The Philippine American War

Outbreak of Cholera Epidemic

In 1902, many of the war casualties succumbed not only to gunfire but to cholera. Noted Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto argues that the spread of the cholera epidemic was an extension of the Philippine-American War. In March, 1902 a vessel from Hongkong arrived in Manila carrying cholera. Soon after, the first cases of cholera surfaced. Cholera was impossible to contain because the Filipinos and even the American troops themselves moved around carrying the bacteria. Cholera was not selective; it claimed as victims people from different strata of society and ethnicity - elite, masses, Filipinos, Americans, Spaniards and Chinese. But the lower classes were the hardest hit, especially in certain districts of Manila, because of the "overcrowding, poor sanitation, and poor diet." By the time the epidemic ended, about 109,461 died, 4,386 of which were in Manila.

Ileto describe the Filipinos’ traditonal response to cholera. In Tayabas (present day Quezon province), southern Luzon, local medicos prescribed medicines extracted from the manungal tree (Samadera Indica) which was grown in that province. Another traditional mode of treatment was the belief that the victims ought to undertake a pilgrimage to Mount Banahaw in fulfillment of a panata, or pledge, to supernatural beings who could heal the sick.

In contrast, the cholera epidemic gave way to what Ileto calls "germ warfare", another stage of the Philippine-American War. During this time, military surgeons became the next wave of "pacifiers" after the cavalrymen and troops. Searches and surveillance were conducted among Filipino homes to ferret out the sick and quarantine them. The Filipino response was concealment and evasion since they refused to part with their sick family members.

Within the cholera combat zone, colonial officials prohibited gatherings of people in places considered conducive to the spread of cholera like churches and cockpits. Officials also resorted to burning the houses of cholera victims and even gathering places like the town market. By cremating cholera casualties, they elicited further resistance and hatred among Filipinos whose religious practices demanded proper burial.

Ileto notes that powerful drugs, strict quarantine, and cremation of the dead did not end cholera. Rather, it was the combination of heavy rains and the increasing immunity of the populace that caused the epidemic to subside. Nonetheless, the cholera episode introduced the Filipinos to modern medicine and sanitation, and further incorporated the Filipinos into the colonial order.