[This is part two of a three-part series on the Pulahan War. Find the links for parts one or three here.]
Fanatics are not easy to fight. An American officer of the period, Victor Hurley, wrote on page 60 of Jungle Patrol:
These red-garbed mountaineers, with white flowing capes and crescent blades, were contributory to one of the most ferocious eras of guerrilla warfare that our arms were to experience. Not even the Indian campaigns of the old West, fought in open country, could compare with the rushing, jungle-shielded tactics of the Pulahans.”
Russell Roth described an attack on page 99 in Muddy Glory:
Brandishing their talibongs (two-foot-long, razor-keen bolos), which could behead a man at a stroke, and assured of ‘invisibility’ by their anting-antings, they suddenly appeared in the valleys, red garb bedecked with crosses, charging en masse, shouting ‘Tad-tad!’ [“Chop-chop!”] as, in blade-spinning wave after wave, they attempted to overrun whatever stood in their path.
If this does not sound fierce enough, some Pulahans carried a blade in each hand: “two revolving disks of scintillating steel,” according to Russell Roth’s article in volume 2, 1978 issue, of the Bulletin of the American Historical Collection. “One veteran witnessed a Pulahan split a soldier from his shoulder to his buttocks with a single bolo stroke” (Linn, 52). In fact, the Pulahans were better off with knives than rifles, partly because their captured Springfields were single-shot guns. (In this kind of war, no matter which side, by the time you reloaded, you were already dead.) Moreover, the Pulahans did not know how to use the gun sights, and they almost always aimed high (Hurley, 93). On the other hand, “When the Pulahans got to close quarters with their great knives, massacre was the result” (Hurley, 62).
There were about 3,000 of these bolomen, and about 10,000 more men who provided them with intelligence and material support (Borrinaga, G.E.R, “Pulahan Movement in Samar,” 261). In January 1905, just before the worst of the fighting, there were less than 2000 armed Insular forces: 900 Constables (Filipino police under the civilian government), 600 Scouts (Filipino soldiers under US Army command), and about 350 regular American soldiers in the 14th Infantry (Linn, 55). The Constables and Scouts had inferior rifles, the aforementioned Springfields. But even a Krag’s five-shot magazine was not a great choice in close-quarter fighting: “since not all men were issued bayonets, they found themselves using the rifle as a baseball bat in hand-to-hand combat” (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Pulahan Movement in Leyte,” 232).
The Pulahans not only terrorized the American forces, they terrorized lowland villagers, as well. Those who cooperated with the Insular officials were meted out punishments with special malice. In one town, they wrapped up the barrio lieutenant’s head in a kerosene-soaked American flag and set it on fire. The Pulahan leader said in front of the crowd: “Call upon the flag you have adopted to protect you now” (Hurley, 62). Then they burned down the village and carried off 50 of its people.
Every time the Americans thought they had a handle on the situation, the Pulahans came back like the walking dead. Individually or as a group, they were persistent. Lieutenant Norman Cook described: “The one who stabbed Lt. Gustin, although shot 5 times with Springﬁelds and with one entire charge of buckshot in him was still trying to crawl up on Lt. Gustin when [Gustin] reloaded his shotgun and blew out his brains” (quoted in Linn, 52-53). Even Pulahans who had surrendered to the Americans, been released, and remained at peace for a year could suddenly concentrate and reorganize to pillage a rival town (Linn, 49). The Pulahans even attacked at their own surrender ceremony, as described by Philippine-American War historian Brian McAllister Linn on page 61 of “The Pulahan Campaign: A Study in US Pacification“:
The sectarians filed in, looked at the crowds and then suddenly attacked, killing 22 constables, capturing several rifles, and disappeared into the jungle. [Governor] Curry, who himself had narrowly escaped being boloed, notified military commanders that “in your operations outside the towns and barrios you may kill anyone you have reason to [believe] a Pulahan…”
Why was Governor Curry in an isolated village with only a Constabulary honor guard to protect him, anyway? Was he stupid, or just spectacularly optimistic? The answer is part of a larger reason why American rule on Samar was so vulnerable. Curry had wanted his civil government, made up of civilian bureaucrats, to get the sole credit for the surrender. As such, he did not invite the Scouts or US Army to the party.
This rivalry between civil and military authorities—both American—was one reason why the initial response to the Pulahans was weak. The civil government under William Howard Taft and his subordinates on Samar and Leyte were “determined to show they governed with Filipino support, not armed force” (Linn, 53). General Henry T. Allen, commander of the Philippine Constabulary, should have turned over the Pulahan problem to the Scouts and Army earlier. The ill-equipped and understaffed Constabulary was built to keep law and order, not fight a war. But instead, Allen gave sanguine reports to his superiors in Manila that his men were getting the job done. In reality, “[b]y the end of 1904, many of the colonial forces were demoralized, much of the north and east of Samar was under Pulahan control, and the island was verging on anarchy” (Linn, 55).
And then the U.S. Army showed up…again. Would they make Samar a “howling wilderness”…again? Read part three on the Pulahan War in the next post.
[This is the first in a series of three posts on the Pulahan War. Find links to parts two and three here.]
If the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) gets little attention in history classrooms, the subsequent Pulahan War (1903-1907) in Samar and Leyte gets none. But it is the Pulahan War that may have the most parallels to later fights against the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia; the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; the Abu Sayyaf/Maute group in Marawi, Philippines; Boko Haram in Nigeria; and even the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists, who released sarin gas on a Tokyo subway train in 1995.
The Pulahan War erupted after the Americans captured Samareño guerrilla leader Vicente Lukban in April 1902, and after the Americans declared the Philippine “insurrection” over on July 4, 1902. In other words, it happened after the islands had supposedly been pacified. In reality, the islands were still at war. (The Pulahan War was the largest of its particular type, but it was not the only indigenous, messianic movement in the islands.)
Maybe the Pulahan War is not studied because it was squashed in only four years—a short insurgency compared to the ones the United States has fought more recently. But shouldn’t that be a reason to study it? To find out how American soldiers (and American-trained Filipino soldiers) succeeded so quickly in Samar and Leyte, but cannot outmaneuver the Taliban after nearly two decades in Afghanistan? What really happened out there in the boondocks?
Who are the Pulahans? The name given to them is thought to mean “red pants,” but few of these men actually had enough pants to set aside a pair as a uniform, let alone dye them a specific color. Sometimes they were known to wear red bandanas or other items, but not always. The name could also come from the pulajan, or red, variety of abaca grown by these farmers. The origin of the name “reds” is not what is important about them. What is critical is how they arose: from a specific cauldron of local grievances, traditional values, and foreign interference that so often gives rise to millennial movements.
It began with the previous war. In April 1902, the captured revolutionary, Vicente Lukban, negotiated the surrender of the rest of his men: 65 officers, 236 riflemen, and 443 bolomen (wielders of a bolo, or machete-style, knife). These guerrillas brought in 240 guns and 7500 rounds of ammunition, much of which had been pilfered from Company C, Ninth Infantry, at Balangiga (Dumindin). Instead of punishing those who had participated in this attack, the Americans welcomed them in from the jungle. The colonial government even provided cloth, tailors, and sewing machines to outfit the men so they could parade through the capital city Catbalogan in front of the Army brass (Borrinaga, R.O., 20).
This colorful celebration papered over the fact that Samar was a smoking ruin. In his implementation of General Orders No. 100, General Jacob H. “Hell-Roaring Jake” Smith ordered the burning over 79,000 tons of stored rice and countless rice fields (War Department 1902, 434-51). One American soldier estimated that, by 1902, the island was subsisting on only 25% of a normal yield (Hurley, 55-56). Smith had ordered the destruction of entire villages, and he got his wish: by 1902, 27 of 45 municipalities were in ashes, and of those that remained only 10 had a standing town hall (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Pulahan Movement in Samar,” 245).
Worst of all, Smith ordered that all captured abaca harvests be destroyed (“Massacre Averted“). Known as “Manila hemp,” abaca is actually a banana plant whose strong fibers can be used as naval cordage, which was in short supply at the time. It was so badly needed by the U.S. Navy and merchant fleets that Congress had made a singular tariff exception for it before the rest of the free trade laws came into effect in 1913. Abaca and coconut products could have been the keystones of Samar and Leyte’s economic recovery, but in 1902 the harvest was, again, only 25% of pre-war levels. To make matters worse, a terrible drought hit Samar immediately after the war ended, from October 1902 to June 1903, so what abaca had not been burned by Smith’s forces was torched by the sun (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Samar,” 245-49).
Even had abaca thrived, the Pulahans would not have gotten rich off the sales. Samar was structured like an island plantation: the growers in the highlands were beholden to the coastal elites. Lowlanders, as they were known, were the ones with ties to foreign merchant houses like Britain’s Smith, Bell, and Company. These elites paid the actual abaca growers less than half the crop was worth, and then they turned around and sold the peasants imported rice at a premium (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Samar,” 257).
Now that the island was “pacified,” the Americans demanded new taxes to pay for their civil government, including a twenty-peso tax on all adult Filipinos (Talde, “The Pulahan Milieu of Samar,” 229-30). The growers did not have twenty pesos—which was US$10 then, or $280 now—so they had to borrow it from the same merchants who had already fleeced them. All they had to stake as collateral was their thousand-peso plots of land. When they could not repay their debts—and the merchants made sure of that—the wealthy townsmen seized title to all they had in the world. To save their families from starvation, or from contracting malnutrition-based diseases like beri-beri, some parents sold off a child at a time to procurers from the big cities (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Samar,” 258-59). These children would become servants, laborers, and prostitutes to pay off their parents’ debts.
The grower had no one to complain to because the elites who had stolen from them were the mayors, police officials, and municipal authorities of Samar and Leyte. In fact, the twenty-peso poll tax that cost the grower his land had been used to pay the mayor’s salary, and you can be sure he was paid before any of the other tax funds were allocated (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Pulahan Movement in Leyte,” 255). If the growers complained, they found themselves held on trumped-up charges until they sold the abaca at the desired rate—or for less. “[American] garrison commanders were both appalled and outraged at the mistreatment they witnessed. The civil officials in particular seemed completely irresponsible, robbing their constituents in the most brazen manner” (Linn, 69).
If that was not enough, the 1902 cholera epidemic killed 3175 people in Samar and 4625 in Leyte (War Department 1904, 232). (For Samar, that was about as many as died during General Smith’s “howling wilderness.”) Livestock had also fallen victim to war and disease (specifically, rinderpest). Carabao, or local water buffalo, fell to 10% of their pre-war numbers, according to one contemporary source. The price to replace them went up by a factor of ten (Hurley, 55-56). Because carabaos were essential to plowing and harvesting all crops, their absence meant the starvation that had driven the guerrillas to surrender would continue.
The governor of Samar province, George Curry of New Mexico, knew the peasants were “industrious and hardy people” (Executive Secretary for the Philippine Islands 1906, 584). The problem was that the Americans needed the lowland elites on their side—many of the revolutionaries who had surrendered in April 1902 were these elites, and they were already worming their way into Insular Government positions. The peasants could fall in line with a regime that robbed them blind, or they could look elsewhere. They looked elsewhere.
Specifically, they looked at an old movement for answers to new problems. There had been a messianic group under the Spanish in the late nineteenth century, the “Dios-Dios,” which arose in similar economic conditions as those described above, including both smallpox and cholera epidemics. At the time, the highlanders thought their illness would be healed by a mass pilgrimage to Catholic shrines to pray for their loved ones’ souls. But the Spanish, thinking this exodus from the mountains was a revolt in the making, attacked the peasants, thus igniting a several-year-long struggle (Couttie). In 1902 this movement resurfaced—or maybe it had never left. Several of the key figures in Lukban’s guerrilla war—the ones who had not surrendered—had been tied to Dios Dios. While under Lukban, the war had not taken on a distinctly religious character, his most die-hard supporters now made fighting Americans a mission from God.
The Pulahans appropriated a specific Dios Dios-brand of Catholic syncretism, similar to the folk tradition of the babaylans (faith healers). The Pulahans called their leaders popes (“Papa Pablo” or “Papa Ablen,” for example), displayed crosses on their clothing or ornaments, and mentioned Jesus and Mary occasionally. They also prayed to living saints, like the “goddess” Benedicta, who, decades before, had led a crowd of 4000 followers up into the mountains to prepare for the coming apocalypse. Benedicta described the coming end of times as a flood that would wipe out the thieving lowlanders while keeping the mountains safe (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Leyte,” 211).
The Pulahans kept this blend of Visayan animist and Roman Catholic practices—all without the hated Spanish friars and priests. In fact, like Benedicta, Pulahan women were often priestesses, especially in the highland farming communes hidden within the jungle. To the Pulahans, this location made perfect sense. These were sacred mountains that symbolized light, redemption, and paradise (Talde, “Pulahan Milieu,” 215). This would be where Independencia, when finally freed from its once-Spanish-now-American box, would fashion a world with “no labor, no jails, and no taxes” (Hurley, 59). Even better, “once they destroyed their enemies, [Papa Ablen] would lead them to a mountain top on which they would find seven churches of gold, all their dead relatives who would be well and happy, and their lost carabao” (Roth, Muddy Glory, 99). In retrospect, it seems impossible for the highland people of Samar and Leyte not to join the Pulahan revolt.
The Pulahan soldiers were a special kind of fierce: they did not cut their hair, did not cut down vegetation while trekking through the jungle, and did not need food or water on their multi-day operations (Talde, “Bruna ‘Bunang’ Fabrigar,” 180-81). They wore special charms, known as anting-antings, made out of anything: cloth, paper, or even carabao horn. Special prayers—composed of pseudo-Latin, local languages, and numerology—offered protection against bullets and bolos. “Should they be shot, which could only happen if they turned their backs, their spirits would return in another person’s body in three days, or if hacked by a bolo, in seven days” (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Leyte,” 230-31). Even better, this reincarnation would deliver the soul to another island. It was a decent way out, given the conditions on Samar and Leyte at the time.
These spells may be quite familiar to China scholars. They sound like the Boxers’ charms—especially the imperviousness to bullets—and there is a good reason for that. Both movements were millennial:
. . . a religious or ideological movement based on the belief in a millennium marking or foreshadowing an era of radical change or an end to the existing world order; especially (a) believing in the imminence or inevitability of a golden age or social or spiritual renewal; utopian; (b) believing in the imminence or inevitability of the end of the world; apocalyptic.
Millennial movements are often caused by rapid economic and cultural change, an increased foreign presence, and natural disasters or war. Samar, Leyte, and China had all these things. Afghanistan did, too. So did Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Cambodia, and more. Like all these countries, the Pulahans believed salvation would be theirs eventually, even if they would have to help God along a bit. When the righteous flood finally came, the Pulahans would be on their Monte de Pobres (Mountain of the Poor), the “surest and safest place” in the islands (Borrinaga, G.E.R., “Leyte,” 211). From there they could a perfect Samareño kingdom on earth, free from Spanish, American, Chinese, and mercantile interests.
Only it did not go quite like that. Read more on the Pulahan War in part two.
[Featured image was taken by and of members of the 39th Philippine Scouts dressed in captured Pulahan uniforms and carrying captured bolos. Multiply these men by several dozen, at least, to get the full effect of a Pulahan charge. Photo scanned by Scott Slaten.]
If you run a blog, you know that spam bots are constantly trying to post on your page. Here’s a hint: if they mention Viagra, Cialis, body part enlargement, breast milk (???), or any random pharmaceuticals, they are spam.
But sometimes they are sneakier, pretending to be real people who are (of course) trying to “help you” write better content.
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This reads like someone shoved their paragraph through the Google translator—from English to Thai, then Thai to Russian, and then Russian back to English. (I do not choose these languages randomly; they are the ones that most often appear in my spam comments!)
What’s the point? Well, folks, I am sick of battling spam. I am going to start turning off comments on each blog post after a week or so. If you still want to post on a topic after I’ve cut off comments, please go to my Facebook page and find the relevant post link there. Please feel free to add a comment there. Thank you for reading!
[Featured image by freezelight of the wall of spam outside of the Cannon Theatre during the first day of ticket sales for SPAMalot.]
Writing is always a risk. People say to “write what you know,” which is safe advice to be sure, but fiction will inevitably push these boundaries. For me, the history is what I know, so the history is where I start. But sometimes plot bunnies lead me down dangerous plot burrows.
A few years ago, I was trying to find an American source to describe the entrance into Manila Bay via steamer ship. One of the best I found was written by a traveler named Annabelle Kent:
…we were hardly outside the harbor before it became very rough, the flying spray beat against the saloon windows, and it was necessary for our chairs to be lashed to the rail. I am never sea-sick, but once ensconced in my steamer chair, it seemed best to stay there, and it really was a delight to sit there snugly wrapped up from the flying spray and watch the huge waves thundering around our little boat, which rode them like a bird….Before [landing] I had gone down to the cabin to do the repacking for my sick roommate and myself. This was no joke; with the trunks sliding around with every movement of the ship, I had to dodge the one while I held on to the other and crammed things into it.…
Wow, now that’s evocative writing. Why was Ms. Kent so impervious to seasickness, I wondered? I went back to the beginning of the book to read this: “I would like to show others, as well as my deaf brethren and sisters, how much pleasure and profit one can get through travel not only in Europe, but the Orient. I am not merely hard of hearing, but entirely deaf.”
What is the connection between deafness and intrepid water travel? Apparently, those with a damaged vestibular system are far less likely to be seasick:
The US Navy ran an experiment in the 1960′s where they put a few Deaf men…in a window-less galley of a ship in the middle of a horrendous storm off of Newfoundland. As the ship tossed, the Deaf men sat at a table and played cards. Meanwhile, every Naval scientist became seasick.
There is a nice sort of justice there. As I read more of Ms. Kent’s book, I learned how she circumnavigated the globe—part of the time with friends, but mostly with complete strangers, all without a sign language interpreter. One of the most adventurous women of her era, Ms. Kent was perfect material for a romance heroine!
But, wait. Hold on. What do I know about deafness and Deaf Culture? Watching movies doesn’t count because they are so often written by the hearing. As blogger Charlie Swinbourne wrote about deafness in the movies:
On one hand, it’s exciting to see characters like yourself represented on screen. On the other hand, you get the FEAR.
Fear of what? Well, of the deaf character being hard to understand (especially if they’re being played by an inexperienced signer), or of their presence in the story being insubstantial and throwaway.
Worst of all, you get the fear of their appearance on screen being unrealistic, making it hard to believe in, and enjoy the story.
Swinbourne proceeds to list the top ten errors from real films. Some of the errors are obvious: a person cannot lipread when he or she is turned away from the speaker, or while sitting in the dark, or at night, and so on. And, yet, these things happen in movies all the time. If I have managed to avoid any of these pitfalls (eh…I did okay, not perfectly, but more on that later), it was because of Mr. Swinbourne’s blog, The Limping Chicken, and other sources. (Also, see his own films here.)
Could a deaf writer have written my character, Della Berget, better than me? Yes, no doubt. Are there better books out there about Deaf Culture? Uh, like every one written by someone hard of hearing. But the story of Hotel Oriente was grounded in history, and that is my comparative advantage. I decided to take a risk and write Della as best I could. Of course, this meant research.
I found out some interesting aspects of deaf education at the beginning of the 20th century:
The federally-chartered university for the hard of hearing, Gallaudet, known today for proudly teaching in two languages (American Sign Language and spoken English) was forced by Congress to teach only the “Oral Method” of communication throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Oralism” meant lipreading/speechreading paired with speaking. So, if you were wondering why my heroine Della does not use ASL, it is because the “experts” of her age felt it was the duty of those hard of hearing to assimilate to the hearing world, rather than acknowledging the value of their own vibrant culture. An 1880 conference of these “experts” in Milan even tried to ban “manualism,” or sign language! Though that law was not binding, it guided Congress. Even prominent hearing folks like Alexander Graham Bell got involved. (He wanted Gallaudet to stop hiring deaf teachers, whom he felt would emphasize sign language.)
The emphasis on lipreading began with an incredibly patronizing idea: that all Deaf secretly wish to hear. This is not true. Limping Chicken blogger Toby Burton puts it best: “If you were to offer me a pill that would grant me [hearing], I’d be offended. Would you say to a woman,‘Take a pill and become a man, you might have more opportunities’? Of course not.” A story from Annabelle Kent’s 1911 book shows the time-tested nature of this truth: “…there happened to be a young man in the party who was totally blind. I was full of sympathy for him, but he, instead of feeling regret, thought the sympathy should be bestowed on me since I was deaf instead of blind.” You know the adage about making assumptions.
Gallaudet began accepting women in 1887, but they were not treated equally. In fact, the school newspaper describes a harrowing welcome for some of them: “all the [male] students would line up in rows and thus compel them to run a daily gauntlet of masculine curiosity.” Gee, that’s fun. And because women could not attend clubs and society meetings without a chaperone, they could never assume the highest positions of leadership. For example, even though women were influential in starting the school newspaper, the Buff and Blue, a young man would always be chosen for editor-in-chief because he could make the meetings without fail. This inequity is one of the reasons why my heroine, Della, an aspiring journalist, will leave college early to accompany her congressman grandfather to the Philippines: she is hoping to find fresh opportunities on the new American frontier.
And yet Gallaudet may have been more expensive back then. The 1900 tuition was $250, which in terms of 2016 commodity value is $19500—not so far off the current tuition of $19,852 for an undergraduate student, including a health insurance fee. But, when you consider the value of $250 as a proportion of someone’s income in 2016, it is the equivalent of $52,800—more than twice the current fee. (All inflation calculations are courtesy of Measuring Worth.)
Because she has to, Della lipreads. Unlike some of the movies Swinbourne skewers, she does not do it from too far away (though I stretch her abilities a little in the Clarke’s cafe scene), nor does she do it in the dark (though in one scene, only the couple’s faces are illuminated). She can read some people better than others, which my research suggests is common. (And guess what? The easiest person for her to read is our hero, Moss. But, duh, romance.) She cannot read anyone with a mustache, which hides the lips—also a note from my research. And she prefers full sentences to fragments. Why? Because only about 30% of speech is readable, according to Albany Jacobson Eckert. That means context is everything, especially when dealing with commonly confused words—which are different pairings than a hearing person would confuse. A few times in Hotel Oriente, I let Della make mistakes, get frustrated, and develop a headache because lipreading is really, really hard work. Is she still maybe a little too good at it at times? Probably. (Again, romance.) But I did take hope from Dr. Neil Bauman‘s remarks that while only 23% of hard-of-hearing people become effective speechreaders, women tend to be more effective than men. Also, nonverbal cues are important, as are vibrations and light.
Like many in her generation, Della lost her hearing to Meningitis. She was sick after age three and a half—the time at which most sounds have been learned and can be mimicked, according to Dennis C. Tanner—which would have made her a good candidate for oralism. However, there are still distortions in her pronunciation and tone, which Moss does notice. After he notices, though, I write her speech without accent because that is a better reflection of her intention and the story. I assume that the reader knows her speech is not perfect, but it is no reflection on her intelligence or eloquence.
All this being said, I am guilty of #5 on Swinbourne’s list: letting her fall in love with the first person who shows a serious interest. (Della does reference another gentleman back in Washington, before her trip to Manila. And Della and Moss’s quick courtship is really a function of the time period, when women were less experienced than their male counterparts. But, yeah, sorry. Mea culpa.) There is probably so much more I missed, too, and I apologize.
I did try to soften Della a little bit with a few flaws, thanks to Swinbourne’s blog, but she still is significantly more sympathetic than everyone else—even the hero, maybe. (At first, Moss is not quite woke on deaf appreciation, but he learns.) Della’s grandfather is a tool, but he is the one who paid for her education—so that relationship is complex. Della’s feelings toward him are understandably ambivalent and somewhat Machiavellian: if he is using her as a political pawn, she is using him right back to get to Manila.
Since there are no other deaf people that Della knows in her corner of Manila, there is no real treatment of Deaf Culture and its rewards, nor would I be the best person to translate these ideas to the page. Still, I would consider Hotel Oriente a form of cross-cultural romance, like my other books. ‘Cause that’s my jam.
[Edited on October 21, 2017: Comments have been turned off due to spamming by bots. If you would like to make a remark of substance, you can find my link to this post on Facebook and comment there. Thank you.]
The opening scenes of Channel 4’s Indian Summers shows British families making the journey up the foothills of the Himalayas to Shimla, the Crown’s summer capital. There they will relax in the temperate climate: “dance and forget,” as one Indian observer says. “A hotbed of political, social and romantic intrigue set amid rolling hills,” the Guardian wrote, “no place encapsulates the global ambitions as well as the parochial desires of the Raj better than Shimla.”
The Americans may have been late to the Great Game, but they would still have time to fashion their own Shimla in the Philippines. It was not until five years into American rule—on June 1, 1903—that the Philippine Commission officially designed Baguio as the Summer Capital of the Philippines. But the site had been chosen years before as a way to escape the heat of Manila:
There are hotter places than the lowlands of the Philippines—hotter places than Manila—but there is none where there is such a never-ending, boundless continuity of heat, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, throughout the whole cycle of the year—none so insidiously saps the vitality and relaxes the springs of energy native to men from colder climates.
Nestled in the Cordillera Mountain Range, this outpost offered “rolling, turf-covered hills, studded thick with fragrant pines, and swept by all the breezes.” The Americans now had a chance to create a town from scratch, one that represented everything they thought they were in the Philippines to provide: an orderly, beautiful center of transparent governance and intellectual inquiry. Yes, American colonial officials took their “City on a Hill” idealism seriously. The only problem was they did not have a way to get up the Hill.
The Yanks envisioned a railroad up the mountainside to Baguio, but they had to settle for a wagon road along the Bued River Canyon. This “simple” trail cost enough to build that by 1906 there was no money left to build a railroad—or to fully develop the city of Baguio itself. And though it was just meant to be a temporary passage, Kennon Road (Route 56), named after the American engineer in charge of the project, still exists. It is the shortest route to Baguio, and one of the most dangerous roads in the Philippines.
The danger is what made construction so expensive in the first place. Initial work began in January 1901 on a cliff above what would become Camp 1. Workers needed to first climb up to dangerous heights, then set dynamite charges, and finally get to safety before the charges blew. Some workers were a little reluctant to scale the cliffs in the first place, and they had to be shamed into it:
On reaching the 50-foot ladder, the men had categorically refused to ascend, proving equally deaf to threats or appeals, and had only done so after the disgusted foreman had ordered his wife to mount: “She did so and the whole party, following her, moved on its way.”
And if the working conditions did not kill you, the other workers might: “a timekeeper was attacked with bolos…and several horses were mutilated by the same means.” Having started construction in the midst of a fierce guerrilla war, recruitment was an even bigger challenge than cutting down cliffs.
The original workforce was made of impressed Igorot tribesmen, considered to be “a vastly superior animal” who could be trusted “without the necessity of a white foreman to watch him,” according to one of the American engineers. (Even when trying to pay compliments, the Yanks could not help but be paternalistic and racist.) Because the Americans disparaged the Spanish-style corvée method—after they had already used it to construct over 1,000 miles of roads in the islands—they felt the need to “raise” the Filipino by offering “fair wages, training, and education.” (Despite their grand talk, they did also try convict labor. But shackled prisoners were not great choices for cliff work. Moreover, these men were a flight risk.)
The result was initially almost no workers at all. By January 1903, at the time of the official designation of Baguio as the summer capital, there were only two to four men at work on the road each day. Something had to be done. The Americans started hiring whomever they could get: Native Americans, Hawaiians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Chileans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Germans, Irish, English, French, Swedes, Spaniards, and all the peoples of the northern Philippines, from Ilocanos to Visayans.
The most problematic were the Tagalogs, according to Kennon. But he really meant one particular Tagalog: a labor recruiter named Pascual Poblete. At the center of the Kennon-Poblete controversy is the American definition of what constitutes “fair wages.” Poblete had recruited hundreds of workers with talk of one to two dollars gold a day, as long as the Filipino did the same amount of work as an American laborer. This may have been a possible negotiation point, but the starting rate for Filipinos workers was twenty-five cents gold—a quarter to an eighth what these men had been led to expect, and an eighth of an unskilled American’s salary. When they got to Twin Peaks, they found out the truth about “fair wages.” And they walked out.
As the disappointed laborers made their way home, they met other Poblete-recruited workers heading out to Benguet. These latter men heard tales of abuse and maltreatment by Americans—not all of which seems possible given the short tenure of their employ—and a crowd of angry workers flooded back to Manila to rally around their recruiter. Poblete, who also happened to own the nationalist newspaper, El Grito del Pueblo, wasted no time in embarrassing the new civil administration under Governor Taft. His most hated targets, though, were the Filipino collaborators in the Philippine Commission and the members of the Partido Federal who were advocating for US statehood. This labor event became a rallying cry for all those who saw the Americanistas as “los mismos perros con distintos collares,” or “the same dogs with different collars.”
The men who stayed in camp to work were divided into three groups for bunking and eating: Americans (including all Europeans and Africans), Orientals (Chinese, Japanese, and Indians), and Natives (Filipinos). Americans were paid the most and ate the best:
The Americans did try to help out their Filipino workers keep their “fair wages” by not allowing labor agents and patrons to siphon twenty percent off the top in kickbacks. Any foremen taking money from their crews in such an arrangement would be dismissed. One white foreman was sentenced to six months in Bilibid Prison for this kind of graft. Eventually, workers would be encouraged to bring their families up to the road as a way of keeping the men happy and tranquil. There were bands who played during work hours so the men could let “the dirt fly in time to the music.” And there were dances, saloons, and even a cockpit.
By October 1903, there were twenty thousand men at work on the Benguet Road, just under half of whom were Filipinos. A large number of these were folks from northern Luzon, particularly Ilocanos. Despite the full complement of workers, though, most experts predicted that it would still take at least three years to build the road. They did not count on Kennon’s eagerness to win a bet. Someone wagered him that the road would not be passable by January 1905, so on the 29th of that month, Major Kennon drove his calesa from Camp 4 into Baguio—along the most difficult and dangerous stretch of the route, a portion known as the Zig-Zag. Though the road was not quite finished, it would only take another year and a half Kennon handed it over to the Philippine Commission to administer in November 1906.
Traffic on the road was mostly mule teams and ox carts from 1906 to 1909, when Stanley Steamer cars were introduced. The next year, they brought in De Dion-Bouton petrol buses, with the world’s first 70 horsepower, 8-cylinder engines. A ride on these Benguet Auto Line buses was included in a railroad ticket from Manila, which cost P27 per person (about $365 in 2016 dollars) for a first-class fare, and P23 ($311 now) for second class.
That’s steep compared to the $15 bus fare today, but even a $300 ticket would not make up for the cost of building the road itself: P3,923,694. That equals $1.9 million in (gold) 1905 dollars, and $53 million in 2016 dollars. The cost breaks down to P147,895 per mile, or $2 million per mile in today’s terms. Before you call the road a boondoggle, though, know that $2 million a mile is about right for a new 2-lane undivided road in rural areas, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. (Admittedly, they are talking about a paved road that is not regularly washed out by flooding, but who’s quibbling?)
Baguio lost its accreditation as summer capital in 1913, but that did not stop Americans from playing there. One regular use was by the Thomasite teachers, who developed a Vacation Assembly Camp. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on that.) Moreover, the first Episcopal bishop of the Philippines, Charles Henry Brent, build his school for American children in Baguio, the first of what is today three international school branches, including Manila and Subic. Not only did I work in the Manila branch of Brent School, but the founder’s son of my current school worked at the original in Baguio. And, in my upcoming book, Sugar Moon, the story will begin with the Benguet road construction and end with Teacher’s Camp.
In my career, all roads lead to Benguet—once the Americans built them.