When I started my research for Under the Sugar Sun, I spent a lot of time in the microfiche room at Ateneo de Manila looking through the Manila Times. At first, I did not know what I was looking for. Inspiration, I suppose—and I found it in a real article entitled, “Sister Hunting for Brother: His Name Is E.L. Evans and He Is Supposed to Be in the Philippines.” The sister’s letter had been mis-delivered, and the recipient sent it on to the newspaper as a last-ditch effort to find the missing brother. And thus the Ben Potter and Balangiga story line was born. (And I know you don’t like him yet. You are not supposed to. But just wait. Sugar Moon is coming, and I think Ben will change your mind.)
Back in 2011, I rewrote the original article for Georgina and Ben. Yes, I was writing the book that long.
Now, you cannot totally blame Georgie for being worried. These were the real headlines from the Boston Daily Globeabout what happened to his unit:
Disaster in Samar. American Troops Surprised at Balangiga. Forty Officers and Men Killed by Insurgents. Company C 9th Attacked While at Breakfast.
Death List. Names of Those Lost at Balangiga, Samar. Five of the Number Went from Boston to Philippines. Thirty-Five Killed and Died of Wounds. Eight Missing.
Nine Boston Men. Seven of Them Were Enlisted Men, and It Is Feared They were All Among the Lost at Balangiga.
Wounded at Balangiga: Boston Loses One More.
Enlisted men’s families were not sent a telegram when their loved ones died. Only officers’ next of kin were offered that peace of mind. Georgie would have combed these articles and found all sorts of discrepancies, as you can read above. This is based on the truth. When I compared the newspaper lists against the Company C roster, there were lots and lots of errors. Even the early Army reports had errors—no surprise, since they were the ones who gave names to the reporters. It was enough to drive a confused family crazy.
And it did not help to read letters like the one below. This is a real letter by a private at Balangiga who, before he died, wrote to his family in Boston about the worsening conditions of his unit. His family let the newspaper print the letter in full, and I can just imagine what Georgina and her mother thought. I recreated the article so that I could edit it down to its most salient points, but it is taken from a real article on this date and in this newspaper.
This letter really defines Georgina’s obsession with finding and, ultimately, returning her brother to Boston. She didn’t know she was a romance heroine, after all. She thought her life more Gothic-style mystery, I suppose. But she will figure out the truth—after a calesa ride or two!
My upcoming book, Sugar Moon, will be firmly rooted in history that I believe every American should know: the ambush of a company of American soldiers on September 28, 1901, in Balangiga, Philippines. Most people have never heard of it. What happened that day in Balangiga—and in the months of American counterattacks afterward—has been overshadowed by other towns that Americans do know, ones with names like My Lai and Fallujah. Had we learned the lesson of Balangiga, though, these two towns in Vietnam and Iraq might never have hit the headlines. In fact, they might not be noteworthy at all.
How did I stumble upon Balangiga? When I started plotting my story about an American schoolteacher and a Filipino sugar baron—the story that became Under the Sugar Sun—I did a lot of research at Ateneo de Manila University, where I read through old issues of the Manila Times on microfiche. (By the way, if you want to entertain me, give me two rolls of that microfiche and leave me there all day. It’s like giving a child an iPad. History is my babysitter.) One of the articles I stumbled across was entitled: “Sister Hunting for Brother: His Name is E.L. Evans and He is Supposed to Be in the Philippines.” From there, I conjured up the idea of a missing brother to bring Georgina Potter to the Philippines. Yes, she was hired by the American colonial government to start a school in the Visayas, but her real motive in coming—and for letting herself get entangled with a jerk named Archie—was finding her brother, Ben Potter.
Why was Ben missing? Maybe because he was in a significant battle? Or, at least, a very confusing one? In Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina goes to Army Headquarters in Fort Santiago in Manila to find out, and she lays out all the news articles from a battle in Balangiga. A clerk tries to help her, to no avail:
“Your brother should be in here one way or another.” The clerk put his finger on the article with the list. “Name and rank?”
If it were that easy, she thought, she would not have bothered crossing the Pacific. “Sergeant Benjamin Potter.”
“I see a Ben Cutter,” the clerk said. “That’s probably him.” He sounded sure, as if the Army made such mistakes all the time. Maybe they did. He would know.
Georgie pulled another article to compare side by side. “Half the names are spelled differently from one day to another,” she explained. “Cutter one day, then Carter, then Palmer. And here all of the Boston soldiers are described as dead. All of them! My mother and I bought every paper, every edition, for a month, trying to find a new official list that made any sense. And you know what the Army told us? Nothing! No telegram, no letter, nothing.” She was not normally one to create a scene, but she had come a long way for the truth, and she was going to get it.
The confusion of names and numbers really did happen, which is one of the reasons why I chose this setting for my character. It makes sense that if he survived, he still might not want to be found. Several survivors stayed in the Philippines afterward, much to the chagrin of their families.
So, it was decided: Ben served in Company C, Ninth Infantry, which saw action in China during the Boxer War, and then returned to the Philippines to be stationed in Balangiga. Poor Ben. Poor Balangiga.
Company C occupied this town, and occupation is ugly. It doesn’t matter how you justify it—in this case, blockading the southern coast of Samar so that the guerrillas in the mountains could not be resupplied, a legitimate military purpose. It also doesn’t matter if the occupation starts off peacefully, which it did in Balangiga. It is not going to stay that way. The lesson of occupation throughout world history—no matter whether we are talking about ancient Greek occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or the American occupation of the Philippines—things will go downhill.
The Americans called the Filipino guerrillas insurrectionists, and they labeled what happened in Balangiga a massacre, implying that the perpetrators had no just cause. On the other side, Filipinos call their soldiers revolutionaries, and they see the event itself as a just uprising. If you want to avoid all judgment, it was an incident, or more specifically an ambush. I am greatly indebted to Philippine historian Rolando O. Borrinaga and British writer Bob Couttie for their first-hand research and outstanding work on Balangiga. In my version of the story, I have taken some liberties—merging characters to simplify things for the reader, renaming a few people—but I hope that my unwitting mentors will find that I got the big brush strokes right. All errors are my own, of course.
As we will see in Sugar Moon, at first things went okay. Uneasily, but okay. An American officer played chess with the parish priest. The man Sergeant Benjamin Potter is based on studied martial arts with the police chief. Individuals got along. But here’s the rub: if the townspeople became too friendly with the Americans, they would face retribution from the revolutionaries up in the mountains. So the town tried to play it cool, stay neutral.
But the Americans noticed some strange things happening—like sweet potatoes planted in the jungle for the guerrilla soldiers, or townspeople not cutting down banana trees that could provide the guerrillas cover—and the Yanks thought they had been betrayed. They ordered the town to cut down essential food sources, to “clean up” the town. If the town complied, not only would they need to destroy their own property, they would also endanger the understanding they had with guerrillas. I think you probably see where this is going. The reality of a town like this during occupation is that it will be caught in between two armies, and if neither army can truly protect the civilians against the other, the people must try to play one off the other. That is a dangerous game.
Company C doubled down. They imprisoned the town’s men in conical tents that looked like Native American teepees. These Sibley tents were supposed to sleep 16, but were each jammed full with over 70 men and boys, who had to sit on their haunches all night. They were not fed dinner, and in the morning they were forced to cut down the food their families depended on. This went on for several days.
The Americans did not see the town turning against them. They only saw their own frustration: they felt alone, vulnerable, on the edge of a hostile island, a day’s travel away from the nearest garrison. My character Ben will narrate the whole debacle through his flashbacks, which starts with him trying to court a local woman. He’s a proper gentleman, don’t worry, but he’s smitten. This, by the way, is based on a real possible romance between an American sergeant and the local prayer leader of the town.
On Sunday, September 28, 1901, the morning after the town fiesta, a church bell rang. Nothing unusual about that—until men dressed as women streamed out of the church with machetes. The American soldiers were eating breakfast. Dozens would die immediately and gruesomely. A little more than half would manage to escape, but several of them would die along the way of their wounds or from subsequent attacks. In total, 48 of 77 Americans would die.
Americans blamed the Filipino revolutionaries for streaming out of the jungle to attack the town, but the truth Borrinaga and Couttie uncovered is that the town planned the attack themselves, for the most part. They may have borrowed some men from villages outside Balangiga proper, and they may have coordinated with the revolutionaries, but this was a town fighting back against the soldiers who had imprisoned them.
After that, all hell broke loose. If there is something more violent than the rising up of an occupied people, it is the revenge exacted by a conventional military force armed to the teeth. General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith ordered his men to turn the entire island into “a howling wilderness” by striking down all men and boys capable of carrying arms, which he defined as all those over ten years old. According to the men under his command, they ignored that part of the order. But they did make a special trip back to Balangiga to burn down the town and exact revenge. They embargoed the entire island, burned more villages, and torched rice stores. (Remember that rice was currency for all sides in this conflict.) Months of revenge resulted in the deaths of thousands on Samar, maybe as many as 15,000, according to Borrinaga.
This was the My Lai moment of the Philippine-American War, and it was just as explosive to the American public as that incident in Vietnam was. For the first time, with the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, the American public could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. The excesses of the Army now blanketed newspapers and magazines Stateside. Though military authorities tried to censor the press by controlling the telegraph lines out of Manila, reporters got around this by traveling to Hong Kong to wire their stories. The courts-martial of several American officers made daily headlines, and Senate hearings began on the issue of American atrocities in the Philippines.
General Smith received a slap on the wrist from the court-martial that followed, but popular outcry in the US forced President Roosevelt to demand Smith’s retirement. Smith retired with a full pension. The American lieutenant in command at My Lai, convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians, served only seven months of house arrest and then was pardoned. In both cases, if you look up the chain of command, you’ll notice complicity. Smith’s commander, Brigadier General Hughes, was the one who first ordered the men to make a “desert of that corner of Samar.”
My character Ben tried hard to be better than the rest, but what happened in Balangiga tortures him. You are not supposed to have liked him in Under the Sugar Sun, and he does not like himself much, either. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something that two of my very best friends share with him. Soldiers with PTSD can struggle with guilt, depression, substance abuse, anger management, insomnia, and other health problems. I am greatly indebted to these friends for letting me put some of their worst fears on the page. I hope they will also appreciate the redemptive journey Ben goes through and the healing power of love that he finds. They would tell me this is far too simplistic a cure, but I think they want Ben to have a happily-ever-after, so it’s okay.
George Santayana wrote in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is fitting that he said so at the outset of the American Century. The vigorous debate about the use of military force abroad is familiar to people today, but it wasn’t a regular part of American discourse until the Philippine-American War. America’s professional army was born out of this war. Before 1898, the entire US Army was smaller than today’s New York City Police Department. Most of the Spanish-American War had to be fought with state volunteers whose enlistments lasted only a year. When hostilities broke out in Philippines, Congress promptly doubled the size of the regular army once, and then doubled it again. For the first time in its history, America had a significant standing army stationed far from its borders.
Maybe it is not good enough to just remember the past. You should experience it yourself. That’s the garden where empathy grows. That’s where you get all the feels. I hope Sugar Moon helps.
Taking their name from the Visayan words for “woman” and “spirit,” the babaylans were “mystical women who wielded social and spiritual power in pre-colonial Philippine society,” according to Marianita “Girlie” Villariba. Because the Spanish viewed these women as a threat to the spread of Catholicism and patriarchy, the friars discredited the babaylans by spreading rumors that they were really vampire-like mythical creatures, or aswangs.
But babaylans did not have to be women. You could be a man—or you could be a man living under an adopted female identity, part of the long proto-transgender tradition in Southeast Asia. (By the way, the Philippines just elected their first transgender congresswoman.) Anyone who had a lifetime’s track record of helping the community—through both bandages (healers) or swords (warriors)—could be selected. This range of duties will be important to the way the identity of babaylans will evolve, especially at the turn of the twentieth century.
The babaylan’s unique blend of nationalism and traditionalism pushed them to challenge both Americans and hacenderos at the same time. Babaylans spoke to God in their native language, and God told them to oppose the changes hitting their island. They believed that God inhabited all of nature, so the destruction of nature—particularly by industrial machines—was against the will of the universe. Men joined the movement in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly “discontented marginalized peasants,” according to Violeta Lopez-Gonzaga. This made the babaylans “a peasant protest movement with messianic, revivalistic, and nativistic overtones.”
The largest of these revolts was led by Dionisio Sigobela, also known as Papa (Pope) Isio. As historian Renato Constantino wrote, the situation in the early 1900s was particularly tenuous. War and revolution had closed ports and destroyed farmland. Natural disasters like drought, locusts, and rinderpest made the situation worse.Laborers were rapidly being replaced by machines, though both were in short supply. According to Constantino, only one-fifth of 1898’s arable land was planted four years later, in 1902.
Times were tough, as Javier Altarejos will tell you in my upcoming novella, Tempting Hymn. In this scene, Javier reveals the babaylan ties of one of his former employees, Peping Ramos, whom you may remember as the disgruntled cane slasher who shot a young boy in Under the Sugar Sun. Javier is speaking to the hero of Tempting Hymn, an American named Jonas Vanderburg. Jonas is curious about the babaylans because he is falling in love with Peping’s daughter, Rosa Ramos.
“When I took over the hacienda, Peping was sure he could manage me.” Javier took a sip of his drink. “He was wrong.”
“So he ran off to join the madmen in the mountains?”
“They’re not all madmen—though they do attract every troublemaker on the island. The babaylan are more like the trade unionists you have in America.”
“But their popes and special charms—”
“Give them credibility.”
That credibility came from the traditional role of babaylans as priest(ess), sage, and seer. People admired the babaylans, and they would not stop admiring them just because the Americans said so. In fact, the Yanks were not able to put down Papa Isio’s insurrection until 1907—a tough reality for Americans to stomach since they had made such a big deal of declaring peace in 1902.
The declaration fooled no one because Samar was rising up again, too. In fact, Samar had a very similar movement to the babaylans, complete with its own popes and sacred amulets: the pulahans (or “red pants”). The pulahans will be an important theme in my upcoming novel, Sugar Moon. Both the pulahans and the babaylans believed that:
an apocalyptic clash was coming;
they alone would survive; and
a new independent world order would be built upon the ashes of imperialism and industrialism.
If this sounds familiar, take a look at the Boxer Rebellion in China—same time, same motives, and same ideology. It’s not a coincidence. As a teacher of world history, imperialism, and comparative religions, movements like the babaylans and the pulahans represent the intersection of everything that interests me. And, of course, I like to work these complicated trends into kissing books. Enjoy!
Featured image includes three babaylan mandalas, created by artist Perla Daly.
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…