We were standing in a circle around the most notable Frenchman in Manila. After he has lived there for many years, nothing shocks him. He is also a Frenchman revolted by injustice to the very core of his being. He strongly believes in the need for precise ideas and detests anything illogical. A lively and educated man, he studies one idea and detests anything illogical. A lively and educated man, he studies one idea and one aspect of his subject at a time, with an objective viewpoint and fair judgment. He reminded me right away of a commander from Malta whose portrait haunted me in my youth, so I shall designate him by this title. His country house is between Cavite and Manila. He has followed the battle, preferring not to take sides.
–So, Mr. Commander, since you live so near the place where the battle took place, how did it go?
–I shall relate it to you simply, the way it was. . .Around 5 o’clock in the morning. I was in bed and I heard a long deafening sound. What could that be? Undoubtedly it was just a signal to announce a French or an English ship. I say to myself, let them amuse themselves. . . My wife pulls the sheet over her head. “What is happening?” — “Nothing. It’s a signal.” . . . Two minutes after, another cannon is fired. Well, could it be more serious? It cannot be a mere signal. . . I get dressed and I look. There is nothing but a thin veil of cloud, a bit of smoke. . . Then, to frighten my wife, I cry out in a loud voice: “An American battleship. . .!” I look again. The fog begins to lift and I count. . . two. . . three. . . up to seven American ships all in a row, moving calmly, slowly. I return to my wife: “Well, you know what I said as a joke is actually the truth — the Americans are here.” She becomes frightened and loses her composure. “Oh no, not that.” “If you wish, hide your head under the sheet, and put cotton in your ears, but be calm.” As I look again, the fleet is moving towards Cavite where all the Spanish ships are tied up, as if some mousetrap. The Americans are soon upon them. A volley of cannon shots, monstrous flames, and thick smoke. The ships take up their positions once more and fire three times. Finally, they rearrange themselves in pairs, the two biggest ships at the back, the two others on the right, and the other two on the left and right in front of the Spanish ships. . . And at 7:30 there was not a single Spanish ship on the water, all had sunk to the bottom of the sea in flames. There! . . . Oh, but you know, the American shots were excellent! Remarkable! Each shot hit its mark. I saw the smoke and the cloud of dust when the missile hit the ground. . . A pretty exercise in target practice! . . .
–And the field battery, Monsieur le Commandant?
–Oh, yes! Those in Cavite fired some shots, but they were very quickly demolished by the American’s high explosive shells. They were completely reduced to ashes. I admire their accuracy. Each shot was a direct hit …
–To sum it up, what was the extent of the Spanish loss?
–This is it. One hears 50 percent of 1,200 soldiers were either dead or wounded. That means 600 men out of action.
–And on the American side?
–Not one dead, so they say. I think, not even one wounded! I understood that the Concorde’s belly was hit, but the bottom plates were merely dented. After a few minutes, the Spanish ships were aflame. The admiral’s son who was on board the Cristina recounted to me that all of a sudden, only about 30 square meters was habitable. All the rest was on fire. It took them almost 15 minutes to prepare their first cannon! You must understand that the guns were manned by whoever was available.
–Mister Commander, what are these protests by the consular officials, especially the German consul, about promises that were not kept?
–No! No! It is nothing like that. No disagreement at all! The Spaniards questioned the French consul the day of the battle. They arrived in his office. ….I was there, …and they were shouting emotionally, “Mr. Consul, Mr. Consul, they fired explosive shells!” — “Ah!”, I replied to them, “explosive shells? Did you complain in 1870 when Strasbourg, Belfort, and Paris were bombarded with the same type of shells?. . . Only two months ago, when you massacred the insurgents, it was with the same high explosives. . .! The only difference is that the insurgents beat you and made fun of you.” Well, do you know what occurred? The natives planted small flags in the lake to make the Spaniards think that they were there. The latter riddles these poles with ammunition, and the next day, the insurgents went to gather the gunpowder! Although the Spaniards are proud, brave, and obstinate, they are men of the 1550’s, or let’s say, of 1610. They have not changed. Charles V, Cortez, Legaspi –these are the only names you hear them utter. They do not realize that other events have occurred since, such as the cannon, gunpowder, machines, electricity, etc. They are not aware of anything. They are controlled by their parish priests and the clergy. Here, the master is the archbishop.
–And what do they do, all these priests?
—They make babies, sir! One day, in the countryside, I asked a street urchin: “Niño, quien es tu padre?” — “Mi padre es el señor cura.” (Child, who is your father? — My father is the parish priest.) And thus, in this manner, children are produced. Do you know how Spain can put an end to the insurrection in the Philippines? Send all these priests away on a chartered ship and spare the country.
–Mister Commander, do you think that with a more intelligent administration by a farsighted, cultivated country, the Philippines could become very profitable?
–Marvelous country, sir, marvelous! Of unparalleled wealth in a unique situation. Here you have an abundance of everything — sugar, abaca, rice, forests, coffee, tobacco, mines of incalculable wealth which have not been exploited. . . What can I say?
–Anyway, have these people really suffered under the Spaniards?
–Yes, a great deal. Undeniably so. Remember, the Spaniards did nothing for them. If I told you that here in Mariveles –at the bay’s entry, there are still cannibals? Yes, gentlemen, cannibals! They are quite pleasant, and do not make any noise. I rather like that. But they have this particular taste, and we just leave them alone. Perhaps they pretend to go to church. That’s as far as they go.
–While waiting, do they have a good infantry?
–Yes, 15,000 to 20,000 men, I think, spread out around Manila, but there are more Filipinos than Spaniards. One cannot be too sure of them.
–Then why don’t the Spaniards do something before it is too late, before the United States sends a small army? Why doesn’t the governor make an effort to recapture Cavite and the arsenal?
–With what? They cannot do anything. They are within firing range of the fleet. If they are seen passing by they will be bombarded. . .
–But they have sophisticated artillery. And I would have you know that these American ships make easy targets. No big cannons are needed to penetrate them. . .
–The Spaniards have poor weapons. In fact, they have nothing. There is disorder everywhere. The insurgents have surrounded the city and are just waiting for the opportune time. The Spaniards are threatened by everyone, inside and outside the city. However, officially, all is quiet in the city. There is peace, so they say. La paz, the famous paz prevails! Just about a month ago, in the midst of this so-called la paz, insurgents were massacred. They were rebels, I agree, who committed some murders and killed some people. So be it. But when the Spaniards descended upon them, they massacred everyone: women, children, foreigners — everyone was put to the sword.
–Do you realize that the European powers will be endangered if the Americans take possession of the Philippines and keep it. . .?
The commander replied to what he thought was an unreasonable assumption:
–That’s impossible! No, that will never be so. We will never permit it. I firmly believe that the Philippines is destined to rot under the Spaniards …