A new series, one attempting to ‘report’ on historical events as if they just happened; with attitudes and contextual elements preserved. Errr…yeah let’s see if it actually works. This one concerns the first epidemic in the Philippines, and its bloody aftermath.
Authorities still have not figured out when or where the first case of the disease occurred. But we do know that by the first week of October 1820 it had spread throughout the villages along the Pasig, most especially Tondo. As well we know that many in the Walled City and the more affluent areas were left relatively unscathed. The worst hit were those of the natives; the Indians as the foreigner visitors, especially the French and British, would refer to them. And as the disease spread, leaving death and dismay in its wake, anger soon followed. Anger among the ravaged, the lost, the bereaved. Anger at loss that they did not understand. And soon that anger turned outwards. The inexplicable nature of what was happening in their quiet towns in Tondo stirred up hidden passions and unspoken resentments; the object became the foreigners, the interlopers as they were seen. A disease of the body spreads rapidly, but can take time to kill. Diseases of the soul, of the mind, can spread even more quickly, can be even more deadly, and can be even more destructive.
Trading in Disease
Cholera morbus, as we now know it to be, began in India; in the slums of Kolkata; a city that us in Manila can sympathize with. We have also been under the thumb of the British, though for not as long nor as destructively as they. The city of Kolkata, like the entirety of India, is the plaything of British economic interests. As they have finished their exploitation of that fair and mysterious land, their eye has turned every Eastward. Thus, we felt the military reach of the British in 1762; they left Manila in ruin. And now their traders and businessmen are circling Manila, putting down roots, and pushing the colony to open and develop. For many years Filipinos, hijos del pais, have been demanding for the Philippines to open up too. Governor-generals of foresight like Basco y Vargas and Simon de Anda worked to achieve that very thing. But there are some, and many of us do feel, that the changes have come too fast, too furious, with little concern for protection or interests of the natives, creoles, and mestizos alike. Local businessmen whisper about this; wondering what exactly Spain and the foreign community has planned for us. The colony itself is being left behind in favor of foreign expansion. After so many years of demanding more freedoms and independence, after fighting off the British, after finally doing away with the pernicious galleon trade, are we too allow ownership and control of our fair city and colony to be moved offshore? Because what it feels like we are less opening up, than being forced open.
We see what is happening across the Pacific; with our brothers in Mexico. It might very well be that their revolution, becomes our fight as well. This sense might very well be the root of resentment, of fear and anger, that exploded on October 9, and carried on for many days.
Death along the Pasig
What we do know is that it was probably brought in by a trading ship out of India docked in late August; traveling out of Bengal, that province most horrendously attacked by the dreaded cholera. A disease that had never stepped foot on these fair Islands. As a matter of record, this was our first ever epidemic. Is it any wonder that the people reacted so violently?
The ship was the Merope, captained by a man named Nichols. He and his ship have disappeared; set sail, probably never to return. Devastation left in their wake. We are not sure who the first case was, but we do know that the first foreign case has been identified as a Frenchman. His body was wrapped in a carpet and left to rot near some esteros. It did spread fast, in those areas where the Indians live along the Pasig. By September untold numbers of Indians are dead, we have never been able to get a precise tally, but it numbers in the thousands.
Cholera is a wasting disease, causing severe and involuntary continuous vomiting and diarrhea. Severe cases, ones that I witnessed myself in my travels through the huts, leave the victims shrunken in, chapped lips, and pale. Wasted away in just a day, dead by the next. It is pitiful to watch, the weakness, the slow slide into senility and pain. To watch them curl up in pain from the lack of water, desiccated is the term. That is what they became, desiccated. Like the mummies I have seen in London, or those you find in far Egypt. The children are the worst, they cry pitifully, not understanding why they are suffering. The elderly are hit the hardest, and die the quickest. But the cholera even kills the strong and hardy. The sheer helplessness and horror is what turned to anger, I believe. Rage against the unknown and the uncontrollable. Dismay at the lack of assistance from a government sworn to protect and defend.
Manila did not have a medical doctor of its own at the time. Only through the intervention of some kindly foreign visitors were any lives able to be saved. One of the most prominent and active, who gained the appreciation of many Indians, Spaniards, and hijos del pais alike for his efforts is Paul de la Gironiene. Who we all know now, as he is a bit of a celebrity; though as we know prone to hyperbole and a touch of self-adulation. Any man who has sat at a dinner with him knows the truthfulness of that remark; however he remains a wholly engaging and warm man, who seems to have developed an ardent love affair with Manila, Cavite, and the inhabitants of this colony.
In an interview Messrs de la Gironiere described the situation: “the terrible scourge, cholera…quickly ravaged the whole island. Within a few days of its appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by the thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night…the streets were crowded with dead-carts.” At this point Messr. de la Gironiere stopped for a moment to collect himself. I must confess I to became lost in memories of those days.
I am reminded of a passage I read describing the Black Death, that era that lingers in our memories even centuries after: “Soon the corpses were lying forsaken in the houses. No ecclesiastic, no son, no father and no relation dared to enter…” In the case of Messina, described above, the disease was brought by foreigners as well; their ships set aflame and driven out. But the evil had already taken root; it was eating away at their city. That too is what happened here.
Foreign Eyes and Bloody Days
Some how the story spread among the Indians that the disease was brought by foreigners; they were to blame. And even worse, it was believed that the city, our water, was poisoned deliberately. I can only attribute this to the discovery of the body of a cholera slain Frenchman in an esteros. No matter, there was simmering anger already; anger about the disease, anger about intrusions and encroachments of arrogant men hailing from Britain, France, and Russia who considered themselves superior. It exploded.
Those caught in the cross fire did not deserve to be so. Many, such as de la Gironiere and others, freely gave their time, efforts, medicines to save what Indians could. But once the passions of the people were inflamed, no amount of good deeds done were going to save them. Even Gironiere himself was only saved through the intervention of an Indian leader who remember his efforts to save his relative. Some foreigners, such as one who wishes to remain anonymous, attributed it to “jealousy and hatred.” That is possible, but I firmly believe that fear was the motivating factor. And with certain priests and friars further inflaming passions by claiming that “…they have poisoned even the waters, and they administer poison to the sick, purposely to exterpate the whole race of Tagalians” [sic], while at the same time ponderously and vituperatively proclaiming the end of the world, there is little surprise that violence and mob rule became the norm.
On October 9, 1820 everything came to a head. Reports indicate that upwards of 3,000 men (predominately native, but mestizos and creoles made an appearance) armed with knives and bludgeons commenced at 10 in the morning to begin massacring all the ‘Strangers’ they could lay their hands on. Messr de la Gironiere describes the scene: “Poor Dibard, the captain of the Cultivateur, was one of the first victims. Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses were pillaged and destroyed. The carnage only ceased when there were no longer any victims. One eye-witness escaped this butchery, namely, M. Gautrin…who, at the moment I am writing, happens to be residing in Paris. He saved his life by his courage and his muscular strength. After seeing one of his friends mercilessly cut to pieces, he precipitated himself into the midst of the assassins, with no other means of defense than his fists. He succeed in fighting his way through the crows…having received three sabre-cuts upon his head, and a lance thrust in his body…” This scene was played out in every locality where there was a concentration of foreigners; British, Russian, French, Chinese all were killed. The only ones who escaped were the Spanish. Naturally, all others who are sons of the country emerged unscathed; except for their losses to cholera.
The orgy of violence continued for two days, practically unabated. Our Governor-General was slow to respond to the crisis; despite pleas from the community to intervene. Alas, Folgueras is man blessed with an array of astounding intellectual and physical gifts; but his lack of interest in the goings-on of his colony is something of a a curse. This is a perfect example. It was only two days after the first signs of violence that he released his troops; even then eye-witnesses have reported that troops stood aside if they came upon violence or murder being accomplished. They seemed content to allow the storm to ride itself out. We, like others, wonder to what extent the government allowed the Massacre to continue. We seem to see the hand of the Spanish in this.
On October 20, 1820, Governor Folgueras did release a statement: “…to the natives of the Filipinas Islands, and especially those in the district of Tondo…” He continues to lambast the natives for falling for pernicious rumors and lies, perpetuated to inflame passions and cause riots. Folgueras even goes to say that the mountain Negritos or the Moros of Jolo would never have entertained such folly. But for all the thunder, there seems to be little action. Even as he reminds that the traders have brought prosperity to the Islands, Folgueras remains silent with communicative action. As yet, not a single arrest has been made or a single indemnification paid.
In all the tally counts over eighty Chinese dead, eleven English reported, and a number of Frenchmen as well. The damage to property has not been counted, but many homes were looted and destroyed. This is on top of the death by the epidemic.
The colony is trying to heal; return to the way it was before. But that might very well be a foolish dream. There is little to feel for the Massacre than shame and regret. Yet, we cannot lose sight of the thousands untold Filipinos who died because of cholera. While some foreign elements are threatening never to return to Manilla again, we can already seen them venturing back. They are compelled by economic interests and the reach of the great trading companies that have for so long coveted the natural resources of the Islands.
Even if Tondo and Manila now seem physically almost recovered, the xenophobia that seems extant among certain populations, even if only expressed in a moment of extreme duress, must be addressed. The unknown is always frightening, and Manila is becoming unknown and unknowable, even to those who have lived here all their lives. The Spanish government must be more proactive. The years of sitting in the Palacio, with little mind to what is happening in the city and its surrounding environs, is at an end. The government must start reaching out to the people; before they reach out for the government.
For within the Islands is festering a distrust of foreign elements, one that can only be counter-acted with empowerment and renewed understanding. I wonder if that connects to our recent history with the British invasion, or if it is more a product of the rapidity with which Manilla has changed in the last few decades. Either way, the natives are beginning to assert themselves and I suspect that a certain sense of discontentment with the actions of the government and the management of the colony are being expressed. While certain British and Russian gentlemen link the unrest to recent moves to expand freedoms for the natives, I believe it far more likely that it is a result of a continuing lack of representation in the affairs of government. Instead of pulling back on the expansion of freedoms and rights, we must forge ahead. We cannot continue to allow our government to be dictated to by self-interested international elements. The welfare of the colony and its people must take precedence. That does not mean barring foreigners from entering our land. Far from it! Their trade, capital, and expertise are valuable commodities in the drive to develop the Philippines. But the inhabitants of this land must be partners, they must also be developed and not exploited. That is the cry being raised by certain creoles like Luis Rodriguez Varela. Of course, for his troubles, he found exile. But his ideas may very well be true.
Manilla is licking her wounds inflicted during the Epidemic and the Massacre. Physically we were hurt, but our communal psyche has also been severely damaged. That is something from which we must recover. As a people, we know the pitiful depths to which we can sink. But, the city is resilient, as our near history has proven. We must take note though that a sense of restiveness is beginning to spread. The Spanish government should well consider what would happen if the passions of the natives were turned against them. That is a battle in which the hijos del pais, following in the example of their Mexican brethren, could well join. The city is changing; we as a people are changing. And while we are bowed by the lingering aftershocks of disease and violence, it is not a state that will remain for long.
Manila always recovers.