Black lives mattered in 1899 Insurrection
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - July 15, 2020 - 12:00am

Color of skin should never divide. But US Army generals could not restrain their racism during the Philippine Insurrection of 1899. They suffered backlash.

The story needs retelling of “black” succor to “browns” a century ago. The Katipunan was then resisting American colonization. A little known African American helped shape Filipinos’ destiny. Reprinting this Gotcha column of Jan. 21, 2009:

Upon outbreak of Philippine-American hostilities in Feb. 1899, US forces in the islands sought reinforcements. Among the fresh troops were four “black regiments” of 7,000 men under white officers. The men of the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry were fierce fighters. Those of the 10th had saved Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill, Cuba, in the Spanish-American War. But racial prejudice back home and empathy with Filipino freedom incited 30 of them to defect to the insurrectos. Most famous was Cpl. David Fagen of I Company, 24th Infantry, from Tampa, Florida.

Nov. 17, 1899, Fagen joined the Katipunan in Central Luzon under Gen. Urbano Lacuna, reporting to Col. Jose Alejandrino. News in Manila and America had it that President Emilio Aguinaldo was spreading leaflets calling on “our racial brothers” to desert. It wasn’t hard for Fagen and other descendants of slaves to grasp the Filipino plea. Whites called them the same: “niggers”, “black devils”, “gugus”. Fagen fled at dawn to the barrio where an insurrecto was waiting with a horse. Lacuna promptly promoted him to lieutenant, as the leaflets promised.

Historians differ slightly on details. But they agree that Fagen fought with zeal against his former comrades-in-arms. Michael Robinson and Frank Schuber write in the Pacific Historical Review (Mar. 1975): “The combination in which the many alienating forces acted on him is unknown, but the audacity and vigor with which he led the insurrectos over the next two years illustrates the depth of his commitment to the Filipino cause.” George Lipsitz in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness adds: “He ... served the insurrectionists with distinction, engaged US units effectively, and eluded capture by US troops time after time.”

A year later in Sept. 1900 Fagen was promoted to captain at age 24. Scott Ngozi-Brown recounts: “(He) engaged in protracted and relentless guerrilla war. The US Army’s inability to capture him earned him reputation as a shrewd and cunning adversary. John Ganzhorn, a member of Gen. Frederick Funston’s elite scouts, recalled violent confrontations with Fagen. Ganzhorn related that in one close encounter Fagen ‘ambushed two four-mule wagons’. After killing all but one of the soldiers, Fagen and his men set the wagons on fire and ambushed another group of American soldiers who were drawn by the smoke... Remembering an incident when Fagen killed one of his comrades, Ganzhorn wrote: ‘I’ve heard Fryburger’s cry for me to kill Fagen. God I wanted to! But when I could see to shoot, Fagen was not in sight.’ Similarly Funston described (in memoirs) a battle with Fagen: ‘In this fight I got a fairly good look at the notorious Fagen at a distance of a hundred yards, but unfortunately had already emptied my carbine.’”

The tide turned against the insurrectos, and Lacuna surrendered to Funston. Out of gratitude the Filipino general asked his US counterpart to pardon Fagen. Funston replied that the defector was as good as dead, and declared a $600-bounty for his head. Narrates lawyer-historian Gill H. Boehringer: “In Dec. 1901 an ex-rebel under Lacuna named Anastacio Bartolome came forward to claim the reward. Supposedly his posse had chanced upon Fagen, the Filipino wife, and two Aeta guides at the mouth of the Umiray River at Dingalan Cove on the Pacific coast. They shot and beheaded the African American, let the wife drown in the ocean, and chased away the Aetas. Their proof: a decomposing head in a sack.”

Doubt attended Fagen’s death. Newspapers reported Bartolome’s claim, but made no mention if the reward was paid, Boehringer notes. The official Army account called it “the supposed killing of Corporal Fagen.” Boehringer suggests that Fagen, with Bartolome, could have faked his death to get pursuers off his back and retire quietly in the boondocks.

At any rate, Fagen’s historic impact is not in myths of his exploits, but in his willingness to fight exploitation. Joseph Ryan digs up an Indianapolis newspaper obituary that grudgingly conceded: “Fagen was a traitor, and died a traitor’s death, but he was a man no doubt, prompted by motives to help a weaker side, and one to which he felt allied by ties that bind... He saw, it may be, the weak and the strong; he chose, and the world knows the rest.”

*      *      *

Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

My book “Exposés: Investigative Reporting for Clean Government” is available on Amazon:

*      *      *

Gotcha archives:

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with