Reporting a war

A provocative monograph entitled “A Massachusetts Woman in the Philippines” was published in Boston in 1903, anonymously because the Philippine-American War had not yet ended, contrary to President Theodore Roosevelt’s official declaration. The lady reporter was a member of the Anti-imperialist League (AIL) which was founded in November 1898,  in the USA by former abolitionists, suffragettes, intellectuals, politicians, academics, and writers including the eminent Mark Twain. In less than a year, it had more than 30,000 members.

Now we know that the Massachusetts woman was the audacious Helen Calista Wilson, a graduate of Radcliffe, who came to the Philippines via Canton and Hong Kong, unaccompanied. When the Spanish-American War broke out in Cuba and spread across the Pacific, the Filipinos were considered allies of the USA as they waged a patriotic independence war against Spain, but when the former continued that war against the Americans, they were no longer patriots but savages who had to be “civilized and Christianized” with the Krag. Moreover, news from the battlefront was heavily censored by General Elwell Otis and Secretary of War Elihu Root.

However, the black (Negro) press would publish letters from American soldiers describing shocking atrocities. For example, L. S. Adams from Ozark, Missouri, of the Washington Regiment wrote home: “In the path of the Washington Regiment and the Battery D of the 6thArtillery, there were 1,008 niggers, and a great many wounded. We burned all their houses. I don’t know how many men, women, and children the Tennessee boys did kill. They would not take any prisoners…” White American solders called Filipinos, niggers; Ms. Wilson and the Anti-Imperialist League (AIL) wanted to find out what exactly was happening in the Philippines.

Although she was not the only foreign woman who wrote about us those turbulent days, Ms. Wilson’s account was not a commonplace travelogue gushing over the archipelago’s breath-taking landscape, or disparaging the natives as inferior beings with weird habits. We don’t know where Ms. Wilson learned Spanish or how she got in touch with Filipinos in Hong Kong, members of Agunaldo’s junta who decided to stay behind. She met Gen. Artemio Ricarte. a “thoroughly likeable” whose house was burnt by the US army, his properties confiscated, so his wife and daughter were destitute. He also said that when Mabini left Guam on the Thomas, he had no intention of taking an oath of allegiance to the USA. Ms. Wilson concluded that Mabini, “was much broken by the long confinement and the unsuitable food, and he was ill on the trip to Manila, arriving in a thoroughly prostrated condition…” so he felt constrained to take the oath. Apparently, the publication of her travel monograph was part of the AIL’s campaign to bring Apolinario Mabini to the USA to testify against the American occupation of the Philippines.

Like an investigative journalist, Ms. Wilson wrote about the corruption in the Bureau of Education. A certain Mr. Trace, a former US sergeant, had volunteered to be a schoolteacher in Balayan, Batangas, “a town whose population had been severely reduced due partly to the war, partly to cholera…” Mr. Trace turned out to be a cruel teacher. In those early days of American education, children did not attend school regularly; to instill discipline, Mr. Trace made an example of a hapless child. He beat the boy with 20 blows, increasing the beating to 50 whenever he was absent even if “…the little fellow shrieked with the pain, and the other children, thoroughly frightened, stopped their ears, shut their eyes, and wept with him.” Ms. Wilson said a Filipino justice sentenced the heartless Mr. Trace to 2 weeks in jail. but this was never carried out. Instead, he was promoted to principal in a normal school in Lipa.

Ms. Wilson also reported cases of water cure torture that caused the death of natives; a certain Lt. Kievaski was ordered to flog and torture a Filipino mayor in public, but “he flung himself down a deep well” to escape a painful death. During her trips around the country, she met a Mrs. Martin, a teacher, also from Massachusetts, who told her to trust no one in the education bureau because many of the American schoolteachers were of “very doubtful fitness, and not a few of undoubted immorality.” Ms. Emma Rose, another teacher, revealed that Education Bureau Director Fred Atkinson and Philippine Commission Director Bernard Moses were so incompetent they were made to resign. Ms. Rose looked down on the natives. “You can’t trust them,” she told Ms. Wilson, “the longer you stay out here, the less you know about them.”

Even then, the world was small: Ms. Wilson happened upon Annette Crocker, a Radcliffe classmate who wanted to have “more contact with the natives” so she asked to be assigned to Dagupan which was then “the dirtiest and most disagreeable town in the Islands…” According to Ms. Wilson her classmate “simply loved Filipinos” whom she described as “culturally white.”

Mabini passed away on 13 May 1903, and Ms. Wilson went to his funeral. She said she was the lone American in a crowd of thousands: “It seemed as though the whole city of Manila had gathered, and I could not help noticing the large proportion of strong and finely intelligent faces, especially among Mabini’s intimate friends. Most noticeable also, and with certain suggestiveness for the future, was the extraordinary number of young men, many of them evidently students, keen, thoughtful, and intelligent looking…”

Ms. Helen Calista Wilson’s travelogue contained such explosive information about the “barbarous atrocities” committed by her countrymen during the Philippine-American was, she had to keep her identity a secret; that was probably why she stayed in these islands for five years.

(SOURCE: Nerissa S Balce, Body Parts of Empire, ADMU Press, 2017)