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British Bungling in Manila

(Article published in the Aug 12, 2009 issue of Manila Standard Today) 

It was not surprising that no one heeded the call of Dante Jimenez for an investigation.  Despite his clout as founder and leader of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, no one took seriously Mr. Jimenez’ call for an inquiry into the British Embassy’s sending of condolences to the family of our beloved President Cory even as the rest of the country was still praying for a miraculous recovery.  After all, right at the very start of their presence in Manila, the British exhibited less than perfect knowledge of the city and its people.

English writer, Nicholas Tracy, in his book “Manila Ransomed”, published in 1995 by the University of Exeter Press at Devon, UK, narrates that William Nichelson, who was part of the expeditionary force, in the preface of his “A New Directory for the East Indies” pointed out to his colleagues that “Manila Bay was not so much as mentioned in any of our directories.”

When the British decided, despite the bay’s uncharted waters, to capture Manila, they came for the wrong reasons.  William Draper, who himself led the landing force of about 1,000 British regulars, 300 marines, 600 sepoys and 40 irregulars of various nationalities, was outright commercial in his justification.

Draper  had earlier argued: “Our Possession of Manila will Give our India Company a most Convenient Magazine & Port to Carry on not only their Trade to China, but Enable them to Extend their Commerce all over that Part of the World.” 

Despite Draper’s confidence, taking Manila did not make commercial sense for the United Kingdom.  Geographically, Manila was not positioned to serve British trade. Singapore was better located.  In fact, Sulu had several advantages over Manila not only because it’s occupation was less disruptive of the on-going European geo-politics but also because its occupation did not disturb the trade in Spanish silver that, on account of Spanish laws of the Indies denying Europeans not of Spanish origin the right to trade in silver at Manila, had to be conducted by the British using Asian middlemen.  The British, even at that time, was not averse to doing indirectly what the law prohibited directly.


What many say really motivated Draper was Manila’s famed wealth and opulence.  It was to him “a Proper Object of the War,” especially “if the Expedition be properly Timed” so that the silver galleon had already arrived from Acapulco.  This remark had led Spanish writers to consider the development of the British trading empire in the Pacific as one of the many stories of piracy in the China Seas.

It was clear, however, to the decision-makers at the British East India Company, which was to provide the logistics, that the commercial arguments of Draper for the expedition to Manila were “specious, and that profit-taking was likely to be confined to looting.”  Nevertheless, the Court of Directors agreed, very likely “upon the consideration that it was useful to risk some financial loss if the gratitude of the ministry could be earned.”  This was the first time nor the last that business condescended to government.

So it came to pass that on 06 January 1762, the Court of the British East India Company agreed to the plan to seize Manila from Spain. The deal on how to distribute the expected booty was what we call hating-kapatid:  The British East India Company was to be entitled to a half share.

When the English reached Manila, it became apparent to them that Draper did not have accurate intelligence; the city was stronger than they thought.  William Stevenson, an engineer who was part of the expedition, wrote that “The walls of the City are of stone and the Fortification is tolerable regular.”  In fact, the site that Draper was supposed to assault, the southern front between the bastions of San Diego and San Andreas, was “very formidable.”

The British were undeterred by this realization.  They went ahead, anyway.  When the hostilities started, the British were again surprised.  They had thought the Filipinos would not be loyal to Spain. Instead, one day after British seamen landed near the stone church of Malate, the Filipinos conducted a sortie in such a manner that left no doubts that they were not about to cuddle up to the British.  Engage them, yes; but in loving embrace, certainly not. 

Wrote Draper himself about the attacking Filipinos: “Had their skill or weapons been equal to their strength and ferocity, it might have cost us dear.  Although armed chiefly with bows, arrows and lances, they advanced up to the very muzzles of our pieces, repeated their assaults, and died like wild beasts, gnawing the bayonets.”

During the siege, the British captured a small galley and its officers who were sent ahead of the galleon Filipino which was then coming in from Acapulco.  Among the Spanish officers captured was Antonio Tagle who was the nephew of the Archbishop of Manila then in charge of the defense of the City.  Draper ordered a cease-fire so that Tagle could be conducted to the city in keeping with the moro-moro of civility that the British on the one hand, and the Spanish on the other, were conducting between themselves.

The Tagalogs defending Manila, however, would not be bound by such foreign civilities.  While Tagle was being conducted out of the British lines by Draper’s secretary, Lieutenant Frayer, under a flag of truce and with matching drummer, the Tagalogs made an unauthorized charge.  The Sepoys counterattacked the Tagalogs who in their rage killed Tagle.

But their less than perfect knowledge of Manila and its inhabitants did not make the British go off course from doing, with or without official sanction, what they came here for.  They came to loot and loot they did as attested by this affidavit by a resident:

“I, Feliciana de Arriola, widow of Ensign Marcos Pisarro, do swear to God and upon a cross, in due form, that I was plundered by the English and Sepoys; that I am a poor widow who earned my lving with my shop selling cocoa, lard and oil and lending money on pay; that the total value of what was plundered from me, including my clothing and that of my children, my own jewelry and that of others which I had on pawn, is about 1,500 pesos; and that I have been left with nothing to wear or half a rial with which to buy something to eat. And because it is the truth I make this statement on oath and affix thereto my hand.  Arroceros, 3 February 1763.”

It was the mark of the British not to be waylaid by their own incompetence.  Accordingly when their premature condolences to President Cory’s family became timely, the British very casually went right back on course and resumed what they had set out to do a week earlier.  Foreign Office Minister of State Ivan Lewis MP extended the British Government's condolences to Cory’s family. Former Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch Brown, is said to have added that his “privilege of working with Cory and watching her was one of my life's greatest lessons in courage, leadership, the art of politics and humanity. The way she and all her family made such friends of me as an outsider is something I have always treasured."  British Ambassador Peter Beckingham, whose posting in Manila recently, also added that his discussions with Cory "left me with an overwhelming sense of her grace, charisma and compassion.”  In filting grace, not one recalled their previous bungling in Manila, “BAU” or business as usual was to be the posture of the day and every one was to act as if nothing weird had.

Indeed, on putting up with embarrassments, whether due to the enemy or by their own doing, whether then when Great Britain ruled the waves or now when it is tossed about by the global tsunami of financial melt downs, William Draper and his successors have both ground and audacity to boast, Virtus Britannica quid non Dowat (roughly, can there be any doubts given British capacity?).