A Man and His Book: Unmasking Duplicities of the Past

Atty. Saul Hofileña, Jr.

Atty. Saul Hofileña, Jr.

Under the Stacks is a startlingly fresh reading of Philippine history in 23 essays that will surely open the eyes of foreign-grown Filipinos asking questions about their motherland.

Oh, happy day when the book’s future author, the hyperactive Caviteño classroom troublemaker Saul Hofileña Jr., found that old things like stamps and coins have stories to tell. There began the burning curiosity that eventually led him to collecting and studying old books, rare historical documents, paintings, oral history and even dead people’s souvenirs on the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t trail of Philippine history.

At 57, Saul has told many tales of strong versus weak, courage and resistance, defeat and triumph like it all happened yesterday. Through it all was a basic question: How did foreigners come to rule the Philippines for so long? Spain ruled for 333 years. America was still telling presidents of an independent Philippines what to do in the late 20th century.

Saul’s detective work began paying off with little-known facts emerging like hidden dynamite in major turning points of history. Realizing how few Filipinos knew these facts, the former classroom troublemaker, now an Ateneo law graduate, was ready for a new rumble.

With his natural storyteller’s flair his essays, free of ideological bias and pedantry, read like the legal briefs he was now writing professionally, human drama intact.  One such drama was America posing as a friend of Filipino revolutionaries, only to take over their country as they won.

"Under the Stacks" by Atty. Saul Hofileña, Jr.

"Under the Stacks" by Atty. Saul Hofileña, Jr.

Saul’s “Treaty of Paris: Protocols of a ‘The Dirty Little War’” relieves this drama. It starts like a thriller with the American battleship Maine exploding in Havana’s harbor, in February 1898, killing its 266 sailors. The Maine was keeping an eye on American sugar plantations as Cuba was starting its own revolution against Spain. Instantly, America claimed Spanish sabotage, a perfect excuse to declare “a just war.” Over a century later, independent investigation discovered that the Maine really exploded from a burst boiler in its hull.  

American intention was crystal clear. “Scarcely a day later” Admiral George Dewey’s flagship Olympia arrived in Hong Kong and made “urgent preparations for a naval attack on Manila.” Almost like satire were America’s latest warships proceeding to demolish the decrepit Spanish naval fleet in Manila Bay. Spanish officials fearful of the “savage indios” who were already routing them in Intramuros chose to surrender to the Americans instead.  The Katipunan and its allied rebel forces were winning battle after battle in Luzon and the Visayas by then, often with weapons and ammo captured from far outnumbered Spanish forces.

Now came formal negotiations on terms of surrender all the way in France. Tellingly, “After more than a hundred years, the antecedents of the Treaty of Paris are still wrapped in an impenetrable shroud of myths and mystery. To unravel the truth, we must dig deep into the archival records of the conflict and the protocols that led to the Paris agreement,” Saul writes.

These protocols were “written memoranda of what transpired between the parties before the treaty was signed.” To a lawyer-historian, they “were like written rejoinders to military actions, reliable evidence of the hidden motives and interests bitterly disputed by the signatories.”

Saul Hofileña Jr.’s detective work began paying off with little-known facts emerging like hidden dynamite in major turning points of history.

The very sequence of this recounting leaps from the page onto a cinematic split screen, with growing numbers of battleships with American troops arriving in Manila and Cavite synchronized with tit-for-tat diplomacy in Paris.

The protocols sound almost like police reports with a dying Spanish empire’s last demands vis-a-vis an aggressive new empire’s arrogant militarism and legal sleight-of-hand.  Pointedly calling Filipino revolutionaries “insurgents,” the Americans twisted the most basic fact that the Filipinos had won their revolution. So clever were these Americans that they even managed to slash the original price of $100 million to the $20 million they paid Spain as new “owners” of the Philippine Islands.

Jose Rizal’s early warning in Filipinas dentro de cien años was coming true in his own country. “The Lost Document that Started a War,” continues on this trajectory as the American Eagle’s long shadow falls on the rest of the islands. That “lost document” was the English translation of the so-called Bates Treaty -- never ratified by the U. S. Congress yet applied as a legal fig-leaf for gunboat diplomacy that next took over Sulu and all of Mindanao.

Thanks to Saul’s passion, Filipinos can now read the original treaty written in the Sultan’s language, Surat Sug. Finally we learn what the sultan really agreed to with the American Brigadier General John C. Bates in 1899. 

What’s it worth knowing a whole century later that the “American protection” the Sultan agreed to was mistranslated into “American sovereignty” over the whole Sulu archipelago in the Bates Treaty’s English version? The Americans knew there was a fatal error in this translation but proceeded anyway.

Considering a copy of the treaty’s linear translation among the documents gathering dust in the late American anthropologist H. Otley Beyer’s extensive collection in a deceased antiquarian’s home, Saul knew the “arm and a leg” he paid was worth the price. This was concrete evidence of the American duplicity that laid and cemented its claim on the whole of Southern Philippines.

The fact is, American rule over Sulu and Mindanao was built on nothing but legal fiction “systematically emasculating” the Sulu sultanate, then the leaders of mainland Mindanao. What Atty. Hofileña had in his hands was proof of grand theft with these succeeding “laws” taking over Moro ancestral lands and resources already owned:

In 1903 “Public Land Act No. 714 nullifying land grants to non-Christian indigenous groups without government authority,” followed by the Mining Law “allowing Americans to explore all public lands”;

In 1907 the Cadastral Act mandating the survey of all public lands for land titling even for illiterate natives;

In 1912 a resettlement program for Christians in Mindanao allegedly “to solve the problem of landlessness in Luzon and the Visayas and increase rice production in Mindanao”;

In 1913 the Philippine Commission’s Acts No. 2254 and 2280 allowing “the creation of agricultural colonies in Mindanao and Sulu, with ownership of 16 hectares for Christians and 8 hectares for Moros.”

Not surprisingly, this systematic theft of ancestral property led to countless Moro uprisings throughout the century, punctuated by massacres of resistant Moros in Jolo’s Bud Dato in 1906 and Bud Bagsak in 1913.

The policies and laws passed by the Americans as “legal” justification for the subjugation of Moroland ensured that war between "imperial Manila" and Southern Philippines would be fought forever.  Despite its latest new layer called ISIS, the Battle of Marawi is only the latest flash of ancient fire.

Sylvia Mayuga

Sylvia Mayuga

Sylvia L. Mayuga is a veteran Filipino writer on the arts, culture and history of the Philippines. She has three National Book Awards to her name.

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