FAST BACKWARD: The raising of US flag in Davao

Dec. 22, 1899 may not a red-letter day in our calendars but, historically, this was the day the American troops in the town of Davao. A watershed event also took place that same day: for the first time the United States flag was raised in the region!

Maj. Hunter B. Liggett, head of the 31st Company of Infantry Volunteers and military governor of Davao until Sept. 30, 1901, was head of the contingent that was honored by the raising of the US flag during the welcome rites tendered by local officials and residents.

Later, a similar flag-raising incident was replicated in the mountainous turf of the Bagobos, with the military officer as guest. The visit was cordial and the welcome was courteous, with the native chieftain showing off his rack of skulls, which the visitors labelled as “trophies of war.” In return, the military officer invited the ruler to visit the military barracks in the future.

Florence Kimball Russel, in A Woman’s Journey through the Philippines on a Cable Ship that Linked Together the Strange Lands Seen en Route (1907), wrote that the chieftain, with half a dozen escorts, later showed up at the camp and was honored with a military parade-in-review:

“During this visit the Bagobos were one and all delighted with the military life of the post; with the drills and parades where the soldiers marched as one man; the evolutions wherein they were deployed, moved in echelon, or wheeled into position; and their sureness and quickness in the manual of arms. Then, too, the cleanliness of the barracks impressed them, and the personal neatness of the khaki-clad men, not to mention the very desirable things to eat evolved by the company cook.”

What impressed the native guests was “the ceremonial raising and lowering of the garrison flag.” The improvised band of the troops played the Star-Spangled Banner, the US national anthem, while “the flag fluttered slowly down the staff [and] the troops stood at attention with bared heads. It was so solemn an occasion that the very heavens darkened before it and night was upon them always ere they half suspected it.”

Awed and admiring, the chief was not abashed in asking the battalion commander if he would be allowed to have an American flag as souvenir and a reminder of the occasion. Russel poignantly chronicled the event:

“This request was granted, and the presentation of the Stars and Stripes was made the occasion for a little sermon, in which the head of the Bagobos was informed that he and his people were under the protection of that flag, which represented the great American government, and that he, as chief of the tribe, stood for American authority in his village, so that it would become him to set an example to his people of humanity, liberality, and all civilized observances.”

Apparently, the American diplomacy worked. Citing the American Indian experience as foundation, the military office told the chieftain the practice of decorating houses with human skulls had long been abandoned and replaced with enlightened customs: The chief listened intently but never said a word, making it difficult “to tell from his expression if his silence meant only savage taciturnity, or if he were really deeply moved.”

The military officer later got the answer he answered. On his visits to the Bagobo territory, he noted new lifestyle changes of the people erstwhile known as ‘savage mountain people.’ Change was coming to town, and this was seen in the soldiers who were digging holes for sanitation, wastes, and commode. Inside the chief’s house, the row of skulls had been removed.

Against this inspiring backdrop, much of the town, especially those settlements situated in hinterlands, remained inviolate: “The town was dirty beyond belief, the natives were lazy even in their curiosity, and everything pertaining to the place was in a shocking state of disrepair.”

It must be remembered also that as early as 1899, Davao was already classified as an organized community under an order issued by the American military governor long before the Japanese cultivated the Bagobo lands into abaca plantations. Among the structured “provisional communities” under Act No. 82 were Mati, Baganga, Caraga, and Cateel.

The creation of Moro Province, which would make Davao a subordinate territory, did not happen until July 15, 1903 when the U.S. government in Washington mandated the installation of a civilian governor-general to replace the military leadership.

Under the administration of American Governor General Tasker H. Bliss (1906-09), who was described “not only as a policeman and lawgiver but as a pedagogue,” the policy encouraging progress in the Moro Province was continued. He also made efforts to push for the sustained subsidy of vessels serving the gulf of Davao and the Cotabato River.

Aggressively pursuing a robust agenda, Gen. Bliss convinced Manila to cooperate in attracting more shipping firms to enter the southern island, specifically recommending “the opening of the port of Davao to foreign trade” as a way of improving the export of hemp and the entry into the district of dutiable merchandise. His pro-economic policy resulted in major inroads.”

In time, Davao got the largest investment in labor and capital for agriculture. By 1906, the Davao Planters Association, with 34 American members, had already cultivated 1,001,000 hemp hills, 39,489 cocoanut trees, and 7,750 rubber trees.