The Frailes During the Phil-American War

Between 1896 and 1898, there was around a thousand Spanish friars in the Philippines—Dominicans, Augustinians, Recoletos and Franciscans. When the Philippine revolution broke out, most of them left their respective parishes and sought refuge in Manila. Around 40 of them were executed, while almost 400 were held hostage. The latter were only released when their Filipino captors could no longer hang onto them.

Spain officially left the Philippines in December 1898. It surrendered the islands to Filipino revolutionaries in a ceremony held in Plaza Libertad, and since then, the administration of the islands fell to the hands of the revolutionaries (and the Americans). Iloilo province became the last capital of Spain’s diminishing empire, which was seen by most of the Spanish-Filipino families, prompting them to return to the Iberian Peninsula.

The second phase of the revolution was against America. Filipinos were limited to capturing towns that they also lost afterwards. Soon they were in the mountains waging war against the powerful Gringo. If the country had been cohesive in its ideals for independence and if it had better leaders, the outcome would have been very different. But that’s for another journal.

The Americans considered the government of Spain “solely resting” on the hands of the religious. They knew that the reputation of the Religious had to be contaminated first—which they found to be rather easy. Some Friars made such a bad name for themselves that they aided those who want them vanished. Believe it or not there were countless Friars who were defended by their beloved communities. Filipinos lynching these men were extremely isolated. In Naic, for example, town people were offended by the brutal torture of three friars under a Bonifacio brother. They requested the said revolutionist to immediately leave Naic. The friars were later executed.

Americans believed that “the pedestal, or foundation, of the sovereignty of Spain in [the] islands” is the Frailes. Once terminated, “the whole structure would topple over.” After the Spanish forces were defeated in Manila, it was just a matter of time.

The number of Spanish soldiers deployed in the islands, from 1896 until the conclusion of the war did not exceed 25,000. This number fails in comparison to the brigades that came from the US mainland during the outbreak of the Philippine-American war. At the height of the fight between the Filipinos and the Americans in 1899, for example, Manila had an estimated t 15,000 revolucionarios. The American’s almost equaled this number [or even surpassed it depending on the source] with three thousand men stationed in Manila alone [not counting Dewey’s ship manning the bay] in a series of rapid deployments.

Clearly, for the Philippines, the war against America was much bigger than the one against Spain, and yet it is seldom mentioned as a legitimate war against foreign invader. For the longest time, it is being referred to be as a mere “insurrection” and its Filipino leaders are called “bandidos.”

After the end of Spanish-American war, 800 Spanish soldiers were deported back to Spain. Many of them died on the ship. Those that perished “were placed in sacks then thrown at sea”. There were countless Spaniards that were help captives even after the signing of the treaty in Paris. Consequently, some soldiers decided to join Aguinaldo [known for his humane treatment of Spanish captives]. Friars that remained in the islands, committed themselves as educators. This would be their role under the new colonial government.

The friars owned at least 400 acres of land [the country have 74 thousand land acres all in all] which they had transferred to English corporations for safe keeping. Later on, most of these “immense agricultural” lands were sold for profit, that is, if not reclaimed in order to re-establish the Friar Orders’ interest in the islands. The reason why the Friar estates are so prized is because these are developed farmlands located among the best areas for agriculture and other human purposes. The Friars did not own much Philippine lands but they did own the most expensive of them. They were very sound investors.

After the war, the Americans and their Filipino allies did not go after these lands as they were “compelled” to honor their “treaty obligation” and observe the rule of law. This policy strengthened the Spanish Orders’ position of legally owning the lands they have leased to business families like that of Rizal’s.

American Jesuit Superior John Hurley, addressing the Japanese who wanted to acquire missionary properties during the war, said, “Ecclesiastical property is not national property, it is not American, nor Spanish…It is not national but supranational. The American’s understood this when, before the war, they wished to freeze the funds of German and Spanish missionaries in the Philippines…”. Filipinos who initially thought they could get their hands on the Friars assets realized this reality as well.

Long after most of the Friars have left  their religion remained the most influential. If there was anything the revolution had succeeded doing, it is that it had removed the “Spanish” friar’s dominance in the islands. This was the key to controlling the towns. But since the Filipinos could not defend [and almost no sovereign country would recognize it] their republic against the Americans.

American Governor Howard Taft, realizing the “real” Philippine condition during his time, wrote: “To begin with, they are Christian people, and they have been so for three hundred years. It will not be said that I have been partial to the Spanish friars and the Spanish sovereignty here, but I am anxious to admit in the fullest manner the debt which these people and the world owe to Spain and her friars for Christianizing seven millions of Malays and giving them, speaking broadly, Christian and modern ideals”.

At least, Americans acknowledged the Friars contributions. Because the Friar’s accomplishments in Philippine terra favored their interest. If the war had taken longer, which was the only way it could be won, public opinion in the US would have changed against annexing the Philippines.

The Orders survived the American invasion. The opposition against them was political. The country received new Catholic curates after the war to replace those that were abandoned. The Spanish Friars, or what was left of them after the war, were generally accepted by both Filipinos and Americans. They were excellent “ambassadors” and “politicians”. Even the new Yankee administrators were surprised how nice the Spaniards seemed to be, “such hospitable entertainers that they have been frequently imposed upon by traveling Americans, who take the convents for hotels, regardless of the public sentiment.”

Long after the Spaniard friars were replaced by Filipinos and their other foreign colleagues, they remain one of the most controversial figures in Philippine historiography and yet so little is known about them.

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