September 28, 1901
More than a hundred years ago, a bloody encounter between Filipinos (mostly farmers) and American troops erupted in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, Philippines, that shook America’s war rooms and exposed America’s imperialist designs. The incident may have been dismissed by both American and Philippine authorities as a forgettable footnote of Philippine-American war history, but it continues to resonate with unresolved issues until today. At dawn of September 28, 1901, the bells of Balangiga rang like they never did before. It turned out to be the signal for hundreds of bolo-wielding Balangigan-ons to attack the barracks of Company C, an elite band of the 9th Infantry Regiment of United States Army that, months earlier, appropriated for itself a military base in that town. Forty-eight of the 74 American soldiers present died as a result of the assault, while 28 native combatants perished. Up to that time, not a single contingent of the US Army has suffered as much number of casualties anywhere as it did in Balangiga.
The hierarchy of US armed forces raged at knowing about the carnage, one that the Americans would eventually call “massacre.” None of their generals must have thought that such an atrocity—a “terrorist act” in present-day language—could have happened with their own men at the receiving end. For a country edging to become the world’s new military superpower, the incident has, for a moment, shaken its military headquarters. Reprisal had to follow. And quick. Out for revenge, the American forces condemned Balangiga and practically all of Samar Island into a “howling wilderness,” razing houses and properties to the ground, and killing and maiming people—including women and children. The sweeping condemnation has been recorded as responsible for the death and disappearance of thousands of Samareños.
In victory the Americans left Balangiga with three of its church bells in tow. Two of the bells would eventually end up on display in Wyoming and one was left in a US military base in Korea. For years, individuals and groups (mostly from the Philippines) have petitioned the US for the return of the bells to Balangiga. But up to this day the bells remain in American possession, prompting some quarters to say in exasperation that the Philippine-American war has yet to end.
Balangiga in the context of Philippine-American-Spanish war
Spain was a global colonial power until at least at the closing years of the 19th century. Its colonies included Cuba and the Philippines. Cuba revolted against Spain in 1895 and the Philippines, through its katipuneros, did the same at about the same time. While all these things unfolded, the US has expressed its sympathy for the independence dream of colonized countries, and in particular for Cuba. The US in effect had put itself at odds with the colonial interests of Spain.
Something dramatic happened in February 1898 when the US battleship Maine exploded and capsized in Cuba, claiming the lives of 250 American soldiers. America charged that Spain was responsible for the attack. In the same way that the September 11 attack pushed the US to pulverize Iraq a hundred years later, America declared war against Spain.
Armed hostilities broke out in Cuba in April 1898 and in the Philippines a month later. General Emilio Aguinaldo, who succeeded Andres Bonifacio as chief katipunero after a contentious political bickering that led to the latter’s own execution, had earlier agreed with Spain to go on exile in exchange of Spain’s carrying out political reforms in the Philippines. On the prodding of America, Aguinaldo in June 1898 returned to the country from his exile in Hongkong, convinced that America would be around to help the Philippines gain independence from Spain. He went on to declare Philippine independence on June 12 of that year, but America—shedding itself of masks—did not recognize it.
Leaving the Filipinos out of their schemes, America and Spain plotted a mock battle in Manila Bay in August 1898, after which formalities sealed Spain’s surrender to America. Four months later the Treaty of Paris would be signed, with Spain formally ceding the Philippines to the US, and selling it like a real estate find for 20 million dollars.
The Philippine-American war followed, which ended in March 1901 with Aguinaldo’s arrest and eventual surrender. Nevertheless, pockets of rebellion would erupt in the provinces from time to time after that, prompting America to implement a “pacification program” throughout the country.
In July 1901 the US Army sent the Company C—widely recognized for its successful campaigns in earlier battles—to Balangiga to pacify Samar Island. The people of Balangiga and the Americans co-existed harmoniously. But the Filipinos would eventually resent the latter’s presence. They complained of abuses being committed against them, particularly against the women.
The resentment would reach a point where the bells in Balangiga would reverberate on that fateful morning of September 28.
Forty years after sacrificing the USS Maine, official America came out with the report that said no evidence linked Spain to the sinking of the battleship. It was—to those who are not fond of things American—the equivalent of saying the carnage was self-inflicted. Some students of history will go on to speculate that 40 years after the September 11 attack, America will unload itself of its collective baggage and say there were lapses in the prosecution of suspects, finding Muslim extremists guilty of the crime.
What happened in Balangiga exposed America’s desires. Apart from helping Cuba and the Philippines gain their independence from Spain, the US flexed its muscle as an emerging imperial power. America was (and is) willing to kill and to risk the lives of its own soldiers, all in the name of manifest destiny. Defending the Treaty of Paris on the floor of the US Senate on January 1900, Senator Albert Beveridge said: “God … has made us the master organizers of the world … He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples… This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit …”