They Came and They Conquered

22 August 2012

PEACEFULLY they came and conquered hearts and minds. They made great sacrifices because they were probably not aware that the first anti-imperialist war in Asia was still raging. They were called Thomasites because they arrived aboard a converted cattle ship called the USS "Thomas." Barely three years had passed after the "Battle of Manila Bay" (read mock battle) where the American Naval fleet of Commodore George Dewey chased the decrepit Spanish Armada around Manila Bay and sank General Montojo's flagship somewhere in Cavite. President Emilio Aguinaldo had just been captured, treacherously, in the Palanan. An American observer, Luther Parker, described the predicament of the adventurous Thomasites: "The fires of war were still smoldering in many corners of the islands when the Thomasites came. Their task was to persuade a sullen people (the Filipinos) to come in from the hills and settle down to peaceful pursuits and send their children to school to the Yankee maestro and his wife..." The objective of the US government was " mold into a new generation taught to appreciate Anglo-Saxon ideas of liberty, justice, and equality..." After twenty-two years, it was reported that over a million children were enrolled in the public schools set up by the American colonial administration.

It was not surprising that the Thomasites had severe conflicts with Catholics priests, many of whom were Spaniards; the remnants of "frailocracy" suspected that the Thomasites were Protestant missionaries masquerading as English teachers. However, they also crossed swords with native teachers over didactic methods for the latter clung to the traditional methods of rote and memorization.

Because they were assigned to far-flung areas of this vanquished Republic, some Thomasites became collateral damage of the ferocious guerrilla war carried on by Filipino revolutionaries; as always, there were also brigands and corsairs who a wreaked as much havoc for personal gain. Some thirty Thomasites succumbed to malaria and other tropical deceases, or died of cholera. According to American historian Glenn Anthony May, "...the Philippines was in shambles because of the Filipino-American War, so teaching conditions were difficult. Some places were without school houses; salaries were often delayed and were paid in Mexican pesos which was constantly being devalued..."

Be that as it may, quite a number of Thomasites decided to stay and those who died in these islands are buried at the North Cemetery. Three became quite famous: Austin Craig published a well-researched biography of Jose Rizal and was privileged enough to have interviewed three of Rizal's sisters who were still alive then. Rightfully, he was honored with an eponymous street in Sampaloc. For his part, Thomsite James Blount wrote about the Filipino-American War, shedding light over one of the darkest periods of our history. He praised, unabashedly, the bravery and tenacity of the Filipino soldier and proved to be an admirer of General Antonio Luna. Ex-Thomasite A. V. Hartendorp became famous in the publishing business among others; a feather on his cap was the pre-war "Philippine Magazine" which raised funds for the Metropolitan Theaters.

The Thomasites trained a total of 25,000 English-speaking Filipino teachers; that was their crowning achievement. Curiously enough, 111 years after their arrival, Filipino teachers are in great demand in the United States of America, especially in parochial schools. As the saying goes, what goes around comes around, so Filipino teachers are now teaching American children the intricacies of Filipino English. Finally, we shall soon be speaking the same language. (