"54 Days - Dewey Upholds Spanish Honor"

By Ambeth Ocampo


HONOR is something that the Spanish do not take lightly. Spanish honor is the ingredient that guaranteed that Intramuros, the capital of the Philippines, did not surrender to Aguinaldo and the Filipino forces but to the Americans.

Since a historian, armed with hindsight can see almost all the angles to a story that was not available to its characters, he can see the larger picture and put things in context.

Admiral Patricio Montojo, commander in chief of the Navy in the Philippines, was recalled to Madrid to explain Spanish defeat in Manila Bay. Montojo was handicapped from the start as can be seen from the torrent of urgent cables he sent to Madrid appealing for supplies and ammunition.

Montojo, for example, was promised ''protected cruisers'' to supplement the floating antiques euphemistically called the Spanish Far Eastern Fleet under his command.

When the Isla de Cuba and the Isla de Luzon finally arrived in Manila, he found them mere gunboats. Montojo's cruisers, the Reina Cristina and the Castilla, had their defects. Guns were missing from both. The impotent Castilla, was a leaking wooden contraption with powerless engines, and had to be towed everywhere she went--including the scene of battle.

Mines and torpedoes Manila did have, but they were barnacle-encrusted, old-fashioned and sparsely distributed, that they were practically useless. Guns were to be found in Corregidor and El Fraile, but like the ships and mines, were more fit for museums than for modern warfare.

Little wonder they did not resist when the American squadron entered Manila Bay. Spanish guns had no modern sighting and range-finding devices. Worse, they were low on ammunition. Manila was defenseless and yet Montojo, to save Spanish honor, had to put up a fight.
 

Subic fortified

To spare Manila from unnecessary bombardment, Montojo decided to fortify Subic and engage the Americans there. On April 11, 1909 he was informed that shore batteries could not be installed for lack of cement. No one knew when the cement promised would arrive. Someone had the brilliant idea of crafting makeshift mines, but there was no nitroglycerine available. Montojo cabled the Spanish consul in Hong Kong with an urgent request for nitroglycerine, but got eight miles of electric wire instead.

In his defense, Montojo prepared papers that would absolve him of his defeat in Manila Bay. A sampling of the cables illustrates his pathetic position.

On March 26, 1898 Montojo cabled Madrid: ''... I have been actively taking all precautions. Torpedoes and boats few and deficient. I await superior orders. I have no instructions.''

Expecting a message of resignation in the face of defeat, Montojo was surprised with Madrid's reply on March 27, 1898 that said: ''... approve all precautions taken in these circumstances regretting not being able to send reinforcements since they are needed here.''

On April 11, Montojo warned his superiors that the Americans ''have more than 50 cannons. Mean speed 17 knots. They will come as soon as war is declared.''

No torpedoes

Calm counsel arrived from Madrid on April 12: ''... Hope your own zeal and activity will supplement deficiencies.'' A week later, on April 19, Madrid ordered the admiral to ''shut island ports with defensive lines of torpedoes...'' Montojo's exasperated reply on April 21 ''... Your excellency knows that I have no torpedoes...''

On April 23, Montojo asked for further advice: ''... Before the immense superiority of the enemy's squadron of eight good ships against four deficient ones, I met with my captains and our majority opinion is to defend Subic Bay, leaving our squadron there in expectation of being able to take advantage of a favorable opportunity to defeat the enemy in detail or by surprise... I pray Your Excellency answer me whether you approve or not.''

 The Navy minister in Madrid replied promptly on April 24: ''... Received your telegram dated yesterday.''
 

Montojo a sacrificial lamb

A scapegoat was needed to absolve Spain of the humiliating defeat in Manila Bay, Spanish honor demanded it, the sacrificial lamb was Admiral Montojo. Desperate for papers to use for his defense, Montojo stooped as low as requesting from Dewey for a letter in his favor: ''I know that my temerity in making this request of you is very great; but invoking the fact that we belong to the same profession and remembering that you have more than once had the knowledge to praise my conduct, I force myself to believe that this will be well received.''

Montojo wanted Dewey to certify that: first, there were no shore fortifications or submarine mines in Subic; second, that the destruction of the Spanish fleet would have been more complete and devastating in Subic than Cavite because of the depth of the water; third, that the Americans did not find the Spanish unready, that they put up a good fight, but that they lost'' not for lack of valor but principally because we had poor ships.''

Dewey, magnanimous in victory, granted Montojo's request and concluded with these words:

        ''... The fighting of your flagships, which was singled out for attack, was especially worthy of a place in the traditions of valor if your nation... I very much regret that calumnies have been cast against you, and am confident that your honor cannot be dimmed by them.''

        This was to be the first time the Americans upheld Spanish honor, the second time would be in the taking of Manila.


Bibliography:

PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER, April 20, 1998. (http://www.fapenet.org/ncc/ncc/news/honor.txt)


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