HARRY, THE new US Ambassador to the Philippines, and the first African American to hold that post in this country, is surnamed Thomas, as in USS Thomas, the US Army transport ship that arrived in Manila on August 21, 1901, about a month after it sailed from San Francisco. The ship was carrying some 500 teachers from the United States — the first batch of about a thousand tasked with teaching “natives” the English language and establishing the beginnings of the public school system.
As everyone should know who has gone through that system, or even the private one that co-exists with it, from the ship’s name came the American teachers’ label as “Thomasites” and not from that of St. Thomas Aquinas. After all, the US policy of encouraging in its newly acquired (through conquest and at the cost of about a million “native” lives) colony the use of the English language and the creation of a public school system was meant, among others, to undermine the obscurantist system of which the University of Santo Tomas was such a sterling representative. In that system, learning was by rote and infused with Church dogma, the Spanish clergy, despite its antipathy to the “natives,” being the teachers. Thus did Rizal’s Noli me Tangere devote one chapter (The Class in Physics) to exposing how racist, stupid, and anti-learning the system was.