Monday, August 04, 2008

Rizal's Hero?

I just finished reading a fascinating book "Soldiers in the Shadows: Unknown Warriors Who Changed the Course of History" by William Weir, which I bought on sale at the National Bookstore (there's lots of books on sale there now). The book is a composite biography of several obscure adventurers who, as the title not so subtly suggests, have contributed to changing history and the way war is waged today. Mention the names William Walker, Frederick Ward, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, Orde Wingate, Erskine Childers, Matthew Ridgway, Frederick Funston, Edward Landsdale and it will not elicit any reaction from people today. If Funston and Landsdale may seem vaguely familiar to Filipinos, that's because the former was the American officer who captured General Emilio Aguinaldo thus effectively ending the Philippine-American War while the latter was the CIA operative who, together with President Ramon Magsaysay, defeated the Huk Rebellion in the 1950s.

Some of the military figures in the book are not famous today because they fought on the wrong side, while others simply fought in the wrong war, like the aristocratic General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck who led the German Army successfully bottling up the British in Africa and John Singleton Mosby who enlisted a buck private and ended up commanding an entire regiment of irregulars in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. In an age where hitting your enemy and then running was considered disgraceful and "unsportsmanlike," Vorbeck and Mosby used "hit-and-run" guerilla tactics to devastating effect effectively stopping whole armies in their tracks. There is also Frederick Townsend Ward who was hired by the Chinese emperor to modernize his army and quell the Tai Ping Rebellion during the Opium Wars period. It is interesting to note that Ward, who had his own elite army comprised of mercenaries, preferred to recruit Filipinos ("Manila Men") and his second-in-command was a Filipino, Vicente Macanaya. Orde Wingate was another outstanding commander who created the Israeli army (together with Moshe Dayan) back when there was still no Israel and provided valuable advice to Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia in his successful campaign against the Italian invaders. But of all the "shadow soldiers," my favorite is by far William Walker - the American who became president of Nicaragua.

Born to rich parents in Nashville, Tennessee, Walker was an outstanding student. He graduated summa cum laude in the University of Nashville at age 15 and earned his doctor of medicine degree from the University of Pennsylvania again graduating summa cum laude. He then traveled to Europe where he acquired facility in the German, French and Spanish language. When he wasn't able to cure his mother (who was diagnosed with "neuralgia, melancholia and rheumatism") he abandoned his medical practice to become a lawyer. Finding lawyering boring, he again shifted careers and became a journalist. He was a successful editorialist and had a small following in New Orleans when his wife, a deaf mute (Walker learned sign language too) died. William Walker's world turned upside down and he decided to trade in his life of relative stability and comfort to one of constant danger and adventure. He became a filibuster.

The word "filibuster" today evokes images of a congressional gabfest but in the 19th century the term had a more sinister meaning. Derived from the Spanish word "filibustero" meaning pirate or freebooter, a "filibuster" then meant a person (usually an American, but at times British) who sought to overthrow governments in South and Central America, mostly Spanish colonies at that time. Sam Houston and Aaron Burr are the more famous (not to mention more successful) examples of filibusters.

Walker left New Orleans for San Francisco, California where he met rich Americans willing to fund his "filibustering" expedition. In October 1853, Walker set out with an "army" of 45 men to conquer the largely uninhabited Baja California territory of Mexico which was rumored to be rich in silver and gold deposits. He chased out the miniscule Mexican army stationed there but Walker's "Republic of Lower California" turned out to be short-lived. Years earlier, the American government had offered to purchase the territory for $10 million but was rejected by the Mexican government. Now, with Walker actually occupying their land, Mexican authorities were finally "persuaded" to sell the land to the U.S. government under what is today known as the Gadsen Purchase. Even though Walker's invasion was instrumental in "convincing" the Mexicans to sell, the Americans not only did not reward him but even declared him an outlaw. Upon his return to the States, Walker was arrested and tried for violation of the Neutrality Act but his testimony was so moving that it took the jury 8 and a half minutes to declare him not guilty.

After his California debacle, Walker was next sighted in Nicaragua at the head of 58 men. Before the advent of air travel and the Panama Canal, Nicaragua was important to Americans since it was the fastest way to get from the U.S. East Coast to California. From New York, the traveler (usually hoping to partake of the California gold rush) took a steamship to Greytown and rode a mule or a coach to San Juan del Sur where he would then board a ship for San Francisco. The American capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt owned the shipping route through Nicaragua with his Accessory Transit Company. Upon arriving in Nicaragua, Walker seized the Transit (thereby earning the animosity of Vanderbilt who promised to destroy him) in the process recruiting more men among the gold seekers. He then conquered the city of Granada with the help of the clergy and the disenfranchised sectors of Nicaraguan society. In the elections that year, Walker ran and won as president of Nicaragua beating the Liberal and Conservative candidates by a wide margin. He then proceeded to institute "reforms" to Nicaraguan society.

Alarmed, other Central American nations banded together to repel the "Yankee invader. " In 1856, the armies of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica totaling 2,000 men plus 13 British warships invaded Nicaragua. Despite having only 600 men, Walker was able to repel the invaders time and again thru shrewd military tactics. The outbreak of cholera also helped in decimating his enemies' ranks. Vanderbilt even sent his own filibuster in the person of Sylvanius Spencer to fight Walker but to no avail. Failing to defeat him militarily, Vanderbilt then lobbied the U.S. government to negotiate Walker's surrender. On May 1, 1857 Walker surrendered to US authorities and boarded a ship home. He landed in New Orleans a hero and a grand parade was feted for him in New York the scale of which was not equaled up until Commodore George Dewey's triumph after the Spanish-American War.

By April 1860 Walker was once again at the head of 270 filibusters bound for Trujillo, Honduras. He stormed the fort at Trujillo, chased the Honduran authorities out and declared Trujillo a free port. Honduran army reinforcements arrived and after fighting for 9 days with only a dozen men left fighting the entire Honduran Army, Walker surrendered to a British ship captain (who were "monitoring" the war from their warships). But instead of handing him over to the American government, the British turned him to Honduran authorities. William Walker was executed by a Honduran firing squad on April 12, 1861.

The story of William Walker has given me some insight on the actions of our own Spanish authorities here in the Philippines. During this time Spain's possessions were under constant threat from American and British adventurists and aside from Walker a number of other filibusters were whipping up trouble throughout the Spanish colonies. This might explain why Spanish authorities in the Philippines were rather paranoid. Records of the Cavite Mutiny of 1872 reveal that the Spanish authorities saw conspiracies everywhere, and this has resulted to the execution of Gomburza and the heavy-handed treatment of suspected rebels. In Philippine history class we are taught that the friars were against educating the Indios and that parents dreaded sending their sons to universities for fear of them becoming filibusteros. Even the parents of our national hero Jose Rizal were adamant in sending him to Europe to further his medical studies for fear that he will turn into a subversive. The friars, as history books would like us to believe, were anti-education and any Filipino with progressive, liberal ideas was branded a filibustero.

While no evidence exists to prove that Rizal knew of Walker (Walker was dead in May 1861 by the time Rizal was born in June 1861), it is plausible that news of his exploits may have filtered through in cosmopolitan Manila. At the very least, Rizal's older brother and surrogate father, Paciano Rizal, would have heard of him and may have passed on the story to his younger brother. The proof to me that Rizal knew of Walker is because his second book was about a filibuster (Simoun) aptly titled "El Filibusterismo." Juxtaposing Walker's life story to Rizal's, one might even be amazed by their similarities. Walker had a slight frame and at 5'4" stood smaller than most Americans while Rizal it is said was sickly and also short in height. Both were born to prosperous families, excelled in school, both went to Europe where they acquired facility for the French, Spanish and German language, both took up medicine but both eventually did not practice their chosen profession, both were talented writers/propagandists and lastly, both died facing a firing squad. And while Walker fought for American economic interests (on the side of imperialists) and Rizal for Philippine nationhood (anti-imperialist), it could be argued that both fought for something larger than themselves.

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