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Two Accounts of U.S. Intrusions in the 1900s

As "fire and brimstone" rain with impunity on Iraq courtesy of a new U.S. war, Filipino historians and citizens recall U.S. aggression on the Filipino nation at the turn of the 19th century. In particular, the violent intrusion of American troops in Sulu in the 1900's is brought to the fore as U.S. and Philippine armed forces contemplate "military exercises" in the southernmost islands of Sulu in the name of the U.S. "war on terror."

Filipino Moslems are to be credited for putting up the last stand against the military conquest.

The battles of Bud Dajo in 1906 and Bud Bagsak in 1913 in Jolo, Sulu, may be regarded as two of the more dramatic events to remember in the manner the Americans carried out "pacification campaigns" in the country and how Filipinos mounted stubborn resistance to the U.S. invasion. Filipino Moslems are to be credited for putting up the last stand against the military conquest. To this day, the Tausugs(1) of Sulu have not forgotten and rail against "military exercises" in the heart of their homeland. The battles are important to remember as a link in the Filipino struggle for nationhood.

The Philippine Commission(2) of 1906 reported to the U.S. Secretary of War the Bud Dajo encounter. The report says "disaffected datus" of the island had been "joining themselves together in an extinct crater at the top of Mount Dajo, near the town of Jolo, and had gathered about them the lawless of all the neighboring regions.(3)" The "joining together" appeared to be a collective refusal to heed the American campaign to place all Filipinos under control. In the face of this recalcitrance, the Americans decided to apply the full weight of military force against the Moros holed up at Mount Bud Dajo.

Detachments, therefore, of United States troops, assisted by U.S. marines, constabulary (the U.S. troops consisting largely of scouts, and the constabulary in part of Moros), assaulted the stronghold and exterminated the band. The position was first shelled by a naval gunboat and then assaulted by the combined Government forces. Among those in the crater were more or less Moro women and children, who were unavoidably killed. The shelling, of course, necessarily killed all who came in the way of missiles and the women fought beside the men and held their children before them. The Moros, men and women, were all fanatics, sworn to die rather than to yield, and certain, as they believed, of a glorious reward in the world to come if they died killing Christians.(4)

The language of the report definitely does not elevate the Moros, demonized as they still are today as "lawless" and "fanatics." It is noteworthy though that the report refers to women and children as "unavoidable" casualties (today's "collateral damage"?). Does it not appear then that the subject of the assault could have been a community nestled atop the dead volcano? The report does not say. Vic Hurley, an American who stayed in Mindanao for seven years and wrote a book on the Moros in 1936(5), tells a more detailed account of the encounter, apparently based on "acquaintances of elders of many Moro barrios" and various histories of the Philippines then extant.

When overwhelmed with heavy bombardment and sniper fire, the Moros "sallied forth into the open with kris and spear."

In his book, Hurley says that he looks back to the encounter at Bud Dajo twenty-eight years after it happened.(6) Assuming the elders he interviewed then were in the ages 50s to 60s, they must have been, twenty-eight years back, in their 20s or 30s. At that age, they would have been mature enough to reckon with the events at Bud Dajo and other barrios. It is reasonable to assume that twenty-eight years after, their recollection would still have been generally close to what transpired. In addition, Hurley consulted a local newspaper, the Mindanao Herald, on the encounter. The news reports, which we can assume to provide timely testimonies, could have complemented the elders' accounts.

He writes:

A large band of Moros fortified Bud Dajo and defied the authorities to subject them to any law. The American garrison at Jolo was reinforced by the addition of two battalions of infantry and preparations were made for a decisive assault on the Moros….

The battle began on March 5. Mountain guns were hauled into position and forty rounds of shrapnel were fired into the crater to warn the Moros to remove their women and children.(7)

Three columns of American troops moved up Bud Dajo from different sides and encountered fierce resistance from barricades blocking the approach to the crater. When overwhelmed with heavy bombardment and sniper fire, the Moros "sallied forth into the open with kris(8) and spear." On the second day, in the approach taken by a certain Major Bundy, "(t)wo hundred Mohammedans died here before the quick-firing guns and the rifles of the attackers." On the third day,

After the heavy bombardment had accomplished its purpose, the American troops charged the crater with fixed bayonets. The few Moros left alive made hand grenades from sea shells filled with black powder and fought desperately to stem the charge. But the straggling krismen were no match for the tide of bayonets that overwhelmed them and hardly a man survived that last bloody assault.

After the engagement the crater was a shambles. Moros were piled five deep in the trenches where they had been mowed down by the artillery and rifle fire. The American attack had been supported by two quick firing guns from the gunboat Pampanga and examination of the dead showed that many of the Moros had as many as fifty wounds. Of the 1,000 Moros who opened the battle two days previously, only six men survived the carnage.(9)

Hurley's judgement of the event is significant. He states:

By no stretch of the imagination could Bud Dajo be termed a "battle." Certainly the engaging of 1000 Moros armed with krises, spears and a few rifles by a force of 800 Americans armed with every modern weapon was not a matter for publicity. The American troops stormed a high mountain peak crowned by fortifications to kill 1000 Moros with a loss to themselves of twenty one killed and seventy three wounded! The casualty reflects the unequal nature of the battle.

The Moros had broken the law and some punishment was necessary if America was to maintain her prestige in the East, but opinion is overwhelming in the belief that there was unnecessary bloodshed at Bud Dajo.(10)

There were women and children standing side by side with the men. The number of people—about 1,000—was too large for a "band."

Hurley's account tends to indicate that the subject of the attack, which both he and the Philippine Commission considered as a "band," was in fact a sizable community. There were women and children standing side by side with the men. The number of people—about 1,000—was too large for a "band." The weaponry did not reflect a professional formation under arms. It appears the men who fought fiercely the invaders were the men folk defending the community, which reeled from heavy artillery bombardment, quick firing (apparently from the "Gatling Gun"), and rifle fire (from the Krag). The "band" was a community that refused to submit to American governance.

The military assault appears to have turned out as a massacre of a largely civilian population defending themselves with whatever they could lay their hands on—krises, spears, some rifles and improvised explosives. Hurley's mention of many fallen bodies riddled with bullets ("as many as fifty wounds") also points to overkill. It appears that the defenders were so overwhelmed by heavy firepower that their actions signified willing submission to death ("sallied forth into the open").(11) The community was virtually up for slaughter.

In 1913, a similar battle took place in another hilly point in Jolo, The Philippine Commission of that year reports that

(i)n Jolo the authorities of the Moro Province, with the invaluable cooperation of the United States Army and the Constabulary, were engaged throughout the year in carrying out the disarmament of the Moro population. Such opposition as was encountered centered in a small portion of the island known as Lati Ward…. The population, influenced by the disorderly element, when it appeared that movements of troops were to be made, stampeded to the number of several thousand, including women and children to Bud Bagsak…and flatly declined to surrender individual criminals or arms. Finally, after a long period of negotiations and maneuvering, advantage was taken of a time when all but a defiant minority, including practically all the non-combatants, had left the stronghold, and the latter was on the morning of June 11, 1913, carried by a surprise attack of a force of American troops and Scouts...(13)

The Moros put up a fierce resistance against the Americans —"would rush out in groups of ten to twenty, charging madly across 300 yards of open country in an effort to come hand to hand with the Americans…

As in Bud Dajo, the attack commenced with heavy bombardment of the cottas (forts) surrounding the main cotta of Bud Bagsak. One by one, the cottas fell to shelling and infantry assaults. The campaign to capture it took 5 days. The Moros put up a fierce resistance against the Americans—"would rush out in groups of ten to twenty, charging madly across 300 yards of open country in an effort to come hand to hand with the Americans…. In each instance, the charging Moros were accounted for long before they reach the American trenches." On the fifth day, the American forces under General John Pershing made the final assault. Hurley writes:

The mountain guns opened up for a two-hour barrage into the Moro fort, and at nine o'clock in the morning the troops moved up the ridge for the attack. The heavy American artillery shelled the Moros out of the outer trenches supporting the cotta of Bagsak and the sharpshooters picked them off as they retreated to the fortress. After an hour's hard fighting, the advance reached the top of the hill protected by the fire of the mountain guns, to a point within seventy yards of the cotta. To cover that last seventy-five yards required seven hours of terrific fighting. The Moros assaulted the American trenches time after time only to be mowed down by the entrenched attackers….

About 500 Moros occupied the cottas at the beginning of the battle of Bagsak and with few exceptions they fought to the death

With this battle, the organized resistance of the Moros was broken...(14)

While the Commission reports of "non-combatants" being removed from the area, Hurley's account points to the greatest difficulty in separating the women and children from the men at war.

The Battle of Bud Bagsak eloquently speaks of Moro heroism in the face of a brutal war of conquest. It is not clear from the account of the Philippine Commission if women and children were included in the 500 or so Moros exterminated by the American assault. While the Commission reports of "non-combatants" being removed from the area, Hurley's account points to the greatest difficulty in separating the women and children from the men at war.

So long as the Moros saw that the American troops were inactive and in barracks many of the women and children would be sent down to work in the fields, but at the first suggestion of an American expedition all of the non-combatants would be recalled to the mountains. As General Pershing had stated, when the Moro makes his last stand, he wishes his women and children with him… Pershing soon discovered that the taking of Bagsak without the slaughter of women and children would have to be an undertaking planned with the greatest secrecy.

Hurley relates that Pershing executed a surprise maneuver on Bud Bagsak supposedly to carry out the assault before women and children come stampeding back to the hill from the fields. It is not clear how precise this turned out to be. In the first place, were all the women and children out of the cottas before the attack? Assuming they were out of the cottas, were they totally prevented from returning to the hills at any point during the five days of assault? Both accounts of Hurley and the Commission do not have anything on this. What is certain is that the subject of the assault was another Moro community in retreat,(15) which appeared to have been strongly defended by more men under arms. The assault was also carried out with massive shelling and "quick firing."

The military campaigns against the Moros were part of the overall plan of the Americans to assert complete control over the archipelago after the establishment of civil government in 1901. They however found formidable day-to-day resistance from the Moros. Before the massacres at Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak, no American was safe, armed or unarmed, away from the garrisons in Moslem Mindanao. The creation of the Moro Province in 1903 became the basis for campaigns of suppression in Islamic communities. In the years that followed, the Americans launched military operations against the Moros.

In the larger picture, stiff Moro resistance complemented similar organized responses in Luzon and the Visayas, such as the more famous counter-attacks in Samar that defied American burning of villages and rice granaries throughout the island.

Recounting the battles of Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak adds to popular knowledge a significant detail in the narrative of becoming a sovereign nation that includes the Moro wars against U.S. hegemonism, which resonates to this day.


1 The Tausugs generally refer to the ethnolinguistic group inhabiting the Sulu archipelago. The name Tausug is said to derive from "tau" or "tao" (person) and "sug" (current), therefore, "people of the current." The dominant ethnic group in Sulu, the Tausugs live in concentrated settlements along the coasts.

2 The Philippine Commission was a body created by the U.S. government under the Department of War to administer the Philippines in a legislative and executive capacity during a time when Filipinos waged armed resistance against the American occupation and the civilian government was still in its inception. It was composed of five members, including the American governor general who presided as chairperson. After the first, it later included personalities of the Filipino elite.

3 U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs: War Department, 7th Annual Report of the Philippine Commission, 1906, Washington, 1907.

4 Ibid.

5 Vic Hurley, Swish of the Kris: The Story of the Moros, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1936.

6 Ibid, p. 186.

7 Ibid, p. 185.

8 The kris is a Moro sword shaped like zigzag. Hurley describes it as "wavy-edge cutting weapon."

9 Hurley, p. 185-186.

10 Ibid, p. 186.

11 Such attacks of individuals or groups had been popularly known as juramentado, a Spanish word meaning "under oath." The term was probably used to signify the act of attacking another as emanating from one's allegiance to Islam and offering one's life for others' acceptance of the faith. The act was supposedly carried out in keeping with the larger concept of jihad (holy war) against unbelievers. Others consider the act contrary to the teaching of the Koran. The act seems to have gained greater distinction in the public mind in the many individual or communal acts of resistance against foreign intrusions.

12 The Moro Province was created in 1903 to place the Moros under the control of the American colonial government.

13 U.S. Philippine Commission, Report of the Philippine Commission to the Secretary of War, 1913, Washington, 1914.

14 Hurley, pp. 229-230.

15 Historical records show that whole communities retreating to the hills and establishing forts for defense is an early Filipino warfare technique. This tradition tends to validate the observation of American officers like General Pershing that Moro men at war were difficult to separate from the women and children. A community besieged is an entire population at war in self-defense.

© Ferdinand C. Llanes

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