David Fagan and the Phillipine-US War
One of the least known conflicts in US history was the Philippine-US War. The length of the war is, itself, a subject of some debate, having ended according to many historians in 1901, but actually lasting closer to 1913. An outgrowth of the Spanish-American War (1898), it represented, in effect, an extension of the expansionism of the USA that had included the destruction and absorption of Native American lands, the seizure of northern Mexico, and the capturing of Hawaii. Though the USA is considered a country that downplayed establishing its own colonies, this is historically inaccurate. Through the Spanish-American War, the USA gained several, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and a semi-colony: Cuba .
Into this situation entered one David Fagen, an African American soldier originally from Florida, who enlisted in the Army and eventually found himself in the Philippines. Rather than entering into a war against Spanish colonialism, Fagen and other Black troops were now engaged in a very unpopular war of aggression against a brown-skinned and black-skinned people who wanted national independence. The war was unpopular enough among the troops that there were desertions and, in fact, defections to the Philippine Army.
Fagen took a stand against an illegal and genocidal war. It was not simply a verbal stand but a refusal to be complicit in such criminality. It was this actual stand that made him such a dangerous person, at least from the standpoint of US authorities. There was another side to Fagen’s stance which must be understood: the example that he set at a moment of intense racial/national oppression against African Americans. At a point when African Americans were losing virtually every right to which they were supposed to be eligible, Fagen’s actions were, in effect, challenging the very notion that there was any obligation on the part of African Americans to respect the authority of the United States. Such an example simply could not have been tolerated by the ruling elite. It was not just that Fagen chose not to return to the Jim Crow USA, but that Fagen was quite prepared to take up arms.
Fagen was one of small group of deserters who defected to the Philippine Army and fought with valor, rising in the ranks of the guerrilla army. His reputation became such that the US military went all out to find, capture and kill Fagen. By 1901 the Philippine resistance weakened and key leaders were either captured or surrendered. The US military was unwilling to pardon Fagen and, despite efforts by the US military to convince them otherwise, Fagen’s Filipino comrades refused to turn him over. As a result Fagen disappeared. In a strange incident, however, an individual brought in the head of a man he alleged to have been Fagen, thereby seeking a reward from the US military. The circumstances were so odd that it was largely assumed that it was some sort of trick and that Fagen was, actually, still alive. In subsequent years there were reports of sightings of Fagen but nothing confirmed. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Fagen lived out the rest of his life among the Filipino population.
Fagen’s existence, and specifically his actions in defecting to the Philippine Army raised at the time, and continue to raise, important questions about conscience and patriotism. From the standpoint of the US military, Fagen was a deserter and traitor, but from the standpoint of the Filipino resistance, and for much of the national democratic movement in the Philippines subsequently, Fagen was a hero who stood with them during their darkest hour.
In the case of the Philippines, the US forces that arrived under Admiral Dewey were not necessary in deployed order to defeat the Spanish. Philippine rebels, well organized and led, had defeated the Spanish except in Manila. Rather than surrender to the Filipinos, the Spanish chose to cut a deal with the USA and surrender to them instead. The US forces took advantage of this and soon had sufficient troops on the ground to begin the process of occupying the archipelago.
The Philippine revolutionaries had accepted the US forces as genuine allies and were, therefore, completely unprepared for the treachery that ensued. The war launched by the USA was bloody, racist and actually genocidal. While more than 4000 US troops were killed and another 3000 wounded, somewhere between 250,000 – 1.4 million Filipinos were killed.[ii] The strikingly racist nature of the war is what has been written out of most histories. The Filipinos were identified by white Americans as, for all intents and purposes, being black. The usage of the term ‘nigger’ to describe the Filipinos, then, was not seen as analogical by the racists, but rather as an appropriate characterization. The combination of the deep-seated racism plus the frustration faced by the US in fighting a guerrilla war with a well-organized resistance made this one of the bloodiest engagements the USA ever undertook, and one for which the USA has never made amends.
African American troops were deployed to the Philippines to fight the resistance. This took place at a peculiar moment in African American history. Jim Crow segregation and political disenfranchisement were the growing trends in the South. The gains won during the period of Reconstruction had been lost. There were different responses towards this catastrophe within the leadership of Black America, with the most famous being the great debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. The Washington/Dubois debates were largely over the domestic struggle, but there were also struggles regarding how African Americans should approach the question of US foreign policy, and more generally, US imperialism. One school of thought held that African Americans needed to prove themselves worthy and patriotic citizens and, therefore, support US adventures overseas. The other school of thought was consistent with a significant anti-imperialist movement of the time (with which the noted author, Mark Twain, was associated) that condemned US aggression, particularly with regard to the invasion of the Philippines.
From the start, African Americans in the media and the leadership of civil-society groups demonstrated strong opposition to the colonial intervention. The ambivalence toward the war in Cuba was replaced with vigorous opposition to the war in the Philippines. As part of the Anti-Imperialist League (founded on October 17, 1899), DuBois condemned the war as an unjust imperialist aggression, the slaughter of Filipinos a“needless horror.” The League recalled Fredrick Douglass’ view, enunciated sixty years earlier, that the interests of the Negro people were identical with that of the struggling colonial peoples: “We deny that the obligation of all citizens to support their government in times of grave national peril applies to the present situation” (Foster 1954, 415). In Nov. 17, 1899, the American Citizen , a black paper in Kansas City, Kansas, stated that“imperialist expansion means extension of race hate and cruelty, barbarous lynchings andgross injustice to dark people.” Bishop Henry Tuirner of the African Methodist EpiscopalChurch called the U.S. occupation of the Philippines an “unholy war of conquest”
(Welch1979, 110). Another newspaper (Broad Ax , Sept. 30, 1899) called for the formation of a“national Negro Anti-Expansionist, Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Trust, Anti-Lynching League.”On July 17, 1899, a meeting of African Americans in Boston protested the “unjustified invasion by American soldiers in the Philippine Islands.” They resolved that “while therights of colored citizens in the South, sacredly guaranteed them by the amendment of the Constitution, are shamefully disregarded; and, while the frequent lynching of negroes who are denied a civilized trial are a reproach to Republican government, the duty of the President and country is to reform these crying domestic wrongs and not to attempt the civilization of alien peoples by powder and shot”
(The Boston Post
, July 18, 1899).Whether Fagen knew or was aware of this sentiment can not be ascertained for now. But he certainly was aware that in general U.S. troops treated Filipinos as “niggers” who were“therefore entitled to all the contempt and harsh treatment administered by white overlords to the most inferior races,” as a correspondent of the Boston Herald wrote(Schirmer 1971, 21
To this day, it remain unclear what exactly became of David Fagen. His life after the war continued to be as mysterious as his existence before it. But his actions, largely forgotten in the United States, continue to be remembered in the Philippines as that of an African American man who heroically cast his lot with the Filipino revolutionaries to resist the injustice of American imperial designs.