What the bells will mean
Though still unconfirmed (but sourced from a Filipino-American government official), the news about the imminent return of the Balangiga bells is thrilling, heartwarming.
One hundred seventeen years after the three church bells were seized from the parish church of Balangiga in Samar, the bells remain in the United States, under the custody of the US military. Two are to be found in Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, while the third is in a US military facility in South Korea.
The backstory to how the bells ended up in the US military’s hands is a matter of both pride and indignation for Filipinos, and of historical retaliation and “justice” from the point of view of Americans, or at least those who still support their country’s hegemony.
Rooted in the long-winding tale of the bells is the triumphant action of Filipino revolutionaries against American colonialist troops, who sought to overrun the country after betraying their Filipino allies. After Spanish forces had been defeated at the turn of the century by an American flotilla in Manila Bay, the Spaniards signed a treaty ceding these islands to the United States. Ironically, the American government, which sparked the Spanish-American War in support of Cuban revolutionaries, chose to give Cuba its independence (even if Cuba remained an American protectorate).
By the end of the battle in Manila Bay, Filipino revolutionaries looked to the Americans as their allies, who they hoped would help hasten their fight for independence from Spain. Instead, Washington, DC, sent army troops to the Philippines, where they proceeded to mount a campaign of “pacification” against what they called the “insurrectionists.”
This was how American forces belonging to Company C of the Ninth US Infantry found themselves in Samar. Unbeknownst to them, Filipino guerrillas were already gathered outside of town. At dawn of Sept. 28, the bells of the church rang out, signaling the start of a surprise attack. The guerrillas, dressed as women, rushed out of their hiding places and rushed to the soldiers’ camp. The guerrillas who were armed with bolos, or long knives, killed 48 soldiers and doubtless wounded more.
Accounts say that, in retaliation, Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith ordered that Samar be turned into a “howling wilderness,” ordering his men to burn the town and kill everyone over the age of 10. (Overall, some 200,000 Filipinos are estimated to have died in this “insurrection.”) What has become known as the Balangiga massacre was then capped by the taking of the bells.
Successive Philippine presidents have since demanded for the return of the bells, the latest of whom is President Duterte.
In response, the United States has said it views the bells as “legitimate” war booty and that they remain part of American government property. When Mr. Duterte brought up his demand that the bells be returned in a State of the Nation Address, US Ambassador Sung Kim said the United States would “study” the matter.
This year, says Samar historian Rolando Borrinaga, the US Department of Defense finally approved their return.
The Diocese of Borongan, which has jurisdiction over Balangiga, has said the bells are “inappropriate trophies of war.” Samar Bishop Leonardo Medroso wrote in his appeal that “the bells of Balangiga, if they remain there, will always be a reminder of that fateful encounter and therefore fuel grudges and hatred. Let us do away with grudges and hatred. Return the bells to Balangiga. We will use them to call people to prayer.”
Indeed, town authorities had a belfry built in 1998 in hopes of the bells’ return. In 2003, a monument recalling the “Balangiga encounter” was enshrined in the town’s plaza.
Once the bells are installed in the town church, the people of Balangiga and the rest of their countryfolk would have put this episode behind them — a most appropriate way of honoring the memory of both the people of Balangiga and the American soldiers who lost their lives in the encounter. And perhaps, a reminder, too, that the pain of the past need not intrude into the exigencies of the present and the promises of the future.
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