Epidemic and massacre in 1820 Manila | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Epidemic and massacre in 1820 Manila

/ 05:06 AM January 29, 2020

News of the measures taken by our Asean neighbors to contain the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) makes me wonder what the Philippines is doing, and whether we are prepared to deal with the virus if and when it strikes. What scares me more is unnecessary panic that results from fake news on social media. Reading social media posts inciting anger against the Chinese on the issue of the West Philippine Sea, or about jobs allegedly taken by Chinese from Filipinos, makes me wonder—where is this coming from? Who is pushing this campaign, and what is their agenda? Such an attitude has no place in a global world where national boundaries, both natural and official, have become more fluid or porous. Fanning lingering anti-Chinese resentment and connecting it to the 2019-nCoV might lead to fatal events, as it did during a cholera epidemic in Manila in 1820 that saw a mob of 3,000 natives go on a two-day rampage that led to the deaths of over a hundred “foreigners” (non-Spanish) and some Chinese suspected of poisoning the Pasig river and other water sources, as a prelude to an invasion.

There are many references to the massacre in contemporary travel accounts of the Philippines. JW Campbell, an English naval officer, visited Manila at the time and wrote a friend: “In the Philippine Islands, the malady was marked by one of those terrific outbursts of barbarian despair which have more than once signaled the progress of this pestilence… I perceived even before I landed that some dreadful catastrophe had marked its progress with desolation and had produced stagnation in the Commercial operations on the [Pasig] River and in the port [of Manila].”

Robert Morrison, a Protestant missionary in Canton, wrote: “There has been a very shocking massacre of from thirty to forty Europeans of different nations of Europe, and of about eight Chinese, at Manilla. The perpetrators of this cruel act were the native Manilla people. The pretext was a supposition that foreigners had introduced the disease called cholera morbus, which had prevailed extensively, and was very fatal.”

Paul Gironere, a Frenchman self-styled as “Lord of Jala-jala [Laguna],” left a dramatic account of how he saved a compatriot by challenging a mob. This eyewitness account is the most famous, but is best left as a footnote due to its exaggeration. Pierre or Peter Dobell, then the Russian Consul in Manila, related that the massacre followed the reforms of “La Pepa” or the liberal Spanish Constitution of 1812, which recognized the right of the “natives” and encouraged trade with foreigners. He added: “The massacre and the rumors against the foreigners in Manila were in fact perpetuated by some Spaniards who were envious of the commercial bounty being obtained by foreign trading companies and traders. To prevent these foreigners from firmly establishing their trade and commerce base in the Philippines while making it appear that they do not have any hand in this massacre, they circulated the rumors that foreigners were spreading the disease.”


Charles Louis Benoit, an army medic commissioned in the Spanish forces in the Philippines, traced the roots of the massacre to lingering antipathy to foreigners following the British occupation of Manila, which ran for 20 months in 1762-64. Benoit attributed the rumor of the water’s poisoning to the unnamed Dominican rector of the University of Santo Tomas. He published his observations, supported by the medical histories of eight patients he treated, as well as autopsies undertaken on the dead that littered the streets of Manila. Benoit also blamed government attempts at a cure. Makeshift stands were set up around the city to dispense a mixture of brandy and quinine, whose effect, according to those who took it, was worse than the cholera itself.

In retrospect, the 1820 cholera epidemic and massacre resonates two centuries later in the social media-driven demonizing of the Chinese in the Philippines, whether mainland or local. The distrust of the government-supplied brandy-quinine cure for cholera can also be seen as a foreshadowing of the recent vaccination scare relating to Dengvaxia. History does not repeat itself; it’s people who do so—with disastrous results.

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