US U-turns on seized bells

The Philippines has welcomed the announcement by the US Department of Defence to return the colonial-era Balangiga bells, seized after a 1901 massacre by colonial invaders. 

Despite decades of a close military alliance, the US refusal to return the bells has long been a point of contention. 

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said: “We welcome this development as we look forward to continue working with the United States government in paving the way for the return of the bells to the Philippines.”

After US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis made the decision, the US Embassy in Manila said: “We’ve received assurances that the bells will be returned to the Catholic church and treated with the respect and honour they deserve.”

In 1901, a Filipino militia from Balangiga, Eastern Samar, ambushed a US infantry company, killing an estimated 48 soldiers, including the commander, and wounding 22 of the 78-man detachment, with only four troops reportedly escaping unhurt.

The ringing of the bells signalled the attack. 

US soldiers killed around 2,500 Filipinos, including women and children, in Balangiga in response. 

General Jacob Smith ordered his troops to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness”. They set the town on fire and killed all over-10s or those fit enough to carry a rifle, on Smith’s orders.

President Rodrigo Duterte asked the US to return the Balangiga bells during his state of the nation address last year.

“Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonisers and sacrificed their lives in the process,” Duterte said.

“Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit ‘yun sa amin [Please return them. It is painful for us],” the anti-American president said.

Almost two months later, US ambassador Sung Kim said there were plans to return the bells.

“I believe it’s the right thing to do and I really do hope that we will be able to return the bells soon,” he said. “Yes, that is our goal. But whether all three return at once or they are phased, I think it’s very difficult to predict at the moment.”

Two bells from the burned-out Catholic church (pictured) are in the Warren air force base in Wyoming, while the third is part of a travelling museum.

In 1994 the Ramos administration first requested the return of the bells and, in 2012, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead wrote a letter to Washington opposing the return of the relics.


Balangiga’s church. Picture credit: Wikimedia