The Balangiga incident/massacre/battle was a shocking twist in a war that seemed to be winding down. To many Americans and Filipinos, though, the conflict was just beginning…
Novelist Jennifer Hallock shares her research on Balangiga, and her experience teaching Philippines History in a US classroom. She explains how the surprise attack on US troops in Samar was the culmination of years of brutal warfare from 1898 to 1902. Local men disguised themselves covertly and snuck around town before striking Americans at breakfast. But while villagers may have repelled American soldiers temporarily, the aftermath of Balangiga would last for a very long time. On today’s episode we’re going to use events from a short battle to understand the effects of a much wider war…
I chatted with Joe Hawthorne about the attack at Balangiga in the Philippine-American War and how the American counteroffensive and the 1902 Senate hearings on “marked severities” predicted future outcries over My Lai and Fallujah. We redid parts of the interview, and because of the way it was edited, I introduce General Smith twice. His orders are shocking enough to revisit, though, so it works.
In November of 1899 the Philippine-American War shifted into a long stage of protracted guerrilla warfare. Outnumbered by the uniformed Filipino revolutionaries by more than three to one, and with white volunteer regiments rotating home at the end of their year-long enlistments, the War Department transferred 6000 African American soldiers to the Philippines (Russell 2014, 205). This included the 24th and 25th Infantries to the Philippines, as well as two newly-formed regiments (the 48th and 49th US Volunteer Infantries), and both the 9th and 10th Cavalries (New York State Division).
There was good reason to call upon them: many of these men had achieved the highest military honors in the land due to their courage and valor under fire. The new arrivals “built and maintained telegraph lines, constantly performed patrol and scouting duties, provided protection for work crews constructing roads, escorted supply trains, and located and destroyed insurgent ordnance and other supplies” (Russell 2014, 205-6). But there would be a cost for doing their jobs too well. Sergeant Major John W. Calloway, experienced soldier and reporter for the Richmond Planet, called out the incongruency between empire and democracy—in private correspondence—and he was punished for it.
relations with the Filipino public
In November 1899, while the 25th Infantry was operating in the north of the country, they planned the raid of an enemy stronghold. In a war where “marked severities” were common enough among white units to warrant a later Senate investigation, the 25th kept their discipline. “In an instance of impressive restraint, these African American soldiers refused to massacre the unprepared and unorganized Filipino troops; instead they took over a hundred prisoners and captured stores of food, ammunition, and weapons” (Russell 2014, 205-6).
Filipino citizens immediately noticed the difference. As Filipino physician Torderica Santos told Sgt. Maj. Calloway:
Of course, at first we were a little shy of you [Black soldiers], after being told [by the whites] of the difference between you and them; but we studied you, as results were shown. Between you and him, we look upon you as the angel and him the devil. Of course you both are American, and conditions between us are constrained, and neither can be our friends in the sense of friendship; but the affinity of complexion between you and me tells, and you execute your duty so much more kindly and manly in dealing with us. We can not help but appreciate the difference between you and the whites (“Voices from the Philippines” 1899, 1).
In the article in the Planet, Calloway explains what passes as treating Filipinos kindly, at least by American Army standards: not spitting at them in the streets or calling them racial epithets (“Voices from the Philippines” 1899, 1).
Because of this relatively sympathetic treatment, some Filipinos were eager to have all American officials in their country be African Americans. “I wish you would say to your young men that we want Occidental ideas, but we want them taught to us by colored people. . . . We ask your educated, practical men to come and teach us them,” said wealthy planter Tomas Consunji, from San Fernando, Pampanga, north of Manila (“Voices from the Philippines,” 1).
Calloway agreed. He finished the article thus:
I wish to add before closing, that if our young men who are practical scientific agriculturalists, architects, mechanical, electrical and mining engineers, business men, professors and students of the sciences and who know how to establish and manage banks, mercantile business, large plantations, sugar growing, developing and refining, they will find this the most inviting field under the American flag. Cuba does not compare with the Philippines. Another thing too when they secure missionaries and teachers for the schools here, see that they get on the list. They must be represented there. . . . They extend to us a welcome hand, full with opportunities. Will we accept it? (“Voices from the Philippines,” 1).
Notice that in Calloway’s printed work, he agreed with the Progressives in their nation-building programs of “benevolent assimilation.” At least, he supported programs that provided opportunities for carpetbaggers of every race. A letter by Captain F. H. Crumbley of the 48th Volunteers printed in the Savannah Tribune agreed: “There are every openings here for the Negro in business, and room for thousands of them” (Ngozi-Brown 1997, 49).
Many Black soldiers did stay behind in the Philippines, according to another letter by Sergeant Major T. Clay Smith of the 24th Infantry in the Savannah Tribune: “ . . . several of our young men are now in business in the Philippines and are doing nicely, indeed, along such lines as express men, hotels and restaurants, numerous clerks in the civil government as well as in the division quartermaster’s office, and there are several school teachers, one lawyer, and one doctor of medicine” (Ngozi-Brown 1997, 49). Others became agricultural tycoons, judges, or small business owners (Ontal 2002, 129).
There was room for romance too. “Arguably, the Philippine islands had in its possession history’s largest proportion of African-American soldiers who opted not to return home after completing military service abroad” (Ngozi-Brown 1997, 51). Over a thousand of the soldiers deployed in the Philippines married Filipino women and stayed in the islands (Ngozi-Brown 1997, 50). In fact, Governor Taft admitted that he feared that these soldiers got along “too well with the native women,” and so he sent the rest of the Black regiments Stateside as quickly as possible (Ngozi-Brown 1997, 50).
too much democracy? Or not enough.
Got along too well? Exactly. In 1907 Stephen Bonsal, a Black correspondent in the Philippines wrote: “While white soldiers, unfortunately, got on badly with the natives, the black soldiers got on much too well. . . . the Negro soldiers were in closer sympathy with the aims of the native populations than they were with those of their white leaders and the policy of the United States” (quoted in Russell 2014, 213).
For example, Robert L. Campbell wrote to Booker T. Washington: “I believe these people are right and we are wrong and terribly wrong. I am in a position to keep from bearing arms against them and I will try and keep myself in such position until we are mustered out; of course, if I am ordered to fight, I will obey orders as a soldier should . . .” (quoted in Russell 2014, 212). But what if others did not obey orders?
That was the worry when Sergeant Major Calloway’s case came to light. He had revealed a “dangerous” level of humanitarianism in private correspondence to his friend Tomas Consunji (Boehringer 2009, 3):
After my last conference with you and your father, I am constantly haunted by the feeling of what wrong morally we Americans are in the present affair with you. . . . Would to God it lay in my power to rectify the committed error and compensate the Filipino people for the wrong done! . . . The day will come when you [Filipinos] will be accorded your rights. The moral sensibilities of all America are not yet dead; there still smolders in the bosom of the country a spark of righteousness that will yet kindle into a flame that will awaken the country to its senses, and then! (Quoted in Russell 2014, 209).
In 1901, when white soldiers of the 3rd Infantry searched Consunji’s home for evidence of ties to nationalists, they found the correspondence between the two men. They sent it on to Calloway’s commanding officer, Colonel Henry B. Freeman of the 24th, a white man who had only been in the country for three months (Boehringer 2009, 2). Though Calloway claimed that the letters only expressed “a personal feeling, expressed to a personal friend, [and] had no other intent or motive,” the colonel believed them treasonous.
Colonel Freeman wrote in the official report: “Battalion Sergeant Major Calloway is one of those half-baked mulattoes whose education has fostered his self-conceit to an abnormal degree” (quoted in Russell 2014, 213). If Calloway had an abundance of confidence, he had earned it through active service since 1892. He had done strike- and riot-breaking in the western mining states, along with hostage rescue, before fighting in three separate expeditions of the Cuban and Philippine fronts (Russell 2014, 215) and achieving the highest enlisted rank possible (Scot 1995, 166). Now, he wished to stay and invest his $1500 savings in a business venture in Manila, but he was thrown in Bilibid Prison instead. All this because of private correspondence, obtained by a possibly illegal search, that effectively said that imperialism was immoral—the very principle on which the United States of America was supposedly founded (Russell 2014, 212-13).
In this and future American wars, one of the key tenets of counterinsurgency has been that military action alone will not encourage forces of resistance to set down their arms. People must see the carrot, not just feel the stick. In the Philippine-American War, the military leaders called this strategy “attraction.” Later, during another counterinsurgency in the Philippines, this time against communists during the 1950s, it was called “civic action.” In Vietnam, civilians colloquially called it “winning the hearts and minds” of the people. Good rapport, then, is an asset, not a liability. If African American regiments were forming true friendships with Filipinos, why were the white commanding officers so angry?
The Inspector-General would state: “I regard [Calloway] as a dangerous man, in view of his relations with the natives, as shown by this letter, and the circumstances of his court-martial” (Boehringer 2009, 3). Colonel Henry B. Freeman said of Sergeant Major John W. Calloway: “In my opinion he is likely to step into the Filipino ranks, should a favorable opportunity occur” (Russell 2014, 213). General Arthur MacArthur, commander of the entire war and father of future General Douglas MacArthur, agreed: “It is very apparent that [Calloway] is disloyal and should he remain in these islands, he would undoubtedly commit some act of open treason and perhaps join the insurrection out and out. One man of the 24th Infantry by the name of David Fagen has already done so and as a leader among the insurrectos is giving great trouble by directing guerrilla bands” (Boehringer 2009, 3).
David Fagen’s story is worth a post of its own later, but this man was one of twenty-nine African American soldiers to desert the Army in the Philippines, and one of nine who defected to the Philippine Revolutionary Army (Robinson and Schubert, 73 n23). It is important to note that fourteen white soldiers also defected to the Filipino side (McCann and Lovell, 54), though that number was a smaller percentage of those who served in the islands. What particularly upset MacArthur about a Black soldiers’ defection was probably the phenomenon described by Ibram X. Kendi: “Negative behavior by any Black person became proof of what was wrong with Black people, while negative behavior by any White person only proved what was wrong with that person” (2017, 42-43).
Black soldiers were specifically targeted by Filipino propaganda leaflets that brought up the same questions their own papers were asking back home (New York State Division). One read:
To the Colored American Soldier: It is without honor that you are spilling your costly blood. Your masters have thrown you into the most iniquitous fight with double purpose—to make you the instrument of their ambition and also your hard work will soon make the extinction of your race. Your friends, the Filipinos, give you this good warning. You must consider your history, and take charge that the Blood of Sam Hose proclaims vengeance (Ngozi-Brown 1997, 46).
This letter was attributed to President Emilio Aguinaldo, but many believe it was penned by Foreign Minister Apolinario Mabini (Ontal 2002, 125), the polymath genius who had studied American history and society closely enough to reference the “spectacle lynching” and mutilation of Sam Hose of Newnan, Georgia. It was hard to ignore letters like Mabini’s. Even worse, it was hard not to notice how the new American regime was recreating the world of Sam Hose around them—and to wonder whether they, as soldiers in the US Army, were complicit in this expansion of segregation.
Racism and segregation in the military had clearly been at fault in causing Fagen’s defection. Fagen had been considered by his former white officers as “rowdy,” “bucking” his superiors, “a good for nothing whelp,” and “in continual trouble with the Commanding Officer” (Ontal 2002, 125). He had even been charged with seven counts of insubordination and punished with “all sorts of dirty jobs” (Ontal 2002, 125). After he defected, the colonial newspaper Manila Times depicted Fagen “as a gifted military tactician waylaying American patrols at will and then evading large forces sent in pursuit” (Ontal 2002, 126). He showed his former officers of the 24th Infantry exactly how wrong they were.
The fear of MacArthur and others was this: what if Calloway, the highest-ranking African American in the 24th, followed Fagen into the Philippine Revolutionary Army or any of the guerrilla organizations fighting in its name? Unlike Fagen, Calloway was already proven to be competent, highly-educated, and a fine leader. What damage could he do to the United States Army?
But this fear was all in their heads! There was no evidence that Calloway ever considered defection. He hoped for both peace and Filipino rights, but he trusted in the people of the United States to provide both. The fact that the white officers understood Mabini’s propaganda to be effective means that they recognized the truth of it—which means that they should have seen that it was American policy to blame, not the sympathies of Calloway. Nevertheless, the Army busted Calloway down to private and dishonorably discharged him. He would try to reenlist several more times, the last during World War I, but he would be denied every time (Boehringer 2009, 3).
He was not the only one to be disappointed. What progress had been sought by the “Black Phalanx” was lost in the extension of Jim Crow policies throughout the empire (quoted in Gleijeses 1996, 188). The US military would not be desegregated until the Truman administration after World War II, when America’s role as the champion of democracy would be questioned by foreign allies (Kendi 2017, 351). The professionalism, excellence, and courage of African American soldiers in the 1898 wars has been largely forgotten in white-dominated histories of the period.
[Featured image is a vintage postcard of the 25th Infantry at Basilan in the Sulu Archipelago.]
Brown, Scot. “White Backlash and the Aftermath of Fagen’s Rebellion: The Fates of Three African-American Soldiers in the Philippines, 1901-1902.” Contributions in Black Studies 13, no 5 (1995): 165-173. http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cibs/vol13/iss1/5.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs. “Black Americans in the US Military from the American Revolution to the Korean War: The Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurgency.” New York State Military History Museum and Veterans Research Center. Last modified March 30, 2006. Accessed June 29, 2020. http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/articles/blacksMilitary/BlacksMilitaryContents.htm.
Ngozi-Brown, Scot. “African-American Soldiers and Filipinos: Racial Imperialism, Jim Crow and Social Relations.” The Journal of Negro History 82, no. 1 (1997): 42-53. http://doi.org/10.2307/2717495.
Robinson, Michael C., and Frank N. Schubert. “David Fagen: An Afro-American Rebel in the Philippines, 1899-1901.” Pacific Historical Review 44, no. 1 (1975): 68-83. http://doi.org/10.2307/3637898.
Russell, Timothy D. “‘I Feel Sorry for These People’: African-American Soldiers in the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902.” The Journal of African American History 99, no. 3 (2014): 197-222. http://doi.org/10.5323/jafriamerhist.99.3.0197.
[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 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) on Samar. 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 pounds 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 establish 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.]
Note: If you are looking for only the history that relates to my newest release, Sugar Moon, you may find a pared down list of posts on this page, “Essential History for Sugar Moon.” Enjoy!
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 occupation, a period too few in the United States understand.
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.