MINDAVIEWS: We ask for the return of the Bells of Balangiga

(Years before the first Mindanawon President, Rodrigo Duterte, demanded from the United States government the return of the three Balangiga bells back to the Philippines, specifically in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, a Mindanawon leader had appealed for their return. Senator Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. delivered this speech in Balangiga, Eastern Samar on September 28, 2002 on the occasion of the 101st commemoration of the Balangiga Massacre.
The three Balangiga bells have arrived in Guam on December 4 and are en route to the Philippines for return to Balangiga 117 years after they were taken by American troops as war trophies).

On this day, as we remember the Balangiga massacre, we ask our friend and ally, the United States of America, to return the bells of Balangiga to the people and the Catholic church of Balangiga.

The bells – there are three of them — belong  to the Franciscan order in trust for the people of Balangiga. The bells bear the emblem of the Franciscan order and the dates of their casting.

Bell one bears the year 1863. Bell two bears the year 1889. And bell three bears the year 1896.

War booty

The bells were taken as ‘war booty’ by American soldiers who had been sent to cleanse Balangiga and Samar – there was only one province of Samar, then – of the ‘bandits’ (actually rebel troops fighting against the US occupation of the country) some of whom had killed 48 American soldiers and wounded 22 others of Company C of the 9thUS infantry regiment then garrisoned in the town on September 28, 1901.

The Americans had erroneously assumed that because Admiral George Dewey had sunk the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, they could take over the entire country without any resistance from the people.

But as Paul Krugman noted in his column in the New York Times last Tuesday (September 24, 2002), “a clear high-tech war against Spain turned into an extremely dirty war against Filipino resistance, one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died.”

For their temerity in raising their bolos against the American colonial troops, Gen. Jacob Smith was assigned to teach the Balangiga rebels a lesson they would never forget.

Howling wilderness

Gen. Smith read his orders to mean that he had the authority to convert Balangiga into a “howling wilderness.” That in turn meant that his soldiers had the duty to shoot every man, woman and child above 10 years of age on sight. “I want no prisoners,” the general was quoted as saying. The soldiers, then, went to work as ordered. And Balangiga (and Samar) became as “quiet as a cemetery” in the words of a historian.

In testimony of the ruthlessness with which Gen. Smith carried out his tasks, the moniker “Howling Jake” has been attached to his name.

Gen. Smith’s men also took away the bells of Balangiga that had allegedly been tolled to signal the attack on the garrison of US soldiers on September 28, 1901. That was 101 years ago to this day.

Today, we reiterate our request for the return of the bells.

That a war was going on when the Balangiga massacre took place cannot be denied.

That American soldiers belonging to Company C of the 9thUS Infantry Regiment had been sent to Balangiga as a part of the US occupation forces that would implement President McKinley’s instruction to annex the country cannot be denied.

That Balangiga-based rebels had taken up arms against the US occupation forces cannot be denied.

After a century and a year

Yet the passage of a century and a year after the incident should suffice to mute the anguish, ease the anger and dull the pain in the hearts of the heirs of the protagonists on both sides of the war.

And so we ask for the return of the bells of Balangiga. For the return of the bells will help restore things to the status quo ante and help ease the hidden tensions that haunt the heirs of the Balangiga rebels who were massacred by Gen. Smith’s marines and probably even the heirs of the soldiers of Company C who were cut down on the morning of September 28, 1901 by the bolomen of Balangiga.

Not commercial but cultural value

We, therefore, ask for the return of the bells of Balangiga not because of their commercial value. Even as I am ignorant of how much icons are worth, in terms of dollars, the bells would probably have a combined worth – even at inflated prices – of not more than $5 thousand. Or to be a little more generous, maybe $10 thousand.

We are not asking for the return of the bells of Balangiga for exactly the same reason that India is asking for the return of the Kohinoor diamond which had been taken from Orissa temple by the British.

The Kohinoor diamond may be priceless as far as jewels go. The bells of Balangiga may not fetch a 1000thof the price of the diamond.

We are not asking for the return of the bells of Balangiga for exactly the same reason that Greece is asking for the return of the so-called Elgin marbles that the British had taken from the Parthenon in Athens.

The bells may not be worth a 1000thof the price of the Elgin marbles.

We are not asking for the return of the bells of Balangiga for exactly the same reason that Ethiopia is asking for the return of its Magdella treasures that were taken by the British. The bells may not cost even a 1000thof the value of the treasures.

Fill up a void

We are asking that the bells of Balangiga be returned to the people and the Church of Balangiga because the bells are ours and we want them back. Not because the bells will bring Balangiga a truckload of dollars but because the bells will fill up a void in the priceless cultural assets of the country that was created by the carting away of the bells by soldiers of the 9thUS infantry regiment.

There is an added reason why the bells should be returned to the people and the Church of Balangiga. And that is because of the ecclesiastical nature of the bells.

Bells exempted from ius praedae

As early as the year 1039, the Law of Nations as it was then evolving was interpreted to exempt from the ancient Roman Law concept of “ius praedae” – law of booty – “relics of saints, sculptures, liturgical vessels and bells.” These were excepted even from the well-nigh unrestricted recognition in medieval times of a conquering nation’s “right to plunder” a conquered nation of its wealth, including its cultural property. In ancient times, Roman Law considered the wealth of the enemy as “res nullius” – nobody’s property until it fell into the hands of the victor when it became his under the doctrine of “ius praedae” – the law of booty.

Exempted from spoils of war

Later, specifically during the Renaissance, in 1553, some peace treaties stipulated the return of looted cultural objects. Raphael’s tapestries, for example, were returned to Pope Julius III. The tapestries had been looted by the victors when they sacked Rome in 1527. During this period, considerations of reason and beauty greatly influenced the exemption of sacred objects, works of art and literature from being made fair objects as spoils of war.

By this time, the unrestricted resort to “ius praedae” to justify the plunder of the wealth of enemy territory was giving way to modifications. Looting the wealth of a conquered nation would be justified only if the conqueror had started a “just war”.

But as the modern era began, “the concept of just and unjust wars lost its importance.” It was now more important to “consider the question of the legality of the booty itself.”

Justifications for return

The case for the return of the Balangiga bells, I submit, is justified even under the norms of the so-called Law of Nature as defined by Hugo Grotius in medieval times or under the strictures of the Law of Nations and under existing customary international law and current international practice.

France has recovered certain art work from Germany that had been looted from the former by Nazi troops.

The US has returned a precious Hungarian crown to Hungary.

US possessors of a document written in 1541 by Martin Luther, “Against Hans Wurst,” had returned it to Magdeburg, the German city from which it had come in 1996.

Germany has returned thousands of books and other cultural materials to the Netherlands that had been looted by the Nazis in the last world war.

US and UN conventions

We need not quote extensively from the US statement on property restitution made before the Helsinki Commission on October 7, 1999 when it urged that properties plundered from the people (of Central and Eastern Europe) should be returned or compensated. “The restitution of property is part of a larger process of obtaining a measure of justice for the victims of Europe’s major human disasters of the 20thCentury – fascism and communism” and we might add, of colonialism in Southeast Asia.

There is also a UN Resolution dated November 2, 1993 that calls for the return of cultural property by the countries in which it is found to the countries of origin.

And lastly, there is that UNESCO convention in 1970 that mandates parties to the convention “at the request of the State Party of origin to take appropriate steps to recover and return any … cultural property” that might have been appropriated or taken by another party.

There is no reason then why the US cannot or should not return the bells of Balangiga to the people and the Church of Balangiga.

Polybius, a Greek historian, advised “future conquerors … not to plunder the cities subjugated by them and not to make the misfortune of other peoples adornments of their own glory.”

We need the bells

I suggest that it is time for the custodians of the bells of Balangiga, our friends in the US, to heed Polybius’ advice which we paraphrase in this wise: please do not make our misfortune in having lost our bells, a critical part of our people’s culture, as mere adornments of your glory.

You do not need the bells of Balangiga. You have enough glorious accomplishments advancing the cause of freedom, democracy and peace throughout the world to last you as a nation several lifetimes.

We need the bells of Balangiga. Please return them to us and somehow you will make us whole, again.