A BLACK AMERICAN HERO IN THE PHILIPPINES
by Peter Jaynul V. Uckung

      Heroes and history are a volatile mix. They tend to induce a radical change to an oppressed society dulled into insensitivity by the inequitable system of the ruling class.

      A hero is an anomaly rising from a society suffering from unbearable social problems that cannot be remedied by the government. When the public begins to remember the legacy of a hero in a regular basis, it becomes a moral sentinel from which all aspect of governance is measured upon. For is not human happiness the ultimate purpose of heroism and the study of history? Peace, racial equality, economic security, and freedom of culture and expression are the values on which humanity base justifiable happiness, without which civilization becomes cancerous and self destructive.   

      In the Philippines, heroes there are many. Jose Rizal exemplified those who fought oppression and were killed for their convictions.

      Rizal was a fighting writer who unleashed broadside after broadside of scathing articles, essays, and novels dead-aimed to penetrate the armor of indifference that beclouded the minds of colonial officials, to no avail.

      But Rizal’s novels were very effective in releasing the anger within a suppressed and abused people, not only of his country, but of others as well.

      Rizal was also evidently aware of the colonial injustices being enforced on the other people. In his novel, El Filibusterismo, his main character and anti-hero Simoun, after verbally downsizing the imperious friars, is derisively called “American mulatto”, and “British Indian”. Rizal even intimated a sense of consciousness to the discriminating practices being legally enforced upon the North American Indians.

      The term “mulatto” means the first generation of a pure negro and a white, having the yellowish brown color.

      Rizal was no stranger to race issue in the United States. He had visited the country first in 1888, arriving in San Francisco, passing through Sacramento, Reno, Denver, Salt Lake City, Colorado, Missouri, Chicago, Boston, Niagara Falls, and finally New York.

      With the places he has visited in the United States, it was impossible for him to miss the institutionalized degradation that was bestowed upon American negros.

      The Black American people during Rizal’s time suffered a more dehumanizing form of social denigration – slavery. Afro-American families were often broken up, the members sold to different white families. A slave’s frequent destiny was to never see his family again once he was sold. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, even children were sold as if they were pieces of furnitures to do labor without being paid.

      This generally was the accepted social treatment of black Americans when a regiment of black American soldiers, the Twenty-Fourth Infantry, was sent to the Philippines in 1899.

      Black soldiers had shown their mettle in the short Cuban War of 1898 when they rescued colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his rough riders during the Battle for Santiago.

      In the Philippines, the Afro-American soldier (called Buffalo soldier) now had to contend with the fact the he was now helping impose on another non-white people the same kind of racial oppression which have been abusing him and the likes of him at home.

      The black soldier undoubtedly felt the united determination of the Filipinos to win their freedom by waging war. Something that black Americans have never done.

      Black American soldiers and Filipinos usually developed friendly relations partly due to the derision and contempt they both experienced from white soldiers and civilians alike.

      The Filipinos recognizing the sentiments of black American soldiers to racial issues, offered unequivocal brotherly relation and offered military commission to would-be defectors.

      Only a few black American soldiers defected and joined the Filipinos due to the threat of capture (death or long imprisonment for defection). Also the prospect of forgoing all cultural and social ties was a great deterrent to those who entertained the thought of defecting.

      Corporal David Fagen was the most celebrated black American soldier who defected to the Filipinos. It was still unclear why he defected, but studies reported that “Fagen’s position in the company was extremely uncomfortable” and that “personal difficulties” might have driven him to his decision. His military records cancelled incompetency as the reason for defection.

        He was described as dark brown, five feet six inches, with a carved scar in his chin. He was in the middle twenties.

       On November 17, 1899, Fagen, assisted by a Filipino officer, jumped into a horse and went galloping into the jungles of Arayat. He was promoted from lieutenant to captain on September 6, 1900 by Gen. Jose Alejandrino, the Filipino commander in Nueva Ecija. He was referred to by his men as General Fagen.

      Newspapers in the United States featured him on front page and brought his exploits to a fascinated audience. Not a few black Americans praised Fagen’s decision to side with the Filipinos. He was described as “cunning and highly skilled guerrilla who harassed and evaded large conventional American units and their Filipino auxiliaries”.

      Often clashing with his former comrades, he once captured a steam launch on the river in Pampanga. He was so elusive that even the then best known guerrilla chaser, Frederick Funston, the man who captured Emilio Aguinaldo, never did capture him.

      So daring was Fagen that he was reported to have visited   Manila and always escaped dragnets with ease.

      His reputation as a torturer of captured white American soldiers was repudiated by a former prisoner. If he could not be labelled as a butcher, the Americans did call him with other deregatory names. They described him as having a small head, a good for nothing whelp, a bad man, a rowdy soldier, unintelligent ingrate.

      Black American defectors who were captured were indeed executed and there were Edmund Du Bose and Lewis Russell of the Ninth Cavalry for example. They were considered criminals engaged in inciting servile resistance. Also a black officer, Major John Calloway who wrote a friendly letter to a Filipino patriot, Thomas Consunji, was dishonourably discharged from the army.

      Gen. Alejandrino, however, surrendered in May 1901. He was reported to have asked pardon for Fagen as one of his surrender terms. It was refused by the Americans. Fagen would not be considered a prisoner of war. He was to be court-marshalled and executed.

      With most of the Filipino generals surrendering, Fagen left the camp with his Filipino wife. They went hiding in the mountains of Nueva Ecija.

      The Americans hunted him with a vengeance. He was declared a bandit. Six hundred dollars was authorized as a reward for Fagen “dead or alive”.

      On December 5, 1901, a Filipino hunter, Anastacio Bartolome brought a decomposing head of a Negro, together with some weapons, clothing, binoculars, documents and a west point ring of one of Fagen’s former captive.     

      Bartolome’s story was that he and his companion hacked Fagen to death in Dangalan Cove. His wife reportedly jumped into the sea and drowned.

      The evidences were considered strong. The Americans reported a positive identification, but there were no record of reward going to Bartolome.

      However, many expressed doubts about whose head Bartolome had delivered. It was too small. There were talks of Fagen orchestratig the whole thing so he could finally be free of his dogged pursuers. A report about the continued pursuit of Fagen was unearthed months after his supposed killing.

      Jose Rizal might not have dabbled more seriously with the issue on social discrimination inflicted on black Americans, but his fleeting mention of Simoun being mistaken for an “American mulatto” hints of the kind of degrading racial treatment that was being given to non-white people in America. It was the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
 
      When a retelling of a social crime disturbs and angers people and moves them to denounce and condemn this particular social occurrence it is often sufficient enough to assuage the hunger for justice that will be generated by the critically reflecting people.

      Remembering David Fagen and his revolutionary exploits in the Philippines reveals a lot more than the revolution itself.

      As a country suffused with the memories of heroes who fought against the inhumanities of colonialism, the Filipinos will readily discern the social problems that the likes of Fagen symbolized.

      For Fagen, by fighting the US, not only fought for the freedom of his adopted homeland, he fought against a most cruel enemy of mankind. He fought against slavery and racism which were then still being practiced in the US.

      Although, outlawed and condemned in the US after a devastating civil war that almost tore that country in half, slavery survived and had been carried out discreetly through legal and extra legal terror.

      The American Civil War ushered in a euphoric interlude of freedom for most Black Americans. But slavery, though outlawed, survived in other forms. After their emancipation and the reconstruction era, Black Americans now had to suffer segregation.

      Slavery was evil and unsurpassable in its social malignancy. Family members were separated at will by owners. The slightest resistance was met with inhuman tortures designed to break the toughest of fighting spirit.

      With the outlawing of slavery; some states devised legal efforts to keep Black Americans intimidated, submissive and “in their place”. Laws were created with mechanisms designed to disenfranchise blacks, and with no political and legal rights black Americans had no real hope for economic advancement.

      Segregation was legalized. It was a system of norms that dictated every aspect of human behavior between two different races. It was an etiquette system whose purpose was always to imply that blacks were inferior to white men, and that Black Americans were content to be inferior.

      This was the oppressive and unbearable world that David Fagen finally confronted when he joined the Filipinos in their war for independence.

      In honoring the memory of the Philippine Revolution we must remember that there were men who fought not only against colonialism, but also against the tyranny of slavery and racism.

      For that David Fagen is a monument of a hero.