Now that Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, has dug up from history and brought back into public consciousness the massacres at Bud Dajo in Sulu and Balangiga in Samar, both events having occurred during the Philippine-American War from 1899-1902, perhaps it is but appropriate to revisit as well the concentration camps which the Americans set up in Batangas starting December 19011.
Batangas in the late nineteenth century was a province of patriots, home to many revolutionary leaders and among the first of the provinces to revolt against Spanish rule in 1896. This revolutionary spirit spilled over into the Philippine-American War, which broke out when it became apparent to Filipino leaders that the Americans had not come to liberate the country but, instead, to take over the colonial yoke erstwhile held by the Spaniards.
By 1901, American attempts at the pacification of Batangas continued to be, for all intents and purposes, a failure. The term pacification was used as euphemism for subjugation – as it was during the Spanish era, the use of military force if necessary to enforce the local acceptance of a colonial authority.
Filipino fighters in the province did not engage the American Army in direct combat but, instead, resorted to guerrilla warfare. The fighters were abetted by the terrain at the time, which James R. Arnold in his book described as “wretched terrain ranging from rice paddies and swamps to jungles and volcanic mountains.2”
Moreover, the fighters were not averse to the use of extraordinary ways to ensure the loyalty of the local civilian population, and resorted to the use of threats, kidnapping, assassination and the destruction of properties against those in American-occupied localities who might have been inclined to accept American rule.
Major General Adna Chaffee’s solution to the Batangas problem was to send in Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell, who won Chaffee’s respect because of his successful pacification campaign in northern Luzon. Chafee was, at the time, the United States Military Governor of the Philippines3. Bell, on the other hand, was an up-and-coming general serving as Provost Marshall in Manila, which he also successfully cleared of insurgents4.
On 8 December 1901, Bell issued the controversial order giving the civilian population in Batangas twenty days to move into so-called “protected zones” – which the Americans had set up – with their “families, food and possessions.” On the surface, the order was given to protect the civilian population from “undue hardship.” In reality, Bell was putting into effect a similar strategy he had used successfully in northern Luzon.
There, the tactic that he employed was to “make the civilians feel the ‘full hardship of war’ in order to make them not only stop helping the insurgents but also take an active role in defeating them.” In Batangas, to achieve the same result, in effect what he had ordered was to implement a concentration policy or to send the civilian population into concentration camps.
The policy was not exactly novel and had been employed by the British in the Boer War as well as by the Spaniards in their fight against insurgents in Cuba. Even the Yankee army resorted to this policy against Confederate guerrillas during the American Civil War.
Essentially, what the policy hoped to achieve was to isolate the civilian population from the guerrillas and, therefore, cut off the latter’s sources of supplies. The end goal was to starve them out and force their surrender. Any Filipino who was found outside of the zone was arrested and whatever food and supplies that they carried with them were destroyed.
That the strategy was successful was without a doubt; and, indeed, five months later in April of 1902, Malvar’s army was acutely starved of supplies and many Filipino insurgents had surrendered to the Americans. That same five-month period also saw a staggering number of deaths in Batangas, most likely in the concentration camps.
Glenn A. May, writing in a 1981 article, noted that the population of Batangas published in 1899 in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Atlas of the Philippines was 312,192. By the first American census conducted in the country from 1902 to 1903, that figure had dropped to 257,715. This meant a loss of 54,477 people within a five-year period or a staggering 17% death rate for the same period.
Studying the entries in the books of burials for the parishes of Lipa and Batangas, May found that, on the average, 148 people died each month in Lipa and 108 in Batangas from April to December 1901, the months preceding the establishment of the concentration camps.
During the concentration camp months, the monthly death average for Lipa spiked to 291, with 558 dying in the month of April alone. In the town of Batangas, the death average also spiked to 392. In other words, the death rate in Lipa during the concentration camp months was almost double the normal. In the town of Batangas, it was 3.6 times higher.
While American records officially stated that conditions in these concentration camps were “humane,” in fact there were also food shortages. Moreover, sanitary conditions were as appalling as could only be expected where so many people live together in close proximity. For instance, in the Batangas zone, May wrote, a total of 30,000 people were crammed together in space where under normal conditions only 3,000 would live.
May’s conclusion was that that food shortages and unsanitary conditions in the concentration camps were perfect for diseases to thrive. Indeed, the book of burials suggested that there must have been outbreaks of cholera, measles, dysentery and other diseases inside the camps. That these spread quickly was a given, since people lived in close proximity to one another.
Moreover, because the viruses that caused these diseases incubated in their hosts, who could show no symptoms until weeks later, the abnormal death rate continued onto June and July even though the civilians in Batangas were allowed to return to their homes in April.
Many were killed in the so-called Balangiga Massacre in Samar, when the Americans, retaliating after being attacked by insurgents, burned the town and were given the go-signal by the American General Jacob Smith to kill anyone “older than 10 years old.”
But so many more were killed in Batangas by something ultimately deadlier than the Americans’ Gatling guns in a policy that was useful to further their ends but costly to the local civilian population.
Notes and References:1 Along with other details of this article, from “The Zones of Batangas,” by Glen A. May, published in “The Philippine Studies,” 1981.
21 Along with other details of this article, from “Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq,” by James R. Arnold, 2009.
31 Adna Chaffee, Wikipedia.
4 J. Franklin Bell, Wikipedia.