The victory of Balangiga, and the importance of how we choose to remember 2
The statue of Balangiga hero Capt. Valeriano Abanador at the municipal plaza in Balangiga, Eastern Samar. Photograph by Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

The victory of Balangiga, and the importance of how we choose to remember

In this lovingly written retelling of the events that led to the Balangiga encounter, and the events that followed, a Samarnon historian asks why it matters how we remember Balangiga, and how we refer to it today.
Charo Nabong-Cabardo | Dec 14 2018

In 1969, I went to Balangiga to research on this incident for a term paper, but I found a people silenced and unwilling to talk. I had a feeling that the story was being deliberately hidden and there was a feeling of fear and distrust. It was a different picture in 1992, some 23 years later, when I returned for the annual re-enactment of the story. Balangiganons openly talked about it and warmed up to the topic. It wasn't because I had married into a local family but so much has happened since then to lift the veil of distrust. For one, Sept. 28 has been declared a holiday in Eastern Samar to honor the patriotism of the people of Balangiga, Giporlos, Lawaan and Quinapundan. The Balangiganons have erected a monument to honor their local heroes. They have organized a local historical society. They have moved for the return of the bells of Balangiga that the American soldiers took away as booty to the United States.

And year after year, they have staged re-enactments of the incident as if to pound their young of the true story of the victory in Balangiga. Pride has replaced fear.

In retelling the story of Balangiga, I went back to secondary sources, written accounts of the incidents as well as primary data from the testimonies of American soldiers who have survived the attack and from interviews of descendants of actual participants of the event.


Present day historians have this challenging task of  guiding  our remembrances of things past. For more than a hundred years, we have been suffocated by biases and misinterpretations, even blinded by the colonial versions of our history. American historians have even called this period the “Philippine Insurrection Against the United States.”

Most people remember Balangiga as the “Balangiga Massacre.” It was how it was taught in history classes. It was what has been recorded in books and etched in our memories.  American sources of the event uniformly label it as a “massacre.” The Manila papers in 1901 called it “a dastardly attack,” while the Philippine Commission reported it as a “great disaster.”

Historians, in trying to reclaim our memory of the event have referred to it as the “Balangiga attack” while a symposium I delivered a paper to in 1998 has called it the “Balangiga Incident.”  Some columnists and even the Balangiga website on the Internet labels it as the “Balangiga Uprising.” In Feb. 20, 1988 the House of Congress passed RA 6692 declaring Sept. 28 as Balangiga Encounter Day in Eastern Samar. A contemporary American historian wrote about it as this “ill- remembered chapter of history.” But all these years my personal crusade has been to recognize the event as the Balangiga Victory, echoing the joyous celebration of the Filipino revolutionaries in 1901 of their “glorious achievement.”

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The San Lorenzo de Martir Parish Church in Balangiga, Eastern Samar. Photograph by Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

But why does it matter how we remember Balangiga? Why does it matter how we refer to it today?

The organizers of the symposium I spoke to was seeking “forgiveness and reconciliation.”  But forgiveness and reconciliation springs from the need to set things right. We must first set right the perspective from which to view the Balangiga victory. It will be a victory, an encounter, an uprising, depending on how it is viewed.

The perspective from which you view history or the stories of people is very critical and important. It is the reason why the United States previously refused to return the bells of Balangiga. It is the reason why many people are “squeamish” about recalling this “ill-remembered chapter in our history.”  It is the reason why it took us this long to reconcile with the fact that it was not a massacre, or not just an encounter nor an independent uprising but part of a larger war between the Philippines and the United States. 

It is necessary to recognize the history of the period for what it was and not for what other parties wanted it to be perceived. The United States wanted to subjugate the Philippines. The Filipino people, who have just won its freedom from 300 years of Spanish tyranny, naturally resisted the American occupation of our islands. Six months after we proclaimed our independence at Kawit, Cavite, American President McKinley issued his “Benevolent Assimilation” Proclamation, expressly indicating American intention to exercise its right of sovereignty over the Filipinos. 

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Detail of monument showing the Balangiga attakers. Photograph from @cris.ann.amatiaga on Instagram

Fearful of of possible American occupation, Gen. Aguinaldo had sent several officers to the Visayas to consolidate the Republic and organize local resistance. To Samar and Leyte, he sent General Vicente Lukban who arrived in Catbalogan in December 31, 1898.


“The American army knifed through Pasig”

And then what the Filipino government feared most happened. On February 4, 1899, hostilities between Filipinos and Americans broke out in San Juan. “With swift strokes, the American army knifed through Pasig and other towns of Manila, wrote Teodoro Agoncillo in The History of the Filipino People. They captured La Loma, Kalookan, Manila, pushing the Aguinaldo government to evacuate to San Isidro, Nueva Ecija. 

Zapote, Bacoor, Dasmarinas, Las Piñas, Parañaque, Morong, Santa Cruz, Paete and other towns in Laguna also fell to American hands.

The Americans moved to occupy the Visayan islands. General Miller attacked and occupied Iloilo. A warship was sent to Cebu to demand its surrender. The occupation of the Tagalog provinces and Visayan islands, however, were not without a fight and were not as peaceful as it seemed. The Filipinos mounted a fierce resistance to American rule.

In Samar, Lukban had time to organize a civil government and set up a military machinery, organizing commands from Gandara in the west to Guiuan in the east. Lukban constructed arsenals and maestranzas in strategic points all over the island. His arsenals produced lantakas, bullets, spears and bolos. Considerable ingenuity was employed in making ammunition. Cartridge shells were saved with great care. Powder was made from saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal. The saltpeter was obtained from niter beds whose establishment was ordered in all the towns. They built pits and traps known as balatik and leong.  The Samarnons openly supported General Lukban and his revolutionary forces.  The people of Basey gave gabi, the people of Balangiga sent palawan, the people from Guiuan sent camote and from the rice bowl in Catarman, the people sent palay.

In November 1899, after the assassination of Gen. Luna, “General Aguinaldo’s retreating governmental machinery finally adopted, after much debate, guerrilla tactics against the Americans.” (Veneracion, The American Phase in the Visayas).  Following this order to shift to guerrilla warfare, General Lukban transferred his base of operations to the mountains of Matuguinao and deployed Col. Narciso Abuke as area commander of northern Samar, Capt. Eugenio Daza of southeastern Samar and Col. Claro Guevarra to the western area.

The Americans arrived in Samar in early January 1900. At the break of dawn of January 27, the American warships appeared in Maqueda Bay and a gunboat took Major Allen ashore to parley with the forces of Gen. Lukban. Lukban refused to surrender and Catbalogan is heavily bombarded. When the smoke cleared, the Americans came ashore to find the town empty and set on fire by Lukban’s men and the people. No Samarnon was on hand to welcome the Americans. All had taken to the hills with Lukban.

And then began a pacification campaign against the resistance by General Lukban and the Samareños. A reconcentration policy, later reintroduced in Vietnam as hamletting, was  established to isolate the guerrillas. Barrios reached by American troops were burned down, rice and food stores were destroyed and burned and work animals maimed. The people were coerced into returning to the towns which were garrisoned.

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Some soldiers of Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry ("Manchus") Regiment, in Balangiga in August 1901. Valeriano Abanador, the native chief of police who would lead the attack on the Balangiga garrison seven weeks later, is standing with arms folded across his chest (sixth from right). Photograph from Arnaldo Dumindin

            An account by an American soldier of their pacification campaign read: 

Aug. 3, a second lieutenant and thirteen men of Company C started
on a two day’s march up the valley of a river about ten miles of Borongan.. 
We killed all [the] carabao we saw and burned all houses in the valley
except two in which women and children of insurgents had assembled … 
The second day, we discovered a large herd of carabao among the brush
and tied with ropes.. We cut the ropes … and we shot them all.  There
were about one hundred in the herd and the killing of them caused nearly
as much excitement as the skirmish. .  . . As we marched away from the river,
I turned to take a last look up the valley. In the river the sides of the dead
carabaos and horses protruded above the water.  In many places smoke
arising from burning houses and crops were destroyed all over the entire valley
(A. Pohlman, My Army Experiences, 1906).

But the Samarnons were not easy to pacify. In Catubig, Catarman, Matuguinao they scored victories against the American forces. One major victory was in Catubig on April 15, 1900 which claimed the lives of 31 American soldiers belonging to the 43rd US Infantry.  The US War Department described this as a massacre and their defeat as the “heaviest bloody encounter yet of the American troops.” Balangiga was yet to come.

In May 30, 1900, Pedro Abayan, the local presidente of Balangiga wrote General Lukban that should the enemy forces appear in their little town, the principales have decided to observe a deceptive policy against the Americans “doing whatever they may like, and when a favorable opportunity arises, the people will strategically rise up against them”.

Two months later, one early morning in August 11, Company C of the 9th Infantry Regiment arrived on their shores. And on Sept 28, the Filipinos in a surprise attack killed 44 and wounded 22. Among the ranks of the revolutionaries, 28 died and 22 were wounded. 

The American defeat caused a profound sensation among the American military forces in the Philippines. For the Americans, the attack at Balangiga was the worst single defeat they had experienced during their entire campaign in the Philippines. Gen. Adna Chaffe, Commander of the Military Division of the Philippines, ordered the immediate formation of the 6th Separate Brigade under Brigadier Jacob Smith to avenge their defeat. The reprisal that followed was so ruthless, it decimated large numbers of the Samarnon population. More than 50,000 Samarnons were killed during that campaign.

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An artist's rendition of the Balangiga incident as one attack. There were actually two sites of attacks, the convent and the area near the municipal hall. Photograph from Filipino Heritage

A battalion of 300 marines fresh from the Boxer Rebellion in Northern China was placed under Smith. Reinforcements were also sent, consisting of a battalion of the 17th Infantry, one battalion of the 12th Infantry, and one battalion of the 26th Infantry. Major Littleton Waller T. Waller, was detached from the First Brigade of the US Marines in Cavite and made Commanding Officer.

Arriving in Oct. 23 in Catbalogan, Waller received oral instructions from Gen. Smith to make the interior of Samar a “howling wilderness.” Kon ha aton pa, karuyag nira mahimo an bug-os nga Samar nga nagngongoyngoy nga kagurangan


“I wish you to kill and burn”

General Smith gave his infamous order, “I want no prisoners.  I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn, the better you will please me.  I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.”

“I would like to know the limit of age to respect, sir,” asked Waller.

“Ten years,” replied the General. 

The following day, October 24, two gunboats shelled the town of Balangiga. After the bombardment, Smith landed with his marines and burned down the town. As a booty, they took the bells from the church belfry.

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General Jacob Smith who wanted to turn Samar into a "Howling Wilderness". Photograph from In Our Image

More troops landed in Samar raiding the interior barrios, killing everyone on sight, sparing not even the children. Fleeing the American reprisals, the people scattered to the mountains of Mt. Mataid. The pursuing Americans bombarded the mountains with mortar.

“Basta agi-an  - bata, tigurang, - ginpapatay,” recalled a Balangiganon survivor.  “Siyam kabulan nga nagpinamatay, waray ginkukuha nga mga preso, bisan mga tigurang.”  

(They killed everyone they encountered - children, the old folks…The slaughter continued for nine months, they got no prisoners, even the old men and women."

General Smith ordered Major Lt. Col. Waller to clear Samar from Balangiga to Quinapundan, Salcedo, Pambujan and Basey of all treacherous enemy and to mount “punitive” expeditions. His eight-point instructions were:

1. All rice and hemp are to be seized, and if not practicable, to bring in, must be destroyed.

2. Rice must not be allowed to get into the interior. Families may be allowed enough rice per diem to subsist upon.

3. Bancas and boats of all kinds not painted red and registered or not showing proper papers must be seized or destroyed.

4. Impress upon native labor for all manual labor, to clear back the brush.

5. Place no confidence in the natives, and punish treachery immediately with death.

6. All males who have not come in and presented themselves by October 25 will be regarded and treated as enemies. It must be impressed on the men that the natives are treacherous, brave and savage. No trust, no confidence can be placed in them.

7. All parties of any strength must be accompanied by a Surgeon. Natives will be utilized to carry provisions and a few with long poles will precede the column to look out for pits and traps.

8. Allow no man to go to meals, the sinks, or anywhere without his arms and ammunition. The same instructions apply to men.”

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Photograph from Arnaldo Dumindin

General Vicente Lukban, on the other hand, issued the following orders to the militia forces on Nov. 18, 1901:

1. Respect, obedience and submission to the Government of the Philippine Republic in this province of Samar, as also to all of its authorities.

2. Exact compliance with the provisions or orders and mandates of these Political Military Superior Headquarters.

3. Constancy and self denial in the war.

4. Avoid any relations with the enemy, the American imperialists and their secret police.

5. Pursuit, capture and arrest of the treasonable secret police of the enemy, robbers, criminals or malefactors, sending them under proper guard to these headquarters or to the second in command, but without mistreating them.

6. To avoid any abuse of, or violence to, all kinds of persons, respecting the family and property, whatever be their nationality, provided they do not commit acts against the Government and its cause; and also violence to women and adultery which are strictly prohibited.

7. Disinterested and immediate protection to weak towns which ask for assistance to oppose the enemy, or to check an alarm.

8. And last, respect and good treatment to any enemy laying down his arms or who surrenders, sending this person to these Headquarters, his conductors taking care that he is not maltreated.”

The killings and the burning of villages in Samar only abated when General Vicente Lukban was captured in February 1902. Lukban’s capture was hailed by the American forces as the most important event next to the capture of Gen. Aguinaldo.  But by this time too, the American public was horrified by the slaughter in Samar. Accounts of brutality were circulating culled from letters by soldiers to their families in the States. The Senate Committee on the Philippines opened hearings on the conflict in Samar. Major Waller and General Smith were summoned to a court martial for their atrocities.  Found guilty, War Secretary Elihu Root urged for a lenient sentence, citing the “hardships of waging war against cruel and barbarous savages.” Smith was released from service with only a reprimand.

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USS Vicksburg sailors led by Lt. ((later Rear Admiral) Henry V. Butler burning a village church in Samar, October 1901. Photograph by Arnaldo Dumindin

The ferocious retaliation silenced the people of Samar. Francisca Base, 90 years at the time of my interview in 1992 in Balangiga remembers that her parents admonished her never to talk about the guerra. After the war, the story was never told due to fear. The participants of the Balangiga surprise attack never talked about it openly. They only talked about it only when they were drunk. Their anguish could only be heard faintly in a balitaw of a song,

            “Inday, Inday, nakain ka, han kasunog han Balangiga,
            Pito katuig an paglaga, an aso waray kita-a.”
(Inday, inday, where were you when they burned Balangiga
            Seven years it burned but the smoke was never seen.)

In 1969, I went to Balangiga to research for a term paper for History 100 under Dr. Samuel Tan. I found the people silenced and unwilling to talk. 

It took us nearly 100 years to muster enough courage to speak out and tell the true story of Balangiga. Some years ago, in a commemoration of Balangiga, former Senator Jovito Salonga remarked that in the whole history of the Philippines, it was only in Balangiga that the Filipinos emerged victorious. In Balintawak, Tirad Pass, Pinaglabanan, Bataan and Corregidor, the Filipinos suffered defeats. Only in Balangiga did the Filipinos achieve victory!

From barbarians to heroes

Now we see the heroism of the people, not the barbarity as colonial historians made us believe. When we started celebrating this victory, pride has replaced fear. The people of Samar has come out of their silence. Now we can talk openly about the guerra. We have erected monuments. A law has been passed to declare Sept. 28 as a holiday in Eastern Samar.  Year after year, the Balangiganons have staged a re-enactment of the story as if to pound their young of the true story of the victory at Balangiga. We have demanded for the return of the bells taken from Balangiga. And now that they’re back in the Philippines, tomorrow, December 15, the president of the Philippines is said to be attending the turnover ceremony of the bells to the local officials in Easters Samar. 

Before any forgiveness (as some colleagues suggested many years back) can take place, we must first claim our victory. We must remember the atrocities against our people. We must recognize that there was a war between the Philippines and the United States. In celebrating  our independence, we must give due recognition to the Filipinos, to the Samarnons who defended that hard-earned freedom. We must honor the patriotism of our people. We must celebrate our victory.

In 1901, shortly after the attack at Balangiga, an American detachment which was stationed in Borongan was ordered to march to Balangiga. One of the soldiers recalled that,

when we arrived back near the scene of our skirmish with the
 enemy across the river, we saw two women and several small children
sitting outside a hut. From their look of deep sorrow we immediately
thought something had gone wrong. Upon inquiring we learned that
during the skirmish we had killed the husbands and fathers of the women
and children. It was the first time chance had brought me back to the homes
of men we had killed in battle. I remembered how, only two days previously,
after a bullet had passed very close to my own head, I had taken careful aim
and fired at a brown body which was visible through the brush. I turned away from the family group, as I could not bear to think that my action had probably been a part of the cause of their sorrow, When I remember that I had also
helped to destroy their crops. I retraced my steps, and a dampness was fast coming to my eyes as I gave nearly all my remaining rations, which they
needed. After several other men had followed my example, we urged the
women to come to Borongan, telling them that many of their own race of
people were living there, and had taken the oath of allegiance.” 

The young soldier despaired, “Could all the people, and especially the legislative bodies of all nations, after a battle, come to the homes of the men who are killed, and there witness the sorrow, misery and want, war would long ago have been a thing of the past.”  (Andrew Pohlman, My Army Experiences).

An American historian once wrote, “This chapter in history is sparely written about and ill-remembered, with Americans being taught a more unblemished account of their country’s duty to rout the Spanish from their colonies, including the Philippines. When the more unsavory aspects of American presence in the Philippines is brought to the fore, the result is to recoil and wish that the whole grisly episode be buried and forgotten.” 

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Survivors of Balangiga Massacre in April 1902 photo taken in Calbayog, Samar. Photograph by Arnaldo Dumindin

But let us not forget, let us not bury the atrocities. Let us remember not only the declaration of our independence, the heroism of Rizal and Bonifacio, but very well remember the struggle of the Filipinos, the brave stand of the Samarnons, of the people of Balangiga  to defend that freedom  they have won. Let us remember too, the American soldiers at Balangiga who, according to Eugenio Daza’s statements in some documents of the war in Samar, “died heroically doing their duty which their government had imposed on them.”


Writer and author, editor and historian, Ms. Rosario Nabong Cabardo has edited many books on Samar including Ani 13: Samarnon Edition, the first anthology on Samarnon literature, published by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1990. She has also co-edited and co-written three coffee table books: O, Catbalogan; Calbayog; and Diocese of Calbayog: 100 Years: The History of the Local Church in Samar ; Karasa: Celebrating Catbalogan’s Culinary Heritage and has also written many articles on Samar’s history, environment and culture. She graduated from the University of the Philippines, Diliman with a degree in AB Journalism and from the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), program on Development Management. She has been engaged in developmental and environmental work in Samar Island for more than two decades. She is currently active in the Samar Island Heritage Center.