Arts and Culture

ESSAY | The American Vampire and the Filipino Journalists: Philippine Libel Laws Then and Now

Photo source: “The Vampire’s photographs. From the Dean Conant Worcester collection, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan archives. ‘Benguet Girls’ circa 1907.”

The Vampire’s photographs. From the Dean Conant Worcester collection, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan archives. ‘Benguet Girls’ circa 1907.

Some Filipinos might believe that the new Cybercrime Law, or Republic Act 10175, protects the privacy of Filipino citizens against hackers, pedophiles, and other criminals. But the chilling provision of the new law criminalizes acts of dissent by labeling any form of critical discourse as libel.

In the current version of the law, any Filipino writer or ordinary citizen who speaks her mind about a Philippine government official, a representative of the country, or just anyone in public office, can be sued for libel. The new libel law expands its reach to include Filipino immigrants and migrant workers of the Filipino diaspora. If you post a status or tweet that is critical of anyone in a position of power, or if you create a meme, a political cartoon or photograph mocking someone, you can be sued for libel, a crime that carries a jail sentence of six to twelve years. This provision will silence journalists and netizens for years, destroying the fragile democratic principles of our Philippine republic.

The origins of libel laws in the Philippines were from the American colonial era. This shady history of the law should be reason for us to abolish it. During the early 1900s, Philippine journalism was becoming an influential institution in nation building even while the country was under American rule. At the time, some Filipino journalists wrote in both Spanish and in Filipino vernacular languages such as Tagalog. El Renacimiento was a Manila-based nationalist newspaper that campaigned for Philippine independence from the United States.

The paper had a sizeable readership that included readers from the U.S. and Europe. In October 1908, Filipino journalist Fidel Reyes wrote an editorial in Spanish entitled “Aves de Rapiña” (“Birds of Prey”). The target of Reyes’ editorial was the influential, powerful and wealthy colonial government official, Dean Conant Worcester. Worcester’s lawsuit claimed that Reyes and the staff of El Renacimiento had maliciously attacked him not only as a private citizen but also as a representative of the American government.

At the time, Worcester served as a member of the “Civil Commission of the Philippines” and was Secretary of the Interior, a powerful position that meant he administered laws and policies in areas outside of the Philippine capital, particularly in rural parts of the country that were being divided by American business corporations for development and for natural resources such as gold and lumber.

Race and the Reptile-finder
Worcester was an American colonial official who scholars describe as the creator of the idea of the Filipino savage. His Philippine career spanned three decades, and Worcester’s legacies can be traced in war strategies, in colonial policies, in mining and industry in the colony, and in U.S. popular culture from the era. Worcester had the longest tenure of any colonial official in the Philippines, serving as Secretary of the Interior from 1901 to 1913.

He was also a pioneer of counterinsurgency. A zoologist by training, he used his scientific skills and photography to gather data and classify information about the Philippine Islands and the Filipino people for the purpose less of science, however, than that of military surveillance, war and the maintenance of U.S. military rule in the islands. When he died in 1924, he left behind a massive personal photographic archive that included thousands of black and white photographs and original glass plate negatives, now held by the Museum of Anthropology of the University of Michigan, his alma mater.

Worcester established himself early on as a Philippine expert even before the Philippine-American War since he had visited the Philippines in 1887 for a scientific expedition to study zoological specimens. After the U.S. invaded the islands, he consolidated his reputation through various public lectures, academic essays, and the publication of his book, The Philippine Islands and Their People, which made him famous and influential. He served on two presidential commissions, known as “Philippine Commissions,” that made recommendations regarding the Philippine Islands for President William McKinley.

At the beginning of the Philippine-American War, U.S. commander General Elwell Otis recognized that his intelligence service lacked linguists who could develop a “spy system” to infiltrate Filipino communities. Worcester joined this spy system for the American military, and by July 1899, became head of an intelligence section. Every morning, Worcester would go over the local newspapers and type his notes on Filipinos (and some Americans) of interest to the American colonial government, such as Filipino nationalists, collaborators, elite Filipino families, etc. His data gathering became the foundation for an effective system of counter-intelligence that would prove helpful to counterinsurgency efforts once guerilla war by Filipinos began.

Worcester’s racial theories regarding Filipinos were chillingly simple: “non-Christian” Filipinos were savages that lived in “tribes,” while lowland or Christianized Filipinos were corrupt. His racial theories on Filipino savagery and corruption were disseminated in different media and forums—U.S. government reports, war studies, books, magazines and academic articles, public lectures and later moving films.

As a race scientist of the era, he was greatly influenced by late nineteenth century theories on race and blood. He believed that Filipinos were racially incapable of self-government, even lowland or Christianized Filipinos, such as the Tagalogs, whom he considered “semi-civilized” because of their mixed racial background. Worcester’s strong dislike of the Tagalogs can be read in the Philippine Commission’s first report in 1900, where he first popularized the notion that the leaders of the Philippine Republic or the Katipunan were “inept, corrupt and unpopular” and that the insurrection against the United States was only limited to the Tagalog provinces.

The term “Philippine insurrection,” a term Worcester used in his writings and reports, is a term that reduces the full-fledged revolutions led by the Katipunan against Spain and later the United States to insignificant rebellions. Worcester’s publications and lectures thus had a hand in discrediting the Katipunan and the short-lived Philippine republic, and even the long and ruinous war fought against the United States was known, for many decades, as the “Philippine insurrection” or the “Philippine campaign.”

Worcester’s binary racial views of Filipinos served him well politically and financially. He became a famous lecturer of Philippine topics, a popular author and a wealthy government official after he was appointed as Secretary of the Interior, in charge of the “Non-Christian Tribes.” The American writer James H. Blount, a former American officer who later served as a judge in the Philippines for half a decade, mentioned Worcester in an unflattering light in his book, American Occupation of the Philippines 1898-1912, published in New York in 1913 He writes:

“The personal impression left from the meeting was distinctly that of an overbearing bully of the beggar-on-horseback type… I have never talked to any American in the Philippines who had a good word for him… One thing is certain, namely, that he is very generally and very cordially detested by the Filipinos…What seems to be a very cordial mutual hatred between him and the Filipinos, is his activities in the matter of discovering, getting acquainted with, classifying, tabulating, enumerating, and otherwise preparing for salvation, the various non-Christian tribes… In the early nineties he had made a trip to the Philippines, confining himself then mostly to creeping things and quadrupeds — lizards, alligators, pythons, unusual wild beasts, and other forms of animal life of the kind much coveted as specimens by museums and universities. In 1899, just after the Spanish War, he got out a book a book on the Philippines… It came to pass that the reptile-finder ultimately became a statesman.”

Blount depicts Worcester as a questionable scientist who began his career as a zoologist, or what he dismissively describes as a “reptile-finder;” he later transformed into a Philippine expert when he gained the favor of then President William McKinley who needed an “intellectual” to make the case for the continued occupation of the Philippines.

And Worcester provided the racial justification for the occupation and the colonization of the Philippines through cultural arguments he popularized in his photographs, published essays and academic lectures. Blount mentions the “Professor’s kodak” (sic), Worcester’s many photographs of the “dog-eating Igorrotes” and other “specimens” of Filipino savagery.

In a new book on Worcester, American studies scholar Mark Rice suggests that Worcester even manipulated or coerced his young female subjects to disrobe their traditional clothes, and pose suggestively for his “ethnographic” portraits. And these thousands of photographs were, according to Blount, “widely advertised in America than anything else connected to the Islands.”

Worcester’s racist and pornographic images of the Filipino savage brought him power, fame, and wealth. Blount believed Worcester’s writings and photographs “caused injury to the feelings of the Filipinos” and “encouraged race hatred” on both sides.

Bird of Prey
In October 1908, Filipino journalist Fidel A. Reyes wrote a powerful editorial in the nationalist newspaper El Renacimiento that referred to Worcester’s business ventures — mining, lumber, cattle-ranching — in Benguet and other provinces as having thrived because of the advantages he enjoyed as Secretary of the Interior, as well as all the insider information he was able to acquire when traveling in that capacity. In the editorial “Aves de Rapiña,” Worcester, who was unnamed, was likened to a rapacious “bird of prey.” Reyes wrote:

“But there is a man who, besides being like the eagle, also has the characteristics of the vulture, the owl and the vampire.”

“He ascends the mountains of Benguet ostensibly to classify and measure Igorot skulls, to study and to civilize the Igorots; but at the same time, he also espies during his flight, with the keen eye of the bird of prey, where are located large deposits of gold, which is the real prey concealed in the lonely mountains, in order to appropriate them for himself afterwards, thanks to the legal facilities he can make and unmake, at will, always, however, redounding to his own benefit.”

“He gives laudable impetus to the search for rich lodes in Mindanao, in Mindoro, and in other virgin regions of the archipelago, a search undertaken with the people’s money and with excuse of its being for the public good; when in strict truth, his purpose is to obtain data and discover the keys to the national wealth for his essentially personal benefit, as proved by the acquisition of immense properties registered under the names of others.”

For Filipino nationalists in Manila, Worcester was “the vampire.” Described by his critics as an imperious and vindictive man, Worcester did not take kindly to his nicknames, and filed a libel suit against Reyes and the publishers of the paper, Teodoro Kalaw, Martin Ocampo, and the staff. The colonial courts sided in Worcester’s favor and gave prison sentences to Kalaw, Ocampo, and Reyes, and almost all of the staff.

Some were in prison for six months. The libel suit dragged on for six years and bankrupted El Renacimiento. In 1910, an American judge ruled in Worcester’s favor in the civil case and imposed a compensation of sixty thousand pesos for Worcester to be paid by Reyes and the journalists of El Renacimiento. Much to Worcester’s irritation, the publishers Kalaw and Ocampo never served a day in jail since U.S. President Woodrow Wilson pardoned them in 1914. Fidel Reyes would later become a celebrity and was elected as a congressman to the Philippine Assembly.

By the time Worcester retired from government office in 1915, he was a fabulously wealthy man. He became the manager of the Visayan Refining Company, and owned 17,500 acres of land in Bukidnon Province and a cattle ranch.  When he returned in the U.S., he continued giving lectures about the Philippine colony and its “natives.” While Worcester’s life and Philippine career may be known by only a few American and Filipino scholars, what remains of Worcester are the images he created of Filipino savagery. The legacy of these images spreads across time and place — there is Worcester’s role as a colonial official during the Philippine-American War; and his role as a Philippine expert in the 1920s, when tens of thousands of Filipino migrant farmworkers came to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. The image of the Filipino as a dogeater would haunt Filipino immigrants for decades, and would be the source of racial hatred, discrimination and violence by white Americans. In this sense, the Philippine libel laws from the early twentieth century protected a powerful American colonial official who committed different forms of violence against the Filipino people.

The new Cybercrime Law should thus give us pause regarding its reach and its effect on Philippine democracy. A law that silences critics and protects the powerful does not bode well for any modern society. If Fidel Reyes and the journalists of El Renacimiento were alive today, they would probably be in jail for six or twelve years. If a law protects “vampires” who exploit the dispossessed, women and young girls, the poor and the voiceless, it is important to reconsider and even abolish the law.

The Philippine libel laws close to a century ago protected Dean Conant Worcester, a man who was a racist, a war profiteer, a corrupt businessman and possibly a pornographer. While the Filipino journalists of El Renacimiento were vindicated in the end, they still had to suffer, emotionally and financially, for six years, more than half a decade. In the early twenty-first century, do we still want such laws to protect the new vampires?

• Nerissa Balce teaches in the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Her book, “Body Parts of Empire: Abjection, Filipino Images and the American Archive,” is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. She was born and raised in Manila.