With Hearts Aflame – by Victor M. Ordonez, 2002

While you’re focused on the Philippine-American War, I’ll discuss With Hearts Aflame, A Historical Novel.

Full disclosure: I have history with this novel. Over several years of envisioning this project in the 1990s, originally as a screenplay and later as a novel, I helped the author shape the American character. However the novel – with all the Filipino nuances – was masterfully written by a dear friend of mine while he was battling cancer. Dr. Victor Ordonez was a Renaissance man who served the Philippines and later the United Nations Organization with distinction and sophistication. Everyone who knew him misses his intellect, his wit, his warmth and his loving ways.

The American hero Lt. Tom Wilcox arrives in the Philippines on a scouting mission in 1886, while the archipelago is still a Spanish possession. A keen and passionate observer, Wilcox sends periodic reports to Army General Wesley Merritt in San Francisco, analyzing Manila’s potential as a regional trading post. But Merritt wants more. As America is rattling sabers in preparation for war with Spain, Merritt asks Wilcox for military intelligence on the strength of Spanish forces and their armaments, and the loyalty of their locally recruited troops.

During his reconnaissance, Wilcox falls in love with the Philippines, and with a fiery Filipina named Coring. It’s no surprise that he also falls in with the brave Filipinos secretly plotting to oust Spanish overlords after three centuries of oppressive and cruel colonial rule. Wilcox vows his love for Coring and his devotion to the cause of Filipino self-rule ignited by the patriot Dr. Jose Rizal, who is then awaiting execution. In this fictional retelling of the martyr’s death, Wilcox smuggles Rizal’s last poem, Utilmo Adios, out of prison in his boot. The book’s title comes from a line in the poem that speaks of Filipinos who fight in their country’s name “with hearts aflame.”

Unfortunately, President Grover Cleveland and Governor William McKinley are not dancing to the merry tune Wilcox is playing. After Commodore George Dewey vanquishes Spain’s Asiatic fleet in Manila Bay, General Merritt arrives with the U.S. Volunteers of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to wrest control of the country from the remaining Spaniards.

The proud Castilians won’t give up without a fight but the Battle of Manila in August 1898 is a sham, its outcome predetermined. The Spaniards agree to surrender and the Philippines (named after their King Philip) is nominally free of a European power. They surrender to the Americans, not the Filipinos, and under the terms of the surrender, no armed Filipino may enter the capital. In other words, the Americans, who were supposed to be helping the Filipinos, are taking control of Manila, and snatching victory from away Emilio Aguinaldo’s Katipunan revolutionaries down in Cavite.

When Coring learns that Wilcox was with General Merritt at the surrender ceremony aboard the ship Ayuntiamento, she’s confused.

“Her mind could not wrap itself around the Americans’ betrayal and Tom’s possible role in it. She thought she knew Tom so well, but now with this turn of events, she felt maybe she did not know him at all.”

A few months later, with the Filipino independence movement in utter disarray, Coring has even more reason to doubt Wilcox’s love for her and the dream of a free Philippines. It is with an aching heart that Wilcox sends her a letter describing the events of February1899 at San Juan Bridge, the first bloody skirmish between American soldiers and Filipinos. (Spoiler alert: the battle does not go well for Wilcox’s Filipino friends and their cause.)

Wilcox writes to Coring:

“My dear Heart, The last few days have been tragic… General Otis has declared outright war against the Aguinaldo forces… I am lost. I joined the military of my country as a young man full of ideals and principles, ready to lay my life down in the fight against evil and injustice. Now these armed forces have become instruments of evil and injustice.”

The U.S. Army hunted down the originally anti-Spanish, then anti-American revolutionary leader Aguinaldo and captured him in 1901, effectively ending his term as the first President of the First Philippine Republic.

Celebrating America’s first counterinsurgency victory in Southeast Asia, President William McKinley put the archipelago of 7,100 islands under the American flag. William Howard Taft, the first U.S. Governor General in Manila, and later 27th President of the United States, said Filipinos – whom he called “our little brown brothers” – would need America’s assistance for 50 or 100 years before acquiring the requisite Anglo-Saxon skills for self-rule. It would be half a century before the Philippines achieved full independence.

The cover art featured on both this book and Insurrecto by Gina Apostol are works by Ben Cabrera. Learn more about this renowned Filipino artist at:

http://www.bencabmuseum.org/national-artist/