Looking Back

An Igorot in the Philippine-American War

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Historians searching for primary-source material on the Philippine-American War often turn up at the National Library in Manila, which preserves thousands of official documents by Filipinos that were captured by the enemy. For an eyewitness account of the Battle of Caloocan in 1899, a historian can look under the files of Antonio Luna for the Filipino side and Arthur MacArthur for the enemy’s point of view. Arthur MacArthur was the father of Douglas “I shall return” MacArthur, who is better known to Filipinos. One of the gaps in our history is that we know the outcomes of important battles but we rarely have the details of how these battles were fought. Thus, it came as a surprise to find a rare eyewitness account of the Battle of Caloocan in a book on Bontoc grammar.

After the first shot that started the Philippine-American War in February 1899, Filipinos fought and lost two engagements on the outskirts of Manila with the enemy moving toward Malolos, capital of the First Philippine Republic. The enemy was engaged in Caloocan, and at a crucial moment, Kawit forces refused to obey the orders given by Antonio Luna, the ground commander, saying they would only obey direct orders from  Emilio Aguinaldo. Naturally, Luna disciplined these soldiers, who would get even some months later by murdering him in Cabanatuan.

Fangued of Samoki’s account began with complaints about food and how he and his fellow Igorot were treated by lowlanders in the towns they passed from the Cordilleras to Dagupan, where they boarded a train for Malolos and were deployed, against their will, in the Battle of Caloocan. The Igorot at one point had to threaten people in order to get rice, chickens, pigs, and even a carabao for food. In desperation they slaughtered a horse but couldn’t eat the meat that resembled human flesh. To cut the long story short, I skipped the text that deals with their stops in Faknotan, Santo Tomas and Dagupan and continued on to their arrival in Malolos where they were paid one peseta each (about 20 centavos today). Exhausted from the long journey and smarting from ill treatment, they threatened to return to the Cordilleras but were gently convinced by bayonets and guns to stay.

From Malolos, the 200 bewildered Igorot were deployed to the front lines in Caloocan. Fangued said:

“Then starts the train. Then we go and ride in the train. Then we come to Caloocan forestland only. We eat in the night the not sufficed our food. [While] we are eating, we men then see the fire flying that comes from the sea. Dazzles the fire us. Then it is time of beginning or crowing of cocks. Then says Golash, our interpreter, let us go around to Fanged, behind Manila … and many [are] the soldiers… we had spears, battle-axes and shields [with us], no rifles.

“Then was shot one soldier in the scrotum had shot (him) the Americans. Then we fret, we say why! A battle [is] the calling of that [man], why! A different dance is this. Then we say, ‘Are we sometimes afraid and again not [afraid]?… Many are the projectiles coming from the sea, which send the soldiers, the Americans [Melikano]. Two were shot of the soldiers, Filipinos… We had dug [trenches] into the ground, we Igorot that we hide our bodies (ourselves) because no guns ours except only our spears and battle-axes. Then comes again one company at noon and are shot again three soldiers, Filipinos… Then they take their bayonets they dig up the ground they bury all their cartridges (bullets). Then they return to their commander, they say used up (no more) our bullets… There are dead six, there are five, some are shot in the hand, there is one Negrito shot in his forehead… Many [are] the dead among them, much [is] the blood upon the ground… They remove the many dead, they carry [them] to the train… Then turns dark the day and then they fire the cannon; fire [them at] the soldiers, Americans. Then whistles the shell of cannon then often it hits the forest. Then get afraid the Igorot and immediately they run away. Then we run away and come to the train. Many are the dead men in the train… Nobody was shot of the Bontoc men.”

Shells fell out of the sky, according to Fangued, throwing up the earth when they exploded and killing people in crowds. This was a weapon and a type of warfare the Igorot had never experienced before. Igorot weapons were for close hand-to-hand combat, no match for American guns and artillery, yet not a single one of them died in Caloocan that day. It is also disturbing to read about some of the soldiers burying their ammunition in the ground and telling their commanders they had run out, thus resulting in the decision to retreat after heavy losses.

The full Bontoc text and a very literal and awkward translation, as you read above, are to be found in the appendix to Seidenadel’s “The First grammar of the Language spoken by the Bontoc Igorot” that is available online. This rare Bontoc narrative is but one of many voices, other stories that have to be dug up to complete our picture not just of the Battle of Caloocan or the Philippine-American War but also of Philippine history itself. Philippine history can sometimes be described as a local history of Manila because these other narratives have yet to come to light to enrich our history.

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