IF what US Ambassador Sung Kim has said is true, that the US government is now willing to return the three purloined Balangiga bells to our people and our country, President Rodrigo Duterte will impressively succeed in a stellar national endeavor wherein several of his predecessors gamely tried but failed.
Unless Donald Trump throws a monkey wrench on the arrangement, the country will be able to finally bring closure to a long gaping wound in Filipino-American relations and scar on our shared history.
Credit for this breakthrough will belong to of all people, President Duterte, who has declared the country’s separation from the US, disrespected President Obama, and now says he will never visit America because it is “lousy.”
Credit will also go to a Korean-American, Ambassador Sung Kim, who in his low-key way has been doing a lot to repair and reinvigorate our bilateral relations and partnership.
Event for national celebration
When the bells are finally brought home, it will be an event worthy of national celebration, fittingly marked by a Te Deum Mass, perhaps first at the Manila Cathedral where the entire nation can join in celebrating Mass, and then later in appropriate rites at the bells’ true home in the church of Balangiga. Eastern Samar, where the bells should be regularly rung and heard.
The return of the Balangiga bells is a big deal. It is of surpassing importance to our people and our country. It will culminate decades of efforts to persuade the US government and one local US community (a Wyoming community) to do right by our people and return the bells to our country.
This will, I dare say, revive interest in the largely unwritten and often forgotten history of the Filipino-American war, which American historians have played down in importance in deference to the more dramatic and bloody wars of the 20th century.
Return as soon as possible
Two of the Balangiga bells are at the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming; the third bell is at Camp Could in South Korea.
“If at all possible we would like to return all three bells as soon as possible,” the US ambassador said.
He also said that the bells have significant importance to US veterans. This has long been cited as the reason for refusing repeated Philippine requests for the return of the bells.
The Elgin Marbles
The prolonged controversy over the bells is comparable to the controversy between Britain and Greece over the Elgin Marbles which has festered since they were first taken from the Parthenon by an English aristocrat in 1801.
The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures made under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Phidias and his assistants. They were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens.
In 1801, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin obtained a permit from the Sublime Porte, which then ruled Greece. From 1801 to 1812, Elgin’s agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while others, such as Lord Byron, likened Elgin’s actions to vandalism or looting.
Following a public debate in Parliament and the subsequent exoneration of Elgin, the marbles were purchased from Elgin by the British government in 1816 and were passed to the British Museum, where they are on display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.
After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece began a series of projects to restore its monuments, and has expressed its disapproval of Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Greece disputes the subsequent purchase of the Marbles by the British Government and urges the return of the works to Greece for their unification.
In 2014, Unesco offered to mediate between Greece and the United Kingdom in resolving the dispute of the Elgin Marbles, although this was later turned down by the British Museum as Unesco works with government bodies, not trustees of museums.
The ordeal of Samar
Central to the saga of the Balangiga bells is that they constitute a critical part of the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902.
The bells were taken after the killing of 76 US soldiers and officers in Balangiga, Samar. This is memorialized by Americans as the ‘Balangiga massacre.”
The incident was followed by the bloody war of revenge waged by American forces, that saw their commander transform Samar into a “howling wilderness,”and the killing of anyone who was over the age of 10.
The best account of the Balangiga incident and the destruction of Samar is the book, The Ordeal of Samar by Joseph L. Schott (Solar Publishing Corporation, 1964).
Schott narrates the gripping chapters of Samar’s struggle and ordeal:
1. The Balangiga incident and the tragedy of Company C of the Ninth Infantry Regiment of the US army.
2. The brutal campaign in Samar waged by brig. Gen. Jacob Smith and his troops. He earned the nickname “howling wilderness.”
3. The court martial of US officers and soldiers for atrocities committed by US troops in the Samar campaign.
The plight of Samar shocked the American people and turned many against the war in the Philippines. It gave fuel to the Anti –imperialist League, which was led by the philosopher William James and the industrialist Arnold Carnegie. Mark Twain wrote his anti-imperialist pieces during this time.
New history of the Filipino-American war
I end this column with the lament that there is need for a new history of the Filipino-American war, one that tells the story on both sides. Most of the accounts have been told by American historians; for a long time, the American government insisted on calling it an insurrection against the United States. It was only in recent decades that US writers began to call it a war.
I am proud to report that I am part of a new history project to tell the full story of the Filipino-American war. I’ve devoted part of the past two years doing research and writing for the book.
It is little known that there were four black regiments that served in the campaign in the Philippines. Many black soldiers refused to fight against the Filipinos.
According to US historian Howard Zinn, some deserted to join the Filipino rebels. The most famous of these was David Fagan of the 24th Infantry. “He accepted a commission in the insurgent army and for two years wreaked havoc on the American forces.”
East Visayas, the last stand
The Balangiga incident and the Balangiga bells form a crucial part of the closing years of the war. The Filipino independence forces had transferred their main campaign of resistance to East Visayas, Samar and Leyte, where they were led by two Aguinaldo generals, General Vicente Lucban and Gen. Abraham Mojica—who were ably supported by scores of local katipuneros and bolomen.
Most were katipuneros, because Lucban opened his Samar campaign with the blood compact of the Katipunan. And many of the local leaders and fighters were schooled in Manila.
It’s little known that the war continued long after Miguel Malvar finally surrendered in Batangas. It continued in East Visayas.
In his excellent book, Leyte, The Historic Islands, Francisco Tantuico reports that on June 19, 1902, the Filipino forces, by agreement, finally surrendered and turned over their arms to the Americans in Baybay, Leyte.
Three months after the surrender, the Philippine Commission announced on September 11,1902 the official end of the Filipino-American war.