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  • William Tyler

Baler, The Philippines: The Last Stand of The Spanish Empire

One result of being under the weather is enforced leisure time; and that means more television, when reading becomes burdensome. As a result I watched a Spanish film on Netflix, entitled '1898, Our Last Men in The Philippines'. It is a remarkably accurate historical piece, based around the Siege of Baler, a town in The Philippines, which was the last Spanish garrison to surrender to Filipino insurgents in The Philippine War of Independence. An historical episode of which I was up to then remarkably ignorant.


Spanish rule in The Philippines had begun back in 1565 and ended in 1898. Over three centuries of European colonialism, begun when the Portuguese mariner, Ferdinand Magellan, leading a Spanish expedition, first sighted the islands in his round the world voyage in 1521.


In 1896 Filipinos rose up against Spanish rule and the war of independence began. Baler, a small town, only accessible via the sea or through almost impenetrable jungle, was garrisoned by Spain in late 1897, in order to prevent the Filipino insurgents landing arms in the area. A partial peace at the end of 1897 left Baler ungarrisoned, but a further outbreak of hostilities in the following year led again to a Spanish garrison being sent to Baler. At this point the Spanish-American War came to The Philippines with the insurgents and the Americans joining forces as allies against Spain. Eight hundred Filipinos attacked the Spanish garrison of fifty soldiers on 30th June 1898. The siege was to last 337 days, until the Spanish surrender on 1st July 1899. By which time the Spanish had been defeated and a new war between Filipino insurgents and The United States had begun.


The Spanish fortified the only stone building in Baler, the church. They had taken the precaution of bringing in large reserves of both food and ammunition before the siege began, as well as digging a well for the supply of fresh water. Twice the attackers attempted to get the garrison to surrender, the second time by providing evidence that the Spanish had not only lost the war but had sold the island to the Filipinos' erstwhile allies, the Americans, who were now the Filipinos' new enemy. The Spanish refused to surrender believing that the information supplied by the Filipinos was merely 'a cunning plan' to get them to surrender. In actual fact, the Americans, unknown to the Spanish garrison, tried to rescue them in April 1898, but failed to get through. Finally, the Spanish commander, accepted the truth in the newspapers delivered to him by the attackers, and knowing nothing could be gained by fighting on, with both food and ammunition running low, surrendered.


Back in Spain the survivors were greeted as heroes. The Lieutenant in charge at the end of the siege, Martin Cerezo, finished his career as a Brigadier General, dying in 1945. He wrote an account of the events at Baler, translated into English as 'Under the Red and Gold' (the colours of the Spanish flag).


As for The Philippines itself it was to remain under American colonial rule until 1942, under Japanese occupation until 1945, and then finally gained the independence it had sought from Spain in 1896 in 1946 with America's withdrawal.

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