Victory/defeat is a point of view
Museo Naval isn’t on the list of attractions for Filipinos visiting Madrid, Spain. If they must make one or two obligatory museum stops, the top choices will be the crowded Museo del Prado first and the nearby Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza second. I made a visit to the Spanish naval museum on the assumption that I would find some Filipiniana in its exhibits. I was not disappointed. At the beginning of the tour are portraits of Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián de Elcano, who share the honor of being the first to circumnavigate the globe in the 16th century. A huge historical painting depicts the 18 stragglers of the Magellan expedition who made it back to Sevilla in 1522. In another hall are Ming Chinese porcelain and late 16th-century Philippine earthenware salvaged from the wreck of the galleon San Diego that was sunk off Fortune Island during an engagement with the Dutch in 1600.
I was disappointed that artifacts on the Philippine Revolution (1896-1898) that I had seen on previous visits were not on display like the cannons and lantakas captured by the enemy during 19th-century expeditions to Mindanao. It was silly of me to think that a Spanish naval museum would reference the Battle of Manila Bay that saw the victory of US Commodore George Dewey, who sank the Spanish fleet on May 1, 1898. A huge scale model of the port of Cavite was of great interest as I recalled my readings from the Spanish side.
When news reached Manila that the American Asiatic Squadron was en route to the Philippines from Hong Kong, Spanish Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo looked sadly at the floating antiques known as the Spanish Far Eastern Fleet, and knew all was lost. Worse, he was not given the support to put up a decent defense. He was promised “protected cruisers,” but when the Isla de Cuba and Isla de Luzon arrived, they were found to be mere gunboats. His cruisers, the Reina Cristina and the Castilla, were not armored and missing effective guns. The Castilla was a leaking wooden contraption, with no engines, and had to be towed even to battle. Manila had mines and torpedoes, but these were old, barnacle-infested, and distributed so far apart they were practically useless. Corregidor and El Fraile had guns with no modern sighting nor range-finding capability; they were better fit for a museum than modern warfare. To top it all, they were low on ammunitions. Manila was practically defenseless.
Montojo wanted to fortify Subic and engage Dewey there, but there was no cement available. Someone suggested crafting makeshift mines. Montojo cabled the Spanish consul in Hong Kong with an urgent request for nitroglycerin; he was sent eight miles of electric wire instead. 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.” Madrid replied promptly on March 27, 1898: “… approve all precautions taken in these circumstances regretting not being able to send reinforcements since they are needed here.”
On April 11, 1898, Montojo warned Madrid that the enemy had “more than 50 cannons. Mean speed 17 knots. They will come as soon as war is declared.” Madrid calmly replied on April 11, “Hope your zeal and activities will supplement deficiencies.” A week later, on April 19, 1898, Madrid ordered Montojo to “shut island ports with defensive lines of torpedoes.” To which Montojo matter-of-factly replied on April 21, 1898, “Your Excellency knows that I have no torpedoes.”
On April 23, 1898, Montojo asked for 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.” Madrid replied promptly on April 24, 1898, “Received your telegram dated yesterday.”
The Battle of Manila Bay is understandably downplayed in the Spanish naval museum, the same in the Ayala Museum diorama that depicts Montojo in his flagship. His niece married into the Zobel family in Manila. A forthcoming exhibit on the Spanish-American War in the Smithsonian next year proves that, contrary to popular belief, history is never innocent. It always has a point of view.
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