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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Observations of an American POW

Aguinaldo was fighting a war, at the same time, he was running a government. These two facets of Philippine life in the 1900's was observed closely by an American prisoner of war named Albert Sonrichsen.




(Photo source: University of Michigan Digital Library)

Sonrichsen was arrested on charges of espionage by Filipino troops while taking photographs inside Filipino lines in January 27, 1899, a few days before the outbreak of the Philippine-American war. He was in company of American soldiers who were dressed in civilian clothes. They were held as prisoners under guard in Malolos.

At the outbreak of the war in February 4, 1899, enraged Filipinos tried to lay their hands on prisoner Sonrichsen, but the Filipino jail guards shielded him, and made sure he was safe. As the war progressed and the Americans began to advance from Manila, the Filipinos retreated to the north, bringing with them all the prisoners, mostly Spaniards, including Sonrichsen.

In April 22, the prisoners were joined at San Isidro, Nueva Ecija by other American prisoners - Lieutenant Glenmore and soldiers under him, who were captured by Filipino troops in Baler, Tayabas (Quezon) during an attempt by the Americans, on orders of Admiral Dewey, to rescue the Spanish contingent holed up in a besieged church.

In June, Sonrichsen became seriously ill and found himself in Vigan being treated in a Filipino hospital and cared for by a nurse. Later, he was moved to Abra, where he was allowed free movement. He taught in a Filipino school and was paid a salary equivalent to the pay of a lieutenant in the Filipino army. During this period, he observed that Filipinos under 30 have the ability to read and write, if not in Spanish, at least in their native dialect. He also noted that Filipinos took every opportunity to learn and improve themselves.

In November, he escaped and was appointed guide and interpreter to U.S. General Young's forces. In this capacity, he was able to make comparison between the government of Aguinaldo, and the American controlled government. If he were to make a choice, he said, he would choose the Aguinaldo government. Among his observations - Filipino soldiers are disciplined and humanely treated the prisoners; schools were established in each town, even while the war was going on; a fine college was being ran in Vigan; cockfighting was strictly forbidden which was allowed by the Americans. He further remarked that the American officers do not seem to understand the native - they inspire fear, rather than respect.

Here is a letter from Sonrichsen (Pettigrew, 298-299), recounting his captivity and his observations:
"NEW YORK,
"December 26, 1900.

"DEAR SIR: In answer to your letter of the 20th I hereby offer you any assistance that lies within my power. After a consultation with Messrs. Scribner's Sons, with whom I have made a contract to publish my book on the Philippines, I find that they have no objection to my position as an anti-imperialist before the public, although my narrative takes rather an unbiased stand. It gives merely an account of my ten months' experience as a prisoner of war among the insurgents of Luzon, stating facts as they presented themselves to my eyes, regardless of political factions, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions, which can not, however, but be in favor of the Filipinos.

"With regard to the authentic facts for which you have asked me, I am rather puzzled as to what you could make the best use of. If you mean anything that comes within my own personal experience, I am only too glad to serve you. Possibly I had best give you a brief outline. On January 27, I899, I left Manila in company with a friend and entered the insurgent lines for the purpose of taking photographs. We were arrested as spies and taken on to the insurgent capital at Malolos, and there held until hostilities broke out, a week later. The Filipinos certainly had every right to take us for spies, since we were dressed in civilian clothes and had a camera in our possession, my companion being recognized as a member of the American Army.

"Upon learning that the outbreak had occurred, great excitement prevailed at Malolos. A wild rabble gathered before the gates of the prison in which we were confined and attempted to drag us out, but our guards, the insurgent regular soldiers, threw themselves in between us and the mob, fighting in our defense until we were removed to safer quarters. This rather goes to prove that the insurgents are neither savages nor armed rabble, but well disciplined and acquainted with the rules of international law.

"We were also informed by Filipino officials several days later that the outbreak was the result of a sentry's blunder and that they had hastened to apologize and offered to make reparation, but that General Otis had refused to consider all advances made by them for a peaceful settlement. In March the renewed activity of the Americans forced the insurgents to retreat to San Isidro, taking us with them. Our treatment was at times hard, but owing rather to circumstances than to the Filipinos themselves, who seemed on the whole inclined to make our lot as bearable as possible.

"In San Isidro we were joined by Lieutenant Gilmore and several of his men on April 22.

"In May we were once more on the march, together with several hundreds of Spaniards, retreating constantly until, in June, we found ourselves in Vigan, the capital of the northern province of Ilocos.

"Here several of us became seriously ill and were sent to the local hospital. Medicines and medical skill were sadly in want. Still we were treated equally as well as the wounded Filipinos themselves, the women nursing us as they did their own. In September we were taken up the Abra River to Bangued, in the heart of the Abra Mountains, and here we were allowed the full liberty of the town, well treated and cared for. I was able to teach school here, for which I received a pay almost equal to that of a second lieutenant in the insurgent army. Many of my companions were able to do likewise; all, in fact, that were capable of speaking the Spanish language. Even during the war the Filipinos established schools in every town, and Vigan could boast of an excellent college which followed its daily routine as in times of peace. Upon the arrival of the Americans these schools and colleges were broken up, and the buildings ever since have been confiscated as barracks.
"I also observed that every Filipino under 30 could read and write, if not Spanish, at least his native dialect. The Spanish friars discouraged the study of Spanish, and for this reason the poorer people were unable to learn more than what was taught in the convent schools -reading, writing (in native dialect) Bible history, psalm singing, and the rudiments of arithmetic. Whenever given the opportunity, however, the people of all classes are anxious to learn and improve themselves.

"In November I succeeded in effecting my escape, and was appointed guide and interpreter to General Young's forces. In this capacity I was able to make comparisons between the two governments and am forced to say that I drew my conclusions in favor of the Aguinaldo government. The people were more discontented, becoming more and more so every day. Our officers do not seem to understand the natives, and inspire fear rather than respect. Cock fighting, which is strictly forbidden by the insurgents, is freely allowed in American territory. Taxes are heavier than formerly, and our soldiers have so raised the prices of food products that the poorer people are suffering heavily from want.

"These are the facts which I present to you now, but whether they are suitable for your purpose or not I can not say. Should you wish further details, I am willing to oblige you - or the cause rather - of which I am strongly in favor.


"Respectfully yours,
"ALBERT SONRICHSEN"

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