[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.]
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 into 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.
I hope you have enjoyed my snarky view of history, and I hope it enriches your reading of the Sugar Sun series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
I spend a lot of time writing about the good stuff, like sex on traditional Philippine furniture. (For example, here and here.) But my blog is not all fun and games. I have set my novels in the Philippine-American War, and that was a horrible war. I have posted before on how the war began, how it was conducted, and a little bit about battles and operations—but I have avoided this particular post for a long time. This is the post on the water cure.
If you’re not feeling like anything disturbing, heavy, or possibly enraging, do go check out those other posts about sexy times on antique furniture. Come back to this another time.
Warning: If you do choose to stay, please note that this post discusses a practice at least partly motivated by racism. A few of the historic sources include racist language or judgments.
The water cure is a little different than modern-day waterboarding. In waterboarding, water is poured over a cloth covering the face to simulate the sensation of drowning. That may seem like it’s some sort of fake out, but it does cause real injuries. The water cure, though, is even more physical. In this practice, they laid a prisoner on his back, stood another man on each hand and foot, and forced a hollow tube into the victim’s throat. Through the tube they poured an entire pail of saltwater, dished up with a little sand to inflict a more severe punishment. When the prisoner did not give up, they poured in another pailful. Once the unlucky victim’s belly was “distended to the point of bursting,” a soldier would “tap” it with the butt of his gun. If the water did not spout high enough, they would jump up and down on his stomach. In the words of A. F. Miller of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment: “They swell[ed] up like toads. I’ll tell you it [was] a terrible torture.”
According to historian Darius Rejali, “Even a small amount of water in the glottis causes violent coughing, initiating a fight-or-flight response…triggering desperate efforts to break free. The supply of oxygen…is exhausted within seconds. While this is sometimes called ‘an illusion of drowning,’ the reality is that death will follow if the procedure is not stopped in time.” And it did.
This cruel technique was first introduced in the Spanish Inquisition and then spread throughout medieval Europe. The Spanish brought it to the Philippines, trained local scouts in the practice, and then those scouts taught the American soldiers. Some soldiers were more eager than others to use it. Major Edwin Glenn and “Glenn’s Brigade” were infamous for water curing thirteen priests of Samar—half of the clergy on the island—and they even killed one of the priests in the process. This was a part of the “howling wilderness” period.
When the American public found out about what Glenn had been up to in the islands, he was court-martialed. Actually, Glenn was brought to court three times. The first time he was found guilty of uncivilized conduct in war, despite his claims that the water cure could be a remedy for dengue fever. (Yes, he really did try that excuse. He even called witnesses to testify to this. It’s in the 1902 archives of the Manila Times.) He was given a one-month suspension and fined fifty dollars. (In comparison, the man he water cured that time, the mayor of Igbaras in Iloilo, was sentenced to ten years hard labor for what he was confessed under duress.) Glenn was court-martialed a second time for killing seven prisoners of war, though he was acquitted. Finally, he was sued in civil court for $15,000 (over $420,000 in 2016 dollars) by a former revolutionary named Calda. I have never found out how this last case ended, but I do appreciate the hutzpah that encouraged it. Since Glenn retired as a brigadier general from the Army, I can assume that nothing stuck.
Stories like the ones about Glenn’s Brigade were said to have “covered with a foul blot the flag which we all love and honor” by Senator Hoar (R) of Massachusetts. This led to an official inquiry in the Senate by the Committee on the Philippines. The discussion was fractious. Henry Cabot Lodge, another Republican senator from Massachusetts, chaired the committee—not because he wanted to uncover atrocities, but because he wanted to steer the committee away from doing any such thing. (Yes, two senators from the same state and the same party were sworn enemies on this issue.)
Lodge in particular did not want to criticize anything that soldiers did in the name of empire. He said that the water cure had:
…grown out of the conditions of warfare, of the war that was waged by the Filipinos themselves, a semicivilized people, with all the tendencies and characteristics of Asiatics, with the Asiatic indifference to life, with the Asiatic treachery and the Asiatic cruelty, all tinctured and increased by three hundred years of subjection to Spain.
Way to pass the buck, dude. (I’d like to remind readers that the water cure originated in Europe, not Asia.)
Despite Senator Lodge’s and Senator’s Beveridge’s (R-IN) staunch support of “military necessity,” soldiers did testify to atrocities they witnessed in the Philippines. Even Lt. General Nelson A. Miles told the Secretary of War that the conflict had been fought with “marked severity.” The evidence, and Miles’s remarks, were printed in the newspapers across the United States.
Novelist and prominent anti-imperialist Mark Twain wrote about the hypocrisy of Americans fighting a war to “civilize” another country and then succumbing to the very barbarism they sought to expunge. His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is one of his best and most biting pieces of satire:
The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: “There is something curious about this — curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” …And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one — our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.
In the midst of the 1902 crisis, President Theodore Roosevelt tried to limit the damage to blaming a few weak men:
The temptation to retaliate for the fearful cruelties of a savage foe is very great, and now and then it has been yielded to. There have been a few, and only a few, such instances in the Philippines, and punishment has been meted out with unflinching justice to the offenders.
But was this truly just a few bad apples? Certainly, many of the soldiers knew of the practice. They even sang songs to it.
The commanders in the field knew better than to underestimate the problem. In 1903, an expedition in Surigao declared:
…let there be no water curing or severity that is not plainly authorized without straining interpretations of [the] law of war… .Anyone who disgraces our uniform by engaging in such barbarous practices will be punished on the spot… .Success will not be marred by any well founded complaints of undue severity and flagrant misconduct.
What does this prove? That seventy years before Vietnam and one hundred years before Iraq, there was a national conversation about how America should exercise its authority abroad. Unfortunately, though, nothing was concluded. The controversy was quelled by a conveniently timed declaration of “peace” in the islands on July 4, 1902. (It was not peace, though: fighting would continue until 1913, including other, bigger atrocities, like the hundreds of civilian dead at Bud Dajo.)
When the military handed power over to a civil government under Governor William Howard Taft, Americans at home believed their problems were solved. However, because America did not finish the conversation, the public was forced to have it all over again in 1969 (when the My Lai massacre story broke) and in 2004 (when the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal broke). Does the end always justify the means? What if the means makes the end goal—peace—impossible? Unfortunately, Americans may be tiring of these questions before they can come to a consensus about the answers.
The administration of President Donald J. Trump has recently declared its intention to hide a 2014 report describing the CIA’s harsh detention and interrogation programs. By returning the document to Congress, this shields the report from ever being accessible to the American public through the Freedom of Information Act. Throwing this 6700-page report down the memory hole has more of a precedent than we would like to think. We’ve forgotten before.
(Note: Featured image is a cartoon by William Carson, which was printed in the Saturday Globe (Utica, New York) on 8 April 1899. It shows Uncle Sam sinking into the quagmire of the Philippine-American War as Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo resists his American “rescue.” The caption says, “A bigger job than he thought for.” Uncle Sam says: “Behave, you fool! Darn me, if I ain’t most sorry I undertook to rescue you.”)
I’ve talked a lot on social media about my romance novel influences (e.g. Laura Kinsale, Joanna Bourne, and others), but I’ve not mentioned authors and books that have meant just as much to me as a writer, especially pre-romance days. So I’m starting an occasional series on all the works of fiction, science fiction, children’s fiction, and adult nonfiction that have permanently taken up real estate in my brain.
My literature exposure in public high school was hit or miss, depending on the teacher I had. I tried to make up for this in college, even though I had passed out of my English requirements and took only international relations and history courses. My first year I took a required class called “Empire and Independence in the Modern World,” with a specific focus on Africa, where I was assigned Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That was a revelation. I also studied a lot of Southeast Asian history and politics, and that professor must have had me read The Quiet American by Graham Greene three times in three separate classes. It was not a hardship. I loved it from the start. I think I also picked up Burmese Days by George Orwell on this professor’s recommendation. Finally, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, suggested James Clavell’s Tai-Pan as “fun” and “light”—which, in comparison to most of the heavy nonfiction we had to read, it was. Now, as I look back upon this college reading, I realize two things:
First, far too many of these books were written by white men, even when the subject was the injustice of colonialism. I did not question this fact too much as a student, but then again most of my professors were white men. I have read more widely since, but this post is really about the books from my youth.
Second, flawed or not, these novels left a big impression. They shaped how I approach a fictional treatment of the American colonial Philippines.
Things Fall Apart is a story of a Nigerian village before and after the arrival of British missionaries. The first half of the book gives no hint of what is coming: it is the story of an ambitious man in the village and his downfall. It is a story that could be told anywhere, and yet it is distinctly Nigerian. This is Achebe’s point. He portrays Igbo society as complex and flawed at times—like every other society on the globe. But, with the arrival of Protestant missionaries and British officials, everything falls apart. The beliefs, laws, and customs of the village are turned on their head, and this is not good. Interestingly, not all of Achebe’s missionaries are bad people. The first white man to arrive in the village thinks he is doing good work. He listens to the Igbo people’s problems and welcomes all who seek his help. Ironically, it is his compassion that accelerates the rate of conversion and hastens the collapse of the traditional village structure. This is a beautiful, nuanced story of the consequences—some unintended—of European rule in Africa. It explains why many parts of Africa have had such a hard time recovering.
Achebe grew up with a foot in both worlds: he was the child of converted Protestants, born in the city and educated in British-style schools; but his parents always kept ties with their traditional religion, and they moved their children back to their ancestral village at a young age.
Achebe was well-versed in the canon of British literature, but he was not afraid to criticize it. He especially criticized Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for celebrating the dehumanization of the African people:
It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa. In place of speech they made “a violent babble of uncouth sounds.” They “exchanged short grunting phrases” even among themselves. But most of the time they were too busy with their frenzy.
I am not saying that Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in contrast to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He wrote his novel based on his own experiences, twenty years before he gave that speech on Conrad. But the two books are a remarkable pairing. I prefer Achebe’s discerning view that portrays all characters—Nigerian or British—with very human strengths and weaknesses.
Takeaways: complex social networks, multiple perspectives, ambiguous characters, unintended consequences.
Orwell was born in Bengal and worked as a policeman in what is now Burma—both parts of the British crown colony of India at the time. According to the original dust jacket of Burmese Days, he resigned “because he disliked putting people in prison for the same things which he should have done in their circumstances.” Six years after he quit, he published a scathing indictment of colonial superciliousness in novel form. This is Burmese Days. Orwell’s treatment was so controversial at the time (1934) that one of his former colleagues claimed he had “rather let the side down” and his former principal threatened to horsewhip Orwell if he ever saw him again. Orwell claimed that most of the book was “simply reporting what I have seen.” (Source)
This book could never be romance. It’s about racism, poverty, prostitution, spurned love, and suicide. No HEA at all. Not even close. And while there is sort of a hero, Flory, he’s pretty wishy-washy. And there is no true heroine—Flory’s love interest is the most infuriating, horrible snob. You want to throw her—and her friends and family—off the roof of the British club, where most of the novel takes place.
The characters are not subtle, and the Burmese in the story are superficially drawn. (For all-around depth, read Achebe.) Orwell did not understand the Burmese as well as he understood—and was disgusted by—his fellow countrymen. His novel exposes the small-mindedness of white imperialists, and it does so in a visceral, immediate way. You will not like most of the characters in the book, but that is the point. Orwell didn’t, either. Clearly, he felt a lot of ambivalence while working in India: he wanted a paycheck, but hated the way he was getting it. He proved luckier than his “hero,” though, and quit instead of doing himself harm—which is good since Orwell had still to write 1984. (That will be covered in a later post, of course.) It is unbelievable to me that out of the original 2000 print copies of Burmese Days, over 900 had to be remaindered because the book was so badly panned by the critics. (Maybe that’s encouragement to us all.)
Takeaways: critical portrayal of the “white club” phenomenon in colonial societies, complex political points made through conversation.
Moving into neo-colonial fiction, the Quiet American is loosely based on a real spy: an American CIA officer named Edward Lansdale. Lansdale was the “advisor” who helped elect Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay in 1953, and together they pulled the teeth out of a communist insurrection in Luzon. After that success, Lansdale was sent to Indochina, just as the French empire was dying, with instructions to shore up South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem against the growing communist movement. He was not as successful the second time around.
Greene’s version of this tale reimagines Lansdale as a seemingly naive foreign aid bureaucrat named Pyle. The story is told from the perspective of a jaded British reporter, Fowler, who notices that wherever our quiet American goes, trouble follows. And, of course, there is a woman, Phuong, that they compete over. But this is not a romance, either. It is a beautiful, profound, and yet hardboiled story. There’s action, too, with battle scenes based on real events. Most importantly, the book explains the American entrance into this war in the 1950s—and it predicts its disastrous end—but you hardly notice these lessons because you are too wrapped up in the humanity of the story. The Quiet American was made into a gorgeous movie, for which Michael Caine received an Academy Award Nomination.
Takeaways: using real people and events as inspiration for fiction, masterful weaving of political points into human drama, setting as character.
This story is about the creation of Hong Kong in the nineteenth century. It features British, American, and Chinese traders and blockade-runners who build a free market playground to make themselves rich. Clavell himself was a fan of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which will come as no surprise when you read the book. And this is not the only thing that makes Clavell’s fiction problematic. Tai-Pan actually romanticizes colonial acquisition at the same time that it claims to honor Asian culture. Nor am I sure that he had a lot of respect for women. Honestly, I cannot think of much that he and I would have agreed on. And this book isn’t literary, like the three works above. It’s not even my favorite of the author’s novels. (That’s King Rat, based upon Clavell’s own experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II.)
So what makes it special? Clavell is a heck of a storyteller. An epic storyteller, really, creating dynasties that span hundreds of years. This is solid genre fiction—and yet Clavell does not sacrifice content to bring you a pulpy, fast-paced novel. He especially does not back away from economic history. Yes, it’s a little laissez-faire for my tastes, but it’s still well-told. I loved the subtleties of his negotiation scenes, including a nuanced use of chopsticks that still makes me self-conscious about my lack of finesse. Finally, Clavell gives voice to mixed race characters, who are often the most sympathetic of the lot.
Takeaways: economic and historical content that is highly readable, excellent pacing, subtleties of interactions between characters, cross-cultural relationships and mixed race characters.
Edited to Add:
I did not include Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangereto this list only because I plan to do more with it and the role it played in fomenting the Philippine Revolution when I get closer to publishing Padre Andrés’s book, Sugar Communion. Until that time comes, let me say that the Noli is another seminal work of colonial literature. It was written by an author of color, but (like the others) penned in the language of the imperialists, in this case Spanish. Rizal deserves a post of his own because I cannot explain all the ways he fascinates me here.
Noli Me Tangere is about the unchecked power of the Spanish in a system based on race and class, and how this leads to a pretty depressing end for most of the Filipinos in the story. What I especially liked about this book was the voice given to otherwise minor characters, like the devoted mother of two young sacristans in the church. I also loved the social commentary delivered in ornate dinner and banquet scenes. Throughout, Rizal was making a political point about the cruelty and hypocrisy of Spanish friars. He did not seem to be espousing violent revolution, though, at least not in this book. But he did want equal treatment under the law. It shouldn’t have been a big ask.
Takeaways: depth of secondary characters, nuanced political discussions, setting as character.