The Twain we didn’t know

After he read the Treaty of Paris, signed by Spain and the United States of America in December 1898, Mark Twain wrote to a friend: “Apparently, we are not proposing to set the Filipinos free and give their islands to them, and apparently we are not proposing to hang the priests and confiscate their property.  If these things are so, the war out there has no interest for me.” He was disillusioned that his country had become expansionist and imperialist. In 1900, imperialism was a hot issue in the US presidential elections.

Before the Treaty of Paris arrested his attention, he would joke about putting “ a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific”, but when he realized that by virtue of said treaty the USA paid Spain 20 million dollars for the Philippines (2 dollars per head), Mark Twain began to voice his political convictions. In 1900, when interviewed by “New York World” he declared that the USA had gone to the Philippines not to redeem but to conquer. “I am an anti-imperialist.” he said, “ I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” Directly after, Twain joined the Anti-Imperialist League, became its vice-president in New York, and was a staunch advocate of its goals until his death in 1910.

The Mark Twain we know was the author of books in our high school reading list. We had to write book reports about Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Some of us went on to read his novel about a Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which was published in 1889. Absolutely no one in Maryknoll College ever hinted that Mark Twain was the leading light of the Anti-Imperialist League and that he condemned the Philippine-American War, Belgian rule in the Congo, and was supportive of the Russian Revolution.   Had I known, I would have read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with more enthusiasm.

As expected, the US military imposed tight censorship of news about the war in the Philippines, but the Anti-Imperialist League was resourceful enough to document atrocities committed by American soldiers and officers by collecting letters they wrote home and stories told by those who had returned. That was how the torture and death by “water cure” of Filipino revolutionaries (called insurgents) became breaking news.  One of the “water cure” victims was a certain Father Agustin, a Filipino secular priest.  Captain Cornelius Bromwell voluntarily confessed that he had ordered the torture of the priest “to confiscate his hidden treasury…” Moreover, he said that everyone in his regiment knew, but no one objected. When Senator Redfield Proctor (Vermont) defended Capt. Bromwell and the use of “water cure,” Mark Twain wrote a caustic article,  “Bromwell’s Conscience,” where he denounced Bromwell and his troops for being  “Christian butchers.”

After the capture of Pres. Emilio Aguinaldo and the “optimistic” reports rendered by Gen. Arthur MacArthur, Mark Twain wrote, sarcastically, that the United States of America had become a world power, “… a funny one, a fictitious one, a brass-gilt one, a tuppence-ha’ penny one,but a World Power just the same.”  He continued:  “We have bought some islands from a party who did not own them; with real smartness and a good counterfeit of disinterested friendliness, we coaxed a confiding weak nation into a trap and closed it upon them, we went back on an honored guest of the stars and stripes when we had no further use for him, and chased him to the mountains; we are as indisputably in possession of a wide-spreading archipelago as if it were our property; we have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, and burned their villages and turned their widows and orphans out of doors, furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots, subjugated the remaining 10 million by Benevolent Assimilation…”

That was the Mark Twain I would have wanted to read when I was in school; there was more to this American humorist than Huckleberry Finn.  He could have taught his Filipino readers about the forbidden chapters of our history. Yet, it is never too late to discover the Twain we did not know.