Commentary: From one imperialist to another

ONE of the most moving episodes in 1898 was the letter of protest penned and submitted by Felipe Agoncillo to the Spanish and American Peace Commission negotiating the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which decided the fate of Cuba, Guam, Porto Rico (sic), and the different islands of the Philippines. Agoncillo was the envoy of Emilio Aguinaldo to Paris. However, Spain and the United States didn’t allow Agoncillo to participate in the negotiations. After all, international law then, which was based on the logic of European colonizers, only allowed representatives of “civilized nations” to enter into treaty, and the different polities of the Philippines weren’t considered civilized by the Western powers.

The Americans claimed the Philippines as a whole, by carving it out of the Spanish East Indies, which consisted of the Philippines, the Marianas Islands, the Caroline Islands, Formosa, and the Moluccas. The 1898 Washington Peace Protocol, which ended a three-month-long Spanish-American War, didn’t say anything about ceding every island in the Philippines. Article III of the Peace Protocol only indicated that the United States would occupy and hold “the city, bay, and harbor of Manila.”

However, during the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris, the American negotiators sent a proposition on October 31, 1898, demanding from Spain all the islands within the perimeter of the geographic coordinates that they determined. The Americans got greedy: they carved a line around all the group of islands they wanted — from Luzon to Sulu — and pressured Spain to give them up.

Emilio de Ojeda, one of Spain’s negotiators, objected to the proposition: “…the proposition relating to the cession by Spain to the United States of the Philippine Islands, besides not being included in or covered by the articles of the Protocol, appears to be in open contradiction of its terms. In the opinion of the Spanish Commission, it is a flagrant violation of the agreement.” Spain won’t easily give up the Philippines as its gateway to Asian trade.

In response, John B. Moore, a member of the American negotiating team, offered $20 million for the cession of the Philippine Archipelago and promised “to maintain in the Philippines an open door to the world’s commerce” and to allow “Spanish ships and merchandise [to]be admitted into the ports of the Philippine Islands on the same terms as American ships and merchandise” for an unspecified number of years.

Sensing that they couldn’t win a war against the United States, the Spanish government accepted the terms of the Americans. Thus, in a letter sent via their negotiators, the Spanish government said that they resigned themselves “to the painful strait of submitting to the law of the victor, however harsh it may be.

Agoncillo protested the Treaty of Paris for not recognizing the “juridical political independent personality of the Filipino people.” He sent a letter of protest to the Spanish and American Peace Commission. The New York Times published the letter on December 25, 1898. It questioned the right of the Spaniards to transfer the entire archipelago to the United States because “the former have not militarily conquered positions in the Philippines.” Furthermore, Agoncillo pointed out the promise of the Americans “to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Philippines.” If that was the case, Agoncillo argued, “how can they now constitute themselves as the sole disposers of the control, administration, and future government of the Philippines Islands?”

The Americans ignored Agoncillo.

To set themselves apart from the European imperialists they abhorred, the Americans viewed themselves as some sort of teacher to their colonies, which were considered as students that could look forward to a graduation. This self-proclaimed role of the United States was vividly captured by the satirical cartoon published in 1899 by Puck, the first successful humor magazine in the United States.

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In that cartoon, the Treaty of Paris territories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines are sitting in the front row. Sitting along with them is Hawaii, which was annexed by the United States after American businessman overthrew the Kingdom of Queen Lili’uokalani. Mature students are sitting in the back row, such as the states of California, Texas, and Mexico. A black boy is wiping the window; he’s not good enough to be a student. A Native American is reading a book upside down. Outside the classroom stands a Chinese boy, who looks a bit angry.

As children, they must be put to school, educated, and must be under the control of the teacher until they can stand on their feet. The United States is the teacher, who instructs the students about self-governance. Behind, the blackboard reads: “The US must govern its new territories with or without their consent until they can govern themselves.” It used England as a precedent: it governed its colonies without their consent, and by doing that England “greatly advanced the world’s civilization.”

Why these nations were considered to be “students” was lucidly elaborated by George Blakeslee in his 1910 article “The Family of Nations.” Blakeslee, who worked in the State Department, distinguished American imperialism from Old Europe’s imperialism. Certainly, he still saw these nations as backward races. But for him, their backwardness could be overcome by being educated by the United States, which he called “the first and only nation schoolteacher” to found a school where these children can “look forward to their graduation” as approved by the teacher.

(Published in the Manila Times on 15 June 2017)

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  1. It is better to be understood and translated to Pilipino language for a better perception of
    most if not all Filipinos of how important to know how and why imperialist Europe and the US control and hold our independence and cultural roots which result to our damaged culture, unknown identity and ununited nation we have.


  2. It is better to have a Filipino language translation for a better understanding of most if not all of our citizen, it is important to fully percept the essence of this and your other blog to enlightened our countrymen.


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