• Mark Twain and the Balangiga Bells


    First of 2 parts
    THE date September 28 memorializes how the pealing of church bells is entwined with the resoundingphilippics of Mark Twain. This year will mark the 116thanniversary of that mortal combat in the town plaza of Balangiga, Eastern Samar during the long, cruel Philippine-American War of 1899-1902.

    This day commemorates the famous bells clanging like crazy, while from the hills came the honking of conch shells not unlike a bugler’s signal call to fight. When the dust of battle cleared that early morning, the courageous bolo-wielding freedom fighters roundly defeated and almost annihilated the well-armed but outfoxed Company C, 9th Infantry Regiment, US Army. The veteran soldiers were caught off guard by the revolucionarios who were dressed as early morning churchgoing women. The Americans were either taking breakfast or reading their long awaited, just-arrived mail. That bloody encounter with gunless but resolute bolomen, aided only by the element of surprise and blitzkrieg tactics is described in the historical pages of US Army military campaigns as “the worst defeat since the epic Battle of the Little Bighorn, commonly known as the Last Stand of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment in 1876.” US military reports said that of the Company C’s original 74 complement, 48 were killed or forever unaccounted for, 22 were wounded, and only four unharmed. Other reports say that the American casualties were much more. On the Filipino side, 28 died. But they captured 100 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition.

    Military reprisals, horrific massacre
    Leon Wolff, in his book Little Brown Brother (How the Americans Conquered the Philippines in 1898-1902) says that the humiliating defeat chilled America to the bone. From the new President, Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded the assassinated William McKinley, came an anguished cry to put an end and finish the “insurrection” speedily and with all necessary firmness. The US Army’s retaliation was swift, vicious and brutal. Military orders couched in broad terms assigned General “Jake” Smith the job of pacifying Samar island. His first move was to order all civilians out of the interior. When they came straggling to the coastal towns, they were thrown, one and all, into stockades.

    “I want no prisoners,” Gen. Smith said, “I wish you to kill and burn; the more you burn and kill, the better it will please me.”

    He directed that Samar be converted into “a howling wilderness.” All persons who had not surrendered and were capable of carrying arms were to be shot.

    “Who was capable?” asked Major Littleton Waller of the Marines. Anyone over 10 years of age, replied Smith. Samar boys of 10 could carry a rifle and swing a bolo, he insisted; they were just as dangerous as their elders. The major executed his orders more or less to the letter, and within six months Samar was as quiet as a cemetery.

    The real Balangiga Massacre, as Samar folks know it, and as recorded in world history, was motivated by the “kill and burn” scorched-earth policy of the US Army. More than a thousand natives, mostly non-combatants, civilians, men, women and children older than 10 were killed, whole villages were systematically burned, crops and foodstuff destroyed, farm work animals shot and slaughtered to avenge the American soldiers who perished in the Balangiga attack. It was gruesome and ghastly.

    Twain’s ringing philippics
    Mark Twain [aka Samuel L. Clemens], the eminent American author, satirist and Anti-Imperialist League leader must have somehow inspired the Filipino revolucionarios. He gave the Filipinos a voice in the American press. Through his essays, he articulated sentiments against America’s occupation of the Philippines. With his caustic tone, he even suggested a new flag for the Philippines—“just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” He became an active speaker at anti-war rallies and flooded newspapers with his letters of protests. He could, in a way, have prevented the horrors of the war and the carnage had the imperialists paid heed. He opposed having the “American eagle put its talons on any other land.” The American policymakers led and guided by Mckinley’s Manifest Destiny policy refused to read his riveting and incisive writings. Or, they ignored his ringing philippics against imperialism.

    Aguinaldo and Mark Twain
    Mark Twain admired General Emilio Aguinaldo who resisted Spanish rule and continued the fight against the American occupation. Twain supported the struggle and declaration of Philippine Independence in 1898. Referring to the Filipino nationalist movement, he wrote, Aguinaldo was “their leader, their hero, their hope, their Washington.” Twain knew the Spaniards “surrendered” to the Americans after a mock battle because of the Spanish code of honor not to surrender to a former colony. The Philippine revolutionary forces had already surrounded Intramuros, Manila, the seat of the crumbling Spanish government, and were poised to win the revolutionary war against Spain even before the American land forces arrived.

    Twain, who vehemently objected to American imperialism, denounced the American policy decision to colonize the Philippine Islands as “treachery.” In public forums, he was indignant, and his language vitriolic. His “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which appeared in the February 1901 issue of the North American Review, is perhaps his most popular and influential anti-imperialist essay. He said that the continued stay of the American forces in the Philippines was a “stab at the back against a legitimate revolution for self-determination.” Twain thundered:

    “I thought we should act as their protector—not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now—why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.”(Returning Home, New York, London, October 6, 1900)

    (To be continued tomorrow)

    The author is the Senate Secretary, a former president of Philippine Normal University, and three-term governor of Eastern Samar who first officially declared every September 28 as a province-wide non-working public holiday.


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