During the American expansion in Asia Pacific an African-American soldier from Florida became Filipinos' hero. His name was Corporal David Fagen, a warrior, and a member of the all-Black Buffalo soldiers. Fagen was deployed in the Philippines in the early twentieth century for the U.S. occupation of the country.
However, despite his sworn allegiance, Fagen later decided to be on the right side of history. He was a man with solid morals who proved that regardless if society classified your birth as inferior, as human beings, we have a choice. During the war, Fagen made the right choice.
Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines
For 333 years, the Filipinos had been ruled by Spain. When they thought they had achieved their independence, in 1898, the Filipinos found themselves being oppressed once again.
By 1898, the war between the Filipinos and Americans kickstarted. However, the white American soldiers seemed to have a perilous battle with the natives, as guerilla members blended with the public and then attacked in surprise. Additionally, the environment of the tropics was too humid for what they were accustomed to.
In order to solve such a predicament, Washington recruited and deployed Black soldiers to the Philippines from 1899 to 1900 under the belief that they were immune to tropical diseases.
David Fagen of the 24th Infantry Regiment
One of the members of the U.S. 24th Infantry Regiment was David Fagen. He was a native of Tampa, Florida, where the Jim Crow segregation laws were in full swing. His father was a slave, and as a teenager, he engaged in several brawls and labor strikes.
At twenty, he worked as a manual laborer for a phosphate company. Every morning he was waist-deep into the swamp wrecking phosphate off the banks. Fagen earned a buck a day, but half of the labor force he was working with were Black prisoners, who were then paid a couple of pots of beans a day.
At a young age, he was aware that life was hard for a black American. But in 1898, he saw an opportunity to change the statues he was in. One of the Buffalo soldiers’ regiments was based in Tampa, and they were recruiting African Americans to join the force amid the Spanish-American War.
Fagen signed up and enlisted. A few weeks later, he was deployed to Cuba and took part in the American military advance toward Santiago de Cuba’s Spanish stronghold. A year later, he boarded a fleet among the 7,000 African American soldiers on a journey to invading the Philippines.
Buffalo Soldiers’ Battle of Conscience
The Buffalo soldiers in the Philippines witnessed firsthand how Americans subjugated the native population. These black soldiers saw Filipinos as fellow dark-skinned brothers and sisters, subjected to oppression and violence.
White soldiers used the “N” word slur in calling Filipinos, similar to how they demean African-Americans in the United Stated. This prompted an internal conflict among the Buffalo soldiers — should they fight the war? Or help the natives?
According to Philip Hoffman, author of The Turncoat Hero, the white commanders mandated the Buffalo soldiers to assassinate General Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino nationalist leader, a guerilla chief, and the first president of the Republic of the Philippines.
Their commanders manipulated the African-American soldiers into believing that Aguinaldo was a tyrant who wanted to dominate the Philippines. And Washington couldn’t let that happen.
“They [the Buffalo soldiers] had learned we weren’t there to help the Philippines establish a democracy. The United States was taking the Philippines. We were going to rule it by force.” — Philip Hoffman
The black soldiers immediately discerned the arrant advantage of the well-trained, well-armed American forces against impassioned Filipinos, with little training and lack in firepower.
It was a race war, similar to what the black Americans experienced back home in the Deep South — the slavery, the lynching, the atrocities, and the discrimination. Some of the Buffalo soldiers, including Fagen, started to identify more with the Filipinos’ plight.
After six months, Fagen had enough.
The Making of a Native Hero
Hoffman described that Fagen could no longer conduct himself as “an instrument of American imperialism; he just didn’t want to do it anymore.” Therefore, Fagen decided to defect.
“Having come to that conclusion, he stole four pistols and a horse and he rode off and he joined the Philippine Liberation Army under General Aguinaldo, the president of the Philippines.” — Philip Hoffman
Aguinaldo welcomed Fagen to join the Filipino resistance. He was an asset to the natives because of his combat skills and was commissioned as an officer. He trained Filipino soldiers and was soon promoted to captain, given his own command.
Fagen was a very successful fighter, creating a huge dent in the American forces. One of the white American officers that loathed Fagen was General Frederick Funston. He was known as the best “guerilla hunter in the Philippines.” A couple of times he clashed with Fagen’s troops and both times he ended empty-handed.
His grudge against Fagen was even evident in his memoirs.
“He was a bandit pure and simple, and entitled to the same treatment as a mad dog.” — U.S. Gen. Frederick Funston
The Legend of David Fagen
Fagen achieved legendary status for the Filipino forces while the infamous American traitor. His works became headlines with the U.S. papers even referring to him as a “General.” He earned a reputation as a successful guerilla leader. The Americans were obsessed with him, dubbing him as the “mysterious rebel leader.”
On October 29, 1900, the New York Times made Fagen their headline describing him as a “cunning and highly skilled guerrilla officer who harassed and evaded large conventional American units.”
There were eight reported incidents of Fagen-led operations; the most well-known was the raid of a supply barge on the Pampanga River.
“He became the most notorious and hated American traitor of the Philippine-American War and simultaneously a Philippine hero.” — Philip Hoffman
Fagen’s Mysterious Death
The U.S. forces posted a $600 reward for the capture of David Fagen, dead or alive. And on December 5, 1901, a hunter named Anastacio Bartolome brought a severed head to the American military outpost at Bongabon, Nueva Ecija.
The mutilated head was decomposed beyond recognition. The hunter insisted it was Fagen’s head. Albeit beyond recognizable, the U.S. forces stopped the search against Fagen and considered his case closed.
However, several local reports said Anastacio Bartolome, the hunter, was a member of the guerilla forces. These stories claim that he surrendered a fake head to the Americans, so they would stop pursuing Fagen. Other reports have claimed that Fagen fell in love with a Filipino woman and that they hid in the mountains.
The Fall of the Philippines
In March 1901, General Emilio Aguinaldo was captured by the American troops. He was forced to swear allegiance to the United States. The Americans seized the Philippines and made the country their territory in Asia.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt declared the war over on July 4, 1902, and with that proclamation the last of the Black troops left the Philippines.
Despite the Philippine-American War ending, many Filipino commanders still carried out small-scale attacks on the occupying American forces. Fagen was one leader who kept on fighting. Most of them scattered in hiding in the jungles, and the American military regularly hunted them.
Historians studying the Philippine-American War reported that apart from David Fagen, about 20 African American soldiers deserted from the U.S. forces and joined the Filipino guerillas. Most of them were from Southern States like Florida.
In February 1901, six Buffalo Soldiers from the 9th Cavalry Regiment joined the Philippine resistance, but the Americans later captured them. Two of these deserters from the 9th Cavalry, Edmond DuBose and Lewis Russell, were hanged in front of a large crowd to teach a lesson to those who would follow Fagen’s footsteps.
Despite such a threat, the Philippine forces encouraged “colored” soldiers to join their cause. They were appealing to their shared suffering, convincing them to form a strong alliance against oppression.
The very reason why Fagen and the other Buffalo soldiers turned their back on their army and fought for what they discerned was right.