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Looking Back
Execution of Gomburza

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:05:00 09/03/2008

Filed Under: history, Human Interest, Personalities

Ten Metrobank Outstanding Teachers were presented to the President in Malacañang on Monday. All were women. All came from public institutions. In the higher education category, the two awardees both came from the University of the Philippines System?one from UP Manila, another from UP Los Baños. This is doubly significant because UP is celebrating the centennial of its foundation, and the UP sweep upset the awards count of Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University, whose off-court rivalry continues in the annual Metrobank Search for Outstanding Teachers. To-date Ateneo holds the lead.

Waiting in line at the security checkpoint before entering Malacañang, I joined Metrobank Foundation director Chito Sobrepeña and retired Justice Rodolfo Palattao of the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan who were discussing how to inspire the faculty of Unibersidad de Manila (formerly City College of Manila) to become outstanding teachers. Ascending the grand staircase leading to the ceremonial hall, I told Justice Palattao that Manuel Quezon never signed a death sentence sent him by the courts because of a story associated with these historic steps. Quezon heard that in December 1896 Jose Rizal?s mother climbed these steps on her knees to see the governor-general and plead for her son?s life. Teodora Alonso?s appeal was ignored and Rizal was executed in Bagumbayan.

At the top of the stairs, Justice Palattao said, ?Kinilabutan ako sa kinuwento mo.? [?I had goose bumps listening to your story.?] Thus overwhelmed, he missed Juan Luna?s ?Pacto de Sangre,? so I asked, ?Ilan po binitay ninyo?? [?How many people did you sentence to death??]

?Tatlo lang? [?Only three?], he replied. At that point we were reminded of retired Sandiganbayan Justice Manuel Pamaran who had the fearful reputation as ?The Hanging Judge.?

All these morbid thoughts on a cheerful morning came from the morbid historical relics I have been contemplating recently: a piece of black cloth cut from the coat Rizal wore to his execution, a chipped piece of Rizal?s backbone displayed in Fort Santiago that shows where the fatal bullet hit him, a photograph of Ninoy Aquino?s bloodstained shirt taken in 1983, the noose used to hang General Yamashita recently found in the bodega of the National Museum.

Affected by old photographs of the garrote, I took a stroll around Rizal Park recently to see the squat white obelisk that marks the spot where Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora were executed in 1872. Most visitors overlook this obelisk, so I decided to pay silent homage at this site but got distracted by the historical marker with erroneous information. Worse, the mistake is made not just once but twice, in two separate markers. The error etched and perpetuated in bronze is that Gomburza were martyred by strangulation using the garrote. That is what it looks like, but aren?t executions designed to be swift and relatively painless? To do otherwise is to indulge in cruel and inhuman punishment.

From what I see of this terrible contraption, the garrote kills quite fast. A metal bar is tightened around the victim?s neck and at the appointed time, with a quick twist of a handle, the neck of the victim is broken, resulting in instant death. Contrary to popular belief, the garrote does not produce slow excruciating death by strangulation. I don?t want to try it out to validate my theory. No one, except perhaps the Marquis de Sade and others who are into sadism, would find pleasure in a public execution.

To find an answer, I reread the dramatic eyewitness account of the Gomburza execution by a Frenchman named Edmond Plauchut, who described the attitude of the condemned priests: ?Burgos cried like a child, but managed to greet with a shake of his head all his friends whom he recognized in the huge crowd. Zamora was like one dazed and unconscious of what was going on. But Padre Gomez, with eyes open and with furrowed brow, blessed the multitude that knelt at his feet as he passed by.?

There were actually four men executed that day. The first was Saldua who expected a pardon for implicating the three priests. The pardon never came.

Next was Gomez who had a calm resignation proceeding from a clear conscience and trust in God?s goodness. His famous last words were: ?I very well know that not a single leaf can move except at the will of the Divine Creator. Since it is His will that I die at this place, may His will be done.?

Zamora who had lost his will was technically dead even before he was physically dead. He was executed third.

Last was Burgos who publicly forgave someone who did him wrong as he ascended the scaffold. He sat on the garrote and everyone started to pray more fervently then he stood up and shouted, ?What crime have I committed? Shall I die in this manner? Is there no justice in the world??

In answer to his questions, 12 friars rushed and pushed him back into the chair. ?But I am innocent!? he protested.

One friar hissed, ?Even Jesus Christ was without sin.? Hearing that, Burgos forgave his executioner and gave up his spirit. The crowd saw the executioner kneeling in front of him and receiving his forgiveness, and they also knelt and prayed harder.

The execution of Gomburza was an inspiration for others who fought for freedom. Rizal dedicated ?El Filibusterismo? to them. Bonifacio distributed strips of black cloth, allegedly from the robes of Gomburza. No wonder 1872 is a landmark date in Philippine history.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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