Cuarteron, Don Carlos

1816 - 1880
The Prefect Apostolic of Borneo
Roman Catholic

Don Carlos Cuarteron was born Don Carlos Domingo Antonio Genero Cuarteroni y Fernandez on September 19, 1816 in Cadiz, Spain. His father was a wealthy trader in Southeast Asia, and young Cuarteron had a fine college education in Cadiz. Cuarteron’s family home had a view of the port, and so young Cuarteron’s life was “dominated by the sights, sounds and smells of the sea, and by the clamour of its trade.”[1]

The Cuarterons were devout Catholics. Three of his siblings were involved in seafaring, and two, including Don Carlos, in priesthood. He later named his vessels – I Martiri di Tunkin (“the martyrs at Tonkin”)[2], Refugium Peccatorum (“Refuge of sinners”) and Consolatrix Afflictorum (“Consoler of the afflicted”)[3].

Cuarteron was deemed a mature young man of strong character by his tutors. In 1829, at the age of 13, Cuarteron left for Manila to begin his naval career. At 18, he was appointed captain of a brig, sailing between Manila and Macau. Before his 25th birthday, Cuarteron became the full captain of the Marina Sutil (Spanish Navy of the Philippines), certified as “First Class Pilot for all the seas”. He recorded all his voyages on a large chart – from Java and Bali to Formosa (now Taiwan), Singapore and New Guinea – defining “the world of Don Carlos”[4] .

In 1843, Cuarteron resigned from the Navy, bought a vessel (I Martiri di Tunkin) and sailed in search of a sunken ship Christina in March 1844, finding her wreck a month later. He recovered Christina’s cargo of silver, valued at about 150,000 Singapore dollars[5], delivered the cargo to the insurance company, and “was now at a crossroad of his life; independently wealthy… Would he pursue further wealth in salvage or trade, or seek some other type of reward”.[6] 


In 1847, Cuarteron joined the Trinitarians, whose purpose was to redeem Christian captives held in Muslim land. In those days, Sulu raids were common and kidnapped Filipinos were sold into slavery. Cuarteron set three goals for the rest of his life: “to devote himself to redemption of Christian slaves, to discover the best way to eliminate piracy and to explore the countless islands in order to establish Missions”.[7] He recorded this in The Quadri and acknowledged that these ambitions may be audacious and risky to most people.[8]

Cuarteron bought a second vessel Lynx and sailed to Jolo to trade, seek opportunity to redeem Christian slaves, and for Missions. It was during these voyages that Cuarteron caught the vision to set up a mission in Borneo.

Cuarteron attempted mission work in Talaud Islands in Salibabu, east of Sulu, and was said to have baptised about 18 converts[9] only to find out that the Islands were under Dutch rule.  

He then learned about Borneo from an Englishman William Wyndham, who told him that “the Sultan of Sulu considered himself the ruler of not only of the entire Sulu archipelago, but also much of the adjoining coast of Borneo, stretching from Tanjung Simpang Mangayau, at Borneo’s northern tip, down to Tanjung Unsang in the east...  also claimed most of the large island of Palawan to the north of Borneo”.[10] 

Cuarteron knew that Spain had overpowered Sulu on many occasions and forced the Sultan of Sulu into treaties of submission.[11]  He was also aware of a treaty between Spain and the Sultan of Brunei, who claimed dominion over the western part of north Borneo. Cuarteron was convinced that Spain had the right over “Sulu Archipelago and most, if not all, of north Borneo’s (present day’s Sabah) east and west coasts”.[12] .       

In 1849, Cuarteron went to England to gather information on Borneo. He met Sir Edward Belcher, a retired Admiral of the British Royal Navy and a good friend of James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, who was renowned for his actions against piracy in Borneo and slavery in Sarawak.[13].  

Belcher suggested Labuan, Britain’s newest colony, as a suitable mission base in Borneo. “Belcher’s reputation, the meteoric success of Brooke and the glowing prediction of Labuan’s future – would have all combined to create a lasting impression in Don Carlos’ mind.”[14]


Cuarteron submitted his findings to the Propaganda Fide in 1852, resulting in the commissioning of a new Prefecture in Labuan for Borneo Mission with Cuarteron as its first Prefect Apostolic on September 4, 1855. [15]  Apart from the Mission, Cuarteron was tasked to assist missionaries of Pontifico Institutio Missioni Estere to re-establish the then ailing New Guinea Mission at “a new and more favorable location”.[16]

Between 1852 and 1855, Cuarteron was said to be in preparation for priesthood. On March 25, 1854, he was granted ad titulum partirimonii, an exemption from taking the vow of poverty. In 1855, he was made a deacon and then ordained as priest within two weeks by Archbishop Ligi Bessi.[17] These special favours were extended perhaps because Cuarteron was, in fact, sent to Borneo by the Propaganda Fide “at his own expense, and as the head of his own mission”.[18]   

In March 1855, two young priests – Antonio Riva and Don Ignazio Borgazzi joined Cuarteron and two more vessels were purchased for trips into interior Borneo. In Labuan, they were well received by the Governor George Warren Edwardes and Harbourmaster Hugh Low, and given land to build a church.

Cuarteron worked fast. In May 1857, he sought the Sultan of Brunei’s permission to build a church in Brunei. The Sultan gave his consent provided “they did not interfere in the politics and affairs of Brunei”.[19] Cuarteron built a church at Brambangan opposite the British Consulate and put Riva in charge.

In November 1857, Cuarteron visited Pengiran Madoud, the territorial headman of Sapangar Bay in north Borneo. Cuarteron obtained permission to build a church and a village, which was named Looc Porin (known as Lokporin today).[20]

Within his first year in Borneo, Cuarteron had established, strategically, ministries at three sites to fulfill the objective of his mission.  

“The Colony of Labuan represented a stable base and centre for his headquarters (procura); Brambangan, on the Brunei River, represented an opportunity to minister to, and perhaps redeem, some of the Catholic slaves held in Brunei while Sapangar Bay would provide both a Mission and trading post, and in time a source of profits to fund his various activities.”[21] In that year, they recorded 26 baptisms, mostly redeemed Filipino slaves and their children, and two Chinese.    

The Labuan census in 1870 recorded 86 Roman Catholics out of 127 Christians registered. Before his final departure, Cuarteron reported that he had spent 350,000 francs on missions and 10,000 scudi on redeeming Christian slaves.[22] He had redeemed at least 50 individuals from slavery.[23]


In March 1878, Cardinal Simeoni of the Propaganda Fide instructed Cuarteron to return to Rome. Cuarteron left Labuan on July 20, 1879, but was positive about returning to Borneo with fresh funds and priests.[24] He developed pneumonia whilst in Rome and returned to Cadiz on March 7, 1880 as reported by Diario de Cadiz, which described him as a “venerable Missionary, with a long snowy beard and a serene visage, furrowed by a thousand typhoons and shipwrecks, infinite labours and calamities, and encounters with slaves and cannibals”.[25].

Cuarteron died on March 12, 1880 and was laid to rest at the Cemetery of San Jose. A memorial stone in his family residence read: “In this house was born Monsignor Carlos Cuarteroni, Prefect Apostolic of the islands of Labuan and Borneo. Passed away in this town on 12 March 1880.”   


  1. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 24. 
  2. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 29.  The name of this vessel bought in 1843 was a reference to the tragic execution of seven European missionaries together with some Catholic converts by the ruler in Tonkin (located in today’s Vietnam). 
  3. ^ The names of two felucca he bought for the use of the mission in Borneo. 
  4. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 29. 
  5. ^ Mike Gibby, “The ‘Pirate Priest’ – A reappraisal,”  Sabah Society Journal, 22, 2005, 37-48.  p.39. 
  6. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 16. 
  7. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 34. 
  8. ^ Mike Gibby, “The ‘Pirate Priest’ – A reappraisal,” 41. 
  9. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 48. 
  10. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 41. 
  11. ^ Historically, these treaties were often ignored by the Sultan as soon as the Spanish forces left Sulu’s region of dominion, hence the prolonged confrontations between Spain and Sulu. 
  12. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 58. 
  13. ^ One might note, here, that all of James Brooke’s acts and achievements must have greatly inspired Cuarteron to further his vision.  
  14. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 53. 
  15. ^ Maureen C.K. Chew, The journey of the Catholic church in Malaysia 1511-1996, (Kuala Lumpur:  Catholic Research Centre, 2000).  p.80. 
  16. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 62.
  17. ^ he year and age of Cuarteron’s ordination was noted by Chew (2000:80).  The name of Archbishop Ligi Bessi was given by Gibby (2005:53) in Crowned with the stars, while Chew (2000:80) mentioned Cardinal Franzoni. 
  18. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 58. 
  19. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 81. 
  20. ^ Mike Gibby, “The ‘Pirate Priest’ – A reappraisal,” 44.
  21. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 83. 
  22. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 187.
  23. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 185. 
  24. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 197.  Cuarteron expressed his confidence of returning to his friend Franz Witti.  He never returned, but replacement priests sponsored by Mill Hill Missionary Society arrived in July 1881, two years after he left. 
  25. ^ Mike Gibby, Crowned with the stars, 197. 

Dr Chong Siaw Fung

The writer is the principal of Seminari Theologi Malaysia.


Chew, Maureen C.K. The Journey of the Catholic Church in Malaysia 1511-1996. Kuala Lumpur: Catholic Research Centre, 2000.

Chiew, Charles. A Glimpse of a Mystery. Keningau, Sabah: Registered Trustees of the Diocese of Keningau, 2012.

Gibby, Mike. Crowned with the stars: The life and times of Don Carlos Cuarteron First Prefect of Borneo 1816-1880,  Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia:  Diocese of Kota Kinabalu, 2005.

__________ “The ‘Pirate Priest’ – A reappraisal,”  Sabah Society Journal, 22, 2005, 37-48.