Baler (1898-2019): From the USS Yorktown gunboat to the Spanish Méndez Nuñez frigate

I received the first news about the recent tribute of the Spanish Navy to the heroes of Baler through a whatsapp message from the Spanish Ambassador in Manila, Jorge Moragas, an experienced diplomat with deep Filipino maternal family roots, very well-versed on the Pearl of the Orient.

Crew at the Méndez Nuñez frigate in Baler Bay (Philippines). Photo of the Spanish Navy.

Grateful, at that very moment I thought of that world so different from ours (this one of instant messaging), in which my great grandfather Chus lived. Corporal Jesús García Quijano was the first wounded Spanish soldier in the siege of the remote church of Baler. The fundamental reason why that siege lasted for 337 days (and nights) was none other than the isolation, the total lack of communication, the ignorance for not having access to any truthful information… Although the telegram was already used in Spain since the middle of the 19th century, a letter between Madrid and Manila in 1898 sailed by sea for a minimum of one month. For the message to cross the Sierra Madre mountains that separate Manila and Baler, several additional weeks were necessary.

The second thought after receiving the whatsapp message came from the symbolism behind this timely and very deserved tribute. On one hand, the frigate Méndez Núñez (F-104), with Captain Antonio Tánago commanding about 215 troops, became on September 5th, 2019 the first Spanish warship to dock in the Philippine capital in 121 years. The Philippine Navy spokesman had no qualms about recalling the notorious battle of Manila Bay, where Spaniards and Americans measured their unequal forces in the calamitous month of May 1898.

Crew members of the Méndez Nuñez frigate pay tribute to the heroes of Baler. Photo of the Spanish Navy.

Secondly, this homage has been emblematic by including the Philippines in the journey around the world that the frigate Méndez Núñez is making to commemorate the first circumnavigation to the planet, completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano, in this fifth centenary of the beginning of that great feat.

In 2022, 500 years will have elapsed since, upon arriving in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Cádiz, with 17 men in the only ship of the five that departed three years earlier, Elcano wrote to the Spanish King: ‘Know Your Majesty that what we must estimate and fear is that we have traversed and discovered the roundness of the world’.

By then, Ferdinand Magellan had been buried in the Philippines. At the same time, all traces of Enrique of Malacca, a slave of the Portuguese explorer and a native of those latitudes, had been lost. To this day, there are those who still discuss if he was really the first person to go around the world by returning in 1521 to his homeland, that is, a year before Elcano and the other 17 survivors returned to Spain.

View of the coast of Baler from the frigate Méndez Nuñez. Photo of the Spanish Navy.

But the truly extraordinary gesture -one for which one is grateful to the Spanish Navy and the Spanish Embassy in Manila- is that the frigate Méndez Núñez has made a stopover also in Baler, on the Luzon counter coast. It is a memorable milestone in the long pilgrimage to rescue from oblivion a handful of heroes (the last ones of the Philippines, as they are known in Spain) who, between June 30, 1898 and June 2, 1899, wrote their own page in World History, one which transcends their time and any ideology or nationality.

April 1898: The USS Yorktown gunboat arrives at Baler Bay

Perhaps the Siege of Baler would have gone unnoticed in History if the rescue of the Detachment of Cazadores (Hunters) Number 2 had succeeded at the hands of this American gunboat’s crew.

The USS gunboat Yorktown.

In April 1899, the offensive of the Katipunian rebels to assault and burn the church of Baler and put an end, once and for all, to the resistance of the Kastila (Spanish) Detachment lasted throughout the whole month, although the Spaniards managed to withstand the attack and caused several casualties to the insurrectos (Filipino insurgents).

On April 12th, the American ship USS Yorktown arrived in the Bay of Baler with the intention of evacuating the Spanish survivors. Four months had already passed since the signing of the Paris peace treaty between Spain and the U.S., and two months since the U.S. (i.e. the new Empire) had shown their true intentions, that is, to colonize the Philippines and therefore entered a new war against the newly-born republic.

Consequently, the katipuneros of Baler ambushed the U.S. marines near the beach and took the lives of several of them, while the rest fled the place to return to safety in the Yorktown. The book The Devil’s Causeway: The True Story of America’s First Prisoners of War in the Philippines, and the Heroic Expedition Sent to Their Rescue by Matthew Westfall certainly deserves to be read as a primary source on this episode.

From the church, located one kilometer from the beach, the Spaniards heard gunfights, screams and some gunshots. They thought that, finally, they were going to be released at the hands of… a whole Spanish battalion! Hopeful, relieved and cadaverous, they hugged each other and shared tears of excitement, but their euphoria became disappointment when they saw that the ship moved away from the coast… Desolation, hunger and darkness within those four walls, surrounded by makeshift trenches, described their harsh reality again.

The Spanish flag, made a rag by the rains of the tropic, would still wave on the bell tower for another month and a half, until on May 28, aboard the Uranus steam, Lieutenant Colonel Aguilar Castañeda arrived at Baler.  They thought of him as another impostor, a prisoner of the insurgents, subjected to their hoaxes and threats). The batch of Spanish newspapers that Lieutenant Colonel Aguilar left at the door of the church was precisely the truthful information that convinced them of their historical error and, in the end, saved their lives. The newspapers on top of the sincere forgiveness and magnanimity of the Filipinos.

Somehow, the visit to Baler of the frigate Méndez Nuñez, 120 years later, compensates these heroes for so much suffering and decades of oblivion. It is indeed a gesture of recognition of their deed, which genuinely contributes to avoiding that their universal legacy of fraternity does not vanish by the relentless passage of time.

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