Looking Back

When cholera and war ravaged PH

Cholera swept over the Philippines at the dawn of the last century, killing thousands already weary and weakened by the wars of independence—first, against Spain (1896-1898), and second, against the United States (1899-1902). Apolinario Mabini was cholera’s most prominent victim. He died in May 1903, barely three months after his return from exile in Guam where he successfully negotiated with his captors for fresh food and regular marketing, as he had grown sick of canned food, especially “Carne Norte [americano].” Back home, Mabini indulged in Filipino fare with a vengeance such that, it is said, he died of cholera from spoiled or unpasteurized carabao milk. Unlike most cholera victims who were immediately cremated to the horror of family and friends, Mabini was allowed to be buried in the Chinese cemetery in La Loma, where he was sent off by a record-breaking attendance at his funeral. Not a good idea for social distancing.

Going over the statistics in the campaign against Asiatic cholera while we’re under the current lockdown requires some nuancing, since casualty figures have to be seen in the context of the then continuing Filipino resistance to American rule. How do we separate those who died of disease from those who died from battle, torture, and execution by the enemy? In December 1901, enemy general Franklin Bell ordered the hamletting of Batangas and Laguna, forcing thousands from their homes into concentration camps. Asked to comment about the American atrocities, Bell told the New York Times in 1901: “One-sixth of the natives of Luzon have either been killed or have died of the dengue fever in the last two years. The loss of life by killing alone has been great, but I think not one man has been slain except where his death has served the legitimate purposes of war. It has been necessary to adopt what other countries would probably be thought harsh measures, for the Filipino is tricky and crafty and has to be fought in his own way.”


Hamletting deprived the “insurrectos” of popular support, and on the pretext of halting the spread of disease, Bell ordered the deserted homes and fields burned to starve the insurrectos of food. Many deaths were recorded in the cramped and squalid camps—over 8,000 casualties from January to April of 1902 alone. From this terrible experience, Filipinos learned to suspect American health procedures; they refused to follow quarantine and other procedures meant to counter the spread of cholera in Manila.

When the now infamous Dean C. Worcester ordered a quarantine of Manila, people escaped, spreading the disease further. It did not help that most people faced the epidemic with resignation, as punishment from an angry God. So they went out in procession with the image of San Roque, the patron saint against plague, prayed the Oratio Imperata as we do today against the coronavirus, and took to sometimes infected holy water instead of boiling drinking water and cooking food well. Someone in Iloilo had a dream of San Roque emerging from a well. About 6,000 people trooped to this well to draw and drink cholera-tainted water. In Manila, people in bancas drew fresh water from a spot in Manila Bay, where the bubbles rising from the depths formed a cross. How could a stream of sweet miraculous water flow from the sea? Well, the source of this magic spring was a busted sewer!


In his 1909 monograph “A History of Asiatic Cholera in the Philippines,” Worcester admitted he went too far by ordering the burning of the houses in the Farola district of Tondo in 1902, which led to much anger and resentment. He was ineffective because he did not adapt to or understand Filipino culture to win cooperation. When the sick and infected were forcibly taken from the hands of wailing family and friends and brought into isolation where they were not allowed visitors, Filipinos simply hid the sick and infected.

It did not help that those who died of cholera were immediately cremated, depriving relatives and friends of the chance to give their loved one a proper wake and funeral. All they got was a notice of death. Were the dying even allowed to see a priest for the last rites? Those who died in hiding could not be buried and were dumped into the Pasig River or Manila Bay in the dead of night, causing the further spread of the disease.

History shows how human beings, helpless against an epidemic, adapt in time and survive.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

Subscribe to Inquirer Opinion Newsletter
Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.
View comments

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2020 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.