An American’s Account of Albay (Part 1)
James H. Blount was an officer of the United States Volunteers in the Philippines from 1899-1901. Who were these volunteers?
A thesis written by Major James R. Craig for his Master of Military Art and Science could shed light on this group. In its abstract, the thesis states: “The federal volunteer regiments that fought in the Philippine insurgency from 1899 to 1901 were the product of intense political infighting, negotiation and compromise at the highest levels of the American government. Oddities among military units, these regiments were neither state militia nor regular army. They were national units filled with state volunteers. The federal volunteer regiments were fleeting organizations. They had no history and no future. Not only did they lack unit legacies to inspire their soldiers; they were disbanded within two years of their creation. Yet, in 1899, 1900 and 1901, the United States Volunteer regiments bore the preponderance of the American national effort in the Philippines.”
From 1901 to 1905, Blount became a District Judge in the Philippines.
Under the Chapter on “Governor Taft, 1903,” Blount writes about the “Albay insurrection” as being “the worst one I had to deal with during Governor Taft’s administration as Governor of the Philippines.” The cause of it all was this man named Simeon Ola.
The name of Ola first appeared, according to Blount, in the official reports of the Philippine Government in connection with the Albay disturbances of 1902-03. The report was made by the colonel commanding the constabulary for the district, which included Albay, by the name of Col. H. H. Bandholtz.
In the book, there is an entry dated October 28, 1902, which states: “Early this month negotiations (italics in the original) were opened with Simeon Ola, chief of the ladrones in this province, with a view of inducing him to surrender.
The words of Blount regarding Ola reflected much of the politics of this man: “Think of this great government negotiating (italics in the original) with the leader of a band of thieves who were openly and flagrantly defying its authority. It must be significant to note that, up to this point, the revolutionaries were nothing but thieves in the eyes of the American colonizers.
The entry to the diary-like report continued: “After many promises and conferences extending over a period of forty days, during which hostilities were suspended, Ola broke off negotiations (italics in the original) and withdrew his entire force and a large number of additional recruits that he had secured during the armistice. It is significant to note that during the lull in the battle, Ola was able to gather more supporters to the revolution or insurrection, as the case may be.
How did Ola’s forces measure against the strength of Bandholtz’s army? Again, Blount testifies: “Before Ola finally surrendered he is supposed to have had a total command ranging at various times from a thousand to 1500 men.” Blount continues: “And I think Colonel Bandholtz must have had in the field opposed to him…at least an equal number of native forces.”
The reappearance of Ola in 1904 is in the report of the Governor of Albay, where the practice of reconcentration is mentioned. This reconcentration, where men are herded in one place, was done to counter the strong presence of Ola. Truly, the general must have been waging a successful campaign against the Americans.
We need to turn to another document, the thesis of Major Craig who, in his Chapter 1 of this thesis, mentions: “In the fall of 1899, General Elwell S. Otis, Commander of US Forces in the Philippines, had been fighting a confusing and costly war for over a year. He had seen tactical successes, but turning tactical success into strategic victory proved very difficult. Some in the United States, most vocally Mark Twain (the noted author) and William Jennings Bryan (President McKinley’s political opponent), argued America should give up on its imperial ambitions in the Philippines in favor of concentrating resources on improvements at home.”
Would the Albay forces under Ola have succeeded if it continued to push against the Americans? No one knows.
What caused such a great impact on the Bikolanos was indeed this reconcentration. A report of the Governor of Albay speaks of the ill-effect of reconcentration: “Naturally, the effect of this unusual volume of persons in a limited area was disease and suffering for want of food and ordinary living accommodations.”
Following the words of Blount if any reliable records were ever kept: Nobody kept any.
The report of the Governor was not complete. It did not contain the exact number to flesh out the “unusual volume of persons”. Also, there were no mortality statistics - how many died? It is estimated “that the number of people affected by reconcentration in Albay and an adjacent province that caught the contagion of unrest and had to be given similar treatment, was about 300,000. An old report states the population of Albay in 1900 as a little bit more than 200,000. The condition was that in his 1903 report of the 1902-03 insurrection, Governor Taft says: “A reign of terror was inaugurated in the province.”