Catbalogan means “an everlasting place of safety,” and for hundreds of years it was safe—for pirates. The sheltered bayside harbor lies just north of the San Juanico Strait between Samar and Leyte, a key access point to the Pacific Ocean and the primary shipping route for the Spanish galleons. Since these vessels were headed to Manila with silver and then back to Acapulco with a hold full of porcelain and spices, they were ripe targets for pirates, right? And by “pirates” I mean the English and the Dutch privateers, who were licensed by their sovereigns to interdict and steal the Spanish bounty. Catbalogan became a haven for pirates and privateers, their crews, and lost sailors.
The Americans would find the city no easier to manage in the early twentieth century. For the first year of the Philippine-American War, the Yanks mostly ignored Samar because they had their hands full in Luzon. But then, in January 1900, gunships arrived offshore Catbalogan and sent a messenger to General Vicente Lukban, the Philippine revolutionary in charge of Samar and Leyte. The Americans wanted to negotiate a surrender of the whole island by offering Lukban the governorship of Samar. But Lukban wanted more than a title; he wanted full local autonomy. The Americans refused, so Lukban forbade them from landing. In turn, the Americans began to bombard the town. In other words, things escalated fast. Unable to withstand the US Navy’s firepower, Lukban and many of the locals abandoned Catbalogan, burning it as they retreated.
What followed was a ruthless two-year war to subdue the revolutionary forces in Samar. Company C of the Ninth Infantry was stationed to Balangiga to prevent Lukban’s men from using the southern port to import arms and supplies. On its own accord, the town ambushed the garrison in September 1901, and the American military took revenge on all of Samar. General Jacob Smith (known in the press as “Hell-Roaring Jake”) vowed to make the island a “howling wilderness.” Dusting off a legal gem from the American Civil War known as General Order 100, the Americans aimed to starve, burn out, torture, and kill as many guerrillas as possible. They even took the bells of Balangiga church. Catbalogan and Tacloban (Leyte) were the centers of American authority in this period.
General Smith’s “short, severe war” was both. The death toll from this period ranges from two to fifteen thousand. The extremity of Smith’s orders—to kill all those capable of bearing arms, which he defined as over ten years old—would lead to his court-martial and removal. (Yes, I know this seems like a slap on the wrist, and it was. But President Roosevelt actually forced his retirement against army and public opinion, according to this New York Times article. In an interesting side note, this was Smith’s first court-martial: “Hell-roaring Jake” was a petty crook, as well as a blow-hard war criminal.)
Still, contemporary American generals argued that a strong hand in Samar was necessary. They argued this strong hand was exactly the reason that Lukban’s forces surrendered in April 1902 in a grand ceremony in Catbalogan. (Lukban himself had already been captured.)
Those surrendering had to turn over their rifles captured from Balangiga the previous year and pledge loyalty to the United States, but then they were freed. Lukban himself would become mayor of the Tabayas province (now Quezon) within ten years. This begs the question of whether it was the severity of the fight or the quality of the peace that pacified the countryside? Amnesty is not used much in America’s modern war playbook, and I wonder if this is an oversight.
There is an interesting fashion note worth mentioning: the Americans did loan the revolutionaries a few Singer sewing machines so they could surrender in style with new (and complete) uniforms. Pride was salvaged all around.
This is not the end of the story, though. This first war—including the destruction of half the municipalities in Samar and the burning of tens of thousands of tons of rice—caused a lingering famine and sparked another war two years later. Today, we call this phenomenon “blowback.” The Pulahan War was both a civil war (inland highlanders against lowland merchants and farmers) and an anti-American insurrection. On the American side, it was fought by the Philippine Constabulary, Third District—a civil police force organized, funded, equipped (not well), and trained by Americans (usually former soldiers). And by the 39th Philippine Scouts, trained and equipped (with better rifles) by the US Army. Both these units had significant troop presences in Catbalogan, along with the 6th, 12th, and 21st U.S. Infantries.
Catbalogan was a highly fortified town, but it was still beautiful. The ring of mountains separating it from the suffering of the rest of Samar did make for a stunning backdrop.
The city fared better than the rest of Samar through the lean times. Though the galleons no longer journeyed back and forth to Spain, Catbalogan was a center of the abaca trade in the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the large buildings and church. Abaca, also called Manila hemp, was in high demand as naval cordage. Its trade was dominated by ethnic Chinese and British merchants, and once Samar was no longer in ashes, the fiber would revive and bring an influx of capital to Catbalogan.
In the early twentieth century, Americans complained about the lack of poultry, eggs, and fruit in Catbalogan. (I find the fruit claim hard to believe.) They also complained about the lack of dedicated school buildings—not one in the whole town—and the lack of teachers. (Whose fault is that?) And they complained that there were only five miles of road on the whole island. The Americans would build more.
I traveled to Samar in 2005—and while I would not recommend December for your trip because of the rain, I loved it. The island is just as breathtaking as the postcards from 100 years ago.
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
Mark Twain said that. He’s one of my favorite authors and personalities in the American canon. Did you also know he was one of the leaders of the anti-imperialism movement, and that he argued for giving the Philippines its freedom in the early twentieth century? Interested?
If you live in Manila, I hope you can come to the Ayala Museum on February 24th, from 2-5pm, to hear my talk “History Ever After.” What will I talk about? Good question. I will start with truth and weave in the fiction, and I think Mark Twain would be proud:
I will prove that our news is not new. In fact, America’s current debates over global economic integration, nation-building, immigration, and the use of military force echo the real and vigorous debate that started with the conquest of the Philippines.
I will show how this history helps me develop my unusual, precocious, and maybe even dangerous heroes and heroines. I will talk about each, too, including the main characters of my new novella, Tempting Hymn. Real history writes the best fiction in any genre.
Finally, I will address one of the most difficult questions in historical romance: how do you write happily ever after when your audience knows the next war is just around the corner? In other words, how do you walk the line between romancing history and romanticizing it?
Maybe you want to know about the shared history of Filipinos and Americans, or maybe you want to hear the latest updates in the Sugar Sun series. Or maybe you’re a writer, and you want to know how to shape conflict and character development with real history. If any of these three are true, there’s something for you here!
This talk would not have been possible without the guidance and vision of Mina V. Esguerra of #romanceclass, and thanks to Marjorie De Asis-Villaflores of the Ayala Museum for all her help.
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 roads to 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. A reasonable judgment is about 15,000, according to historian Rolando O. Borrinaga.
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. (Keep in mind that while General Orders No. 100 did allow for severe war, much of what Hughes, Chaffee, Smith, Waller, and Glenn did in Samar violated this code of conduct.)
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.
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.
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…
With the popularity of the Twilight series—or, let’s get old school with Anne Rice’sVampire Chronicles—I am surprised that more writers have not widened their paranormal worlds to include the macabre supernatural folk traditions of the Philippines.
Aswangs are lady vampires…on steroids. Though legends vary, the Aswang Project website has come up with three common characteristics in them all:
The aswang’s diet consists mainly of human liver and blood;
It has an unholy preference for unborn children; and
It is also known to prey upon children and sick people.
Um, did you notice number two? Aswangs have been blamed for miscarriages and stillborn babies all over the islands. As this website describes:
When they know of a pregnancy…they would land on the roof of the pregnant woman’s home, and, trying to remain undiscovered, dig a hole to get inside. Once close, they use their razor-sharp teeth and their tongue that can stretch out as a thin wire to drink the blood and eat the fetus through the mother’s belly button…
Even worse, there is a related creature called a manananggal, who is a beautiful woman by day, but at night she detaches the upper half of her torso, sprouts bat-like wings, and flies around with her guts hanging out, looking for victims. This is serious stuff.
The aswang legends are particularly popular in the Western Visayas region, near where the Sugar Sun series is set. In fact, when Silliman University in Dumaguete opened their first dormitory in 1903, people thought it was haunted with these very creatures. That would be enough to keep me home, thank you very much.
Why the Visayas? I do not think that it has anything to do with infant mortality rates, which historically were high everywhere. One theory is that Spanish Catholics spread the legends to vilify the female folk healers, or babaylans, especially those in the interior of the southern islands. These pagan women were far away from the friars on the coasts and the Crown in Manila—and, therefore, they were not to be trusted.
You may be wondering, how are aswangs created in the first place? Getting bitten, like by a European-style vampire, is not going to do it. (You would just be dead, I think.) In the Filipino version, the dying aswang vomits up a small black chick—as illustrated below—which the aswang-to-be must swallow. Waiter, check please.
In European folktales, like those of the Brothers Grimm, the big bad wolf is eventually punished for eating children. But the victims of aswangs get no such justice. (Maybe because carrying a child to term and then actually delivering it has been the most dangerous thing a woman could do for most of history. That is another theme throughout my books.)
This is very dark stuff. I don’t write novels this dark, but someone should. Maybe a new paranormal venture from #romanceclass? I cannot imagine an aswang hero, but maybe you can convince me. Or maybe not.