The Bells of Balangiga
Revolutionary Worker #939, January 11, 1998A hundred years ago, out of the dark,
An insignificant town made its mark.
From the program for
"The Bells of Balangiga"
The Pintig Cultural Group in Chicago recently presented a new play, The Bells of Balangiga. This musical tells the story of a small town in the Philippines, Balangiga, where the people heroically resisted U.S. imperialism in 1901--successfully organizing and carrying out a plan to kill the U.S. soldiers who had invaded and occupied their town.
Rodolfo Carlos Vera, who wrote this Chicago version of the play, first put this story on the stage two years ago with a regional theater group in the Philippines. That production toured throughout Samar, the very island where the story takes place. Now, The Pintig Cultural Group has plans to take The Bells of Balangiga on the road in the United States.
Angela Mascareñas, a founding member of Pintig who is the producer of the play, says in her program notes: "The Bells of Balangiga is not just a musical production. It is a discourse on colonialism and the history of the Philippine-United States relations. It is an attempt to popularize those historical facts that have not made it in the mainstream history books nor in documentaries about the role of U.S. aggression in different parts of the world at the turn of the century. More importantly, it is a conscious effort to amplify those historically marginalized voices of the colonized Filipinos and of those who continue to suffer neo-colonial oppression under U.S. imperialist stranglehold in the Philippines... We dedicate this production to all Filipinos who have died for justice and freedom as well as to all those who continue to fight for the same in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world, for those who have forgotten and for those who have yet to learn, we hope to bring back to life the songs, the stories, and the lessons of Balangiga."
The 1898 story of Balangiga is another chapter in the people's history which illustrates the truth that, as Mao Tsetung said, "Where there is oppression, there is resistance!"
In 1896, after 300 years of Spanish colonialism, the Philippine Revolution broke out against Spain. The Filipino people continued their proud history of fighting against foreign oppressors and when the Spanish-American War began in 1898, armed guerrilla struggle against Spanish colonial rule intensified. Spanish power collapsed throughout most of the archipelago. But meanwhile, the U.S. imperialists were maneuvering to become new colonial masters in the Philippines. Secret diplomatic negotiations were conducted between the U.S. and Spain, and on August 13, 1898 a mock battle was staged in order to justify Spain turning the Philippines over to the United States. After a few token shots were fired Spain surrendered, and on December 18, 1898 the U.S. "bought" the Philippines from Spain for 20 million dollars.
Less than two months later, U.S. troops made a surprise attack on Filipino revolutionary forces near the capital of Manila and at least 3,000 Filipinos were killed. The Filipino-American War began with the masses of Filipino people determined to resist U.S. imperialism. The U.S. won this war in 1902, after sending over 126,000 U.S. troops to the Philippines. Filipinos who refused to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag were persecuted, sometimes imprisoned. Filipino rebels were tortured and organizations of workers and peasants were suppressed. For every U.S. soldier killed, 50 Filipinos were killed. It has been estimated that more than a quarter of a million Filipinos died as a direct and indirect result of the Filipino-American War. And one U.S. general even put the Filipino death casualty as high as 600,000 or one-sixth of the population in the main island of Luzon.
In the small town of Balangiga, the people were determined to fight against the U.S. occupation of their country. They decided to invite (lure) the U.S. military to their town in the guise of asking for "protection."
Company C of the 9th Infantry Battalion arrived in Balangiga on August 11, 1901. These 74 veteran soldiers, some of whom had carried out other U.S. exploits in China and Cuba, immediately began to oppress the people--using the racist term "goo-goo" to refer to the people, pressganging the men into labor, and raping the women.
Meanwhile, the townspeople, who seemed to be cooperating with the U.S. soldiers, were making secret plans. One account said that, on the recommendation of the town's mayor, other Filipinos were added to the workforce from the nearby hills where the revolutionary guerrillas were active. According to this account, "The Americans found them unusually industrious but they happened to be the guerrilla's best bolomen. (A bolo is a heavy, single-bladed machete.)
After only a few weeks of putting up with the U.S. occupation, the people of Balangiga decided they had had enough and it was time to carry out their plans. One night, the people met in the jungle, away from the eyes and ears of the U.S. soldiers. The women dressed the men up as women and then walked back with them to the town. The next morning, on September 28, 1901, the disguised men carried small coffins through the town--staging a mournful procession for dead babies killed by cholera. In fact, the coffins did have some dead babies in them, but they were also filled with bolos!
The American soldiers, totally off guard, were eating their breakfast. Some of them didn't even have their guns with them. The commander of Company C, Captain Thomas Connell, was at his desk working on a memorial service for U.S. President William McKinley, who had been assassinated three weeks earlier.
Then, according to one account, Balangiga's chief of police, Pedro Sanchez, walked behind a U.S. sentry and with casual swiftness, grabbed the sentry's rifle and brought the butt down in a smashing blow on his head. Then the church bells unexpectedly started to toll. This was the signal for the disguised men to launch their attack. Those in the mess tents were among the first U.S. soldiers hit. They tried to fight back with chairs and kitchen utensils but several of them swiftly lost their heads as the rebels swung their bolos with determination. Some townspeople outside cut the ropes to the tents, causing the tents to collapse on the struggling soldiers.
Of the 74 U.S. soldiers in the unit, 47 were killed and 22 were wounded. The survivors managed to escape to an American garrison.
Retaliation from the U.S. was swift, vicious and extreme. U.S. soldiers went back to Balangiga, burned the town and then went on a rampage, burning down the whole island of Samar. This genocidal retribution was led by Brig. Gen. Jacob W. Smith, who had earned the nickname "Hell Roaring Jake." A decade earlier, as a cavalryman, Smith had fought at Wounded Knee, where hundreds of Indians were massacred. Now he told his men, "I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better it will please me." He directed that Samar be converted into a "howling wilderness" and U.S. soldiers were instructed to shoot anyone over 10 years old. One U.S. Major reported that in an 11-day span his men burned 255 dwellings, slaughtered 13 carabaos (Filipino oxen), and killed 39 people. Other officers reported similar activity. The island's population dropped from around 300,000 to around less than 257,000.
U.S. soldiers stole the three church bells in Balangiga that had signaled the death of Company C. And to this day, two of these bells are in a monument in Cheyenne, Wyoming--at a military post first occupied by U.S. soldiers who fought and killed the Indians. The other bell is in South Korea, where the current Company C unit is stationed.
Now, in the Philippines, there is a campaign to demand that the Bells of Balangiga be returned to the Philippines, where they rightfully belong--as a reminder to the people of the atrocities carried out by U.S. imperialism and the heroism of those who dared to resist.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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