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.
The wealth of the Gilded Age reached both sides of the Pacific, but nowhere was it gaudier than at Newport. Find out more.
I hope you have enjoyed my snarky view of history, and I hope it enriches your reading of the Sugar Sun series. 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.”)
Do you remember the days of card catalogs? Or the days when, if your library did not have the book you wanted, you had to wait weeks—maybe months—for interlibrary loan? (And that was if your library was lucky enough to be a part of a consortium. Many were not.) Even during my college years, I made regular trips to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., because that was the only place I knew I could find what I needed. Since I could not check out the books, I spent a small fortune (and many, many hours) photocopying. I still have their distinctive blue copy card in my wallet.
The point is that “kids these days” are lucky. Do I sound old now? Sorry, not sorry—look at the wealth of sources on the internet! With the hard work of university librarians around the world, plus the search engine know-how of Google and others, you can find rare, out-of-print, and out-of-copyright books in their full-text glory.
Today, I (virtually) paged through an original 1900 copy of Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines to bring you some of the original images that you cannot find anywhere else. For example, you may know that almost every village in the Philippines—no matter how remote or small—had a band of some sort, whether woodwind, brass, or bamboo. In fact, these musicians learned American ragtime songs so quickly and so enthusiastically that many Filipinos thought “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” was the American national anthem. You may know this, but can you visualize it? You don’t have to anymore. Here is an image in color:
Smaller bands than the one pictured above played at some of the hottest restaurants in Manila, like the Paris on the famous Escolta thoroughfare. I have seen the Paris’s advertisements in commercial directories, but I had never seen a photo of the interior of it (or really many buildings at all) since flash photography was brand new. Harper’s had a budget, though, so they spared no expense to bring you this image of American expatriate chic:
Not every soldier or sailor ate as well as the officers at the Paris. The soldiers on “the Rock” of Corregidor Island, which guards the mouth of Manila Bay, had a more natural setting for their hotel and restaurant:
Another interesting image is of a “flying mess” (or meal in the field). Notice the Chinese laborers in the bottom right hand corner. Despite banning any further Chinese immigration to the Philippines with the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1902, the US government and military regularly employed Chinese laborers who were already in the islands.
But enough politics. It’s almost the weekend, so this relaxing image might be the most appropriate:
The Philippine-American War (1899-1913) is one reason why the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has announced his “separation from the United States” and his dependence on China. “America has one too many [misdeeds] to answer for,” Duterte said. Which misdeeds? And why have we not heard of them before?
The Philippine-American War was America’s first great-power conquest and our first overseas insurgency. It was first time we tried to exert American authority and values abroad. (See my previous post on New Imperialism.) And this war was not a small one. It was your great-great grandparents’ Vietnam. As a percentage of the contemporary population, three times as many American soldiers died in the Philippine-American War as did in the recent Iraq War. More than three-quarters of a million Filipinos died from war and related causes, nearly 10% of the population.
And there were some good aspects to American rule, some of which were the inspiration behind my own fiction writing. For example, the Americans sent 1000 schoolteachers to the islands—and not just to Manila, but to the boondocks, too. (By the way, the word boondocks comes from the Filipino (Tagalog) word bundok, or mountain.) These teachers were regarded as the best American import of all, especially by the women of the islands who had been only sparingly educated by the Spanish—and that only if they were wealthy enough to afford it. In my novel Under the Sugar Sun, I reimagined one of these teachers as a Boston schoolmarm named Georgina Potter. Georgie is sent to the boondocks of Bais only to find her fiancé straying, her soldier brother missing, and the local sugar baron flirting. Adventures (and love) ensue.
There were other investments in infrastructure and human capital made by the Americans, from ports to the development of the Philippine Supreme Court. Philippine universities founded in this era have become regional attractions, particularly for their science and medical educations. (American sanitation and medical teaching in the colonial period was generally good, but sometimes things went awry.)
But it was not all bailes and basketball—though basketball is still wildly popular. There was also a down side to imperialism, and this appears in my books, too. The second book of the Sugar Sun series, Sugar Moon, will feature a character who survived a surprise attack at a town named Balangiga in 1901. Forty-eight Americans died there, the biggest loss for the Army since Little Big Horn. The Americans retaliated disproportionately. General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith told his men to turn the whole island of Samar into a “howling wilderness”:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.
When asked the limit of age to respect, General Smith said “Ten years.” Smith declared the coasts of Samar to be “safe zones,” but anyone inland was assumed hostile to the United States and therefore a valid target. The entire island was embargoed. Cities grew crowded and diseased, and many starved. There is still a lot of debate about the number of Samareños who died in this period, with figures ranging from 2500 to 50,000. Either way, a lot.
Samar was the My Lai—or the Abu Ghraib—of the Philippine-American War. Your counterpart in 1901-1902 would have read daily reports on General Smith’s court-martial. (Yes, he was court-martialed, but only after a round-about investigation of a totally different incident.) With the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, people could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. As a result, even though General Smith received only a slap on the wrist, popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement. Why so light still? The dirty secret was that Smith’s commanding officers wanted this “chastisement” policy because they agreed with him that “short, severe wars are the most humane in the end. No civilized war…can be carried on on a humanitarian basis.” And the leaders of the insurgency in Samar did surrender in April 1902, only seven months after the attack at Balangiga. The Americans thought the ends justified the means.
The incident that Duterte likes to talk about the most was not in Samar, though. The president is from the island of Mindanao, where the United States fought its first war against Muslim separatism. Islam was the primary Filipino religion before the arrival of the Catholic Spanish, and still today about five percent of Filipinos are Muslim. Ninety-four percent of Filipino Muslims, dubbed Moros by Spanish, still live the large southern island of Mindanao. When the Americans first arrived in the Philippines in 1898, they had enough problems on their hands with the Filipino Christians, so they made a “live and let live” agreement with the Moros. Once the rest of the islands were pacified, though, the Americans tried to extend their rule over Mindanao. They wanted to issue identity cards, collect taxes, outlaw slavery, and disarm the population.
Not all of these are bad things—I’m thinking mostly of the abolition of slavery—but to the Moros these laws struck at the heart of local autonomy. In the resulting fight, young warriors attacked anyone considered an enemy of Islam—and though they were not specifically bent on suicide, they were not afraid of death, either. They were so relentless, in fact, that the American Army had to requisition a whole new firearm, the .45-caliber—the only pistol with enough stopping power to fight Moros armed only with knives. This pistol, named the 1911 after the year it was adopted, was a standard-issue firearm until 1985, and it still remains a favorite of many in the military today.
Americans fought their largest engagements against the Moros, and this meant some of the worst massacres happened against the Moros, as well. At Bud Dajo in 1906, the Moros had retreated to the interior of an extinct volcano and were surrounded by American forces who had the high ground. Instead of a slow siege, the Americans fired down into the crater and killed 900 Moros, including women and children. Reports of the event shocked Americans at home, but it did not stop the war, which would rage on for seven more years, until 1913.
Part of the reason the Moro War stretched on so long was that it was all “chastisement” and relatively little “attraction.” In other words, there was a lot less “benevolent assimilation” here—fewer hospitals, almost no teachers, less infrastructure, and so on. Today, the Moros have the same complaint against the majority Catholic government of the Philippines—they are not getting the public works and development projects they see in the rest of the islands, but they cannot run their own affairs, either. Though part of Mindanao has been made an autonomous region, such a compromise has not brought an end to the violence. Some groups aim for legitimate political goals, some groups are professional kidnappers-for-hire, and a few are eager hangers-on of the latest Islamist terror organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIS.
Yep, those guys. Did you know the dress rehearsal for 9/11 was in the Philippines? Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Muhammad, masterminds of the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, respectively, both operated out of the Philippines in the 1990s. The Philippine National Police thwarted an attempt of these men to fly a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. This is why, only ten years after the Philippine Congress evicted the Americans from leased naval and air force bases in the islands, the Yanks were back. Special Forces operated continuously out of Mindanao from 2001 until 2016. Now Duterte wants the US Army out. He claims this is for the Americans’ protection, but it may also be that he wants to tone down the fighting in order to put forward a federalist plan. (There is a lot of irony in the fact that a politician known for encouraging vigilante squads wants to pursue a peaceful political solution to this conflict, but Mindanao is his home, so we’ll see.)
Rest assured: Duterte has not cut off ties with the United States. According to the Agence France-Press:
A frequent pattern following Duterte’s explosive remarks against the United States, the crime war and other hot-button issues has been for his aides or cabinet ministers to try to downplay, clarify or otherwise interpret them.
And within a few hours of Duterte’s separation remarks, his finance and economic planning secretaries released a joint statement saying the Philippines would not break ties with Western nations.
Moreover, the White House insists no one has officially asked for a change in relations. The real test will be to see if the Philippines really buys weapons from China and Russia, settles its legal dispute with China over the Spratly Islands bilaterally (cutting out the United States and United Nations), and ceases joint exercises with the US military in the South China Sea. None of these things are good for the strategic interests of the United States—but to many in the Philippines, this is exactly what they like about Duterte.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. It is more like a family dispute, where discussions and disagreements today are affected by the baggage of our shared history over the last 120 years. If we approach the news only with an eye on today and ignore the way that relationships have developed over time, we miss all the important subtext.
As Lydia San Andres pointed out last week, there is a whole century—and a whole globe—of American intervention to study. I will leave the Caribbean to her talented pen (and keyboard), but if you would like to know more about how the Philippine-American War launched the American Century, you should know that I take this show on the road!
I have an illustrated talk—“America in the Philippines: Our First Empire”—that shows how our experience in Asia fundamentally changed the U.S. role in the world and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot. I will tell you more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of how Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship has been so strong for so long. I will also show how recent stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and national security are actually reprises from the turn of the century. Finally, I have a few stories of my own from living in the fabulous Philippines, many of which have shaped what and how I write. Read more and find my contact information here.
Tell your local librarian, community college, high school, veterans group, historical society, book club, or other non-profit. My talk is free to these groups…as long as I can get there. I’m not traveling by carabao, though…
Hotly contested stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and Muslim separatists aren’t new to American political discourse. Join historian, teacher, and author Jennifer Hallock to learn how our first experiment in overseas empire in the Philippines (1898-1946) still shapes our country now.
What has brought the Americans full circle back to the Philippines, and why do some Filipinos want them to turn right around again? If you are in the Boston area, please come to the Hingham Public Library this coming Monday, September 19th, at 7pm.
Apparently, there will be community cable television there, so I need all the friendly faces I can get!