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.

Gilded Age Ganja

By now you have heard the results of the 2016 election: marijuana won. Well, at least in four states. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada legalized recreational use. Also, Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota legalized certain medical uses. You can see which way the smoke is blowing. Maine’s marijuana question passed by less than one percent of the vote, but that ambivalence does not express the sea-change in American attitudes towards pot. According to the Washington Post, more than 1 in 5 Americans now “now live in states where the recreational use of marijuana is, or soon will be, legal.”

But how long has it been illegal? Would it surprise you to know only 80 years, since 1937? In fact, would it surprise you know that during the colonial era, cannabis was not only legal but—in 1619— required of all farmers in Virginia to plant? And that cannabis served as legal tender in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland? This may be stretching the truth a little, but only a little. I am conflating two strains of plants: hemp and marijuana. What is the difference? Well, both are the same species—cannabis sativa—but marijuana has significantly higher levels of the intoxicant delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, until recently, hemp has been more commercially productive. Its strong fibers can be used for rope, paper, textiles, plastic, food, biofuel, and animal feed.

In the colonial era, it was cordage and textile uses that made cannabis so versatile. Not that people throughout history did not know of the more recreational properties, of course. Throughout Asia and Europe, cannabis was used for pain relief, spiritual escapes, and a nice little high after work. But we do not need to go that far back. After all, this blog focuses on the Gilded Age at the turn of the twentieth century—and this is when attitudes towards marijuana changed.

An advertisement for Dr. James's cannabis tonic, courtesy of The Library of Congress.
An advertisement for Dr. James’s cannabis tonic, courtesy of The Library of Congress.

You see, in the Edwardian era, cannabis was legal. That is what they called it, too: cannabis. Or, if one wanted to be a little more flash: Indian hemp, ganja, or (in a more potent preparation) hashish. One of the most popular Edwardian uses for cannabis was as a foot soak for corns. But it was also sold as a cure for consumption, bronchitis, asthma, veterinary indigestion, and simple coughs. It was not until 1906 that over-the-counter products had to declare any cannabis on their labels, but before then any number of “remedies” could have given a nice tipple. Keep in mind that this was also the era when cocaine was sold for toothaches, heroin was advertised in medical journals, and tincture of opium (laudanum) was packed in doses for infants. So, there was that.

A smattering of Edwardian remedies, courtesy of The Telegraph, ProCon.org, and Wikimedia Commons.
A smattering of Edwardian remedies, courtesy of The Telegraph, ProCon.org, and Wikimedia Commons.

At this point, cannabis customers considered themselves more “cosmopolitan” than the average drug user. Some men believed cannabis to be a female aphrodisiac: “It is just the thing to rouse the wild demimondaine instinct that lurks in the back of the heads of some romantic girls.” A more broadminded pot philosopher said: “It has been contended by an astute philosopher that true happiness will only be possible when time and space are abolished. Well, this is what hashish temporarily accomplishes.”

Hemp had its partisans, too. At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a worldwide shortage of naval cordage. When the United States took the Philippines as a colony, they found a local substitute: abaca, or Manila hemp. This is an entirely different species—a type of banana plant, actually—but its fibers were similar to cannabis sativa. This was the only export of the Philippines that the American colonial government allowed to be freely traded, as long as it was sold only to the States. (Later, during World War II, another hemp shortage so threatened the naval war effort that the government handed out seeds and gave draft deferments for farmers willing to grow it. They even made a film called “Hemp for Victory.”) The problem for Mr. Hemp, though, was that his cousin ruined the party, at least in the United States.

If everyone was so happy with their cannabis—both plants—in the Edwardian era, what happened? The 1910 Mexican Revolution! Um, what? No, really. The unrest south of the border sent large numbers of refugees into the United States. Cue the xenophobic backlash. What better evidence of the insidious social ills brought by these new immigrants than a dangerous new drug that turned American children into imbeciles?

A 1922 diatribe against the evils of marijuana in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, courtesy of The Library of Congress. That is a pretty risqué illustration.
A 1922 diatribe against the evils of marijuana in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, courtesy of The Library of Congress. That is a pretty risqué illustration.

That is when the name of the intoxicant changed. It was no longer cannabis, or Indian hemp, or ganja. It was marijuana—an Anglicization of the Latin American term marihuana, which itself came from either Chinese immigrants, Angolan slaves, or just a spontaneous combination of Maria and Juana. We don’t really know. The point was to portray the drug as something new, something wicked, something “loco” that would cause “incurable insanity.” The delivery system used by Mexicans—smoking—was evidence of this distinction.

One newspaper account said:

After three or four puffs the beginner’s mind becomes confused. There is, at first, a harmless sort of mental exhilaration. All the worries and sordidness in the user’s life fade away. He finds himself floating through space as if on a cloud and doing everything, in fancy, that he ever wanted to do….Then comes a period in which hallucinations dominate the addict. Motive-less merriment or maudlin emotion usually follows, after which a pugnacious attitude ensues.

Pugnacious? Yep. Others agreed. They said that marijuana was “more ruinous in its effects than cocaine, heroin, opium, morphine, or any of the others.” Another suggests curing a marijuana addiction with cocaine, which he believes is less habit-forming. It may be true that the drug then was not the same as the drug today, but racism was also a factor, at least in the late 1910s and the 1920s. The irony is that Mexico banned marijuana in 1920—17 years before the United States—and yet Americans still blamed the “infection” on them. For example, a Mohave County sheriff wrote up a public account of a run-in he had with a “bad Mexican,” a man appropriately named Marijuana for the substance that he sold. This kind of tale filled the papers.

But the anti-marijuana movement really gained traction in the Great Depression. This may be because this is when the drug became more popular with white Americans, or it may be because of the breakdown in social norms that came with high unemployment and population dispersal. And then a movie called Reefer Madness hit the screens in 1936. In the movie, a group of young smokers see their enjoyable evening go from casual fun to promiscuous sex to crushing depression to suicide. Within a year, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, “restricting possession of the drug to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses” (PBS).

That’s not the same thing as totally illegal, right? It took the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s to do that. But maybe we have come full circle to the Summer of Love—or, as the case may be, to the Winter of Love. But, who knows? Pot is still illegal under federal law, and though the Obama administration adopted a policy of noninterference with the states in 2013, President-Elect Donald Trump might not feel the same way. As a boarding school teacher in Massachusetts, I am not terribly excited about the idea of patrolling dorms in a pot-accessible state. But maybe I will buy some for my mother for her corns…

(Featured image is an ad for Pico’s cough remedy, courtesy of the Library of Congress.)