New answers to old questions
Looking Back

New answers to old questions

/ 04:20 AM February 07, 2024

Primary sources on the outbreak of the Philippine-American War make for engaging reading. More so after the 125th anniversary commemorated last Sunday, Feb. 4. The New York Times carried the news on Feb. 6, 1899, two days late because of the time difference between the Philippines and the United States and the hassle of dispatching news from Manila via cable from Hong Kong. “Fight at Manila with Filipinos” was front-page news, insinuating that Emilio Aguinaldo’s forces, described as “hostile natives,” were to blame. Datelined Manila Feb. 5, 8:15 p.m., it reads:

“The long-expected rupture between the Americans and Filipinos has come at last. The clash came at 8.45 yesterday evening, when three daring Filipinos darted past the Nebraska regiment’s pickets at Santa Mesa, but retired when challenged.”

Note in the above that there is no mention of San Juan Bridge that was once believed to be the site of the so-called First Shot:


“They repeated the experiment without drawing the sentries’ fire. But the third time Corp. Greely challenged the Filipinos and then fired, killing one of them and wounding another. Almost immediately afterwards the Filipinos’ line from Coloacan [Caloocan] to Santa Mesa, commenced a fusillade, which was ineffectual.


“The outposts of the Nebraska, Montana, and North Dakota regiments replied vigorously, and held their ground until reinforcements arrived. The Filipinos, in the meantime, concentrated at three points: Caloocan, Gagalangin, and Santa Mesa:

“At about 1 o’clock this morning the Filipinos opened a hot fire from all three places simultaneously. This was supplemented by the fire of two siege guns at Balik-Balik and by an advance of their skirmishers at Poco [Paco] and Pandacan. The Americans responded with a terrific fire, but owing to the darkness they were unable to determine its effect. The Utah Light Artillery finally succeeded in silencing the native battery … The engagement lasted over an hour.”

US cruiser Charleston and gunboat Concord fired into Filipino positions in Caloocan from Malabon, while the monitor Monadnock fired from Malate. California and Washington regiments pushed Filipinos back to Paco and Santa Mesa, while Kansas and Dakota drove Filipinos to Caloocan. Igorots were involved: “Armed with bows and arrows, made a very determined stand in the face of a hot artillery fire, and left many men dead on the field.”

The Times also ran a similar story from London that differs in small details like “the immediate cause of the attack was an advance by two Filipinos [not three] … When ordered to halt they refused and the sentry fired. An insurgent signal gun was then fired from Blockhouse No. 7 and attack was immediately begun …” The Filipino positions were reported in: San Juan del Monte, Santa Ana, San Pedro Macati [Makati], Santa Mesa, and Lomia [La Loma]. Filipino attacks on Americans were reported as well as “insurgents driven into the Pasig River and drowned.”

Place names given in the accounts are outside the walls of Intramuros, these were suburbs on the north and east of Manila. After plotting the place names on a contemporary Google or Waze map, Juan Luna’s descriptions as given to reporters in Washington are useful. It is not well-known that the famous painter was a diplomat of the Aguinaldo government, refused recognition by the Spanish and American negotiators of the Treaty of Paris. Luna said that a large Filipino force was camped in the Malate area and that American outposts were positions once held by the Spanish before the surrender of the city on Aug. 13, 1898. Luna denied reports of heavy damage to Caloocan from the US vessels because the area was “protected from the bay by a range of hills.” He added that the US could not get close to their target because the water was shallow. Luna said that many of the positions taken by the Filipino forces from the Spaniards were given up at the request of US General Otis.

With so much material readily available today, I was reminded of historian colleagues who complain when primary sources are scarce. They may not be too happy with new developments because they also complain when there is too much material! When re-writing and revising what we thought we knew about the outbreak of the Philippine-American War, it is important not to be distracted by the debated details. Rather, one has to step back from the trees, launch a drone, and see the forest for the bigger picture. While it is important to reconstruct what really happened in Manila on the night of Feb. 4, 1899, we should not lose sight of its effect on the debates and final vote of the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Paris. Ratified with a slim margin of one vote, the treaty led to the US occupation of the Philippines and the imposition of its authority by force. It was suggested that Aguinaldo started the war to make a point before the vote, but the war was unplanned. On the night of the first shot, Filipino generals were not in their assigned posts, they were attending a ball in Malolos. Who ordered the firing that went on through the night? If it was spontaneous, why weren’t orders issued to stop it, investigate, and save ammunition? One-hundred twenty-five years later, we look back in the hope of finding new answers to old questions.


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TAGS: History, opinion, wars

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