Looking Back

Mabini’s carabao’s milk


Those who read or imagine ideological bias in my columns point to the fact that I write more about Rizal than Bonifacio, whose 150th birthday we commemorate this year. They may also find it significant that next to Rizal my favorite hero happens to be Apolinario Mabini, whose 150th birthday we celebrate next year.

I would write more about Bonifacio if I could, if there were more readily available primary sources, more documents actually written by the Katipunan Supremo. At the moment we have only a handful of Bonifacio letters handed down to history by Epifanio de los Santos, who found them in a chicken coop before the war. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that somewhere, somehow, more Bonifacio letters and documents are waiting to be found in some grandfather’s baul or aparador, but in the meantime why not use the 25 volumes of Rizal’s writings available to everyone in the original Spanish as well as translations in English, Filipino, Cebuano, Ilocano, etc.?

Mabini wrote a lot like Rizal, but he, too, remains largely unread because he is separated from our generation by dint of language. Much of Mabini’s writings remain in the original Spanish, and I am glad that an English translation of Mabini’s “Cartas Politicas”  by Alfredo S. Veloso (limited mimeograph first edition, 1964) is made available to the public once more by Jose R. Perdigon, who has recently published an updated-edition “Apolinario Mabini: Testament and Political Letters” as the first in a series of “Fil-Hispanic Classics.” The National Historical Commission has reprinted a volume, “Letters of Mabini,” edited and with an introduction by then National Library Director Carlos Quirino a number of times, but the superior compilation is that published by then National Library Director Teodoro M. Kalaw in 1930.

The Quirino “Letters of Mabini” (National Heroes Commission, 1965) were drawn primarily from Kalaw’s 1930 volume, all the letters arranged chronologically and translated from the original Spanish. It is the Quirino edition of Mabini that often forms the first encounter between students and the hero often referred to as “The Sublime Paralytic” (whatever that means). Mabini is not yet available in Filipino. The 1965 publication unfortunately left out Kalaw’s comprehensive prologue as well as the thematic arrangement of  Mabini’s 148 letters. Unlike the “Epistolario Rizalino” that contains letters to and from Rizal, the Mabini volume only contains Mabini’s letters, making us guess what he is replying to or what is the context for his letter. It will take a lot of research not only to compile the letters to Mabini but also to trace every letter to its source, if only to check the accuracy of transcription and translation.

Anyone who wants to write a new biography of Mabini or get to know him better should start with Cesar Majul—first the Mabini biography (1964) and a more engaging narrative of the development of Mabini’s ideas in the context of the Philippine revolution (1960). After Majul it is recommended that you dip into Kalaw, who has a different biographical outline. Kalaw divided Mabini’s life into seven principal periods: his student life; his campaign for reforms under Del Pilar and Rizal; his revolutionary involvement; his retirement following his fall from the Cabinet of Emilio Aguinaldo; his imprisonment in Manila (Calle Anda); his exile in Guam; and his return to the Philippines and death soon afterward.

Kalaw’s edition of Mabini’s letters is not just a chronological compilation but also a thematic arrangement that places the letters in the context of the various periods in the hero’s life. Those who think Kalaw was just a politician who was appointed to the National Library, a man who just put his name on the volumes of historical material published under his direction, should think twice and rediscover Kalaw the historian. For this, one can gain much from fellow scholar and Batangueño Teodoro A. Agoncillo, whose lecture “Historiography in the Age of Kalaw” is available in print.

When all the primary sources have been studied, then we can dig up all the secondary sources—for example, an article published in the Philippines Free Press in 1955 on the death of Mabini. Librado T. Austria interviewed Alejandro Mabini, then 76 years old, the hero’s brother who claimed that Mabini’s paralysis began in his youth when he got drenched in the rain in search of his pet horse. In the 1980s Mabini’s remains were exhumed and examined by a Dr. Pujalte of the National Orthopedic Hospital; the conclusion was that Mabini’s paralysis was caused by polio and not, as suggested by some, syphilis.

Alejandro Mabini said the breakfast and lunch of his brother Kaka Pole starting from when he was paralyzed consisted of a special gruel boiled in carabao’s milk. In the evening he took a light merienda or a glass of (carabao’s) milk. Alejandro narrated that on the afternoon of May 12, 1903, Kaka Pole asked for his milk. After tasting it, he flared up and accused Alejandro of giving him spoiled milk. The cause of Mabini’s death, according to the newspapers, was cholera that probably came from tainted carabao’s milk.

We can only hope that new works on Mabini will see print next year because he is but one of many underrated heroes who should be better known and appreciated.

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  • ConnieLee90

    It would be nice if you can provide us something new, beyond what Wikipedia tells us about the life and deeds of the Sublime Paralytic. In high school, we used Gregorio Zaide’s Philippine history book which really amounted to nothing but a recitation of names, places, and dates. Beyond those facts, Zaide’s book lacked analysis and interpretation.

    Coming from a parochial school, the works of Dr. Jose Rizal though not entirely banned was dealt with in the most cursory fashion. Only many years later when I read Rizal’s works outside school did I fully understand the reason why his works got a cold shoulder and had been proscribed in many quarters.

  • kayanatwo


    nobody asked me, but…the 1902-1904 cholera epidemic that killed thousands and might had caused “mabini”s death too in 1903 must be the same cholera epidemic that plagued the whole country and its hinterlands.

    according to some official records, the unsanitary and filthy condition of public closets (aka outhouse) along the waterways and esteros in san lazaro district during 1902-1904 cholera epidemic had been the contributing factors to the spread of cholera epidemic in manila shanty settlement.

    in retrospect, we have now the same dismal condition, but in worsts situation. we have too many shanties and illegal settlers neighborhood found along the esteros and waterways inside metro-manila, exactly the same horrific condition during 1902-1904 cholera epidemic.

    it could happened again, the mabini’s deja vu moment.

  • WeAry_Bat

    About last year or two, I read about a Philippine general who was quite successful against the Spaniards and later the Americans. He had just about some women also along his life. Now, I can’t find it, or it was sanitized in the wiki.

  • joboni96

    sa hina ng national historical commission
    di pa nila ma digitize lahat ng writings ng mga bayani natin

    then publish these on the web
    using google translate, we can have a little understanding

    calling on the head of the national historical commission
    tama na pa meeting meeting at pa abroad abroad

    and make it accessible to all pilipinos

  • Beth Forrester

    kay tagal na po na pagdadahilan ‘yan na kesyo salat sa kasulatan ang supremo, kesyo wikang kastila … eh 150 years na ganun pa din ! nakakahiya po talaga na 150 years ngayong taon ni bonifacio pero rizal ad infinitum hosanna to the highest na naman. hindi po “ideological bias” imputed or imagined ang suspek pero … good ol’ fashioned rizal indolence of the filipinos, aka katamaran. konti na nga mga sulat, mas manipis pa ang historical appreciation ! sheesh, if the organizers of the revolution were all sitting around writing novels (plural!) shooting the s–t hay naku, sa kangkungan inabot ang rebolusyon.

    it was the work sir, not the letters

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