[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 long last, an alphabetical listing of the Sugar Sun glossary terms! Simply click on the graphic of your choice to open the annotated post in a new window. This list will be updated to include new terms as their posts are written.
I hope the posts are helpful in rounding out the historical context of the Sugar Sun series. They are certainly fun to write! Enjoy.
Georgie looked over at the weapon Pedro still held in his hand, and she shivered. No matter how she felt about Rosa, she could not send her away with this man.
She had to figure out a way to scare Pedro off. “The Insulares will come. Soldatos!”
Filipinos had been put to death for far less than waving a knife in the face of an American. And what good was the Insular bogeyman if she didn’t let him out of the closet once in a while?
— Under the Sugar Sun
The Insular bogeyman? Is this some strange Grimm’s fairy tale you haven’t heard of?
Oh, no, it is something far more insidious: it’s a euphemism. And a legal one, no less.
Euphemisms were a whole new tongue spoken in nineteenth century America. In fact, I should not even say “tongue” because it could give you all sorts of salacious ideas. English naval captain Edward Marryat got in trouble for asking a female companion if she had hurt her leg when she had tripped, and he was informed that proper Americans did not use that word (leg). Limb was specific enough, thank you very much.
So, if you cannot say leg, you probably cannot say colony. No, the word colony does not have sexual undertones—at least, not that I know of—but it is still a troubling word for a formerly rebellious colony founded upon Enlightenment ideals of self-determination and personal liberty. What, the United States an empire?
Well, Thomas Jefferson said yes, actually, but he called it an “empire of liberty” that would expand westward and check the growth of the British menace, beginning with the 1803 purchase of Louisiana from the French. Jefferson wrote to James Madison: “I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.” He saw no irony in defending, in the same breath, the right of self-government alongside the right to empire. In fact, he (like many today) believed that America’s democratic history, transparent legal system, and free market economy made it especially suited to transform the world for good and fight barbarism.
In the resulting growth of (mostly white) settlements across the North American continent, the word “empire” was actually avoided. These were “territories” along America’s “frontier,” and to be fair these were territories on their way to statehood, a distinction that would not be granted to later acquisitions. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the frontier helped preserve liberty and egalitarianism through free access to land (by taking it from the First Nations), preventing a landed aristocracy from developing. Out on the frontier, any (white) man could make something of himself, as long as he survived.
(If none of this sounds truly democratic, you’re right. You’re not the first modern reader to notice, trust me. As even Mark Twain wrote in 1901: “The Blessings of Civilization are all right, and a good commercial property; there could not be a better, in a dim light.” [Emphasis mine.] So don’t look too closely.)
Back to our discussion of “territories.” In the Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War in December 1898, the United States purchased the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from Spain. While the western frontier had expanded slowly enough to look like natural growth, this acquisition came in one fell swoop. What makes a piece of land a colony for Spain and not a colony when purchased from Spain by America? Good question.
Clearly, we needed a new word. That word was insular. Geographer Scott Kirsch commented that the choice insular reflected “novel anxieties over America’s new place at the seat of an interconnected global empire.” It fit for three reasons:
First, these new possessions were islands, and the primary definition of insular is “of or pertaining to islands.” What a great way to differentiate the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from the continental territories. Interestingly, though, Hawaii will not become an insular territory, despite being a cluster of islands. Instead, in the midst of the Spanish-American War, Hawaii had been enthusiastically annexed by Congress, an about-face since the country had rejected that opportunity only five years previously. A lot had happened in those five years, as you can read here. And if Hawaii didn’t count as insular, there had to be more to the word than just geography.
A second meaning of insular is “Detached or standing out by itself like an island; insulated.” This is where the word becomes perfect for how America wants to see its new acquisitions, particularly as relates to the Philippines. In the “scramble for the Pacific,” America had found itself left out of China. Secretary of State John Hay would address this particular issue in the Open Door memos, asserting the right of all nations to trade freely and equally in China. But the truth was that the US did not want to get too involved in China. It wanted the benefit of a Pacific entrepôt without being too sinified.
Manila had been the Spanish answer to cashing in on China while simultaneously insulating themselves from China, and the Americans thought it a brilliant idea. In a 1902 National Geographic article by the Honorable O. P. Austin, the Chief of the Bureau of Statistics of the Treasury Department, Manila would become the channel through which all of this wealth would pass, an off-shore customs and clearing house for goods bound for the United States. With the 1902 extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act—extended now to exclude Chinese from the Philippines, too—our new insular possessions would not be a conduit for people, just money. According to Scott Kirsch, this “coupled the virtues of proximity to Asia with a distinctive sense of separation from it.”
Because, really, America wanted to be insulated from their own empire. This is the third reason the term insular fits so well. The definition of a colony is “a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state.” This implies spreading both people and ideas to the new lands. Americans were willing to do the latter. In fact, President William McKinley asserted the idea of “benevolent assimilation”—that “we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights.” Americans spread their language, their pedagogical ideals (see posts on Thomasites and pensionados), their sanitation principles, their political administration, and their products (Spam, anyone?) to the Philippines with gusto.
But most Americans did not intend to settle in the Philippines permanently, which meant that it was not a colony in the true sense of the word. They meant to fashion Filipinos as Americans and leave, hence the emphasis on shaping the educational system with an eye toward self-replication. Even anti-imperialists like William Jennings Bryan, the failed 1900 Democratic candidate for president, felt this way. He wanted to close the door to Asian immigration, and during the debate about Chinese exclusion, he wrote:
“Let us educate the Chinese who desire to learn of American institutions; let us offer courtesy and protection to those who come here to travel and investigate, but it will not be of permanent benefit to either the Chinese or to us to invite them to become citizens or to permit them to labor here and carry the proceeds of their toil back to their own country.”
He felt the same about the Japanese and all other Asian races. His article is a defense of exclusion and intolerance: “It is not necessary nor even wise that the family environment should be broken up or that all who desire entrance should be admitted to the family circle. In a larger sense a nation is a family.” Bryan’s English and Irish ancestors had immigrated two hundred years earlier, so you can pardon him for forgetting that he was an immigrant, too. But he was typical in wanting to turn off the tap, and a colony would not have permitted that insularity as easily.
This was not just about race, though. Americans wanted the Philippines to remain politically and economically separate. Eventually, one had to ask as the United States grew bigger: does the Constitution follow the flag? If the people of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam are living under American government, should they have the rights of American citizens? A longer treatment of this topic is handled here, but the short answer for the Philippines was no. The Insular Cases in the United States Supreme Court maintained that the Philippines was an unincorporated territory, and while its citizens had natural rights, such as religion and property, they did not have full political rights, nor citizenship. This was an easier line to skirt when the government ruling the Philippines was part of the Bureau of Insular Affairs in the War Department, not a Colonial Office. Labels do matter.
And strangely William Jennings Bryan, no friend of the Asian immigrant in general, actually pointed out the inconsistency of Americans flooding the Philippines while not allowing the same in return:
“If…the Filipinos are prohibited from coming here (if a republic can prohibit the inhabitants of one part from visiting another part of the republic), will it not excite a just protest on the part of the Filipinos? How can we excuse ourselves if we insist upon opening the Philippine islands to the invasion of American capital, American speculators, and American task-masters, and yet close our doors to those Filipinos who, driven from home, may seek an asylum here?”
Bryan’s solution was immediate independence for the Philippines, but the Supreme Court had a different solution: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam were not a part of our republic. Insular was not inside. The justices bent over backwards to draw the distinction that Americans wanted, even if they essentially made up law to do it. Since both imperialists and anti-imperialists both agreed, in the words of Andrew Carnegie, that “Americans cannot be grown [in the Philippines],” no one complained that the court had exceeded its mandate. The insular designation stuck.
Another benefit of insular territories was that free trade need not be extended right away—especially if there were concerns that the islands might compete too well in certain key industries, like sugar and tobacco. It was favorable for American producers to keep them out. While American goods could enter the Philippines freely—because Americans in the Insular Government set Philippine trade policy—Filipino goods were taxed both leaving the Philippines and entering the United States because the U.S. Congress set American trade policy. That was the beauty of the insular cases.
When I teach my course on America in the Philippines, students who have at least read the course description know that the United States had its own empire—but surprisingly few adults do. They might know about Guam or Puerto Rico, and they might even call these “territories,” but if you ask them the difference between a colony and a territory, they do not have a good answer. And I do not blame them because America’s “insular” language has left its citizens deliberately insulated from clarity.
I do not think Filipinos are confused, though. They easily call the years between 1898 and 1934 the American Colonial Period, and many would also include the 1934 to 1946 Commonwealth Period (not counting the Japanese occupation of 1941-1945).
Unfortunately, if we Americans do not take a hard look at our history, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes and therefore reinforce the (mis)perceptions others have of us. One of my goals in writing the Sugar Sun series was to bring this history to a general public—along with some sex, drugs, and violence to really sell it. I love romance, so it was my medium of choice, but the Philippine setting, diverse characters, and political undertones are all part of my historical mission.
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.”
— Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” 1901
What did the Common App look like for Filipinos in 1905? Could you gain admission, let alone earn a scholarship?
While much of the American educational system in the Philippines was geared around a racist “industrial” model—in other words, teaching Filipinos the skills they needed to produce goods for American businesses—there was an advanced track to train the best and brightest for government work.
Here’s how it worked: young men and women aged 16-21 took an examination that included questions on grammar, geography, American history, math, and physiology. For example: “Give three differences between young rivers and old rivers.” Or “Name and describe three early and successful North American settlements.” Or “Divide 1003 3/4 by 847 4/5.” (Without a calculator, mind you. I could do it, but not happily. Multiply by the reciprocal, right? I’m already bored…)
Where did such smart kids come from? Everywhere, actually. Even, or especially, the provinces. Despite its flaws, the American Bureau of Education did set up a public, secular, and coeducational system throughout the Philippines. Higher education had been open to elites under the Spanish, but for barangay children this was a brand new opportunity. The whole point of education, according to the 1903 census, was to pacify the islands—to give parents a good reason to set down arms and take a chance with Yankee rule.
And in order to truly “benevolently assimilate” these future elites, the Americans would need to shape their minds and careers in the American heartland: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New York, and Minnesota mainly, with a few in California, of course. The first group of 100 boys of “good moral character” and “sound physical condition” were selected: 75 from public schools throughout the islands and 25 at large by executive committee. In succeeding years, much smaller numbers would be chosen, a dozen or two at a time, including women. Each student was required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States before enrolling in the program.
With $500 per year to cover expenses—two-thirds of an average American family’s income at the time—the Filipinos could live well in the smaller towns of the American Midwest. They went to football games, joined fraternities, and went out on dates. (More on that later.) Many did a year in an American high school first to polish their English, and then did three to four years of advanced study. Author Mario Orosa estimates that the Insular (colonial) Government spent the modern equivalent $50,000 or more educating his father in Cincinnati.
Students could study whatever subjects they wished, but they would have to put this knowledge to use: each year of study in the United States meant a year working (with a full salary) for the Insular Government in the fields of education, medicine, forestry, engineering, textiles, or finance.
In 1905, the highest scoring tester was a 12-year old girl named Felisberta Asturias. She may have been too young to go to the U.S., but the next highest scorer, Honoria Acosta from Dagupan, would become the first Filipina to graduate from an American university (Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania), and therefore the first Filipina physician, as well as the founder of obstetrics and gynecology as a specialized field in the Philippines.
Winning the scholarship was only half the battle, though. While in the United States, these students encountered their fair share of racism, as Pacifico Laygo’s yearbook entry illustrates.
How tiring it is, this insistence of Lagyo’s that he not be called a racial slur! But he is a “pretty good scout, at that,” so it’s okay, right? That’s only patronizing, not explicitly racist. At Cornell, Apolinario Balthazar, one of those who would be responsible for rebuilding Manila after World War II, was told by one American bully that “no matter how much you wash your hands, you cannot change your color.” Southern states just outright refused to host the Filipino students.
Newspapers got into the act, too. According to Victor Román Mendoza, the Omaha Daily Bee downplayed the athletic achievements of the local Filipinos students, saying: “That Filipino students are showing well as runners in college athletic events is not surprising to those who remember the good races won by the followers of Aguinaldo during the insurrection.”
Maybe it wasn’t all bad, though. There were the romances, especially those between Filipino men (the majority of pensionados) and American women. James Charles Araneta—yes, those Aranetas—stayed two years with the Newell family in Berkeley, California, and when he left he took their sixteen-year old daughter, Lillian, with him. As the Aranetas were both wealthy and well-connected in the new American administration—Negrense sugar barons!—the news reports on the match were both breathless and lurid at the same time. It was national news, from the front page of the San Francisco Call to the Des Moines Register to the Pittsburgh Press.
If the groom was less flush, though, an otherwise respectable marriage might be kept secret from friends and family on both sides. That wasn’t enough to stop it from happening, though, so officials in Indiana tried (and failed) to pass a law against whites marrying anyone with more than one-eighth Filipino blood. They portrayed the pensionados not as scholars but as “slick” operators eager to “stain America’s future brown,” in the words of University of Michigan English professor Ruby C. Tapia. This was the world Javier and Georgina had to fight against, and I know the racism in the book was hard for some to read, but reality was far uglier.
Proving that you can never catch a break, returning home was not easy for the Filipinos, either. Generally, pensionados were given immediate supervisory positions over their countrymen, who in turn resented the “Amboys.” On the other hand, the Amboys were not American enough for the Americans in Manila, who refused to admit the pensionados to their private clubs, no matter how Midwestern their education, manners, or dress. Many of these men and women would be pioneers in their fields and are heroes to us now, but at the time they struggled to fit in anywhere.
Eventually, the pensionados would make their own place in society—and it was an exalted one. While only a small part of the population, these 700 men and women educated from 1903-1945 would shape the Philippine Commonwealth and Republic. They became cabinet members, department secretaries, university presidents, deans and professors, designers of national irrigation systems, builders of bridges, lawyers, justices, titans of industry, doctors, archbishops, and, unfortunately, martyrs to the Japanese occupation. Mario Orosa has an extensive list by name and short biography, and it is an impressive read.
The pensionado system will feature in two of my upcoming books, but only one character will pass the test and take the scholarship. Can you guess who? Maybe I shouldn’t tell you. It will spoil the surprise.