Rereading history from online sources | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Rereading history from online sources

While the Philippine flag was officially introduced to the Filipino people on June 12, 1898, when the declaration of independence was read from a window of Emilio Aguinaldo’s Kawit home, this flag was first unfurled and saw action during the Battle of Alapan on May 28, 1898. To commemorate the flag and these key dates in our nationhood, Fidel V. Ramos in 1998 declared not one but 16 Flag Days, encouraging people to proudly display the Philippine Flag from May 28 to June 12 every year. You will be surprised, however, to find in the 1898 Philippine Declaration of Independence that the red, white, and blue in our flag commemorates the flag of the United States of America.

It is not well known that the first shot in the Spanish-American War was not fired anywhere near Washington or Madrid but in Manila Bay, resulting in the sinking of the Spanish fleet by the US Asiatic Squadron under the command of George Dewey. After seven hours of fighting, the Spanish defenders saw most of her fleet destroyed, with 381 casualties while the US side, according to my college history teacher, had only one death—from heat stroke. While Dewey won the Battle of Manila Bay, he did not have the land forces to take the capital so to keep the Spanish occupied while waiting for reinforcements, Emilio Aguinaldo was returned home from exile on US transport to resume the Philippine revolution against Spain. This is where the story gets complicated. The Filipinos thought the Americans were allies in their fight for independence, only to have the US annex the Philippines at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. The Filipinos continued the fight against a new invader, leading to the eruption of the Philippine-American War on Feb. 4, 1899.

Now that college-level Philippine history is supposed to be taught and learned using primary sources, one would presume that students are given first-hand accounts of these battles from all sides: Spanish, American, and Filipino. Using primary sources, students are taught to question, to think critically rather than learn rote memory. Exposure to primary sources will teach students how to do research, analyze, and make sense of conflicting points of view, argue and draw conclusions from fact rather than emotion and hearsay. Unfortunately, we have to tease the Filipino voice from the archival documents. Much of the documentation I have gone through is written by the enemy.

Last week, I went through a newly acquired and processed collection of documents from the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars preserved in the Clements Library of the University of Michigan. Three boxes of letters from US soldiers in the Philippines, covering the years 1898-1903, gave me a human face to historical events. Most of the letters were addressed to parents, siblings, and friends in the US and described conditions in the Philippines and their enemies as: “insurrectos,” “gugus,” “niggers,” or “ladrones” (robbers).

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These were young men who volunteered to fight a war half the world away. Many of the letters were from those who never saw action and complained about the heat, mosquitoes, and food. Many of them just wanted to get their pay and return home. One soldier wrote home saying: “You cannot see anything here but Niggers and Soldiers and Mountains.” Not all the letters were written from Manila; some were from Bulacan, Pampanga, Ilocos, Cebu, Leyte, Bacolod, Iloilo, and as far south as Mindanao. James Winchers in 1904 reported: “[W]e are having lots of fun hear(sic) with these moroes, they are a savage race of people they all ought to die at the musle(sic) of a craig [Krag] they killed 15 soldiers and two officers not a very long time ago …”Many of the letters were written from the infirmary as many were disabled or died not from battle but from climate and disease. One would wish they wrote more about what they saw and experienced, like Matthew Miles writing to his sister from Jolo in 1900 said: “Say, you should see the natives puzzle over the ice we get from the ice machine, at first they drop it as though it was a hot iron then they hold it and watch it disappear and grin.” While another soldier in Cotabato described the children he was teaching.

Not all the letters are from soldiers, there were a few from sailors, and even some written by those who served in the islands as musicians in a military band. While many soldiers complained about the food they were served, there were a few handwritten menus that show how some soldiers were creative enough to whip up a feast.

I taught an undergraduate Philippine history course at the University of Michigan last year and arranged that the students see a sampling of primary source materials on the Philippines from a 16th-century account of the Magellan expedition to World War II letters from the Philippines. My students in Ann Arbor wrote term papers enriched by the primary sources they literally had at their fingertips, their counterparts in Manila can find some of these materials from the University of Michigan Philamer website. There is a lot of online material for the taking if teachers can guide their students to look beyond the distractions of X (Twitter) and TikTok to find them.

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