Looking Back

Samar, the ‘howling wilderness’

/ 05:06 AM December 19, 2018

After they ring happily to signal the start of 2019, the bells of Balangiga will fade from our newsfeed, only to be remembered annually, on Sept. 28, the commemoration of the Balangiga conflict, a nonworking holiday in Eastern Samar.

Now that the bells are back, one can only guess what stories and spin will emerge from the interplay of remembering and forgetting that creeps in over time.


What I vaguely remembered from school history was that it was called the “Balangiga massacre,” and that it was one of the major setbacks for the enemy in the Philippine-American War, which raged from 1899 and well after Emilio Aguinaldo was captured the day after his birthday in 1901. The fighting continued even after civil government was established in the islands in 1902 and the conflict was declared ended. This explains why, in many legal records from the early American occupation of the Philippines, many of our patriots in the continuing struggle for freedom were branded as bandits, bandoleros, insurrectos and tulisanes. They need to be rehabilitated from a history biased in favor of the enemy, rather than the Filipino, point of view.

What little I knew of Balangiga was reinforced by Ayala Museum Diorama No. 49, which depicts unarmed enemy soldiers sitting down at breakfast being attacked by Filipinos with bolos (sharp-edged weeding instruments, in contrast to the pointed sundang that had been confiscated days earlier from homes by the enemy). Some of the bolo-wielding men were disguised as women.


The Ayala Museum dioramas are static, and remain very much as they had been conceptualized by Carlos Quirino and executed by Paete artisans in the 1970s. But the interpretation of this one diorama has changed from its revised 1985 title, “Balangiga Massacre, 1901,” to “Surprise Attack at Balangiga,” in a recasting of the diorama narrative by the expatriate Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto in 2004.

What is absent from the 1970s, 1980s and early 2000s texts that accompany the Balangiga diorama is the real cause of the attack, culled from the latest research by Rolando Borrinaga and Bob Couttie. Balangiga was caught in a bad situation — threatened from outside by Gen. Vicente Lukban who looked on the townspeople as “collaborators” with the enemy soldiers who set up camp there, and threatened from the inside by garrison commander Capt. Thomas Connell, who suspected that the townspeople were not true to the oath of allegiance they had made to the United States.

Two drunk enemy soldiers molested Catalina Catalogo, tindera at a tuba stall, who was dragged out of the tienda at bayonet point. Her brothers rescued her and beat up the drunk soldiers. Without investigating the incident, Captain Connell rounded up all the men in town, and crammed them in two small tents without food or any explanation for their indefinite detention.

They were forced to clean the town without pay, and ordered to cut down all banana trees and burn rice stocks in storage to starve out the Filipino forces expected to attack the town. Worse, all bolos and sundang, indispensable and personal working tools, were confiscated from their homes by the enemy, who rightly saw these as deadly weapons.

Balangiga should be seen as an act of revenge by the townspeople rather than a military encounter. The real massacre took place in Samar when the American forces retaliated. First, enemy soldiers returned to Balangiga, then still mourning and burying its dead; they torched the town, killed those who resisted, and took the church bells hostage lest these be melted down by the Filipinos and made into weapons, cannons or cannonballs. The bells were not considered “war booty” until much later, when there was a tug-of-war over their return.

From October 1901 to February 1902, Gen. Jacob Smith, appointed to pacify Samar, ordered his men, “The more you burn and kill, the better you will please me.” Not only were the Filipino forces to be exterminated, Samar was to be turned into a “howling wilderness,” to make sure there was no place for insurrectos to hide or find food. When someone asked Smith to clarify the order to kill any Filipino capable of bearing arms, he set the bar at 10 years old and above.

This was not the US Army’s finest moment: Murder, torture, hamletting, and other atrocities were hidden under the guise of “benevolent assimilation.”


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, Balangiga bells, Looking Back, Philippine-american war
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