Although the Spanish-American War (1898) is a well-known episode in US history, few of us know that immediately following the end of hostilities with Spain, the USA initiated a war of colonization against the Philippines. Interestingly, Black America figured into this war in a very odd way.
The US claimed the Philippines as a trophy from their war with Spain. The problem is that before the US military arrived in the Philippines, there was a very successful insurrection underway by the Filipinos, an insurrection that was nearing victory. The Philippine rebels believed that the US had arrived to assist in the final push against the Spanish. Instead, the US troops turned against the Filipino rebels and embarked on what can only be understood to have been a racist, genocidal war aimed at subjugating the archipelago.
The war started February 2, 1899.
Black America found itself in an odd place at that moment. Reconstruction in the South had been defeated by White supremacist forces and African Americans were in the process of becoming disenfranchised as Jim Crow segregation was emerging as the law of the former Confederacy. In order to prove ourselves worthy of full citizenship, many African Americans volunteered to fight Spain in 1898, and later went to the Philippines to fight a population they had been led to believe were heathens.
The US war against the Philippines was one atrocity after another, including indiscriminate killings and the use of a torture technique that we have come to know as water-boarding. Entire cities were destroyed, such as Iloilo on Panay Island. And in this setting the Filipinos were not only demonized, but racially demonized, with White soldiers referring to the Filipinos as “n——” as they went about murdering them.
The overtly racist side to this conflict became apparent to African American soldiers, resulting in demoralization as well as some desertions. The most famous—or from the standpoint of the White military, most infamous—was that of Army corporal David Fagen. Fagen abandoned the US military and went to fight on the side of the Filipinos against his country. In fact, Fagen became an officer in the Filipino guerrilla army. This so infuriated the US military that they put a price on his head. Although there were claims that Fagen was killed, it was never proven. In either, case he never surrendered and was never captured. The war lasted until at least 1902, though skirmishes continued well past that.
The week following February 2 has become, for many Filipino activists, Philippine Solidarity Week. It is a time to remember that the US colonized the Philippines and held it in subjugation until 1946 at which point the country received nominal independence but actually became a neo-colony of the US Struggles for genuine independence have continued through today, including an insurrection led by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. The US government, including under President Obama, supports government after government in the Philippines that serve the interests of the USA. More to the point, such governments either directly engage in human rights abuses or turn a blind eye to such abuses including what are politely called “extra-judicial killings,” i.e., political murders, aimed at opponents and dissenters.
African Americans, both at the birth of the 20th century and today, have had a connection with the Philippines. Soldiers and civilians, in 1899, were aware that the war was one of aggression and in many cases were prepared to speak out. As the US of the 21st century seeks to further militarize the Philippines and block efforts to peacefully settle the long-standing civil war, we, once again, need to be prepared to speak up. And, in so doing, remember the moral dilemma faced and answered by David Fagen more than a century ago.
[For more information on David Fagen, please see: E. San Juan, Jr. “An African American Soldier in the Philippine Revolution: An Homage to David Fagen.” Cultural Logic, 2009, pp.1-36]
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.