Geographies of Criminality in the American Colonial Philippines, 1904-1924 | History Design Studio

Geographies of Criminality in the American Colonial Philippines, 1904-1924

Benjamin D. Weber Apr 01, 2014
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In the midst of ongoing insurrection, United States military officials desperately sought out new forms of knowledge about the islands on which they were fighting during the Philippine-American War. In October of 1902, well before the fighting was over or the proverbial dust had settled, the U.S. declared an official end to the war and the War Department produced it’s first survey map of the archipelago. This map borrowed heavily from Spanish imperial categories, shading some areas orange to represent control by “civil provincial government” and others green to show control by “Moro and other non-Christian tribes.” At the same time, the Census Bureau gathered and classified information about the people it saw as novel subjects of American rule. Together, these two technologies of governance produced a powerful and lasting set of ideas about religion, race, and regional difference that were mapped onto explanations for criminality over the first twenty years of American occupation.


Using the methods of multimedia historical storytelling, this project examines how the production of geographic knowledge was entwined with the construction of criminality in the Philippines, and how both became transfigured into practices of incarceration, criminal transportation, and forced labor. Drawing on archival materials from the Philippines and the U.S., it seeks to use the kinds of data collected about convicts at the turn of the twentieth century to denaturalize the supposed self-evidence of truth claims that relied on “natural facts.” Even while the focus is on a particular case study, the aim is to ask broader questions about what it means to think the history of carceral forms within an imperial frame: how does changing the spatial parameters of criminal transportation and convict labor in American empire, for example, change the temporal ones? What can historical GIS and critical geography, or image-driven narration, help us to see about criminality and imperial governance that academic writing alone  cannot? And ultimately, why does it matter?

The project has two main parts, an online exhibit and an interactive webmap. An Omeka site hosts collections of primary sources – such as inmate intake records from overseas U.S. prisons, historic photos of convict labor, and documents from local archives — which can be flexibly curated into various visual narratives, or exhibits, telling different aspects of the larger story. The currently featured exhibit on “Geographies of Criminality” is designed to explain the background context for the webmap. Having thus first engaged the textual and visual elements of the project, users are then encouraged to browse the interactive online map which allows them to click through a series of maps arranged chronologically and tied to specific locations on the underlying ESRI basemap. The ArcGIS Online storymap currently serves as placeholder while another interactive webmap is under development.


The maps that appear as images in the thumbnail gallery were created using ArcGIS by georeferencing and then symbolizing them with historic images and various layers of data from the statistics about crime and criminal transportation. Staged pictures supposedly showing gradients of “civilization” that were originally included in the first census taken by the Philippine Commission, for example, have been grafted onto the War Department’s survey map to show the close relationship between these forms of knowledge production and technologies of rule. Criminal statistics gathered by Police Commissioner W. Cameron Forbes and Attorney General Ignacio Villamor from 1904 through 1912 have been rendered to recreate colonial administrators’ cartographic imaginary as an attempt to subvert the imperialist logic of regionalized explanations for crime by subjecting it to sustained critical scrutiny. Finally, the webmap explores the history of criminal transportation at two very different scales at a particular moment in time, 1924.

Highlighting the provinces from which prisoners were sent to the five main prisons in the Philippine archipelago serves as a way to begin thinking about relocation, detention, and relative proximity to friends, family, and community on a more local level. The lines showing the numbers of inmates who were transferred or deported (or escaped) that year are intended to show both the relationship between prisons, like Bilibid in Manila and the Iwahig Penal Farm on Palawan island, and the fact that people were forcibly moved within and between spaces of American empire, like to Guam or San Francisco, and beyond.

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About the Authors

Benjamin D. Weber

Benjamin D. Weber is a PhD Candidate in History at Harvard. He is the creator and administrator of the Digital History Group for HASTAC and was recently featured in an app teaching primary sources from the Civil Rights Movement. He has served as a researcher for Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s current book project (in progress), the Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project edited by Robert A. Hill, and Picturesque Multimedia Productions. He has also received numerous awards, including The National Council for the Social Studies’ (NCSS) Outstanding Teacher of the Year (2011) and a Mellon research fellowship for 2014-2015.