Content Warning: This page describes torture, sexual assault, and racism

Transcriptions of Violence


Interview transcripts that are the product of an investigation are some of the most telling documents to be found in archival collections. By giving direct insight into a dialogue worthy of documentation, they provide first-person accounts of historical conversations. However, these accounts are also limited in their record of the emotions of the narrator, interviewer, and witnesses of the incident and its aftermath. By this standard, transcripts are incredibly telling, yet also overwhelmingly obscure. In investigations of violent and traumatizing events, this obscurity almost engulfs the voices speaking about it. It leaves questions of how these events came to be, the long-term implications of them, and the voices detailing them.

In the spring of 1902, the residents of Tayabas Province (now Quezon Province), Philippines, were subjected to mass incarceration, torture, sexual assault, and civilian mortalities at the hands of American soldiers and Filipino volunteers. These confrontations came only a year after the commencement of the relatively successful civil governorship of Colonel Cornelius Gardener. The American colonel’s leadership was met with commendation from both American generals and local Filipinos. [1] By December of 1901, Gardener recognized that the political situation in the area was deteriorating, as “…American sentiment [was] decreasing and [the Americans were] daily making permanent enemies.” [2] Only three months later, Gervasio Unson, born in Lucena, Tayabas, and provincial secretary to Gardner, began the first line of correspondence with Gardener regarding the worsening treatment of local Filipinos in the area.

The Initial Correspondence

Gervasio Unson, born in Lucena, Tayabas, served as the provincial secretary to Gardener during his governorship. Elected by the Pueblo de Lucena’s regional president, Unson negotiated matters such as the location of the province’s capital as a member of the second Philippine Commission. [3] Alongside other members of the commission, Unson collaborated with American politicians and Filipino representatives on the reorganization of the Philippine legislature. Regardless of Filipino contributions to the commission, colonial sentiments of native complicity with U.S. colonial rule and Filipino incompetency were maintained in the report of the commission and through the arguments of its American leaders.

Unson’s eventual letters to Gardener were the driving force behind what ultimately became a congressional investigation into the actions of American soldiers in Tayabas. In his first letters to Gardener, Unson alleged that 82 local, non-combative Filipinos had been arrested, with more having been deported to Talim Island, north of the province in the Laguna de Bay. [4] Unson cites his concern about the sanctity of the American institution in the eyes of the Filipino locals, stating, “…the name of America is losing its prestige in the minds of these ignorant people.” [5] Given his administrative post, it is likely Unson came from an affluent background, as was the case with the many Filipino elites who allied themselves with the American colonial government and military. This would explain Unson’s expressed concern about America’s image as much as with the actual reality of how Americans treated Filipinos on the ground

Only ten days after Unson’s first letter to Gardener, he and three other provincial officers of Tayabas wrote to the Honorable Pardo de Tavera, a member of the Philippine Commission in Manila. [6] In this letter, the officers describe the water cure torture method utilized by the American soldiers, which locals dubbed “the American method.” [7] After describing the water cure, the four writers proposed a remedy. First, they advised the Province of Tayabas to be included in General Grant’s Brigade, in which the troops would be removed and replaced with constabulary forces, and for the Filipino locals to aid in arresting revolutionaries. Again, the letter is concluded with an appeal to protect the opinion of the American institution in the Philippines. As government officials, the writers likely felt sincere about the value of American colonization. However, as members of an elite class, it is possible that the sanctity they spoke of was already absent from the average residents of Tayabas who often faced the brutality of the soldiers directly.

A group of Filipino women and men standing in front of a prison. Through barred windows, indiscriminate individuals can be seen within the prison walls. Within prisons, Filipino prisoners were often subjected to hard physical labor and physical brutality.

Prison in city walls, Manila, PI, BL003732, Frank T. Corriston photograph collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. Accessed through the University of Michigan Library Digital Collections Bentley Image Bank.

The Retrieval of the Transcripts

Unson’s, and later Gardener’s, correspondence among themselves and other political officials were only the first documents of the crimes allegedly committed. Amongst the letters are lists of dozens of Filipino names, some written one after the other to fit as many as possible in limited space. The names are organized according to offenses committed, such as the titles “List of People Who Died from Tortures Received,” and, “List of Young Girls Raped.” [8] Even the initial documentation of the crimes leaves little to the imagination, while the numerous names leave even the spatially empty pages feeling crowded.

Gardener and Unson’s correspondence soon evolved to include the testimony of dozens of Tayabas residents. As early as April of 1902 and through the following summer, testimonies were collected from locals in the Court of First Instance in the province’s capital city of Lucena. [9] All the testimonies, ranging from half a page to several pages in length, were obtained under oath and later translated into English. The tone of each testimony is neutral and unemotional. Despite the impartial tone, it is difficult to estimate the true objectivity of the transcriptions, as a letter from an individual involved in the investigation notes the inappropriate behavior of the recorder toward the Filipino locals detailing the events. [10] As the translator describes the recorder as slamming his fist and claiming not to understand the translations, the translator comments, “…the native witnesses had no liberty of action, because almost all of them were intimidated by the recorder.” [11] Despite this, the transcriptions confirm many of Unson’s claims of torture, death, and sexual assault in the region.

The Motive and Implications of Testimony

While operating under the claim of pursuing local “insurgents,” several different Filipinos in correspondence with Gardener name the three known revolutionaries from Tiaon and Candelaria, as well as their approximate location in Batangas. [12] According to Gardener, the only revolutionaries in the province belonged to the Malvar forces at the very northwest point of the province. [13] Confessions obtained during the incident only came after intense torture and coercion. [14] With names of revolutionaries from the region and knowledge of their location outside of the province, this presents the question of why such intense torture, sexual assault, and imprisonment persisted without just cause.

One alleged motive disturbingly points not to a conflict between the Tayabas locals and their American occupiers, but rather a vendetta against Gardener held by other Americans. This theory was introduced as early as March 29th by Unson and his associates in one of the first letters to describe the early days of the months-long incident. [15] In the letter, they claim that the reason behind the incident is known to all — that those soldiers directing the torture and maltreatment are doing so to prove Gardener’s inability to pacify the province. Here, they describe Gardener as the soldiers’ “sworn enemy.” [16] A conversation captured by two members of the Board of Investigation for the incident describes Captain Moore, Company “C”, 21st Infantry, describing Gardener as, “an old n***er-lover,” subsequently proclaiming he would not do anything to recognize or help the Tayabas Civil Government as of September 4th, 1901. [17]

Despite Unson’s proclamation that locals were aware of this alleged motive, there is no mention of this theory recorded in the transcripts. Rather, the testifiers most frequently attribute the soldiers’ violent acts to claims of insurgency or conspiracy. Beyond this, given the fact that spoken conversations can be manipulated or omitted from the transcript, it is impossible to know the extent to which this so-called “common knowledge” was truly known. But if Unson’s assertions were true, and that locals believed that the crimes perpetrated were due to no fault of their own, what impact could this have had on their experience? Based on modern understandings of post-traumatic stress, highly intentional traumatic events such as war and sexual assault are more likely to result in post-traumatic stress disorder than non-intentional events like natural disasters. [18] However, as formerly noted, a weakness of testimonies is their inability to fully capture the impact of the event in question. While the crimes committed were undoubtedly horrific in nature, it is unfair to push a narrative of trauma onto the victims. The events recalled and documented show little to no insight into the testifier’s future beyond occasional notes regarding physical disabilities acquired post-torture. To make the assumption that the victims of the crimes experienced some form of post-traumatic stress implies disbelief in the victim’s resilience.

One question to be considered when asking an individual to describe macabre experiences of death, torture, and sexual violence is how their disclosure can revive the emotions felt at that moment of vulnerability and mortality. Testimonial collection goes beyond triggering discomfort, demanding detailed accounts of disturbing incidents while simultaneously expecting detached objectivity in the victim’s accounts with little room for feelings. Regardless of the relatively positive intentions of individuals like Gardener, recalling such events in which an individual perceives themselves to be in mortal danger may arouse those feelings of danger again. To do so in a courtroom, under oath, to colonizers who inherently played a role in the criminal behavior, presents a power imbalance in which the victim is once again interrogated. How can one justify this traumatizing process of collecting testimonies in the event of an unknown outcome? If no benefits or healing can be pledged, are testimonies selfish? These are questions without correct answers, but they are necessary questions to ask when justifying the collection of statements regarding traumatic events. While the documents take up little space when compared to material objects like vases or even human remains, the humanity of their source is just as entitled to debates surrounding archival ethics and repatriation.

Indirect Trauma and Modern Research  

As archival digitization and research efforts continue, academia is witnessing the increasing rate of indirect trauma as a consequence of working with traumatic material. In some cases, the result is vicarious trauma, which impacts an individual’s view of the world, themselves, and others. [19] In other cases, a researcher may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, titled secondary traumatic stress. [20] While present research on indirect stress focuses on personnel from medical or social work experiences, historians and archivists who work with tangible and intangible traumatic historical incidents open themselves to the risk of stress disorders.

The increasing research on indirect trauma prompts the question of how best to avoid it. When handling distressing histories, should one try to be detached instead of compassionate? How does one differentiate a subject from their humanity? It is hard to rationalize exchanging sympathy for mental wellness, yet the prospect of living with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a severely debilitating mental illness, is alarming. However, these individuals who are the subjects of research due to their depressing circumstances are deserving of sympathy. It would be nearly impossible to screen every researcher for mental vulnerability before researching traumatizing material, if not ableist. The debate is a troubling one, of balancing the humanity of the researcher and their subject. However, without adequate research on interventions, it is one that needs to be considered in a number of cases. Much like athletes may require physical therapy or how a civil engineer needs access to program software, there is certainly an argument to be made for archivists’ access to supportive counseling as a means of carrying out their job safely.


[1] Gervasio Union affidavits, Box 7, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” Alger Family Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan, March 17 1900, February 16 1901, February 4 1902.

[2] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” December 16 1901.

[3] “The Philippines, 1898–1946.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. Accessed December 1, 2022, 58.

[4] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” March 19, 1902. 

[5] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” March 19, 1902.

[6] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” March 29, 1902.

[7] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” March 19, 1902.

[8] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” April 5, 1902.

[9] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” April 28, 1902.

[10] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” June 19, 1902.

[11] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” June 19, 1902.

[12] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” March 29, 1902.

[13] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” December 16 1901.

[14] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” March 29, 1902.

[15] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” March 29, 1902.

[16] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” March 29, 1902.

[17] Gervasio Union affidavits, “Gervasio Union proclamation and affidavits,” June 19, 1902.

[18] Kefer, Joshua Mark. "The Impact of Perceived Intentionality of Stressors on Trauma -Related Cognitions in College Students." Order No. 3098116, Hofstra University, 2003.

[19] Dr Katie Baird and Amanda C. Kracen, “Vicarious Traumatization and Secondary Traumatic Stress: A Research Synthesis,” Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 19:2 (2006): 181-188, DOI: 10.1080/09515070600811899 

[20] Dr Katie Baird and Amanda C. Kracen, “Vicarious Traumatization and Secondary Traumatic Stress.”

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