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The Black hero of the Filipino army

On Feb. 7, 1899, after much fighting, enemy forces overran a Filipino defense position in Caloocan. Going over the casualties, U.S. General Frederick Funston noted in his memoirs that they came across the body of “a very large black Negro” mixed with those of Filipino soldiers. We do not know the name or rank of this Black soldier who deserted the enemy forces and fought on the side of the Filipinos.

However, history records the name of David Fagan (or Fagen in some online sources), a six-foot Black deserter who carried the rank of Captain in the Filipino Army. There is a reference to Fagan in La senda del sacrificio (“The Price of Freedom”), the memoirs of General Jose Alejandrino who remembers not just Fagan’s bravery in battle, but also the times he carried the

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malaria-stricken general over rivers and mountains during the Philippine-American War.

In 1901, following the capture of Emilio Aguinaldo in Palanan, Isabela by General Funston, many Filipino generals in Luzon surrendered to the enemy. Alejandrino negotiated the terms of his surrender, asking that the enemy must guarantee the lives and liberty of the men who fought under him. When Alejandrino and Funston finally met, the enemy general insisted: “You cannot surrender yourself without first delivering Fagan.” Alejandrino replied: “The surrender of Fagan is an infamy I cannot commit because I know that if you get to catch him, you are capable of dousing him in petroleum and burning him alive. You have soldiers of your own, why don’t you catch Fagan yourself?”

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Who was Fagan? He is described in Funston’s “Memories of Two Wars” (1911) thus:

“This wretched man was serving as an officer (in the Filipino forces) and on two occasions had written me impudent and badly spelled letters. It was mighty well understood that if taken alive by one of us, he was to stretch a picker-rope as soon as one could be obtained.” Funston wanted to punish Fagan for his notorious hatred of “whites.” In Alejandrino’s memoirs, translated from the original Spanish in 1949, he related that Fagan had once asked for the custody of some white American prisoners of war held by Filipinos. These were given over to him and were later found dead. In the investigations that followed, Fagan explained that they were killed “while trying to escape”—an excuse that resonates with us today because it is still used by police to justify self-defense or pursuit that leads to extrajudicial killings. Fagan was cleared of murder, according to Alejandrino, but he was never allowed again to even get near white American POWs. Fagan was supposed to have killed whites with his bare hands, splitting the head open by the jaws.

Fagan was said to speak Tagalog quite well, and was actually living in with a Filipino woman who once reported to Alejandrino, in tears, that she was beaten up by Fagan who even bit off part of her cheek! Fagan explained that he did not know what he was doing, that this violence against a woman was done while he was asleep and having a nightmare about resisting arrest by American soldiers. Today, Fagan would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the Philippine-American War.

Filipino soldiers regarded Fagan as a hero, and followed him during battle. When he was on horseback, the Filipinos saw it as a sign to advance, and when he dismounted it was the signal to retreat. Riding on horseback preserved the use of his legs for the time to retreat. It was said that he could run faster than his horse, and if he was on foot, he could, despite his size, squeeze himself into tight spots to avoid capture by the enemy.

All we know about Fagan’s end comes from Alejandrino, who wrote:

“When our surrender was effected, I really felt very sorry in having to leave Fagan. I left him some twelve rifles for his defense. Later on, I learned that the Americans put a price on his head and he was assassinated, according to versions, in the mountains of Bongabon.”

Many years ago when I first read about Fagan, the Black soldier in the Philippine-American War, I was fascinated at how one man could be seen so differently depending on the primary source you are reading. He was a deserter and a traitor to U.S. General Funston, but was a hero and ally to Filipino General Alejandrino. I remembered Fagan recently as I read the reports on Anti-Asian hate crimes and Black Lives Matter demonstrations sweeping across the U.S. during the pandemic.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, black soldier in Filipino army, David Fagan, Looking Back, Philippine-american war
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