came to her rescue and no lives were lost.

    Four other ships proved crucial to Bates' mission: USS Manila (no photo available), a conventional steamer captured from the Spanish following the Battle of Manila Bay and converted to a gunboat, the larger gunboats USS Castine and USS Yorktown, and the US Army Transport Brutus, a troop carrier. The able diplomacy of their skippers were as valuable in selling the Bates Agreement as their symbol of visible power. Commander Charles Sperry of the Yorktown was instrumental in opening up valuable contacts with British officials in nearby Borneo who supplied invaluable intelligence on gun-runners to the Americans. Nine years later Sperry, as an Admiral, commanded the Great White Fleet in the second half of its world tour.


USS Castine - 1,177 tons, length 204', four 6" guns


Crew of USS Castine c1899

USS Yorktown - 1,910 tons, length 244'5", six 6" guns

USS Brutus

(Above photos from the Naval History Institute)