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Looking Back

Balangiga bells: a beginning, not an end

/ 05:08 AM December 12, 2018

One day, after the fanfare that accompanied their return to the Philippines from the United States, I hope to see the actual bells taken from the rubble of Balangiga Church as war booty during the Philippine-American War. It will also be time to thank two individuals, Rolando Borrinaga and Bob Couttie, whose zeal and books have kept the issue of the bells alive in the two decades since Fidel V. Ramos took the issue up with then US President Bill Clinton.

I took an interest in the return of the bells during my time as chair of the National Historical Institute. After reading all the position papers for and against their return, I proposed the return of the bell in Korea, leaving the two bells in Wyoming for a better time, or for all the opposing veterans to pass on.

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When I floated the idea around, I came across opposition from hardliners on both the Philippine and US sides who insisted on all or nothing. So we got nothing, till Fidel Ramos tried to untangle the stalemate by proposing the return of half a bell! Being a tactician, Ramos knew that, in time, the other half kept in the United States would eventually be returned to the Philippines to make the bells whole again.

Ramos obviously learned from his mother’s knee about Rizal losing a slipper in a river and how, in an early display of altruism, he threw the other pair in the water, knowing that one slipper found downstream would be useless without its pair. Two decades since the Ramos proposal, the bells are finally on Philippine soil and will make the last leg of their balikbayan journey to Balangiga, where they are expected to peal once more, calling people to prayer and remembrance.

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While we have waited long for these bells to come home, it should not be seen as an end, but as a beginning of renewed research in that contentious part of Philippine history once known as the “Philippine Insurrection.” It is not well-known that in 1999, the US Library of Congress catalogue was revised to reflect reference, archival and photographic materials in their Philippine History collection under the heading “Philippine-American War, 1899-1902.” What may seem like a trivial bibliographic change is relevant to the way we understand that conflict today.

During the American occupation of the Philippines, our patriots who continued the struggle for independence were seen as “insurrectos”—robbers, highwaymen, bandits, bandoleros and tulisanes. As far as the US colonial government was concerned, our struggle for independence was a violent uprising against established authority; it was merely an insurrection, because war is defined as an armed conflict between states. Aguinaldo and the Malolos Republic were not recognized by the United States then, but today we see things differently.

At the core of our understanding of this period is a room full of boxes containing original documents once known as the “Philippine Insurgent Records,” captured from Emilio Aguinaldo’s government and military forces, taken to the United States, and arranged by Capt. J.R.M. Taylor. The five-volume selection he made of documents translated from the original Spanish and Philippine languages is any researcher’s first dip into this ocean of primary source material. Once preserved in Washington, they were turned over to President Carlos P. Garcia on June 20, 1958, during a state visit to the United States. These documents, including 636 rolls of microfilm, were later turned over to the National Library of the Philippines, on Oct. 27, 1958. The collection is now renamed the “Philippine Revolutionary Records.”

Before the originals were returned to the Philippines, every document was microfilmed in the United States and an index prepared, making for easy reference. However, the challenge that faces anyone using the original documents is that the indexes are almost useless, after the papers were refiled, or some deteriorated beyond use, while others were systematically stolen and sold to collectors till the thefts were exposed in the 1990s.

The bells of Balangiga should not be an end, but merely a beginning in the continuing research into the Philippine-American War, if only to help us come to terms with our love-hate relationship with the United States.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Balangiga bells, Bill Clinton, Bob Couttie, fidel v. ramos, Looking Back, Rolando Borrinaga
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