El Caminero: W. Cameron Forbes, Philippine Roadwork, and the Production of Space

Authors: Scott Kirsch*, UNC-Chapel Hill
Topics: Historical Geography, Cultural Geography, Asia
Keywords: Roads, Philippines, infrastructure, US imperialism, roadwork
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 32
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Between 1907 and 1913, the US Insular government in the Philippines boasted the construction of one-thousand miles of first-class roads, an increase of more than four-hundred percent in the category. While every mile – rendered in maps and statistics – could be celebrated as evidence of material progress in the archipelago under American governance, each was also the product, more directly, of untold hours of backbreaking and often dangerous human toil, much of it coerced through a variety of means by the colonial state. This paper explores the project of Philippine roadwork under the US regime as a problem of labor and geography, following in particular the efforts of Governor-General Cameron Forbes, known as El Caminero, who sought solutions through the revival of the Spanish corvée, use of prison labor, and constitutional strategies ensuring a consistent labor supply. Through attention to roadbuilding, the paper offers a lens onto the production of space at a granular level, while contributing to the broader picture of a coercive state apparatus intent on realizing sweeping transformations in the Philippine landscape and space-economy. Opening new pathways for commerce, the roads also extended the reach of the Insular state into heretofore more isolated places.

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