This year we mark the sesquicentennial of the birth of our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal as well as the 113th anniversary of the proclamation of Philippine Independence by President Emilio Aguinaldo in Kawit, Cavite, in 1898. One of the first acts of the new republic was to declare Dec. 30 a national holiday in memory of Rizal.
On a personal note, it is also the 111th birth anniversary of Modesto Farolan, newspaperman, diplomat, “Father of Philippine Tourism.” Born on June 12, 1900, my father was editor and publisher of the Philippines Herald, a leading daily during the early post-War years, ambassador to South Vietnam, Switzerland and Indonesia, and first Philippine Commissioner of Tourism.
As we celebrate Philippine Independence Day, it is virtually impossible not to be reminded of Jose Rizal. It was his literary works, particularly “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” that awakened the national and political consciousness of our people. He was the architect and personification of Filipino aspirations and has been universally recognized as the greatest Filipino who ever lived. Since we shall be observing his 150th birth anniversary this coming Sunday, I shall reserve my next column for more on the life and times of our national hero.
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In 1896, a number of events took place in the Philippines that would eventually lead to the declaration of independence in June 1898. The first was the August “Cry of Balintawak” with Katipunan Supremo Andres Bonifacio calling on his followers to tear up their cedulas as a sign of protest and revolt against an oppressive government. The following month, September, saw the capture of Imus by forces of Emilio Aguinaldo. This victory led to the rise of Aguinaldo in the ranks of the revolutionaries, moving up from Capitan to General.
As the revolt spread, Spain appointed a new governor general, Camilo Polavieja, who was dubbed “the Christian General” for his piety. Polavieja brought with him military reinforcements totaling some 26,000 troops. As soon as he took office, he quickly shed piety for military force, delivering a warning to the rebels that they would be punished for crimes committed against king and country. During five months of continuous operations, Polavieja conducted a terror campaign even against noncombatants, employing mass executions and torture. A permanent court martial was established in Manila with prisoners being executed on a daily basis.
The Spanish community welcomed Polavieja enthusiastically, calling on him to destroy “the cannibals of the forest,” and “the wild beasts” and “savages” who had dared to rise up against Spain. The friars hailed him as their Messiah. His greatest mistake, however, was the kangaroo trial and execution by firing squad of Jose Rizal on Dec. 30, 1896. (Ventura, Sylvia. “Supremo: The Story of Andres Bonifacio,” p. 92)
In succeeding battles, Filipino rebels, well-motivated but poorly trained and meagerly armed, fought against Spanish regulars, forcing a stalemate. In December 1897, a truce was signed with Spain promising democratic reforms and Aguinaldo leaving the country and establishing a government-in-exile in Hong Kong. The truce would be meaningless with fighting continuing on a sporadic basis and growing increasingly more serious.
In 1898, an extraneous event would take place that would bring the struggle to the attention of the outside world. The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba, would lead to a declaration of war between Spain and the United States. With the destruction of the Spanish Asiatic Fleet by Commodore George Dewey, the US Navy controlled Manila Bay. Spain held on to the walled city of Manila, but the rest of the country was in the hands of Philippine rebel forces.
Without an army, there was not much Dewey could do to dislodge Spanish forces in Manila. Hoping to use Filipino rebel fighters, he arranged for a meeting with General Aguinaldo in Hong Kong. In his meeting with Aguinaldo, Dewey explained that “the United States was a humanitarian country that had dispatched its Navy to help the Filipinos win their independence.” When Aguinaldo asked for a written commitment, Dewey replied that “the United States would unquestionably recognize the independence of the Philippines guaranteed as it was by the word of honor of Americans, which is more positive, more irrevocable than any written agreement.” Historian Stanley Karnow in his book “In Our Image” writes, “The American’s only preoccupation at that juncture was to defeat the Spanish. To achieve that goal, they sought the help of the Filipinos, indulging them with pledges that had no foundation in reality. Aguinaldo filtered Dewey’s remarks through the prism of his own dreams, and he construed American attention that he was now a US ally in the struggle against Spain.”
For a while American and Filipino military forces complemented each other: the US Navy controlled the sea, while the Philippine rebels forced Spanish forces into a humiliating retreat behind Manila’s walls.
While Filipinos believed the US Navy was a benevolent force assisting their fight for independence, Washington saw things differently. President William McKinley, in a note to himself, indicated that “while we are conducting a war and until its conclusion, we must keep all we get; when the war is over, we must keep what we want.”
On June 12, President Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed the establishment of the first Philippine Republic in Kawit, Cavite. He proudly unfurled the country’s new flag, explaining that the banner’s red, white and blue colors were a salute to “the flag of the United States of America as a manifestation of our profound gratitude towards that Great Nation for the disinterested protection she is extending to us and will continue to extend to us.” (Bradley, James. “The Imperial Cruise,” pp. 89-91) That was Aguinaldo’s biggest mistake.
With the arrival of US land forces, Americans and Spaniards worked out a deal, which clearly excluded the Filipinos. US forces would pretend to attack Manila; the Spanish would pretend to defend and after a little noise, the Spanish would surrender. They would raise the white flag and US troops would march in. On Aug. 13, the Americans and Spanish “fought” the sham Battle of Manila.
Several months later, in February 1899, US forces fired on Filipino rebels who were deemed “intruders,” signaling the start of the Philippine-American War.
It would take close to half a century before the country celebrated Independence Day again.