How Mindanao Was Almost Sold to the Germans by the Americans

In another episode of alternate histories.

The Philippines is no stranger to colonization. Spain, the United States of America, and Japan all fought to keep the Philippine islands under their rule. And Germany, through Denmark, could have been another Philippine colonizer if history had gone another way.

Before the Great War, the U.S. was contemplating proposing a huge land deal that would have split up the Philippines as we know it. Back in the early 1900s, western countries (namely the U.S. and European empires) strategically traded colonies in an effort to expand their own influence in other parts of the world. It was a game of “pass the colonies,” and the Philippines was a prime product to trade—even parts of it, like Mindanao.

According to Governing the North American Arctic by researchers from Cornell University and the University of Oxford, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark Maurice Francis Egan, urged on by his Danish friends, proposed trading Mindanao to Denmark in 1910 in exchange for Greenland and the Danish West Indies, the lands the U.S. had been eyeing since the 19th century. Denmark would then trade Mindanao to Germany in exchange for Northern Schleswig, a region in the south of Denmark that Germany had taken in the Second War of Schleswig a few decades prior. In return, Germany would have gained another foothold in Southeast Asia aside from German New Guinea.

United States Ambassador to Denmark (1907-1917) Maurice Francis Egan


In true colonial fashion, the colonizers were once again using colonized lands as pawns in their bid for greater global influence.

Back in 1910, the Philippines was a U.S. territory run by the Insular Government of the Philippine Islands, headed by Governor-General William Cameron Forbes, now the namesake of Makati’s gated community Forbes Park. And for a passing minute, Mindanao was just another pawn of Western imperialism.

The real prize of the game: Greenland. Trump’s recent comments about purchasing Greenland from Denmark aren’t as crazy as they sound given the history. The U.S. has been after the large arctic island for centuries.

Twentieth-century American Arctic explorer Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary once said, “With the rapid shrinking of distances in this age of speed and invention, Greenland may be of crucial importance to us in the future. Greenland in our hands may be a valuable piece in our defensive armor. In the hands of hostile interests, it could be a serious menace.”

But the U.S. would never get Greenland and Mindanao would never be sold to Germany, because before the idea could grain ground, World War II began. By the end of the war, Germany was in tatters, left without a Kaiser after landing on the losing side of the war. Its defeat led to Denmark regaining Northern Schleswig from Germany following the 1920 Schleswig plebiscites, renaming the region South Jutland County, and eventually, the Region of Southern Denmark.

Denmark had its county back without having to give up Greenland, and the potential Mindanao-Denmark-Germany trade was lost in history. It’s nothing more than a footnote in history books, which thankfully never went anywhere beyond conversations among American diplomats.

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What would have happened if the trade had taken place, we will never know, but we can always speculate. Had the trade happened, Mindanao would have been a German colony at the height of World War II. How would the culturally rich indigenous peoples of Mindanao have been affected by Aryan-crazed Nazi Germany? Would German Mindanao have waged war against American Luzon and Visayas? Or would Germany have handed over Mindanao to its ally Japan during the war?

It’s a dystopian reality that could have brought us closer to an episode of The Man in the High Castle. But thankfully, the deal was never pursued.

And we can close that chapter of alternate histories that we’re grateful never happened.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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