‘Laglag-bala,’ ‘tanim-bala,’ ‘pulot-bala’
The mourners at some graves during the Undas weekend used electric candles complete with smokeless flickering wicks, dripless candles, and creative arrangements with glow sticks. Marveling at these new technologies dated me, because one of my childhood joys during Undas was forming balls from candle drippings. To make a really big wax ball, you needed to be resourceful and charming to get people in neighboring plots to yield their candle drippings to a complete stranger.
These childhood memories came to mind recently as I read up on the cases of bullets planted in suitcases at our airport. Some people call the scam “laglag-bala,” to describe bullets dropped into suitcases or “tanim-bala,” to describe bullets planted in suitcases on the way to x-ray examination—and extortion. During the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War, our side was so short of guns and ammunition that townspeople, especially women and children, were sent to the fields after a battle to collect empty cartridges that were reloaded and reused. To connect the past with the present, I would call this “pulot-bala.”
A memo issued from Haligui (Imus) to the presidents of Cavite towns by “Nahahanda” (Daniel Tirona) on Feb. 5, 1897, reads:
“Considering our dire need for Remington bullets, and the great shortage that this Army has for cartridges, I beg Your Honors to order our soldiers to pick up empty shells in the place where a battle has taken place. If any are found, please send them to headquarters here. I hope earnestly that you will do this, for in our sacred cause of freedom, we must help each other for the common good.”
Tactics changed little whether Filipinos were fighting Spaniards from 1896 to 1898 or Americans from 1899 onward. Lack of guns and ammunition was always an issue, and collecting spent shells was important. During the Philippine-American War, an enemy soldier wrote:
“When the Filipinos ran short of ammunition for their Remingtons they saved the shells as they fired them and took them back to be reloaded. I have seen a whole sack full of these empty shells captured and a great many of their reloaded cartridges. They also bought the empty shells of our own Springfields from Chinamen that our authorities negligently permitted them to gather up after a battle. I have seen hundreds of these reloaded Springfield shells and have several in my possession. Their crude workmanship and the brand of our own manufacturers easily identify them.”
Reading the primary-source documents of the period, we come across the types of guns used based on their make: Mausers, Remingtons and Springfields. Spent cartridges from different guns led to some confusion, and Gen. Jose Alejandrino described the situation thus:
“It could hardly be said that there was military administration. The few arsenals that we had were poorly equipped; their principal work was to refill empty cartridges. In these conditions we took for granted beforehand that it would be impossible for us to sustain a determined attack of the enemy for more than 24 hours. The difficulties increased when we take into account the different makes and calibers of our armaments. In fact, it was found that to a regiment were being sent ammunition that could not be utilized because they were of a make and caliber different from those of their guns. This produced very harmful delays and confusion in the campaigns.”
It may not be quite exact to compare the way in which spent cartridges were reloaded in the past with the way some people scrimp and reload spent ink cartridges for our computer printers today, but it makes the process closer to our experience. Katipuneros, for example, reloaded spent shells with crude homemade gunpowder made of ground charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter or salitre, that today is better known as the main ingredient for pork tocino! The reloaded cartridges were sent to the firing lines where they would either: not fire and jam the guns or, worse, exploded inside the guns, injuring the Filipino rather than the enemy.
Around the last quarter of 1896, the Katipuneros maintained a munitions plant in San Francisco de Malabon (now General Trias) run by Feliciano Jocson, a pharmacist from Manila better known by his nicknames “Totong” and “Patola.” With a large quantity of saltpeter and his professional training, he supervised the Katipunan gunpowder factory.
Another munitions factory was set up in Imus by Jose Ignacio Paua, a Chinese blacksmith from Tondo, where guns were repaired and cartridges were reloaded. Paua also made bamboo cannons (probably the type that were used for New Year’s Eve and fiestas) crudely reinforced with baling wire and fired with water and kalburo. These bamboo cannons were effective only at close range, and while I am unsure of their performance in a real battle, they definitely boosted the morale of the frontliners and scared the enemy who thought that, being painted black, they were of military issue.
A review of the law making mere possession of a bullet or two—even if empty and therefore useless—punishable with a fine and imprisonment is in order, and the airport scam should remind us of the history of our struggle for independence with “pulot-bala.”
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