Saipan — A few months ago, advocates, including representatives from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and the other U.S. territories, held a “Summit on U.S. Colonialism” in New York City. Among their major goals is “to end systemically racist colonial structures” in the territories.
More power to them.
But as for “colonialism,” I’m reminded of what George Orwell once said about “fascism”: It’s now a word that has “no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”
“Racism” is another such word. Back in the day, racism was plain to see. Jim Crow laws. Discrimination. Segregation. Lynching. Nowadays, a white female teenager who would dare wear a traditional Chinese dress to a school prom will be likened to a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.
The Philippines, in any case, was a former U.S. colony as the word is defined by a dictionary: “a country or territory claimed and forcibly taken control of by a foreign power.” To be sure, the U.S. government never called the Philippine Islands a colony. The U.S. preferred the term “unincorporated territory” or “insular area.” (In 1994, President Bill Clinton called the P.I. “our oldest friend in Asia, a nation that has done so much to enrich the United States.”)
Sure. But the Philippines was a U.S. colony. And the “insular” government established by the Americans in Manila was a colonial government. When the U.S. took over the P.I., a band of nationalists had already proclaimed Philippine independence after waging a revolution against their erstwhile colonial master, Spain.
The Filipinos had drafted a constitution and created a government with their very own Philippine flag. But no one else recognized the independent Philippine republic. Certainly not the U.S., which acquired the Philippines — as well as Guam and Puerto Rico — from Spain, which, in turn, received $20 million (worth about $763 million today), by virtue of the 1898 Treaty of Paris.
“Legally,” the P.I. became an American possession. As for the Filipino nationalists, the U.S. called them “insurgents,” who had to be crushed. And crushed they were in a lopsided war that broke out 126 years ago in February 1898.
Writing to his family during the Philippine “insurrection,” an American soldier, Fred D. Sweet of the Utah Light Battery, said: “The scene reminded me of the shooting of jack-rabbits in Utah, only the rabbits sometimes got away, but the insurgents did not.”
From another American soldier, Anthony Michea, of the Third Artillery:
“We bombarded a place called Malabon, and then we went in and killed every native we met, men, women and children. It was a dreadful sight, the killing of the poor creatures.”
The Philippines was eventually “pacified” by American military might. Early in the U.S. regime, the new rulers administered the P.I. the way the great powers usually treated their colonies: harshly. The U.S. military implemented a sedition law that punished anyone who would “utter seditious words, or speeches, write, publish or circulate, scurrilous libels” against the U.S. government or its insular government in the P.I.
The U.S. also prohibited the display of all flags, banners, symbols and other paraphernalia used by Filipino nationalists. Pro-Philippine independence political parties were likewise banned. Some Filipino patriots, however, resorted to writing and staging plays that, through symbolisms, protested American rule and advocated independence. These writers and other “irreconcilables” were arrested, imprisoned or deported to Guam.
Filipinos were mandated to swear allegiance to the U.S. but were never granted U.S. citizenship. The insular government allowed them to elect their own municipal officials and lawmakers, but the chief executive was the American governor-general. His cabinet consisted of Filipinos, but the secretary of public instruction was always an American, who was also the lieutenant governor-general.
The Supreme Court was headed by a Filipino, but a majority of the justices were Americans. Many, if not almost all, Philippine exports to the U.S. were subjected to high tariffs because, as an American union of tobacco makers would put it: “American labor is entitled to some protection against a semi-civilized people who exist on rice and vegetables and who live in huts and bamboo ‘shacks.’ These people are today a little above the barbaric tribes and their ingress into the labor market of the United States would work untold injury not only to cigar makers, but to all classes of American tradesmen.”
Another feature of American rule was that the costs of running the insular government in the Philippines were supported entirely by taxes levied on Filipinos. This is a fact that may startle some of the local residents of the CNMI and Guam, who are aware that hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars are provided as grants or other forms of financial assistance by U.S. taxpayers to the U.S. territories each year.
Compared to today’s American territories, the Philippines is much bigger in terms of land area. As pointed out by a Filipino doctor, Gideon Lasco, the P.I. is larger than Italy or Great Britain. The southern Philippine island of Mindanao alone is bigger than Ireland. The Philippines, moreover, is bigger than North and South Korea combined. Even before World War II, the Philippine population was in the millions already. In addition, the Philippines was — still is — rich in resources. Not surprisingly, and in contrast to present-day local residents of the CNMI and Guam, when the Philippines was still an American colony, a vast majority of Filipinos desired independence from the U.S.
Today, after so many years of enjoying the fruits of independence, many Filipinos prefer U.S. statehood. Which is another story.
Zaldy Dandan is the editor of the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on amazon.com/.