One of America’s most beloved figures is remembered as an abolitionist, a humorist, but rarely as an anti-imperialist or pro-Filipino spokesman. In American history, and Filipino American history, Mark Twain is often forgotten or disregarded for his Anti-Imperialist efforts. The bellicose period of 1899 to 1902 is also largely forgotten. It marks the beginning of modern transpacific history between Asia and the United States as they militarily laid claim to their piece of the Orient along with Europe. Historians do not even have a definite name for the period. The labels vary from: the Philippine War, Philippine Insurrection, Philippine-American War, and the Filipino American War. Whether as Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens, the man himself bore the brunt of an unforgiving and jingoistic public. Twain was lampooned along with others for harboring ideas of liberty and fairness with Filipino contemporaries. Mark Twain spoke out against an unjust war and recognized the racial exploitation of Asian Pacific Islanders on foreign soil.
“It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” —Twain
The Philippines was annexed by the United States following the Spanish-American War, which lasted less than a year, from April 1898 to December 1898. The resulting Treaty of Paris allowed the United States to buy the Philippines from Spain for $20 million. Fighting broke out in the Philippines by insurrectionists, or Filipino rebels, in February of 1899 at the Battle of Manila Bay. The commonly recited cost of this war includes 4,200 Americans and 220,000 Filipinos. Liberal accounts, such as those from historian Gore Vidal, estimate the death toll at 3 million people. Writer E. San Juan Jr. estimates the toll at 1.4 million deaths in the Philippines while also accounting for extended guerilla warfare. The National Archives put the monetary cost of the war from 1899-1902 at $400 million. It seems there is a general reluctance to remember the Filipino-American War outside of finance as a confusion and amnesia about casualties still pervades this history.
What we do know is that during the war itself Twain decried the atrocities going on. He cynically stated to the New York Herald in October of 1900: “We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining 10 millions by Benevolent Assimilation. … We are a World Power.”
Twain’s outrage at a perceived overreach of power was intolerable on democratic principle since it deformed American virtues into that of tyrannical national-indulgence. He joined a group called the Anti-Imperialist League along with other individuals opposed to American expansion for varying reason. Notably, industrial titan Andrew Carnegie was also an “Anti” and offered to buy the freedom of the Philippines with his own $20 million. The offer was not seriously taken, otherwise world events may be different today.
Unfortunately, other Americans would not take the concerns of “Anti”s seriously either. They were ridiculed and caricaturized for their feelings. Derogatory cartoons were made of the Anti-Imperialists. The press began calling them “Aunties” in an attempt to emasculate their position with an effeminate derogatory. Different League members would also be drawn in the press as dark skinned tribal heathens, which seemed to validate the public’s perception of an inferior race, and the “Aunties” as an inferior movement. This racialized attitude belied the more complex society and culture of Filipinos as a nation of different groups and peoples. One hangover from the war that is clung to in American culture is the sense of the Philippine territory as a place needing a “Protector,” and the noblesse oblige of the “White Man’s Burden.” Sometimes we Americans seem to remember and keep in practice the wrong ideals of an era.
Twain kept ideas more mature and righteous than many people today would care to admit. He was well known as an abolitionist, seeking to end the practice of slavery. He was also a vocal critic of racial violence against Asians during the 1860s in San Francisco. Author Hsuan Hsu identifies an article from Twain in 1866 where he points out the double-standards of society against Chinese in policing by mentioning: “Daily papers consist of gorgeous compliments to … Office This and That for arresting Ah Foo, or Ching Wang …; but when some white brute breaks an unoffending Chinaman’s head with a brick, the paper does not compliment any officer for arresting the assaulter, for the simple reason that the office does not make the arrest …” Interestingly, Mark Twain also confronted a general in the North American Review by bringing up the cruel barbaric practice of using the “water cube” or “water torture” on Filipino prisoners. It is a good thing that this war practice was left in the past …
Overall, Seattle neglects to recognize today’s reminders of the Filipino American War in our own hometown. Woodland Park holds a statue to Spanish-American soldiers and actual cannons used in the Battle of Manila for the Philippine Insurrection. Also, Volunteer Park is named after the volunteer soldiers who had to return to the Philippines to fill in for the personnel shortfalls after the first round of enlistments ended. There’s a lot we have forgotten. It also seems evident that Filipinos, too, neglect Mark Twain as a valid figure of Filipino American history. For we may not always consider that white men can also be men of conscience too.
“It [the Philippines] was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States.” —Twain