The Ideology of Empire in National Geographic Magazine's Coverage of the Philippines, 1898-1908

By Tuason, Julie A. | The Geographical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

The Ideology of Empire in National Geographic Magazine's Coverage of the Philippines, 1898-1908


Tuason, Julie A., The Geographical Review


ABSTRACT. Between 1898 and 1908 the National Geographic Magazine reported copiously on the territorial acquisition and U.S. colonial administration of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. The pages of the magazine provide an intriguing window on connections between the emergence of geography as an organized profession and the expanding sphere of U.S. control of overseas territories. The overall picture reveals a shift from bold calls for direct economic exploitation of the natural resources and labor power of the Philippine Islands to more platitudinous justifications for U.S. control, based on moral responsibility and the ostensibly objective imperatives of "scientific" development. Keywords: geographical societies, history of geography, U.S.-Philippine relations.

No great civilized power has ever managed with such wisdom and disinterestedness the affairs of a people committed by the accident of war to its hands. ... I question whether there is a brighter page in the annals of international dealing between the strong and the weak than the page which tells of our doings in the Philippines.

--Theodore Roosevelt, quoted in the editor's introduction to William Howard Taft, "Ten Years in the Philippines," 1908

According to a standard American textbook on the history of geography, the turn of the twentieth century found geographers in the United States busily redefining themselves and their work to fit the emerging standards of a professional discipline (Martin and James 1993). This preoccupation, however, prevailed among only one cohort: academic geographers, as exemplified by William Morris Davis, who would found the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in 1904. Other practicing geographers, such as Henry Gannett of the U.S. Geological Survey, were more taken with practical matters of the day, especially those relating to the federal government's efforts to survey and explore domestic and overseas territories. In their academically focused treatments of fin de siecle American geography, historians of geography have opted to ignore significant geographical work by people and agencies beyond Davis's close professional circle (Allen 1981 and Friis 1981 are the notable exceptions).

On 24 April 1898 the United States declared war on Spain, a war triggered by the issue of Cuba's independence. Within just a few days, the U.S. Navy attacked Spain's naval fleet in the Philippine Islands, which had been a Spanish colony since the sixteenth century. After several months of fighting in the Caribbean and the Philippines, this "splendid little war," as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain so gleefully called it, ended with the defeat of Spain (Litwack and others 1982, 538). Cuba was promised independence following a transitional period of U.S. military occupation, and Spain ceded its colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands to the United States. [1]

The National Geographic Society (NGS), established in 1888 and based in Washington, D.C., showed avid interest in these new American territorial possessions, and the National Geographic Magazine became a prime forum for publicizing the assimilative activities of the U.S. government in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. [2] A critical reading of National Geographic articles in the wake of the Spanish-American War not only conveys the details of those activities but also exposes unsubtle ideological undercurrents--stated and implied--that drove and legitimated U.S. government policies toward its newly taken colonial and quasi-colonial possessions.

Recent literature has called for contextual and critical analyses of the history of geography, as opposed to the more traditional descriptive and "internalist" treatments (Smith and Godlewska 1994). A growing number of works are grappling specifically with connections between geographical practice and the territorial expansion of modern states (Hudson 1977; Livingstone 1992; Godlewska and Smith 1994; Bell and others 1995). …

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