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Looking Back
The execution of Gomburza

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:26:00 02/18/2009

Filed Under: history, Personalities, Punishment

People often forget the bloody history of Rizal Park, also known as the Luneta. We all know that Jose Rizal was executed there (but not everyone knows the monument does not mark the exact spot where he fell). Aside from Rizal, over a hundred others were executed in this place then known as Bagumbayan. Either they were shot in the back or dispatched using the garrote, a terrifying instrument we now associate with Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora, known collectively as Gomburza.

Tuesday was the 137th anniversary of the execution of Gomburza, so I found myself in front of the badly designed, squat, white obelisk near the Rizal monument that marks the spot where the three priests were executed. Most visitors to Rizal Park overlook this historical marker unless they take the time to read and contemplate the various markers installed on and around the obelisk. The Knights of Columbus take credit for marking this spot, based on the recollections of eyewitnesses to the execution. There is another marker, in Spanish, that explains the significance of the place.

However, these are two flawed markers, installed about a decade ago, that should be replaced immediately. These markers go beyond history and play on the reader?s emotions rather than simply providing the facts. Both markers are wrong to state that the garrote killed by strangulation.

I don?t know whose fanciful imagination brought about the marker complete with an image of the garrote that reads in part, ?[Gomburza] were executed by strangulation ? by using a vile device consisting of an iron collar which the executioner tightened slowly until the martyrs met death.?

That is far from the truth. In almost all civilized societies where capital punishment is imposed, the object is to dispatch the condemned as quickly as possible. To produce and prolong pain is considered ?cruel and unusual punishment.? If animals for slaughter are not made to suffer very much, what more condemned humans? Garrote iron collars were tightened on the victim?s neck not to strangle, but rather to insure that with one twist of the handle the neck was broken, causing swift and, in principle, painless death. Unfortunately, nobody has survived to let us know if this is indeed the case.

We also forget that on Feb. 17, 1872, four men ? not three ? were executed in Bagumbayan. Saldua was the man who implicated the three priests in the Cavite Mutiny in exchange for pardon. On the walk up the scaffold Burgos was said to be crying like a child, while Gomez and Zamora were rather recollected. Saldua walked happily, confident that the governor?s messenger would arrive at the scene on a horse carrying his pardon. When Saldua stood on the platform, he looked around vainly for the messenger that never came, and he got what he deserved and was killed first.

Gomez, at 73, was the oldest of the three priests. He blessed people on the way and is quoted to have said, ?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 ascended the platform without a word. This was not courage or calm in the face of death; he had suffered a nervous breakdown two days earlier. It could be said that he was already dead even before the garrote did him in.

Burgos was executed last and, having witnessed three deaths ahead, his was the most difficult death. After he sat on the garrote, he stood up and shouted, ?What crime have I committed to die in this manner? Is there no justice on earth??

Twelve friars then came and pushed him back into the seat. But after a bit of a struggle, he managed to stand up again and shouted, ?But I am innocent. I have not committed any crime.?

One of the friars hissed, ?Even Jesus Christ was without sin.?

That did the trick. Burgos then sat and accepted the inevitable.

Before the hood was placed on Burgos? head, the executioner knelt before him and asked his forgiveness. Burgos blessed him saying, ?I forgive you, my son. Perform your duty.?

So moved was the crowd that they too knelt on the ground and crossed themselves. Then when all were executed, a tension in the air caused some Spaniards to worry about a rebellion. They ran toward Intramuros for safety and a minor stampede occurred, leaving many injured. The commotion stopped when the governor-general emerged from Intramuros with trumpet fanfare, followed by soldiers who had been put on alert that morning expecting a rebellion.

Edmond Plauchut was a Frenchman in the Philippines at the time and claims to have witnessed the Gomburza execution in 1872. I find his narrative a bit dramatic and wonder whether the words as given above were really made by Gomez and Burgos. It may be less historical but it does make a good story. So good a story in fact that the newspaper La Solidaridad printed a Spanish version translated from the original French in its issue for Feb. 15, 1892 to mark the 70th anniversary of the execution that produced an age best described by the historian O.D. Corpuz as influenced by the ?Terror of 1872.?

Over a century later, we hope more people will remember, especially the Filipino clergy today who owe a lot to Gomburza. Remember, too, Bagumbayan, now Rizal Park, fertilized by the blood of our heroes.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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