Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Glimpse into the Life of Dean Worcester

Photo from Wikipilipinas
Dean Conant Worcester (1887-1925)

By Chester B Cabalza

Dean C Worcester was an accidental anthropologist, a practicing zoologist, one of the pioneers of Philippine studies, and the first Secretary of the Interior for the Philippine Insular Government during the American period. He was born on October 1, 1866 in Thetford, Vermont, United States and got married to Marrion Fay on April 21, 1893  

It was Professor Joseph Beal Steere, an American ornithologist and lawyer, who first brought Dean Worcester together with several zoology undergraduate students to the Philippines through the 1887-88 exploration sponsored by the University of Michigan. Thereafter, upon graduation from college in 1989, the following year Worcester headed the Menage Scientific Expedition (1890-93), aimed at collecting and documenting mammals in the Philippines and Borneo. The three-year expedition was funded by the Minnesota Academy of Natural Science.

With a teaching profession as a lecturer at hand in his alma mater in Michigan University, he also became the curator of the University Museum in 1895.

Three years later, Worcester’s life path began to change when he wrote a popular book on the Philippines. His published and influential ethnographic and photographic account of The Philippine Islands and their People in 1898 was based on the letters he had written during his early voyages to the Southeast Asian country.

It appeared in September 1898, Manila had been occupied less than a month after the U.S Navy under Admiral George Dewey arrived in the Philippines. In 1899-1902, the Philippine-American War broke out which took more lives of American soldiers than during the American-Spanish War in early 1898. On January 20, 1899, William McKinley, the last US President to have served the American Civil War, appointed the First Philippine Commission or the Schurman Commission with a five-person group led by Dr Jacob Schurman, President of Cornell University.

Dean Worcester’s maiden book about the Philippines became a best-seller, given the intense interest of the American public in their new colony. Because the book received a resounding success, it even reached the attention of then US President McKinley. The budding zoologist and accidental anthropologist, who was planning to enroll in a graduate course in Germany, was called to meet with the president, and later appointed him as a Commissioner to the first Philippine Commission.

With the new mission at hand, Dean Worcester returned to the Philippines, became a public official to the First Philippine Commission, and supervised compilation of the commission’s final report since 1899, mainly because of his vast knowledge printed in his significant book about the Philippines.

While working as a Commissioner for the Philippine Insular Government, he also published another groundbreaking book which described comparative view of tribes and cultures of the Negritos and the Malays that were supported again by texts and photographs. However, his book on The Philippine Islands and their People continuously garnered widespread critical acclaim which boosted the author’s career of fame, power, and fortune. The book was predicted to become the standard work on the Philippines, at that time.  

It was also deemed that Worcester shaped and influenced much of the way that Americans imagined their first colony in Asia. Using photography, he published his classic photographs in his books and was used to illustrate census of the Philippines. On the other hand, his medium of taking photos of places and activities of Filipinos, particularly naked indigenous peoples of the Philippines, has been adamantly questioned today by some scholars and intellectuals.

His photographic collections truly were contentious and troubling. He used many of his black and white photographs in public lectures and popular articles to support America’s colonialism in the Philippines and perpetuate the white man’s responsibilities to civilize the tribal peoples of the Philippines. It was also used for scientific records framed through controversial 19th century racial classification and evolutionary paradigms. Nevertheless, his photographs provided an invaluable archive of the history of American colonialism, the colonial history of early anthropology, and of the late 19th and early 20th century Philippines. 

Subsequently by March 16, 1900, the Second Philippine Commission or the Taft Commission was formed, headed by Judge William Howard Taft who would later become the Secretary of War. The said commission was granted legislative and limited executive power to craft laws and overhaul the political system in the country. That same year, Commissioner Worcester was re-appointed to the Taft Commission.

It was in 1901 that his colorful political career as a public administrator flourished when he was appointed as Secretary of the Interior. Undoubtedly, Secretary Worcester shaped much the regime’s internal administration. His extraordinary relationship with the Philippines started since his early scientific voyages in the archipelago with his writings on the Philippines and its people. As part of his job, he had traveled extensively across islands of the archipelago particularly Mindoro and Palawan in 1910.

Dean Worcester remained a controversial American administrator during his tenure. His strong stances on “No to Philippine Independence” angered many Filipino patriots and anti-imperialists during his time for his ferocious paternalistic pledge to civilize the America’s brown colonial subjects.   

In 1913, he resigned from the Philippine Insular Government as Secretary of Interior, making him the longest serving administrator in the American colonial government. His powerful position formerly oversaw a number of government bureaus on agriculture, forestry, government laboratories, health, mining, weather, and the non-Christian tribes. More so, his fondness and interest to the latter bureau proved his advocacy to permeate American imperialism in the Philippines. 

However, he opted to become the Vice President of the Philippine American Company, a New York-based corporation that invested on plantations, mines, and other ventures. That same year, he also directed and produced a film entitled, Native Life in the Philippines, in collaboration with long-time staff camera operator and government photographer Charles Martin. It was believed that this film could have supported Worcester’s continuous and adamant political aims of ensuring that the Philippines should not be granted independence.

Hence, after leaving the American government service, however, he remained and retired in the Philippines until his death in 1924.

Other notable books authored by Worcester include the following: The Non-Christian Tribes of Northern Luzon (1906) A History of Asiatic Cholera in the Philippine Islands (1908), Sports Among the Wild Men of Northern Luzon (1911); Slavery and Peonage in the Philippine Islands (1913); One Year of the New Era (1914); and the two-volume book of The Philippines Past and Present, first printed in 1913 and reprinted in 1914.

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