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Philippine Navy History

1898-1901: The Philippine Revolutionary Navy

While Jose Rizal conferred with US officials in Hong Kong, Commodore George Dewey had defeated the Spanish force led by Admiral Patricio Montojo at Manila Bay on 1 May 1898. On 19 May 1898, Aguinaldo arrived in Cavite on board the USS McCulloch and conferred later with Dewey aboard the USS Olympia. Dewey had known fully well he did not have enough forces to captured Manila and he needed Aguinaldo's help to hold onto the advantage until the arrival of American reinforcements. Dewey assured Aguinaldo of American support and handed over to him the small pinnace from the Reina Cristina, Admiral Montojo's flagship.

The vessel was quickly name Magdalo in honor of Aguinaldo. On 20 May 1898, Aguinaldo had the Philippine flag hoisted on the ship, which was allowed by the Americans at Manila Bay to sail from coast to coast. Thus the Magdalo became the first vessel of the Revolutionary Navy and probably the first bearer of the Philippine flag, predating even the flag's first exhibit and proclamation as official symbol of the nation on 12 June 1898, when Aguinado formally declared Philippine Independence. Therefore 20 May is celebrated as the foundation day of the Philippine Navy.

Although Aguinaldo was not nave and was forever evaluating American intentions on the Philippines, it is assumed he must have known he was playing with fire in accepting American support for his independence movement. Ironically, the ship granted Aguinaldo would be used against those who had provided it, and the United States, like the Spaniards centuries before them, would come to dominate the Philippines through naval supremacy.

For the moment, however, Aguinaldo had his nascent navy consisting of the Magdalo and other steam launches captured from the Spaniards. Refitted for war, these vessels would help the revolutionary cause by moving troops, arms and supplies to distant provinces. To be sure, they played a decisive role in the insurgency as, for example, in the raid on Bacoor Bay against the Spanish garrison and the Spanish powder magazine, which naval historians now call the first amphibious assault of the Revolutionary Navy.

The fleet was reinforced by merchant ships such as the Taaleo, Balayan and Purisima Conception, that had been donated to the insurgent forces. Another key addition was the Compania de Filipinas, the 800-ton Spanish steamer belonging to the Compania General de Tabacos. The vessel had been seized by a mutinous, largely Filipino crew under the fiery Cuban Vicente Catalan who hoisted the Filipino flag and proclaimed himself "Admiral of the Filipino Navy." The mutiny and seizure of the ship became an international cause celebre when the Germans objected to the Filipino flag and the French demanded the ship's return, claiming they actually owned it.

Despite the diplomatic blacklash from foreign powers, the international incident drew attention to the increasingly aggressive campaign of the Filipino to oust the Spaniards and establish an independent republic.

For his part, Aguinaldo tirelessly pursued the unification of the islands under the revolutionary government by deploying the naval fleet to various parts of the country to engage the Spanish force and rally Filipinos behind the insurgency. The expeditions became virtual caravans for independence and fires of nationhood to every part of the archipelago. This helped spread the movement beyond Aguinaldo's fellow Tagalogs.

Aguinldo's military successes and the widening swathe of territory being won by the insurgents buttressed the 12 June 1898 declaration of independence. On 23 June 1898, he decreed the establishment of a revolutionary government, which created the Department of Foreign Relations with the bureaus of diplomacy, navy and commerce under it. Aguinaldo delayed the organization of the navy and commerce bureaus in order to concentrate on diplomacy and to win over foreign powers.

However, as tension with the Americans grew following the fall of Manila on 13 August 1898, Aguinaldo created the Bureau of Navy on 26 September and appointed Pascual Ledesma as its first director. The Navy was strengthened by the Malolos Constitution that was passed on 21 January 1899, which made the President of the Republic the commander in chief of the army and the navy, and transferred the Bureau of navy to the Department of War, which thereby became the Department of War and Navy.

So successful was the Revolutionary Navy in Prosecuting the war against Spain that, ironically enough, Aguinaldo paved the way for the swift American conquest of the islands. One American observer years later would write that the Filipino forces so successful in their war against Spain that "the only job for them [the Americans] was the capture of Manila."

Predictably enough, Dewey's first acts of provocation were based on naval force. In October 1898 he started confiscating steamers and launches flying the Filipino flag. There followed a naval blockade to limit further operations of Aguinaldo's forces.

The decimation of the Revolutionary Navy was the beginning of the end for the independence movement. Superior American forces eased out the poorly financed and ill-equipped Filipino troops from the positions they had won from Spain. Aguinaldo turned to guerrilla warfare, but he was in constant flight until he was captured in Palawan in 1901. With their hope of independence extinguished by the Americans, Aguinaldo's dream of a nation, unified by a strong navy, was shattered.

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