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From Paris: how Manila Bay was lost

Many years ago on trips to Paris, I camped out on the living room sofa of Marc and Ofelia Tequi because the arrangement did not require me to occupy one of their children’s beds. The sofa was the most comfortable spot in the apartment and had played host to a number of visiting notables before me. But what made staying on that sofa memorable was that it was situated near the shelves that held rare French works on the Philippines from the 17th to 19th centuries. The collection of 20th-century French detective stories set in the Philippines was kept on a shelf, with other paperbacks, in the bathroom!

While the household slept, I was awake reading books from Marc Tequi’s rare Filipiniana till daylight broke over the Paris landscape outside. When I was too lazy to read, I just looked at the pictures. There was an illustrated book on Philippine birds that I liked, and two profusely illustrated travel accounts of the Philippines by J. de Montano, “Voyage aux Philippines” (1886), and by Alfred Marche, “Luçon et Palaouan, six années de voyages aux Philippines” (1887). Just looking at the engravings made from these two travel accounts was itself a journey into a foreign country—the Philippines in the 19th century.

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In time I joined Marc Tequi on Sunday book hunts in the flea market, and there built a modest collection of Filipiniana in French. What caught my fancy were the French accounts of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War, the tone of which was often sympathetic to the Philippine side.

One of the interesting works was an article in the Revue de Paris by a person who hid under the pseudonym “Lt. X”; he was later identified as Lt. Ernst Motsch who published in 1904 the book “La Guerre Hispano-Americaine aux Philippines: du 21 avril au 16 aout 1898” (The Spanish-American War in the Philippines from 21 April to 16 August 1898). The book provides a different version of the Battle of Manila Bay that has always been told from the point of view of the victor, George Dewey and the US Asiatic Squadron that sunk the Spanish fleet in Cavite on May 1, 1898.

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If you study the loser’s side of the story, you will see that when news reached Manila that the US Asiatic Squadron was en route to the Philippines, Spanish Rear Adm. Patricio Montojo y Pasaron looked sadly at the Spanish Far Eastern Fleet, which was best described as “floating antiques” compared to the modern armored US ships. But despite this handicap, Montojo mounted a decent defense.

Montojo had been promised “protected cruisers.” But when the Isla de Cuba and the Isla de Luzon arrived, he found that these were mere gunboats, leaving him with only the Reina Cristina and the Castilla that were defective cruisers with guns missing. The leaking wooden Castilla was practically impotent: It had no power in its engines and had to be towed everywhere, including at the scene of battle!

Manila did have its share of mines and torpedoes, but these were outdated, barnacle-infested weapons that were too sparsely distributed to be of any use. Guns were to be found on Corregidor and El Fraile on the approach to Manila, but even these were better suited for a museum rather than modern warfare. Spanish guns were not equipped with modern sighting and range-finding devices. To make matters worse, the Spaniards were low in ammunition, leaving Manila practically defenseless.

To spare the capital from unnecessary bombardment, Montojo planned to move the area of engagement farther away by fortifying Subic. But on April 11, 1898, he was told that shore batteries could not be installed because cement was lacking. Someone suggested crafting makeshift mines, but even that was not feasible because there was no nitroglycerine to be had. Montojo cabled an urgent request for nitroglycerine to the Spanish consul in Hong Kong, but was sent eight miles of electric wire instead.

The torrent of cables to Madrid from Manila will make you laugh. A read-through of a sampling of the cables between Montojo and Madrid (as gleefully reproduced in an American book) will explain the ease of George Dewey’s takeover of Manila Bay that led to the eventual occupation of Manila on Aug. 13, 1898.

On March 26, 1898, Montojo cabled Madrid: “…I have been actively taking all precautions. Torpedoes and boats few and deficient. I await superior orders. I have no instructions.” The response from Madrid was received the next day, March 27. It read: “…[A]pprove all precautions taken in these circumstances regretting not being able to send reinforcements since they are needed here…”

On April 11, Montojo warned Madrid that the Americans “have more than 50 cannons. Mean speed 17 knots. They will come soon as war is declared.” Madrid calmly replied the next day: “…Hope your own zeal and activity will supplement deficiencies.”

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A week later, on April 19, Madrid ordered Montojo to “shut island ports with defensive line of torpedoes…” An exasperated Montojo cabled back on April 21: “Your Excellency knows I have no torpedoes.” On April 23, he explained his plan to move the area of engagement to Subic and received this reply: “Received your telegram dated yesterday.”

There is much to be rewritten in the events of 1898 that we know in outline in textbook history. Details that will make the narrative move and give us the larger picture are so lacking.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: MANILA, Manila Bay, Paris, Philippine Revolution, Philippine-american war
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