22 September 2016

1903 Batangas Seen through the Eyes of an American Colonial Officer’s Wife

Nipa huts in a reconcentrado camp.  Image credit:  "The Last Holdouts".

A series of letters written by Edith Moses about the Philippines provides a colorful insight into life in the country at the turn of the previous century. These letters were subsequently published into a book entitled “Unofficial Letters of an Official’s Wife” in New York in 1908.

Moses was the wife of Bernard Moses, a member of the Philippine Commission from 1900 to 1902.1 The commission was appointed by the American President William McKinley in 1900 “to exercise legislative and limited executive powers in the Philippines.2” The commission was also known as the “Taft Commission,” so named after William Howard Taft, its first head.

To provide insights about life in Batangas in 1903, when the letters were written, this article will quote excerpts from the final chapter of Edith Moses’s book entitled “An Outing in Batangas,” with annotations in brackets provided whenever this writer deems necessary. This chapter gives vivid accounts of her stay in the towns of Batangas, Taal and Lipa.

11 November 1903 [Arriving in Batangas]

“I was invited last week to go down to Batangas for a visit. I left our house at eight o’clock Sunday morning, expecting the transport Ingalls to sail at half-past eight, but, after all our hurry, we did not get away until noon... We had a smooth and remarkably quick trip, reaching Batangas [she was referring to the town of Batangas or what would become Batangas City] at seven o'clock in the evening….

“Since then a convenient little wharf has been built for the quartermaster’s boats. We were taken on shore in the general’s launch. The native rowers were rigged out in sailor suits, with ties and sashes, an innovation of the new quartermaster…

“There are three houses, almost like suburban cottages at home, in the enclosure. In one of these Mrs. Taft [most likely William Howard Taft’s wife Helen] and I were installed…

“We met the presidente, an ex-insurrecto, [was she referring to Miguel Malvar, who had taken over the resistance movement after the capture of Emilio Aguinaldo?3] who is now most friendly to the Americans. We went to the famous reconcentrado camp [one of the concentration camps the Americans set up in Batangas during the Philippine-American War.], a beautiful piece of ground. Some of the nipa shacks are still standing. The natives who were confined there were so well satisfied that, when the time came to break up the camp, the general could not get them to move until he turned them out by force.” [She was stating the official American version. In truth, the concentration camps were miserable places for the inhabitants of Batangas, as I already pointed out in a previous article.]

12 November 1903 [Description of her trip to Taal]

“Today we are resting, for we are worn out after a long trip we took yesterday to Taal and the volcano... [She then proceeded to narrate the trip to Taal.] The distance between Batangas and the town of Taal is about eighteen miles, and there is an almost continuous row of nipa shacks between the two places... Everywhere in the Islands the middle-aged and old women are ill-favored and ugly, but the young girls and the children are attractive and often pretty. The people we saw yesterday were the ugliest natives I have ever seen… [A comment typical of American bigotry of the era. There were those in the American army who scorned the “little brown people.”]

Women in a Batangas prison.  Image credit:  Alfred W. McCoy, University of Wisconsin--Madison. Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

“Taal was once a town of much importance and wealth, and it was also celebrated for the culture of its inhabitants. The city had been terraced, and we saw the ruined remains of many handsome dwelling houses... The church of San Martin is, however, the chief glory of Taal. It is an immense fortress-like pile, larger than the Manila Cathedral, and far more imposing.... Taal must have been one of the finest cities of the Philippines…

“Batangas [this time she was referring to the entire province.] was the garden spot of Luzon. It was covered with fine haciendas of sugar, coffee, tobacco, and rice. Now it is a jungle. We did not see a man working between Batangas and Taal, nor a cultivated field… [The indolence of the people of Batangas she attributed to their having gotten used to loafing while they were forced to stay in General J. Franklin Bell’s concentration camps during the war.]

“The town of Batangas is so prosperous it is difficult to get a muchacho [likely a katulong or kasambahay as the muchacho would be known in the present day], or a man to do any kind of work. Small saloons and places for selling beer and sweets are seen everywhere, and it certainly does not argue well for the future of this country that we are teaching these natives the use of whisky. The present prosperity comes from the presence of the military, and it is a prosperity that will decline as soon as the garrison is removed…

“The Batangas church is a picturesque building with an unusually well-proportioned dome. The town is large, but otherwise the buildings are insignificant. There are apparently no fine residences. [Either she did not explore the town of Batangas or she was not invited to the so-called “fine residences.” The elegant Pastor ancestral home, for one, was built in 1883.] The governor, Señor Luz, is a very interesting man. He is almost totally deaf, which perhaps accounts for his pathetic expression… His wife is a native of Lipa, a town the Filipinos used to call the “Paris of the Orient.” She finds Batangas very triste [meaning “sad”]. There are few, if any, really cultivated families here, and no society life among the natives. She mourns for Lipa, and the fine residence the governor owns in that town.”

14 November 1903 [Description of her hike up Mt. Maculot]

“Yesterday, we took another long trip to Macolod [Many American-written documents refer to Mt. Maculot as “Macolod.”], a high mountain overlooking the lake of Taal and the volcano... We drove over the Taal-Batangas road as far as Bauang [many old folks in the present day still refer to Bauan as “Bauang,” the way some people still refer to the town of Lian as “Liyang.”]; there we turned off into a charming cultivated country. The natives were apparently not as lazy as they were along the Batangas road. Men were plowing with little humpback bulls. There were well-cultivated fields of corn and sugar, and plantations of cocoa and coffee. The houses looked better kept, and were surrounded by gardens…

“It was market day, and the road was full of women on foot or seated on little ponies between two great baskets of garden produce or heaps of green grass. Strings of ponies laden with immense round baskets filled with red clay jars crowded close into the hedges as we went swinging along. There were scores of old women and young girls with baskets of various sizes and shapes on their heads… [A disappearing practice, that of women balancing not only baskets but big pots on their heads.]

“One young dude, sitting by the roadside caressing his fighting cock [a typical enough sight in Batangas, even in the present day], wore a pair of Prussian blue velvet slippers and a big double hibiscus over his ear... Our road ascended about five hundred feet between Batangas and Cuenca, and we were surprised to find what a difference there was in the climate of the two places. Cuenca at ten o'clock with the sun shining was cool and breezy…

“We could look down into the crater of the Taal volcano and see the Laguna de Bay off to the north, where Manila lay. [She was describing the scenery from the top of Mt. Maculot.] The day was perfect, and the volcano, the little islands, and the nearer shore were reflected in the surface of the lake.”

15 November 1903 [A river ride and dance to end her stay in Batangas town]

“Yesterday, we had a novel experience, a trip down the river on a carabao raft. I am sure it is only in the Philippine Islands that one can do that, and even here not many people enjoy it. We went up the river [probably the Calumpang River] on horseback to a point about four miles above Batangas, where the government rice is brought on rafts for distribution into the interior…

“We floated down for an hour by daylight. Then the full moon gave us light, and the red glow of a brilliant sunset made that peculiar combination of moon and sunlight so difficult for a painter to reproduce. Before dark we saw some pretty scenes at the fords: a girl in a blue skirt carrying a red water jar on her head, a train of carabao rafts loaded with government rice, and the water carriers, whose unique method of taking water from the river and springs is worth noting…

Filipino men rounded up by the American Army in 1901 in Bauan.  Image credit:  "The Last Holdouts".

“The day ended with a ball given in our honor by the city officials. We received beautifully written invitations to a “modest” reception, but knew, of course, that the “baile” [dance] would be the best the town could afford. The city hall was elaborately decorated on our arrival and the main room was filled with guests. [A typical scene even in the present day, particularly during town or city fiestas.] There were all classes, including infants and maids; the latter crouched on the floor behind the chairs of their mistresses. There were small girls in big European hats, and others in beaver-tail skirts looking like miniature old women.”

16 November 1903 [Her stay in Lipa]

“Today we start for Lipa, where we spend the night and where another ball is being prepared for us. It is said the ladies of Lipa will wear their celebrated diamonds on this occasion…

“Ever since coming to the Philippines we have heard of the splendors of Lipa. Formerly the inhabitants were rich and lived in great style. Society was very gay, and the diamonds of the ladies of Lipa were celebrated throughout the Archipelago. The source of all this wealth was coffee. About ten years ago a pest killed the plants, and since that time the splendor of Lipa has gradually decayed…

“During the insurrection, Lipa was one of the towns that gave most trouble to the Americans [although the entire province of Batangas the Americans found difficult to pacify or subjugate]. The inhabitants aided and encouraged their people in every way, and General Bell was obliged to shut up [The use of “shut up” is indeed curious. Dis she mean “kill?”] a large number of citizens and keep many more under strict surveillance. This made the people of Lipa bitter against the army…

[After travelling from Batangas through San Jose, Moses’s party arrived in Lipa.] “Finally, Lipa came in sight and at first we were much disappointed, for it looked mean and dilapidated. Pigs ran about the weed-grown streets, washing hung on broken-down garden walls…

“The church has a fine marble floor and is large but not beautiful. The houses interested me more. They almost all have gardens and back yards. They are not built with the stables underneath, although the entrance to one of the finest houses was through the barnyard…

“When we were dressed and ready for our dinner another delegation of about twenty young girls waited on us to pay their respects and welcome us to Lipa. They were like a flock of tropical birds, as they fluttered about…

“The little mestizas in blue and pink giggled and fairly collapsed with nervous joy when he placed his eyeglass in his eye and planted himself in front of them. We danced the rigodon twice; the second time a new figure was introduced called the pasco, in which each lady promenaded around the room with all the men in turn as partners…

“General Bell [General J. Franklin Bell implemented the American’s concentration camp policy in Batangas.] was in his element. They were all there, his ancient enemies for the women of Lipa were more incorrigible insurrectos than the men. He danced with the girls and enticed the old ladies into taking a turn; he talked and he joked, and his aide, poor boy, following the general's lead, whirled the girls of Lipa about like a steam engine.”

Notes and references:
1 “The United States in Asia: a Historical Dictionary,” by David Shavit.
2 “Philippine Commission,” online at Wikipedia.
3 There are apparently historians who believe could have been listed as among the Presidents of the Philippines, but this was never officially recognized by the Philippine Government.
4 Edith Moses’s description of Batangas from “Unofficial Letters of an Official’s Wife,” published in New York, 1908.

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