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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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. Both photos (above and below) courtesy of Scott Slaten of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

Philippine Scouts Scott Slaten by Jennifer Hallock Sugar Moon

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.
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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.

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.

38th Infantry on the Luneta

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.

The band in the March 1909 blizzard inauguration of President 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:

Sister-Seeking-Brother-Manila-Times-Revised-Thin

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!)

Negligées in the Morning: Army Life in 1901

I just revised my Sugar Moon flashback scenes from Balangiga, a horrible incident that Ben Potter barely survived. While I was doing that, I went down a teensy-weensy research rabbit hole. Again.

I wanted to know what a typical morning looked like in the Army in 1901. That’s sort of tough because the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War were not written about nearly as much as, for example, the Civil War or the Great War. But Google Books and the Rural New Yorker to the rescue! I found out from the (incompletely excerpted) article below that there was an awful lot of bugling:

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If you have gone to summer camp, you know what reveille sounds like:

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

What about the others? The twenty-first century U.S. Army came to the rescue here. The day of a soldier has not changed much in 120 years, it seems.

Here is the tune to assemble for roll call:

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After attendance is taken, soldiers were led through basic calisthenics. What did that look like in 1901? Thanks to the Manual of Physical Drill by the U.S. Army (1900), I know it went something like this:

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And this:

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The manual states to: “Never work the men to the point of exhaustion.” I think my active duty and veteran friends would laugh heartily at that one. And I think we all would find something to be desired in the instructions for how to dress for exercise:

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Negligée? I have all sorts of images in my head there. All. Sorts. Especially in some of these drills…

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And I do not think any of us are going to exchange our moisture-wicking nylon for flannel. Egad.

After the exercises were over, the mess call would be blown:

Balangiga location for Sugar Moon in Sugar Sun meaty historical romance series

What happened after that? Well, you will have to wait for Sugar Moon to find out! (Or head on over to my Balangiga page for some serious spoilers. Hint: It doesn’t go well.)

The Sugar Sun series locations

Want to learn more about the setting of the Sugar Sun series? Click on any of the graphics below. To find these places on maps of the Philippines & Manila, click here to go straight to the bottom of this post. Enjoy your visit!

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Sugar country founded by Spanish & Chinese mestizos in the 19th century. Come for whale sharks, stay for the pretty.
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Beaches, mountains, sugar, missionaries, & sinners. This town is still one of my favorite cities in the Philippines.
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The Fifth Avenue of old Manila, a place to buy harness and hardware, dry goods and diamonds, and more.
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While you’re on the Escolta, don’t forget to get some ice cream, fresh bread, or delicious coffee at Clarke’s.
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Learn about the real Moss & Della: manager West Smith & wife Stella of the troubled, faded glory Hotel Oriente.
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The place to see and be seen in old Manila. Mosquito free! Then the Americans went and ruined it.
Balangiga location for Sugar Moon in Sugar Sun meaty historical romance series
This town is a case study in occupation & a name that every American should know. Essential reading for the upcoming novel, Sugar Moon.
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Where you might play, race, or even fall in love: the beautiful shoreline of Old Manila before the Americans got a hold of it.
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A medieval walled city plopped into the tropics: complete with moat, cathedral, and cannons. What more do you need?
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Named after Saint James the Moorslayer, but the most famous man to be slayed from this prison was a smart young doctor (and bestselling author) named José Rizal.
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See how the shoreline of Manila was changed in the first massive infrastructure project of the American Philippines.
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The Americans found a perfect place to wait out the steamy Philippine summers. But how to get there—alive?
Catbalogan-Philippines-Samar-Sugar-Sun-location
Explore this beautiful town at the center of piracy, two anti-American wars, and a grand celebration of peace.


In case you want to know where these places are:

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Go back to the top.

Guide to the history behind Sugar Sun

At the start of Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina Potter travels to the Philippines to search for her brother, Ben—a soldier missing since the Philippine-American War. The night she arrives, she walks into a fire set by the cholera police to “cleanse” a neighborhood. Right away we are rooted in the history of the American colonial period.

But why were Americans in the Philippines in the first place? How did war with Spain in the Caribbean turn into an empire in Asia?

Here on my blog, I have written a lot of history—no surprise since it is my day job. Here are links to the most relevant posts, complete with illustrations.

1896 election history for Sugar Sun history
The bid for empire started with an election about making America great (again?), with jobs, industrialism, and trade. Sounds familiar. Find out more.
Spanish American War Part 1
American imperialism was a cause and effect of the Spanish-American War. Why fight at all? It’s the economy, stupid!? Find out more.
Spanish-American War Part 2
Navy accidents, fake news, and a New Yorker bent on war. I mean the Spanish-American War of 1898. What were you thinking? Find out more.
Spanish-American War Part 3
Mission creep was a thing before we had the phrase. How the war in the Caribbean turned into an empire in Asia. Also, imperial euphemisms. Find out more.
New imperialism in the Philippines
What was so “new” about American imperialism in the Philippines? Also, how Mark Twain is still relevant today. Find out more.
Why the Philippine-American War matters now.
The good, bad, and ugly of your great-great-great grandparents’ Vietnam War: the Philippine-American War. Also, why it matters to you now more than ever. Find out more.
The Pulahan War parts 1, 2, and 3.
The Pulahan War was a millennialist insurrection, like ISIS. Why don’t we study it more? Find out more in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Insular euphemisms for imperialism.
Euphemisms for imperialism but not immigration reform. They called that what it was: Chinese exclusion. Find out more.
Baseball history in the Philippines
Baseball was a perfect metaphor for American colonial rule. Find out more.
Cholera epidemic in 1902 Philippines
Cholera has long been a sideshow of war. For the Americans in Manila, it was a challenge to modernity and “benevolent assimilation.” Also, silly naval surgeons. Find out more.
Army life in the Gilded Age
Soldiers in…negligées? My research rabbit hole on daily life in the U.S. Army in 1901. Find out more.
Benguet road to Baguio
For the Americans sweating it out in Manila, all roads led to Baguio—once they built them, that is. Find out more.
Missionaries in the Philippines
Learn about the real missionaries of Dumaguete, the backdrop for Tempting Hymn, and their best legacy: Silliman University. Find out more.
Balangiga occupation and attack
A case study in occupation, and a town that every American should know. Essential reading for the upcoming Sugar Moon. Find out more.
Ninth Infantry in Boxer War and Philippines
Talk about mission creep: a war against Spain fought in Cuba blossomed into a new war in the Philippines that lent soldiers to fight yet another campaign in China. Find out more.
Thanksgiving with the 30th Volunteers in Pasay
Spend the holidays with the 30th U.S. Volunteers in Pasay. Find out more.
Deaf education in the Gilded Age
Take a peek inside deaf education in the Gilded Age with heroine Della Berget, modeled on real-life adventuress, Annabelle Kent. Find out more.
Marijuana in the Gilded Age
Who won the 2016 election? Marijuana, of course. But beware! Gilded Age America preferred cocaine tooth drops. Find out more.
Gibson girls tackle international travel
Three intrepid Gilded Age women take on illiteracy, disease, and the perils of international travel. Find out more.
Gilded Age in Newport and Manila
The wealth of the Gilded Age reached both sides of the Pacific, but nowhere was it gaudier than at Newport. Find out more.
Sex Education in the Gilded Age
What did Gilded Age authorities teach about sex, virginity, and pleasure? The results may surprise you. Find out more.
New Year's 1900 and 2017
War, natural disaster, terrorism, technology, and health care: all concerns of New Years Day 1900. Find out more.

I hope you have enjoyed my snarky view of history, and I hope it enriches your reading of the Sugar Sun series.