The untold story of Baler
- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil () - January 12, 2009 - 12:00am

This is not a review of Baler the movie. It is not a critique of the Viva film Baler, which was recently declared Best Film of the 2008 Metro Manila Film Festival.

It is a narrative of events that took place in Baler, the bay and town of that name, on the eastern coast of Luzon in the middle of 1899, based on the first-person Spanish and American documents, newspaper and magazine accounts of that period. It will show that indeed, truth is stranger than fiction, and also that the historical record is more astounding, more exciting, more meaningful in our nation’s tormented existence than a star-crossed, wartime film romance.

Eighteen ninety-nine was the year the Filipino-American War started. The Philippine Revolution against Spain had begun three years earlier in Pinaglabanan in August 1896, with Rizal executed by Spanish firing squad four months later. In 1897 Bonifacio lost the power struggle and was shot, and in 1898 independence was declared, the First Philippine Republic established and the city of Manila surrendered by Spain to the US in the infamous bargain of December of the same year.

Meanwhile, sometime in 1897, a report had reached the Spanish authorities in Manila that German ships were landing contraband old, decommissioned guns (bought from the US for next to nothing and sold to Aguinaldo forces) at the remote town of Baler. To the small Spanish garrison in that town was added a large force of 50 or so Cazadores (Hunters). They were a special unit charged with removing civilian support for insurgents which had been created by the military genius, Gen. Valeriano Weyler, in the Cuban revolution against Spain. Weyler, who later became governor-general in Manila, had invented the concept of “hamletting” and had brought both the special forces and the isolation of villagers into regimented hamlets to the Philippines.

The Cazadores were active in the Luzon provinces early in the Philippine Revolution and were so despised for their merciless pillaging of Filipino towns that Andres Bonifacio had named them “Sacadores” (looters). These were the Spaniards who endured the “Siege of Baler” (the subject matter of Baler).

Almost unknown and unmentioned in most histories is an item that appeared in the New York Times in April 1899 giving news of the first defeat and the first capture of Americans in the Filipino American War. The headline read, “Filipinos Take 15 Prisoners” and the subheads, “Lieut. Gillmore of the Yorktown and His Party Ambushed,” “The Captives Fate Unknown” and “The American Naval Force Surprised while Seeking the Rescue of Beleaguered Spanish Troops.”

Datelined Washington, April 18, the item announced a dispatch received from Admiral Dewey to the Secretary of the Navy about the Yorktown’s visit to Baler for the purpose of rescuing Spanish forces consisting of 80 soldiers, three officers and two priests, when they were “surrounded by 400 insurgents” armed with Mauser rifles and captured, “fate unknown.”

 The New York Times continued with:

The capture of the Yorktown’s men was discussed with much feeling in naval circles.

The misfortune was felt with added keenness, as the navy prided itself thus far on immunity from reverses. The Admiral’s dispatch was the first knowledge the department had that the Yorktown had gone on this special mission to relieve the Spanish garrison at Baler. That the capture should have been effected while the American forces were on a mission of mercy toward the Spanish, rather than in the prosecution of the campaign, led to the belief that Spain would have no further ground for questioning the good faith which the Americans are seeking to relieve the condition of the Spanish prisoners.

Although the dispatch gave no indication that Lieut. Gillmore and his men had lost their lives, yet great anxiety was aroused by the mystery surrounding their fate while in the hands of an uncivilized enemy. This is the first capture of any Americans, military or naval, so that it is unknown how the insurgents will treat the men. If civilized methods were pursued, an exchange could be quickly effected, as Gen. Otis has a large number of Filipino prisoners, but the insurgents have been averse thus far to exchanging Spanish prisoners, and this raises a question as to what they will do with the Yorktown’s men. The purpose of officials here is to spare no effort to secure the Speedy release of the prisoners.

What was the US Navy doing at Baler Bay rescuing the enemy?

From Landsman Lyman P. Alvarado, a sailor aboard the USS Yorktown, which sailed in the morning of April 11, 1899 to Baler Bay: “The Catholic clergy had contacted our military authorities and asked for a relief expedition to rescue about 100 soldiers and three priests who had been under siege in the town’s church… Another case of good Uncle Sam being made the goat… Washington smelled an opportunity to gather Catholic votes …by taking credit for the rescue… amounting to buying votes with our blood.”

 From Lizza G. Nakpil’s Filipino American War collection, an article, “A Prisoner Among Filipinos” by Lt. Commander James C. Gillmore, U.S.N., head of the American rescue mission: “The Spaniards in a church at Baler had barricaded doors and windows and transformed the shambling old church into a rude fortress stocked with food and ammunition. Night and day they had fought the persistent besiegers and held out against 500 Filipinos… I had just arrived in the Philippines and right glad I was ordered aboard the ‘Yorktown’ as navigating officer. We steamed from Manila round the southern coast of Luzon and arrived at Baler Bay April 11th.

“A wooded shore spread out before us. We could smell the fragrance of the forest. Just north of the mouth of Baler River and along the shore sentry boxes and Filipino soldiers running in great excitement… I was sent on a little job that would probably take an hour or two. I was to take a boat next morning and land (two men) to make a reconnaissance and I was to survey the coast… In the thickest of shoreline shadows we landed the two scouts and were flattering ourselves that the stupid Filipinos had been completely outwitted. We continued up the river sounding and sketching… the scouts got back and I had just given the order to return and were swinging the cutter round when we came to a bit of high wooded ground and there stood a sentry who fired his rifle as a signal and disappeared into the woods… Within a minute a volley burst out of the thick brush… bullets hissed all round us. Morrissey was shot through the head and was instantly killed. His brains blew over the boat… he fell heavily and carried another man down with him. Dillon caught a ball in the eye and never knew what hit him, toppled over, knocking over one or two of the sitting sailors into the bottom of the boat. Rynders at the starboard had his five fingers cut off, holding the bleeding stumps up… The Colt had been disabled by the enemy’s second volley, the ammunition box was shattered and the loading tape cut… More volleys came out of the brush… I heard bullets singing past me. I fired again and again amid the incessant whistle of bullets and men dropping dropping. The starboard oars had been shattered, the side of the cutter pierced… We drifted slowly toward the bank of sand and here they came!”

Lt. Gillmore describes his first sight of the Filipinos: “A motley crew, like savages, half-nude, some in shirts, some with only trousers, a few with nothing more than breech-clouts, armed with bolos, spears, a rifle here and there, mad with joy, yelling, running down the sand… They were Tagals, Principes and the other tribesmen… The man ordered to hoist our white flag received a ball in his wrist and the banner came fluttering down… Now a voice rang out from the thicket, announced in Spanish that we surrender or be murdered in our tracks. The tones were those of an officer accustomed to command. I threw up my arms in submission. In an instant the savage band was upon us, wild with excitement, jabbering and threatening us with their bolos and spears, but they did no harm. They treated the wounded carefully… In a twinkling, we were stripped of our coats, hats, shoes. They rifled our pockets for money, watches. They even pulled the rings from our fingers. My men were calm and silent.”

The narrative about the “savages” continues: “Then the natives lined us up in a row, tied our hands behind our backs… There was a noisy discussion among our captors, soldiers in the Filipino army without officers or discipline… A native officer came running, shouting and brandishing a sword. The Filipinos dropped their rifles… we were not to be shot… The Tagal officer ordered us to row over to the left bank where an officer, a Spaniard, and 40 men received us. Leaving our dead and dying behind and carrying our wounded, we marched to the comandante’s office… we passed the church where the Spanish garrison were still besieged. The comandante asked many questions… I told him we had been making a survey.”

This is the American’s description of the town of Baler. “We saw the town as we passed — a mere huddle of native huts, women and children, most of them half-nude ran excitedly after us… at the bamboo church an old man came to the assistance of our wounded.” Lt. Gillmore, in great detail recounted the Filipino healer gathering large leaves from the woods, squeezing them and laying them on the American’s wounds. He smiled, stroked their heads and, in 10 minutes, the men were free from pain, inflammations were gone and fevers subsided. Gillmore concluded that “some day perhaps, the world may get a new balm out of Luzon.”

The next day, a runner brought orders from Aguinaldo that the Americans were to be marched to San Isidro. Barefoot, scantily clad they marched for days through the forests and streams, boulders and banks, eating a few mouthfuls of rice, through marvelous landscapes, attracting crowds of natives. “They were not vindictive or rude, in fact, rather kindly… They were docile, almost like children, nearly all wretchedly clothed, yet we could not fairly call them an uncivilized people… only their civilization, like that of all people under Spanish rule, was a couple of centuries behind the times.” In the town of Puntablanca, the comandante was a Spanish captain who had fallen in love with a niece of Aguinaldo after defecting and joining the Filipino ranks.

At San Isidro, the governor asked the same questions, the Americans had been asked at every village: “Why were you captured?”, “What were you doing there?” and “Why are the Americans, our former friends, now fighting us?”

During their long trek from Nueva Ecija to Ilocos, Lt. Gillmore and his men were simply abandoned by their Filipino captors in the midst of the jungle. The soldiers of the First Filipino Republic were by then in retreat from the onslaught of the reinforced U.S. Army. They were rescued only on 28 December 1899 by Col. Luther Hare. Six months earlier the siege of Baler had ended with the Spanish Cazadores marching out of the church to the salutes and plaudits of the Filipinos in a gesture of gentlemanliness.

This is probably the untold story of Baler in 1899, which Viva Films and Senator Edgardo Angara should have made for the Film Festival. It would have crystallized, for today’s Filipinos, the crucial, three-nation gridlock of 1899; the arrogant persistence of the moribund Spanish colonizers, the overpowering ruthlessness of the emerging American superpower and, most importantly, the heroic qualities of the Filipino spirit in simultaneously confronting, against all odds, two of history’s greatest imperialists. That would have been Best Film of the Century.

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