A ‘black hero’ for the Philippines

Capt. David Fagen
General Maximino Hizon
General Maximino Hizon

The densely forested area around the Rio de la Pampanga River was a scene of great bloodshed. Dozens of Filipinos lay dead, massacred by the advancing US forces. It was August 1899, when Filipino Insurrectos under Gen. Maximino Hizon were making a futile stand against the vastly superior American army.

In a few weeks, Hizon would be captured. He would be replaced by another Pampango general, Jose Alejandrino. Alejandrino would regroup his almost decimated forces and head toward Mount Arayat, for another bloody confrontation with the Americans.

In the lull of battle, Alejandrino meets a “black” American defector, Cpl. David Fagen. A highly skilled guerrilla fighter (he was a veteran in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898), Fagen would raise havoc with his former comrades in the US army. For the next two years, his actions would give hope to the losing “Filipino cause.”

Senator Jose Alejandrino, a former Katipunan General
Senator Jose Alejandrino, a former Katipunan General

An incredible story? Yes. And it all happened during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. Fagen was one of the 7,000 “black” soldiers sent to the Philippines to secure the islands for the United States. Originally called “Buffalo Soldiers,” a monicker given by the American-Indians because of their combat prowess and bravery, four regiments of “black” soldiers were sent: the 9th and 10th cavalry, and the 23rd and 24th infantry regiments. Fagen belonged to the 24th. In June 1899, Fagen’s regiment was sent to Central Luzon to fight the Insurrectos.

Capt. David Fagen
Capt. David Fagen

During the course of the battle, two factors would change Fagen’s perspective of the war. First, his constant quarrel with his superiors. Second, the “racist” manner in which the Americans conducted the war, oftentimes calling Filipino soldiers racial slurs like “niggers,” “black devils” and “gugus.”

On Nov. 17, 1899, Fagen defected to the side of the Insurrectos. On Sept. 6, 1900, he was promoted from corporal to captain by his commanding officer, General Alejandrino. “Captain Fagen” would clash with the American army at least eight times, from Aug. 30, 1900 to Jan. 12, 1901 (twice against Frederick Funston, the fabled general who captured Aguinaldo). His most famous action was the daring capture of an American steam launch on the Rio Grande de la Pampanga River. Along with 150 of his men, Fagen seized its cargo of guns and disappeared swiftly into the dense forest before American reinforcements could arrive. It was after this episode that he was referred to as “General Fagen” by the New York Times.

Fagen’s “legendary” exploits in the battlefield helped to prolong the war, but it also brought countless miseries to the people of Central Luzon. The tragic loss of lives of many Filipinos, both combatants and non-combatants, was a fact Alejandrino found quite unacceptable. On April 29, 1901, Alejandrino turned himself in to the American army. (His decision to surrender was also hastened by Aguinaldo’s capture in March 1901.) On May 16, 1901, Gen. Urbano Lacuna, Alejandrino’s successor, also surrendered to the American forces, ending with finality Central Luzon’s involvement in the Philippine-American War.

With the “revolutionary option” already out of the question, David Fagen had no other recourse but to “run and hide” as he would meet certain death at the hands of his American captors. Together with his Filipina wife and another Filipino soldier, Fagen took refuge in the nearby mountains of Nueva Ecija.

In the following months, Fagen would become the object of a relentless manhunt by the US army. Branded as a bandit, he would carry a $600 price on his head, for his capture dead or alive. Posters of him both written in Spanish and Tagalog were spread all over the towns of Nueva Ecija.

On Dec. 5, 1901, Anastacio Bartolome, a Tagalog hunter, delivered to US authorities a sack containing a partially decomposed head of a “negro,” which he claimed to be that of Fagen’s. At first, Bartolome’s statements regarding the circumstances surrounding Fagen’s death (Fagen was supposedly hacked to death) proved consistent with the evidence he brought along: some weapons and clothing, a pair of field glasses, Fagen’s commission and a West Point class ring of one of Fagen’s former captives, Lt. Frederick Alstaetter. (Alstaetter had been released unharmed by Fagen.) Further investigation by the 24th regiment, however, undermined Bartolome’s claim that the head inside the sack was that of Fagen’s, “as it was too small,” according to one officer. He further commented that “it could be that of an Aeta,” one of Fagen’s many companions inside the Insurrecto camp.

Was it possible that Fagen faked his own death by colluding with Bartolome? Adding credence to this speculation was Bartolome’s prior confession to US authorities that he was a former Insurrecto.

A year later, the US army closed its Fagen files, noting “the supposed killing of David Fagen.” There was no record of payment of a reward to Bartolome.

What would have become of David Fagen? I am sure he is dead by now. He however deserves a place in our history just like our other foreign heroes: Gen. Juan Cailles (French), Gen. Jose Ignacio Paua (Chinese), Gen. Manuel Sityar and Col. Jose Torres Bugallon (Spaniards).

A note: Reduced to insignificance because of our close ties with the United States, the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 is the least mentioned historical event in our newspapers today. Despite its “insignificance,” the war claimed more than 200,000 Filipino civilian lives. Add to this the number of combatants killed: 20,000 Filipino soldiers, versus 4,390 American soldiers. The war was condemned by famous personalities like Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie and Sen. Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina. It was also condemned by a few American soldiers; about 20 of them defected to the side of the Filipinos. Six of them were “blacks.” Two were hanged.

 

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