The tragedy of Andres Bonifacio
In the Philippines, there are only three national holidays in honor of specific Filipino heroes: Aug. 21 marks the assassination of Ninoy Aquino at the Manila International Airport in 1983, Nov. 30 commemorates the birth of Andres Bonifacio in Tondo, Manila, in 1863, and Dec. 30 commemorates the execution of Jose Rizal at the Luneta in 1896.
President Manuel Luis Quezon’s birthday on Aug. 19 is celebrated as a special nonworking day in Quezon City and the provinces of Quezon and Aurora.
Quezon succumbed to tuberculosis in the United States. The three others were killed by fellow Filipinos.
Rizal was shot by a firing squad consisting of Filipino soldiers. Behind them were Spanish soldiers who were prepared to shoot the squad if anything went wrong.
In my generation’s history classes, we were introduced to Andres Bonifacio as the “Great Plebeian,” much as Emilio Jacinto was the “Brains of the Katipunan,” and Apolinario Mabini as the “Sublime Paralytic.” Historian Ambeth Ocampo finds the title “difficult,” and for good cause. He says that Bonifacio may have had humble beginnings, but he had some education, enough to be hired by British and German trading firms in Manila; he was literate and upwardly mobile, having married a lady of means, Gregoria de Jesus, and was a Mason. Since Masons were not considered poor or uneducated, that would put him closer to the middle class.
Along with Ladislao Diwa and Teodoro Plata, Bonifacio founded the “Kataas-taasan, Kagalang-galangan na Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan” (KKK) or Katipunan for short, a secret society with the goal of “separation” from Spain unless reforms were instituted. They were aware that the fight for freedom at some point would turn bloody. Jose Rizal would tell them in Dapitan that “a revolution without arms should never be started against an armed nation.”
On March 22, 1897, as “Supremo” of the Katipunan, Bonifacio presided over a convention in Tejeros, Cavite, to elect officials of a revolutionary government. Here he was humiliated when Emilio Aguinaldo, a man Bonifacio had earlier inducted into the Katipunan, was elected president. Mariano Trias was chosen vice president, and Artemio Ricarte, captain general of the proposed Filipino Army.
Bonifacio was elected director of the interior. But even this was questioned by Daniel Tirona, one of the delegates, citing Bonifacio’s lack of academic and professional qualifications for the post. This was too much for Bonifacio. He drew his revolver but was disarmed by Ricarte as Tirona fled the hall.
A day after, on March 23, Bonifacio and 45 followers issued a document known as “Acta de Tejeros,” declaring the elections illegal on the grounds that the ballots had been prepared by “one sole person” and “issued to unqualified persons in order to secure a majority.” As far as Bonifacio was concerned, the results of the Tejeros Convention were null and void.
For Aguinaldo, the Katipunan ceased to exist after the elections. However, it has been written that without Andres Bonifacio, the Philippine Revolution would not have taken place. Historian Renato Constantino notes that “the defeat of Bonifacio at Tejeros was the defeat of the Revolution.”
In the end, Aguinaldo ordered Bonifacio’s arrest and trial on various charges of treason. A day before his arrest, three of Aguinaldo’s men—Col. Agapito Bonzon, Jose Pawa, and Felipe Topacio—led a detachment to his hideaway in Limbon, Cavite. A gunfight ensued, resulting in the death of Ciriaco Bonifacio and the wounding of the supremo in the throat and left arm. The weakened supremo was laid in a hammock while other Katipuneros were rounded up and all taken to Indang. There are reports that Bonzon molested Bonifacio’s wife, Gregoria de Jesus or Aling Oriang.
Bonifacio was tried before a military court in Maragondon, with the verdict a foregone conclusion. He was found guilty of plotting to overthrow the revolutionary government. He and his brother Procopio were sentenced “to be shot in an open place, up to five shots for each. . . ”
In an interview with a Spanish correspondent in 1897 after the signing of the Pact of Biak na Bato, Aguinaldo had this to say of Bonifacio: “It is quite true that the Katipunan instilled in us another desire—that of independence—but that desire was unattainable… it served as the banner of Andres Bonifacio, a
cruel man whom I ordered shot and with his death the Katipunan disappeared…. He had little power with our people since no one cared for him.” Interestingly Ocampo writes, “If no one cared for Bonifacio, why did they execute him?”
A different view has been expressed by Gen. Artemio Ricarte: “Thus ended the life of the man who, scorning dangers, had established the KKK ng mga Anak ng Bayan; the man who had taught the Filipino people the true way to shake off the Spanish yoke; the man from whose mouth and whenever he spoke with the officials of the forces always came the following expressions: Commit no acts that will cast a stain upon your name. Fear history, for in it, none of your acts will be hidden!”
Ocampo puts it best in a paper presented at the Third European Philippine Studies Conference in France in April 1997: “If you take the time to look back and reflect on our history—not just 1896—you will discover that it reveals more questions than answers. The tragedy of Bonifacio only goes to show that textbooks and national holidays tend to oversimplify history.” He also adds, “No matter how hard we try to forget, how skillfully we sanitize history, the fact is Bonifacio’s death forces us to admit the painful reality that even in the ‘glorious’ revolution… Filipinos were fighting fellow Filipinos. Filipinos were murdering fellow Filipinos.”
In preparing this column, I relied heavily on the books of Sylvia Mendez Ventura, “Supremo: The Story of Andres Bonifacio” and Ambeth Ocampo, “Bones of Contention: The Bonifacio Lectures.”—RJF