Imperial Wilderness: Ecological Imagination of the US Empire (1898-1902) | Timothy Ong

by Critical Asia

by Timothy Ong, June 2022】

In January 9, 1900, Senator Albert Beveridge from Indiana delivered before the US Senate hearing in the 1st session of the 56th Congress his views regarding the relationship between the Philippines and the United States. After having gone through three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, the Philippines found itself in a precarious situation where its sovereignty was being threatened by the presence of American military forces as a holdover from the Spanish-American War that ended in August 1898. Beveridge proclaims: “the times call for candor. The Philippines are ours forever, ‘territory belonging to the United States,’ as the Constitution calls them.”

His main argument for the annexation of the Philippines lies in its strategic location that would enable the US to seize control of “China’s illimitable markets.” It is, according to him, a divine mandate that compels the US to “not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world” because God has “marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.” This speech established Beveridge as the main advocate for imperialism in the US Senate during the Philippine-American War and whose ideas were crucial to the eventual passage of the Philippine Organic Act of 1902, which established a civil government in the Philippines thereby officially making the archipelago a territory of the US.

Beveridge heavily relied on Manifest Destiny to argue for another expansion – this time it was to reach the new frontier of empire: the Philippines. Extending the rhetoric of terra nullius, he claims: “The Pacific is our ocean.” The empire had now reworked its definition of territory so that it not only coveted empty lands, but oceans as well. According to Beveridge,

The ocean does not separate us from the field of our duty and endeavor–it joins us, an established highway needing no repair, and landing us at any point desired. The seas do not separate the Philippine Islands from us or from each other. The seas are highways through the archipelago, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct if they were land instead of water. Land may separate men from their desire, the ocean never.

In claiming the Pacific for the US Empire, the Philippines became contiguous with North America in the imagination conjured by Beveridge. And so the mission to develop the new frontier of empire continued. How might the empire carry out this task as expediently as possible given the oceanic highways at its disposal? Beveridge problematized the issue of labor to develop the Philippines by lamenting on the indolence of the native:

No reward could beguile, no force compel, these children of indolence to leave their trifling lives or the fierce and fervid industry of high-wrought America. The very reverse is the fact. One great problem is the necessary labor to develop these islands–to build the roads, open the mines, clear the wilderness, drain the swamps, dredge the harbors. The natives will not supply it.

 The infantilization of the native is a recurring trope in the US imperialist project. In February 1899, Rudyard Kipling penned “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands and was initially read aloud in the 55th Congress, 3rd Session by Senator Benjamin Tillman as an argument against the annexation of the Philippines because he and other anti-imperialist yet racist allies “understand and realized what it is to have two races side by side that can not mix or mingle without deterioration and injury to both and the ultimate destruction of the civilization of the higher.”[1] 

The poem urges America to “Take up the White Man’s burden–/Send forth the best ye breed–” to “To wait in heavy harness/Unfluttered folk and wild–/Your new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half devil and half child.” The demarcation between the civilized white man and the indolent native became the guiding rhetoric that animated Beveridge’s condemnation of the natives’ lack of motivation to labor for their own development. Central to this argument is the demonization of the native as being infantile because external development will not be possible if the self was deficient and therefore not readily assimilable into western notions of humanity. The relegation of the Filipino as a double other, both in terms of race and species, is an example of what Val Plumwood calls “hegemonic centrism,” which accounts for forms of speciesism that continues to be used to “rationalise the exploitation of animal (and animalised human) ‘others’ in the name of a ‘human- and reason-centered culture’ because the western definition of humanity “depended – and still depends – on the presence of the ‘not-human’: the uncivilised, the animal and animalistic.”[2] As such, the empire not only makes possible the unholy alliance between anthropocentrism and eurocentrism but in actuality requires them, made manifest through speciesm and racism, to be able to perpetuate itself through time and therefore seeing indigenous cultures as “primitive, less rational, and closer to children, animals and nature.”[3] 

The bombast of Beveridge’s speech can only be interpreted as an agitated pursuit for the economic gains of empire in securing its control and dominion over the land and sea in the Asia-Pacific region. By emphasizing that the Philippines commands the Pacific, “a spot selected by the strategy of Providence,” he lays bare the main reason behind the White Man’s burden and duty to actualize the developmentalist dreams of empire. He opined that the Pacific “is the ocean of the commerce of the future. Most future wars will be conflicts for commerce. The power that rules the Pacific, therefore, is the power that rules the world. And, with the Philippines, that power is and will forever be the American Republic.”

There is something to be said about the temporalities of empire and the environment in Beveridge’s speech. The extractive view that imperialists have towards nature is time-bound primarily because it is exhaustive by its very definition: it can only regard nature as a resource and therefore instrumental to empire-making. In Beveridge’s claim over the Pacific as “ours,” the possessive mode can only reveal what Wolfgang Sachs describes as a “deep ambivalence” that, on one hand “impl[ies] participation and highlight[s] man’s dependence on an encompassing reality” or, on the other, “can imply ownership and emphasize man’s vocation to master and to run this common property.”[4] More than just geographic expansion, the empire must also ensure that resource extraction is as efficient as possible because nature is seen as an extractable resource and as a site of exploitation. Beveridge invokes a Biblical turn in his logic of resource extraction:

This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace. The judgment of the Master is upon us: “Ye have been faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler over many things.”

In claiming the Philippines for the perpetuity of empire, the marketability of nature is emphasized. Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin, following both Sachs and Arturo Escobar, argue that imperial pursuits intervene in all aspects of the social life of the colonized, including those that are not completely covered by the logic of the individual and the market, which is to say rights to ecological commons such as bodies of water. Sustainability, as a function of development over time, regulates the determination of people’s everyday lives especially in the aftermath of empire. In post-colonial contexts, for example, treating nature as “marketable” provides an “implicit rationalization for the control and management of natural resources by the global urban-industrial system and its primary political ally, the nation-state.”[5] Therefore, sustainable development is subsumed under economic growth and that it is precisely this kind of development that needs to be safeguarded rather than that of the environment because “environmental degradation is to be fought against principally because it impedes this growth.”[6] Environmental marketability, so it seems, ultimately becomes for the empire a tool for planetary management, but whose longevity is hijacked by its very own existence.

The developmentalist dreams of empire require the conquest of ecological commons and are premised on an extractive relationship with the environment. Resources can be pillaged because nature is seen as another resource that can be subsumed under market logic. The long Philippine American War (1898-1902), especially the discourses surrounding it and the violences that were permitted to emerge well beyond its time frame, allows us to re-examine how empire-making cannot be disentangled from environmental degradation: the former simply necessitates the latter. By examining the ecological imagination of the US Empire at the turn of the 20th CE, one is painfully reminded that the Anthropocene, an age marked by loss and death at unprecedented scales, is no more than an anticipated future in the long history of empire.

Timothy Ong, University of the Philippines – Diliman, Philippines; University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA


[1] Benjamin Tillman, “Address to the U.S. Senate: ‘Are We To Spread the Christian Religion with the Bayonet Point as Mahomet Spread Islamism with A Scimiter?’,” February 7, 1899,

[2] Val Plumwood, “Decolonizing Relationships with Nature,” in Decolonizing Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-Colonial Era, eds. William H. Adams and Martin Mulligan (London: Earthscan, 2003), 53.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wolfgang Sachs (ed.), The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power (London: Zed Books, 1997), 26.

[5] Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 32.

[6] Ibid.

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