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It has been termed an insurgency, a revolution, a guerrilla war, and a conventional war. As David J. Silbey demonstrates in this taut, compelling history, the 1899 Philippine-American War was in fact all of these. Played out over three distinct conflicts—one fought between the Spanish and the allied United States and Filipino forces; one fought between the United States and the Philippine Army of Liberation; and one fought between occupying American troops and an insurgent alliance of often divided Filipinos—the war marked America's first steps as a global power and produced a wealth of lessons learned and forgotten.
First-rate military history, A War of Frontier and Empire retells an often forgotten chapter in America's past, infusing it with commanding contemporary relevance.
A WAR OF FRONTIER AND EMPIRE
President Emilio Aguinaldo sat beneath a mountain one December day of 1899 and wondered what had happened to his revolution. More than a year before, he had been the head of an Army of Liberation which controlled the great majority of the Philippine Islands. The Filipinos of that army had swept aside their centuries-long imperial overlord, the Spanish. All that remained for them was to take the capital city of Manila and declare themselves an independent republic.
Manila did fall, but not to the Filipinos. Instead, a force of Americans won a series of shattering naval and military battles, captured Manila from under the noses of the revolutionary army, and then had the temerity to buy the islands from the Spanish crown. What the Filipinos had paid for in blood, the Americans had paid for with gold.
Aguinaldo found to his sorrow that he could do little to prevent it. The follow-on conflict between the Americans and the Filipinos had run almost entirely the Americans’ way. Filipino defeat had been so stunning and complete that Aguinaldo had been forced to dissolve his government and army in mid-November 1899 and flee into hiding, hoping to reconstitute his forces as a guerrilla army and shadow republic.
He could not even guarantee his own safety. Fleeing the central plains of Luzon in mid-November 1899, Aguinaldo was pursued by relentless American forces who were not stopped even by the near-total sacrifice of a Filipino rearguard. His bolthole, in the northern valleys, had been surrendered by a treacherous general. So now Aguinaldo, in mid-December, sat in the small settlement of Banane on the slope of Mount Polis and wondered what he should do. He could not stay there. The Americans were likely to catch up soon; in any case, Banane was inhabited by the Igorots, tribal warriors of uncertain loyalties. Aguinaldo and his escort had been greeted when they arrived by the kanao, an Igorot ceremony celebrating the taking of a trophy: the head, hands, and feet of an enemy. Whether the Igorots intended this as a warning is not clear, but Aguinaldo certainly took it as one. He and his sister, one of a number of women accompanying the group, wistfully discussed traveling in Europe once the war was over. Such fantasies, however, did nothing for the short term.
Thus, on the night of December 16, in a grove near his camp, Aguinaldo called a council of war. He and his officers and political associates discussed what to do. The discus-sion was reluctant and difficult, with several officers refusing to give their opinion and preferring simply to follow Aguinaldo’s lead. Aguinaldo himself remained cagey. Finally, Simeon Villa, one of his medical officers, spoke up and suggested that the group “should separate from the women, who constitute such a great impediment or obstacle to any plan,” and continue deeper into the mountainous highlands to find a place to hide and continue the fight. To this Aguinaldo agreed, and so committed himself to going on with the war, hoping that conventional defeat might be followed by irregular victory. He left behind family, friends, and allies to wage this guerrilla war, one that would last a further two years. That decision would not bring the Filipinos victory, but Aguinaldo would live to see the day that independence came to the islands, and know that it had in some small way originated in the efforts of the 1890s.1
Geography and Colonization
The geography of the Philippines imposes a sense of disconnectedness. Thousands of islands, roughly sprinkled through the western Pacific, make up the archipelago. The distances between the islands vary from a few hundred yards to many miles. It is possible to swim easily from Leyte to Samar, while Palawan sits by itself to the west, stretching for hundreds of miles into the Sulu Sea. At their farthest south the Philippines reach within a few dozen miles of the island of Borneo. At their northernmost limit the islands come close to Taiwan. To the west is the South China Sea, surrounded in the late nineteenth century by the colonial outposts of a range of European powers: French Indochina due west, British Hong Kong northwest, and the Dutch East Indies southwest. And looming over all was the massive, ponderous, and decayed Chinese empire, home to hundreds of millions and bloated by centuries of lacquered ritual. By the turn of the century China was less a nation than a prize: a target that every major power eyed with anticipation.
To the east was the Philippine Sea, an open swath of ocean bounded by New Guinea on the south, a necklace of small islands farther east, and, to the north, Japan. By the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the power of newly industrialized Japan was becoming apparent. The Japanese had not yet had their coming-out party, the moment they stepped onto the world stage and announced themselves as a power of substance. That would come a few years later in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905.
In the middle of all this was the sleepy Spanish colony of the Philippines. Imperial Spain had acquired the islands centuries before, during the burst of exploration that marked the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Magellan had planted the Spanish flag there in 1521, and had planted himself as well, after an ill-considered meeting with hostile natives. Only one of Magellan’s ships returned, captained by his first mate, Juan Sebastián de Elcano, who made it home, but, somewhat unfairly, not into historical memory. The Spanish were not the first outsiders to visit the Philippines. Certainly the great Chinese fleets of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries had stopped by. And Muslim explorers had broken out of the Indian Ocean even earlier, settling in some of the southern islands. But only the Spanish came to stay throughout the archipelago. In the 1560s, led by Don Miguel López de Legazpi, who became the first governor and captain-general of the islands, they arrived in force, aggressive, imperialistic, and awash in the gold and silver of Central America.
Spanish overlordship of the Philippines was more benign than their control of Central America. Critically, without silver and gold to mine, the Spanish had less need of slave labor to work to death in the dark underground. Instead, the Philippines, and the city of Manila in particular, served as the primary trading hub for the Spanish in the Pacific. They shipped silver from Mexico to Manila every year—the Pacific counterpart to the famous Atlantic flota that so obsessed pirates and privateers like Sir Francis Drake in the sixteenth century. From China came junks carrying silk and other precious items. The two met in Manila, and there the goods were exchanged for the enrichment of both sides.
The Spanish brought with them a well-established body of law to organize and run the colonies, developed in the hard laboratory of Central America. Governors-general of the islands were, for the first few centuries, experienced men from either the Americas or from Spanish Flanders. The result was a thriving and sophisticated economy in
the Philippines, a fierce trade rivalry with Portuguese merchants based at the Chinese port of Macao, and, not least, a growing Chinese population in the Philippines.2 It would not be the last time that the importance of the Philippines was seen largely for its relationship with China.
The Spanish also brought with them a structured set
of economic relationships, based on the domination of a Spanish elite, and a series of client-patron relations that would characterize the Philippines for centuries to come. People defined themselves in a complicated web of social networks in which a relatively small number of wealthy Spanish held the allegiance of hundreds if not thousands of both Spaniards and Filipinos. To call these relationships landlord-tenant would be to oversimplify desperately. The client-patron relationship might include landlordism and tenantship, but it was rarely limited to mere geographical allegiance. Clients looked to their patrons for a whole range of economic, social, and cultural protections, and patrons looked to their clients for corresponding services.
Catholicism and Empire
But perhaps the most critical European import was Ca-tholicism, and all the trappings of that church: priests, the Latin Mass, and the Inquisition. The lack of Spanish government interest in anything outside of Manila left the field open for the clergy, and the Catholic church—fired with the energies of the Counter-Reformation—soon developed an extensive network throughout the Philippines that, unlike almost anywhere else in Asia, converted a substantial majority of the populace to Catholicism. Many Filipinos might see no Spaniard but a friar for their entire lives. The conversions were long-lasting but not universal. Though the populations of the northern islands largely became Catholic, many in the southern islands remained true to their first conversion, to Islam.
This reliance on the church for governing most of
the Philippines had, however, an interesting side effect. Conversion was accomplished in the native dialects while masses were in Latin. The result was that, throughout Spanish control of the islands, the great majority of Filipinos never learned the tongue of the imperial motherland. A universal language was never imposed on the colony. The archipelago instead remained something of a Tower of Babel, with hundreds of groups speaking different dialects and unable, to a large extent, to understand one another.3
Spanish power reached its height in the last half of the sixteenth century under King Philip II. But imperial Spain was—as happened so often with great powers—economically overstretched by its wars, its empire, and its appetites. Despite the massive influx of monies from the Central American mines, the Spanish throne went bankrupt a number of times during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The eighty-year revolution in the Spanish Netherlands, the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48, and the rise of Dutch, En-glish, and, especially, French power doomed Spain to a long, slow slide from the top ranks.
Her empire decayed along with her. The Thirty Years’ War, fought on a global scale against the Dutch, proved
especially difficult for Spanish colonies.4 The Philippines themselves were taken briefly by the British in the middle of the eighteenth century, only to be handed back in a peace treaty, largely because the British were not interested in keeping them. The Central and South American colonies broke away in the first decades of the nineteenth century in a series of revolts that Spain could not prevent or defeat. Spanish Florida fell to the United States shortly thereafter. What was left of the empire by the late nineteenth century were remnants: islands scattered through the Caribbean, headlined by Cuba and Puerto Rico, and in the Pacific, the Philippines. Spain held them not by power but by indifference. None of the other great powers could be bothered to take them.
Nor had the nineteenth century been kind to the Phil-
ippines. The Industrial Revolution sweeping through the Western nations had made the Philippines into part of the global hinterland that fed raw materials into the voracious factories of Europe. Unlike the previous few centuries, when the Philippines were largely shut off from the world economy, the demands of the Industrial Revolution levered the Philippine economy open. From the Philippines came the raw agricultural product needed by the factories and back to the Philippines went the manufactures of those factories. Manila, Iloilo, and Cebu became, by the end of the century, large trading ports through which most of the Philippine economic transactions took place.5
The result was demographic upheaval, as populations shifted in adjustment to the new economy. Hundreds of thousands moved inland—most particularly into the great central plains of Luzon—to clear the land and turn it over to the production of agricultural goods like tobacco and abaca fiber, which could then be sold to industrial nations. This frontier, inland rather than westward, created a society that—oddly—resembled nothing so much as the American West. “The Philippines had pioneers and wagon trains, cattle ranching and rustling, cowboys and bandits, railroad building. . . .”6
But the breakdown of traditional societal arrangements resulted in an increased number of mortality crises throughout the Philippines, in which death rates spiked because of disease, famine, and dislocation. The 1880s were
a “decade of death” for the Philippines,7 and the 1890s
were not much better. The province of the Batangas on
the island of Luzon experienced a smallpox epidemic in 1889 and a cholera epidemic in 1890, and lost most of
its coffee crops to disease in the first years of the 1890s.
In addition, the cattle disease rinderpest killed thousands
of water buffalo, the main domestic farm animal of the Philippines.8
The result was a society in economic and social flux in the 1880s and 1890s. The Spanish government contributed to this social instability by first appointing a series of
reforming governors from 1880 to 1888 who opened up Philippine society and allowed limited political and cultural freedom, and then appointing the reactionary Gen. Valeriano Weyler to the governorship from 1888 to 1891, who undid the reforms, embittering many Filipinos.9
This was the situation when the last decade of the nineteenth century opened. A declining Spanish monarchy, its gaze turned inward to past glories, ruled over a Philippines riven by demographic and economic difficulties. It should not come as a surprise that something approaching a revolution began. What started was less an organized attempt to throw off Spanish rule than an effort of different groups to shape violently the unsteady social order around them.
To understand the revolution, we must understand the racial divisions within Philippine society. At the top were the peninsulares, Spaniards born in Spain. Below them were insulares (also simply called Filipinos), Spaniards born in the Philippines. Below them, far below them, were the indios, non-Spanish native-born Filipinos. The Spanish—peninsulare and insulare—dominated the Philippine society and economy. The indios—even the term had racist connotations—were forever ruled rather than rulers: “The monkey will always be a monkey however you dress him with shirt and trousers,” was one friar’s summation in 1885.10
But things began to shift slightly in the last part of the nineteenth century. Upper-class Filipinos (insulares) began to send their children abroad to be educated in Europe. This group came to be known as ilustrados. Among them was a young Filipino named José Rizal. In 1889 Rizal and his friends were touring Europe where they went to see the Paris Exposition of that year. At the Exposition they saw
a Wild West show, which included Native American performers on horseback. Struck by the daring and popularity of the performers, Rizal and his friends decided to form an association for Filipinos to assert their own identity, to make themselves “braves” on the American Indian model. Los Indios Bravos, they called it, a spectacular entangling of Spanish and American themes and ideas.
Rizal positioned his group not as one grasping to elevate itself to the level of the Spanish-born elite, but as one seeking common cause with the indio. The group explicitly denied the power and righteousness of Spanish and Catholic control of the islands by basing its appeal to power in the native population. At the same time, his appropriation of an American frontier motif connected Los Indios Bravos to that more open social mythos. The Filipinos would be warrior Indians resisting the imperial domination of their civilized overlords. Rizal appropriated another American theme in a protest novel whose title echoed one of the slogans of the American Revolution: Noli me tangere (Don’t Mess with Me).11 The irony of such an appeal to an American model was only equalled a half century later, when Ho Chi Minh stole chunks of the Declaration of Independence to declare Vietnamese autonomy in 1945.
If this revolution—or revolutions—sounds chaotic, it was. What broke out in the mid-1890s consisted of various groups led by leaders with various motives, who shared a distaste for Spanish control, but something less than love for one another. Perhaps none of the divisions was more critical than the ethnic one. The Tagalogs—who dominated the revolution throughout this period—were held in suspicion by other Filipinos.12 But the Filipinos were divided on economic grounds as well. Wealthy Philippine landowners wished for freedom from the Spanish, but did not seek
to restructure the economy or society of the Philippines. Theirs was a conservative vision of revolution, one that would send the Spanish home and leave the landowners
still in charge. Their eventual champion and leader was the Tagalog Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy, whose family owned a plantation in Cavite, and who had studied law in Manila, although he dropped out short of earning his degree.13
Other groups were more mixed economically and ethnically. One of the larger of these groups was the Katipunan, led by an ilustrado named Andres Bonifacio. Members of the Katipunan came from different economic and social groups within Philippine society, for the most part from the tenant farmers of the countryside and the middle classes of the cities. Like many others, the Katipunan were poorly equipped, poorly organized, poorly led, and prone to divisiveness. They squabbled with other groups and amongst themselves. That much later Bonifacio would become seen as a national hero had less to do with his own actions than with the need in a newly independent country for something akin to founding fathers.
Bonifacio and Aguinaldo soon clashed. Bonifacio believed fervently in his cause, but he was naive in his dealings both with the Spanish and with Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo, whatever his other faults, proved something of an adept politician. He soon outmaneuvered Bonifacio, getting himself elected president of the revolutionary government in early 1897. Not satisfied with that, he had Bonifacio arrested and tried on trumped-up charges of treason and executed on May 10, 1897. Aguinaldo later claimed that he had commuted the sentence, but that by the sheerest bad luck the commutation did not arrive in time to prevent Bonifacio’s execution. From then until his capture in 1901, Aguinaldo would be the closest thing that the Philippines had to a native national leader.
His leadership was never going to produce radical change. It might evict the Spanish, but it would never remake Philippine society. Though Renato Constantino is perhaps exaggerating when he says that Aguinaldo “led the force that preempted the revolution,” the government and society that resulted from a victorious insurgency by the Aguinaldo-led Filipinos would likely have strongly resembled a pre-insurgency Philippines in structure and control.14
The chaos of the revolution was lucky for the enfeebled Spanish, for perhaps the only enemy they could have defeated was this one, forever teetering on the edge of dissolution. The Spanish army won most of the battles of 1897, driving revolutionary forces out of strongholds in places like Cavite and Talisay in the Batangas. In response, Agui-naldo signaled to the Spanish that he was open to negotiation. In July 1897, a revolutionary manifesto was published under the nom de plume of “Malabar.” In form it was similar to an earlier one put out by Aguinaldo, making it clear that he was the author. It laid out a series of demands on the Spanish, including a parliament for the Philippines, freedom of the press, and religious freedom. But it conceded, implicitly, continued Spanish sovereignty over the islands.
The signal was received. In August 1897 the Spanish governor, Primo de Rivera, issued an amnesty for those who would turn themselves in, and sent a native lawyer, Pedro Paterno, to negotiate with Aguinaldo. Paterno carried no more than vague promises and statements that he had overheard the governor speak of reform, but Aguinaldo greeted him happily, releasing a number of Spanish prisoners as a show of good faith. The negotiations, which took place in the rebel town of Biak-na-Bato, resulted in the Treaty of Biak-na-Bato, signed on December 14, 1897.
It is hard to see the treaty as anything but a victory for the Spanish. Though early drafts put forward by Aguinaldo had contained some demands for reform, the final copy of the treaty in essence traded the end of the rebellion by the Filipinos in return for large sums paid to Aguinaldo and his closest advisers, and their removal to Hong Kong. Whether the removal should be referred to as “exile,” as Aguinaldo would have liked, or “protective custody,” as perhaps his fellow Filipinos would have preferred, was open to debate. Primo de Rivera remarked that “chief among the wishes”
of Aguinaldo was that his “future be assured” and that
he (and his associates) be given “indispensable means
of subsistence.”15 The “means” in this case consisted of 800,000 Spanish pesetas, quite enough to set Aguinaldo up comfortably in Hong Kong.
The terms of the treaty were only loosely lived up to, by both sides. In the end Aguinaldo and the leadership found themselves in Hong Kong with 400,000 pesetas of Span-
ish money, half of Spain’s commitment. To his credit, Aguinaldo deposited most of the money in a bank for future use in service of the revolution. He kept enough to live comfortably, and there are indications that some of the other leaders were not particularly pleased with this virtuous disposition of the cash.16
That was the situation as the year turned from 1897 to 1898. How much of the Philippines the Spanish actually controlled is not clear. They certainly ruled the major cities and essentially controlled the economic infrastructure of the colony. Since the value of the Philippines as an imperial possession had always been in the trade that flowed through the major cities, whether silk from China or agricultural goods from the interior, that seemed enough to them.
Excerpted from A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902 by David J. Silbey. Copyright © 2007 by David J. Silbey. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Posted April 1, 2013
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