Between 1901 and 1904, there were numerous small rebellions in the Moro Province. The American legal reforms and military presence was uneven and asymmetrically affected some datus and religious leaders more than others, which explains why the rebellions occured at seemingly random intervals as each individual datu reached his own breaking point before rebelling.
These rebellions would be led by individual datus and typically consisted of only one to two hundred men. Captain Pershing was one of the officers in charge of suppressing these revolts.
Many of these tribal rebellions occured near Lake Lanao, on Mindanao Island. It’s a mountainous region with dense jungle vegetation.
The Americans had difficulty in the jungle climate and were fearful of ambushes along narrow roads. In theory, the Moros could surprise an American patrol and rapidly close to melee range with their Kris blades, spears, javelins, and darts which would nullify the American rifle advantage. Oddly, this was rare.
When a Moro datu rebelled, he gathered up warriors and other young men from his tribe. Sometimes a couple of tribes rebelled together. One to two hundred men, armed with melee weapons, thrown missile weapons, and some old Spanish muskets, would gather at cotta fortifications. The cottas were mud and bamboo forts on mountains and volcanoes. From there, the rebels would raid other Moro tribes or merchants.
Captain Pershing led many of the military expeditions to put down these small revolts. Tactically, the battles were simple. The US Army forces would advance to the base of the mountain under the cotta fort. Artillery briefly shelled the fort and infantry charged. US 75mm mountain artillery and Krag rifles were accurate and deadly enough that most Moros were killed, wounded, or otherwise stunned in short order. Some Moro rebels surrendered before the attack, others fought to the death.
The other means of resistance was juramentado attacks. Individuals would take a religious oath to become suicide warriors who would ambush Americans or Filipino Catholics in crowded markets, at night, or in the jungle. Juramentados fought almost like commandos in small teams. They would try to ambush Americans from concealed positions, or attempt to raid American camps at night. Official juramentados needed religious leaders to give the oath, and in the absence of actual attempts to Christianize the populations, few religious scholars and jurists were willing to give it. American encounters with juramentados were quite rare compared to the frequency of attacks on Spaniards in the previous century.
Pershing’s real innovations came from his diplomatic work. He had to prevent a wide-spread revolt by many tribes in his region of operations. So Pershing became a soldier-diplomat. He read the Koran, learned a little of the Moro language, and learned about Moro tribal culture and politics. He frequently spoke with the Sultan of Mindanao, loyal Moro datus and religious leaders and paid attention to their needs.
Loyal datus were be rewarded with annual monetary payments, improved roads and market access, and various special privileges. Rebels were quickly smashed as an example to demonstrate that individual datus could not possibly win on their own.
These factors combined meant that most Moros remained peaceful and consented to American rule even if they lost some of their independence.
Resistance was distinct from what the Spanish encountered, even though the fighting style was the same. Often the Americans, like General Wood, blamed religious fanaticism or believed that the Moros were naturally “war-like” but the situation was more complicated. When the Spanish encountered Islamic resistance, it was widespread. All Moro datus and religious leaders agreed that the Spanish were there to Christianize them and responded appropriately.
Resistance against the Americans was not universally recognized. Only one or two tribes fought at a time, while the vast majority continued to work with the Americans. The Americans seemed more interested in markets and business than religion. Many Moros were businessmen and sea traders, so they understood commercialism.
Interestingly, there was no real religious movement against American rule.
One exception to this was the “prophet” Usani Tungalan. He was apparently a prominent religious leader in his tribe until his political power was terminated by the Americans. Now out of the job, he preached against American occupation. This “prophet” raised a small force of less than one hundred men, and was promptly killed by the US Army. This was one of the few revolts led by a religious leader rather than a datu, but it had more political motivation than religious causes.
Between 1904 and 1906, resistance was not always directed against Americans. As a consequence of decentralized Moro governments, civil wars were common. In a 1905 rebellion, Datu Ali revolted against US political dominance, but chiefly waged his war against “loyal Moros.” American interventions usually just sided with one faction in these civil disputes. The Americans sometimes situated themselves as just another Tribe in the regional politics. A bigger, much more powerful tribe, true enough.
The first phase of the Moro Wars ended around 1904-1905. There were dozens of small battles and a larger number of skirmishes, yet the region remained relatively quiet, especially compared to the very violent Philippines Insurrection by the Filipino Catholics in the North. In the Moro Province, Americans feared jungle diseases more than the Kris blades.
At the end of this period, the Moro tribes retained autonomy and were generally willing to work with the Americans. The Island of Mindanao was relatively pacified and there would be no significant battles on the island from this point onward.
The Sulu Islands were more problematic, and battles would continue on the main island of Jolo until 1913.
Roth, Russell. Muddy Glory: America’s “Indian Wars” in the Philippines. Hanover: Christopher Publishing House, 1981
Gowing, Peter. Muslim Filipinos: Heritage and Horizon. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1979.
Dale, Stephen Frederic. “Religious Suicide in Islamic Asia: Anti-colonial Terrorism in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution. (Vol.32, No. 1, March 1988)