October 1898 from a trooper’s diary

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

Often, historians depend on primary sources like government documents, church records, and other official records. However, there are also more personal types of records such as diaries, letters, drawings, and memoirs left by those present during events of the past. These provide a more personal angle on history and give readers an idea of how individuals in the past lived or how they were. One of the reasons Jose Rizal is a favorite subject for historians is that he not only has tons of official records about him, he also left behind a plethora of his own writings, letters, and diaries, which tell us something that even the most well-written article or book cannot convey.

An example is the collection of diaries and letters by Eliphalet Huntington Blatchford, a Chicagoan who, in 1898, enlisted in the United States Cavalry and stationed in Manila for six months. These were later edited by his sister and published as “A Trooper’s Diary” after her death.

His October entries and letters described Manila as being comparatively cool due to the heavy showers. He described life in Manila as being monotonous, though he said that at least one interesting event happened when he bought a monkey from a Filipino seller after he lowered his price from two pesos to one --fifty cents American. He realized, however, that the animal was “wild and ugly” and broke his furniture so he decided to let it go.

He described his job in making an alphabetical list of the Spanish officers imprisoned in Manila, having to decipher the Spanish writing and choose which of the three to six different names to take to catalogue them under. He rambled on about the minutiae of his task, clearly bored with life in Manila. He wrote that there were around 10,000 Spanish soldiers to feed and care for with around 1,100 officers. He also proudly described how satisfied he was with his three plants, that the largest was flourishing while the other two were little palm trees he grew from seeds that a Mrs. Judd sent to him from Honolulu.

He further described other things he noticed and experienced during the month of October. He complained that the Spanish officers thought that just because the Americans treated the Spaniards with justice and kindness, they can impose on them for the gratification of every whim and probably thought they were “easy”; he said in a letter that he really enjoyed the weeklies sent to him and read it from beginning to end and reread some articles with much interest.

One interesting comment he made was that he hoped that America will decide not to annex the Philippines, believing that America will regret it if they did. He had such a strong opinion about colonizing the Philippines, believing instead that we become a protectorate for a few years as the United States couldn’t afford to risk any of their principles by “taking in these savage tropical lands.”

He disagreed with the expansionist argument that trade and the economy were the primary reasons for annexation, doubtful if the profits of trade with us would be great considering the expenses of the necessary military government. He even mentioned a “Chinese issue”, saying that a naval base was going to be useful concerning it. He closed his last letter in October with a mention that he was learning Spanish, though he believed that it was still far enough before he could apply for an interpreter job.

Going through everything that this one soldier wrote would be extremely interesting. We learn a lot from a general writing of history, and we learn even more when personal recollections of individuals in history are included and taken into account. Imagine what we would have gleaned if all our heroes left diaries and letters.

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