Sugar Sun series location #13: Catbalogan

Catbalogan means “an everlasting place of safety,” and for hundreds of years it was safe—for pirates. The sheltered bayside harbor lies just north of the San Juanico Strait between Samar and Leyte, a key access point to the Pacific Ocean and the primary shipping route for the Spanish galleons. Since these vessels were headed to Manila with silver and then back to Acapulco with a hold full of porcelain and spices, they were ripe targets for pirates, right? And by “pirates” I mean the English and the Dutch privateers, who were licensed by their sovereigns to interdict and steal the Spanish bounty. Catbalogan became a haven for pirates and privateers, their crews, and lost sailors.

Visayas Philippines map Pulahan war for Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The southern mouth of the San Juanico Strait is right near Tacloban. Start there and follow the curve north and west into the bay above Leyte. The strait is 38 kilometers long and, at its narrowest point, 2 kilometers wide.

The Americans would find the city no easier to manage in the early twentieth century. For the first year of the Philippine-American War, the Yanks mostly ignored Samar because they had their hands full in Luzon. But then, in January 1900, gunships arrived offshore Catbalogan and sent a messenger to General Vicente Lukban, the Philippine revolutionary in charge of Samar and Leyte. The Americans wanted to negotiate a surrender of the whole island by offering Lukban the governorship of Samar. But Lukban wanted more than a title; he wanted full local autonomy. The Americans refused, so Lukban forbade them from landing. In turn, the Americans began to bombard the town. In other words, things escalated fast. Unable to withstand the US Navy’s firepower, Lukban and many of the locals abandoned Catbalogan, burning it as they retreated.

What followed was a ruthless two-year war to subdue the revolutionary forces in Samar. Company C of the Ninth Infantry was stationed to Balangiga to prevent Lukban’s men from using the southern port to import arms and supplies. On its own accord, the town ambushed the garrison in September 1901, and the American military took revenge on all of Samar. General Jacob Smith (known in the press as “Hell-Roaring Jake”) vowed to make the island a “howling wilderness.” Dusting off a legal gem from the American Civil War known as General Order 100, the Americans aimed to starve, burn out, torture, and kill as many guerrillas as possible. Catbalogan and Tacloban (Leyte) were the centers of American authority in this period.

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USS Vicksburg sailors led by Lieutenant Henry V. Butler (later rear admiral) burning a village in Samar, October 1901. Photo courtesy of Arnaldo Dumindin and his excellent website on the Philippine-American War.

General Smith’s “short, severe war” was both. But one might argue that it prompted the April 1902 surrender of Lukban’s forces in a grand ceremony in Catbalogan. (Lukban himself had already been captured.)

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Those surrendering had to turn over their rifles captured from Balangiga the previous year and pledge loyalty to the United States, but then they were freed. Lukban himself would become mayor of the Tabayas province (now Quezon) within ten years. This begs the question of whether it was the severity of the fight or the quality of the peace that pacified the countryside? Amnesty is not used much in America’s modern war playbook, and I wonder if this is an oversight.

There is an interesting fashion note worth mentioning: the Americans did loan the revolutionaries a few Singer sewing machines so they could surrender in style with new (and complete) uniforms. Pride was salvaged all around.

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This is not the end of the story, though. This first war—including the destruction of half the municipalities in Samar and the burning of tens of thousands of tons of rice—caused a lingering famine and sparked another war two years later. Today, we call this phenomenon “blowback.” The Pulahan War was both a civil war (inland highlanders against lowland merchants and farmers) and an anti-American insurrection. On the American side, it was fought by the Philippine Constabulary, Third District—a civil police force organized, funded, equipped (not well), and trained by Americans (usually former soldiers). And by the 39th Philippine Scouts, trained and equipped (with better rifles) by the US Army. Both these units had significant troop presences in Catbalogan, along with the 6th, 12th, and 21st U.S. Infantries.

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The 39th Company, Philippine Scouts, stands at present arms outside their barracks in Catbalogan, Samar. Photo courtesy of Scott Slaten of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

Catbalogan was a highly fortified town, but it was still beautiful. The ring of mountains separating it from the suffering of the rest of Samar did make for a stunning backdrop.

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Colorized vintage postcard of a steamer coming into to dock at Catbalogan, Samar, Philippines. Scan courtesy of Scott Slaten of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

The city fared better than the rest of Samar through the lean times, too. Though the galleons no longer journeyed back and forth to Spain, Catbalogan was a center of the abaca trade in the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the large buildings and church. Abaca, also called Manila hemp, was in high demand as naval cordage. Its trade was dominated by ethnic Chinese and British merchants, and once Samar was no longer in ashes, the fiber would revive and bring an influx of capital to Catbalogan.

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Filipinos making rope. This photograph shows the hemp as it comes from the leaves and is put on the spool for winding. Courtesy of the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.

The busy port was a bit out of town and had to be reached via a causeway along the coast.

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Vintage postcard of Samar with a view of the wooden causeway connecting town to the port. Scanned image of the early 20th century card by Leo D. Cloma.

In the early twentieth century, Americans complained about the lack of poultry, eggs, and fruit in Catbalogan. (I find the fruit claim hard to believe.) They also complained about the lack of dedicated school buildings—not one in the whole town—and the lack of teachers. (Whose fault is that?) And they complained that there were only five miles of road on the whole island. (But how far were civilians likely to travel, anyway?) I traveled to Samar in 2005—and though I would not recommend December for your trip because of the rain, I loved it. The island is just as breathtaking as the postcards from 100 years ago.

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Another view of the coast and causeway from the Quarterly Bulletin of the Bureau of Public Works.

Happy Mother’s Day to the Sugar Sun Moms

It is interesting that all my heroines end up with babies in their arms (or their bellies) by the end of my books because I never chose to have children myself. My life may be an unfair comparison since I have had modern science to help me avoid parenthood. Women in the Gilded Age had limited access to contraception, even if they were married and had a sterling reputation. My heroes would have had some access to condoms—called male safes or preventatives in nineteenth-century America—but even these would be harder to order in the Philippines.

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But I may be missing the point here. All my heroines want babies. I feel their biological clocks ticking—tick, tick, TICK—even though my own is silent. Nor do I think babies are required for the HEA. Even marriage is not necessary. Nevertheless, the first thing I think about when writing an epilogue is: “What are the kids going to be named?” And I guess, when you get right down to it, this is part of the answer for me: I love names. I just love them. And I love naming future children and thinking about how that name will shape the kid as he or she grows up. I know, it’s weird. But here we are, with three heroines with (more than three) babies. And Happy Mother’s Day to them all, I say! And Happy Mother’s Day to you, even if like me your “child” has four legs and a tail. Or feathers. Or fins. Or whatever.

Let’s start with the latest novella, Tempting Hymn, which has a scene with a pet carrot…

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Here’s the epilogue from the opening novella in the series, Hotel Oriente:

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And since you’ve made it this far, I have a special treat for you: a snippet of Javier and Georgina’s daughter Pilar and son Jaime from the upcoming Sugar Moon. This is told from the point of view of Allegra Alazas, who visits her cousin-in-law Georgina after the birth of the second Altarejos child.

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You can find out all about Pilar’s “competitive” conception by reading Under the Sugar Sun. And doesn’t that sound like fun? Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

Inspiring Words from Beverly Jenkins

I don’t usually spring for the master class at conferences, but to hear Ms. Beverly Jenkins?! Yes, please! I was doubly excited when she said that this was the very first master class she had ever given. And triply excited—I know that’s not a thing—when she said her talk would be about world building. Perfect for a historical fiction author!

She talked about a book being like a painting: your hero and heroine are front and center, but the background is full of the details of your world. The beauty of the painting depends on these details, no matter what genre of fiction you write, from science fiction to historical. The geography of our stories should not just be what town or state or country they are in, but all the small details that add life to that image—from weather to topography to points of interest.

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Ms. Bev illustrated each point with examples from her own writing, especially two of my favorite books of hers: Indigo and Forbidden. But it was the Blessings series (a contemporary saga) that stole the show. I was completely smitten with the tales of Cletus, the 600-pound hog who wore human clothing, killed a man by sitting on him, and then went on the run from the law. (Yes, a hog went on the lamb. Awesome, right?) The whole audience very quickly felt like we knew the town of Blessings better than the one we were sitting in. Ms. Bev is a master world-builder.

We were treated to a long Q&A session next, and if you have heard Beverly Jenkins speak you know how clever and funny she is. There was a lot of nodding along with her insights on publishing, and also a lot of laughter. You bet I asked her about stuff relevant to my History Ever After talk at IASPR next month. When I asked if any editor or industry representative had ever asked her to change anything historical about her books, she said, “No, not a thing.” That is enormously refreshing, to be honest, given that Ms. Bev writes all kinds of underrepresented American history. She calls it “edutainment,” and there is not a duke in sight. What she did say, though, was that when Forbidden came out in France, they chose a white woman for the cover—and Eddy is not the one who passes, the hero Rhine is. “Oh, Jesus, is right,” Ms. Bev said.

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She ended with some inspiring advice for all us writers out there. I could not get it all down, but here are some of the pieces I did quote:

  • “The 38th book is just as hard to write as book one.” (Note: This is somewhat scary news since the fourth is hard enough for me right now!)
  • “It’s your book. Write it the way you want to write it.” (Yes!)
  • About writing the tough stuff from your own experiences: “Tell your story. [The readers] are not looking for you to sugar coat it.”

The woman is not a legend for nothing. Beverly Jenkins was such a wonderful person to talk to and to learn from—a highlight of #NECRWA18 for me. Thanks so much, Ms. Bev!

Ben Potter of the Ninth

A week ago, I re-introduced you to Allegra Alazas, the heroine of the upcoming Sugar Moon. She already has a fan club because she stole every scene she could in Under the Sugar Sun.

Her hero (or anti-hero?) is a different kettle of fish. Ben Potter is not someone you were supposed to like in the past book—and yet I always intended to give you his story because it needs to be told.

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Imagine Ben Potter as a little rougher-around-the-edges version of this photo of Almanzo Wilder.

Ben is loosely based on the real men who served in Company C of the Ninth U.S. Infantry. These men fought at San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Just as soon as they returned to their home barracks in upstate New York, they were shipped out again to the Philippines.

What had been meant as a sideshow the war against Spain became the first American imperial war overseas. In March 1899, only one month after tensions between Filipinos and Americans erupted in open combat, the Ninth was sent to reinforce the area around Manila. But they did not stay there long, either. After fighting in several battles that year, they were shipped to China to rescue to the American legation in Beijing (known back then as “Pekin”) during the Boxer War. They scaled the walls of the Forbidden City and camped in the palace grounds.

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The Ninth U.S. Infantry in the court of the Forbidden City. Image accessed from the Library of Congress.

One might question what the heck America was doing. A war against Spain fought in Cuba had blossomed into a new war in the Philippines that lent soldiers to fight yet another campaign in China. Talk about mission creep. Yikes. Progressives in the Republican Club of Massachusetts claimed in a 1900 leaflet that the end justified the means: “Isn’t Every American proud of the part that American soldiers bore in the relief of Pekin? But that would have been impossible if our flag had not been in the Philippines.”

Once the foreign powers—Europe, Japan, and America—consolidated their hold on mainland China, the Ninth was sent back to the Philippine-American War. Their vacation was the steamer trip to Manila. There, the battle-weary group was given the privilege (and bother) of serving as honor guard for newly-named civilian governor (and future president of the United States), William Howard Taft.

Two years into their overseas rotation, this company of grizzly veterans was sent to one of the roughest outposts in the islands: Balangiga, Samar. Tasked with closing the port to trade—thereby preventing weapon smuggling to the Philippine revolutionaries—Company C settled down to village garrison life.

These men may have been the worst possible choice for this task. By this point, they were unlikely to trust anyone. In addition, some soldiers were likely suffering from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Finally, they were cut off from the rest of the world, without even mail call since they were not on the main steamer line. Private Patrick J. Dobbins wrote to his family:

One man in my company went crazy a week ago and escaped to the hills, probably to be killed and eaten by the natives. Another, who was sick unto death, committed suicide this morning at 6 o’clock.  His name is Schechterle and he enlisted at the same time I did in Boston. . . . A grave has been dug near our quarters, and a guard of eight men are over the grave. The body is being lowered into the earth. The flag is at half mast. Three volleys are fired, taps is sounded. It is his last call, ‘absent, but accounted for.’ He is better off. Many of us watch him as he is gently lowered with envious eyes.

Though the commanding officer of Company C, Captain Thomas Connell, was a West Point graduate (1894), he did not manage his garrison well. At first too permissive, he became stringent when he realized that his next promotion was on the line. He felt that the villagers were not obeying his commands to “clean up” the streets, so he ordered Company C to round up all the men and keep them prisoner in two tents on the square.

Yes, my character Ben will try to stop all of this from happening, but history is history. He will not be successful. A week later, the town—with help from guerrillas in the jungle—would ambush the company, killing 48 out of 74 Americans. This was real war with real consequences.

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The 1st Reserve Hospital in Manila (1900), similar to the field hospital in Basey, Samar, where Company C survivors would have been tended. Photo courtesy of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

Obviously, my imaginary Ben Potter lived—or did he? For families like his in America, it would have been hard to know. Names in the real reports were spelled wrong. Numbers changed. It felt like even the Army did not know who had survived. When I found a real article in the Manila Times about a sister writing to a missing brother, I rewrote it in my mind to fit fiction:

Georgina search Ben Potter in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

This is a lot of backstory, to be sure. And it is only backstory, not the plot of my book. But I think it is critical history that Americans have forgotten and been doomed to repeat: the Philippines was the Vietnam or Iraq (or Syria?) of the Gilded Age.

Ben lives through these events as a very young man, and they will haunt him for years. Love may not be a cure for combat trauma, but it can encourage Ben to face his past—especially when that past threatens his future with an amazing woman. (Want to read some teasers? There are some here. Enjoy!)

NECRWA This Weekend!

It was a long Monday, and I’m feeling like this weekend cannot come soon enough. NECRWA 2018, baby! Have you registered yet?

ballroom-invitation-NECRWA-workshopThis is the only way to see my workshop with RedHeadedGirl of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on practical history research.

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There are so many other amazing workshops, including Namrata Patel’s two-workshop series on SEO, or search engine optimization. Honestly, that’s worth the registration fee right there. And whether you are a reader or writer, you do not need to register to come to the amazing book signing this Friday night from 6-8:30 pm. Admission is free and there are over 35 raffle baskets you could win! And look at those authors!

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For example, you could win the basket that Jen Doyle and I made:

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The theme of this location-driven romance extravaganza is a throwback to Jen and my amazing #RT17 road trip, but without the Peachoid—because honestly that you have to see to believe.

Come on out to NECRWA 2018!