‘The mysterious Colonel Johnson’
While schoolchildren know June 12 as Philippine Independence Day, many of them do not know that what is actually being commemorated on this day is the Filipino declaration of independence from almost four centuries of Spanish rule.
It was one thing to declare independence in Kawit, Cavite, that day, and quite another to actually attain and nurture that independence. Schoolchildren should be disabused of the image, from a former five-peso bill, that Emilio Aguinaldo read the declaration and concluded by waving the flag at a cheering crowd that day.
The declaration was written and delivered by Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista, whose five minutes of fame was cut short by the arrival of Apolinario Mabini, who threw a wet blanket on a rambling, badly composed declaration he believed was ill-timed and premature.
The declaration was also not read from the iconic “Independence Balcony,” because this was a later addition to Emilio Aguinaldo’s eccentric mansion; the declaration was made from a window of the house. Its language was Spanish, not Tagalog, and the symbolism provided for the flag does not jibe with what we think we know: “the white triangle signifying the distinctive emblem of the famous Society of the Katipunan which by means of its blood compact inspired the masses to rise in revolution; the three stars, signifying the three principal Islands of this Archipelago — Luzon, Mindanao, and Panay; the sun representing the gigantic steps made by the sons of the country along the path of Progress and Civilization; the eight rays, signifying the eight provinces — Manila, Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Bataan, Laguna, and Batangas — that declared themselves in a state of war as soon as the first revolt was initiated; and the colors of blue, red, and white, commemorating the flag of the United States of North America, as a manifestation of our profound gratitude towards this Great Nation for its disinterested protection which it lent us and continues lending us.”
Come to think of it, when was it first decreed that the flag flies red field up in wartime and blue side up in times of peace?
Ninety-eight men signed the document; there were no women in the text, not even Aguinaldo’s first wife, Hilaria del Rosario. The assembled men swore to defend the flag and what it represents “to the last drop of their blood.” One foreigner, an American subject, stuck out like a sore thumb: “Mr. L. M. Johnson, a Colonel of Artillery.” Mr. Johnson did not represent the United States, and Dewey was instructed by the US Department of State not to recognize Aguinaldo as president, nor to recognize the Aguinaldo government.
Going over a box of papers “from the insurrectionist government of the Philippines” in the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress in Washington last week, I came across a letter from the mysterious Mr. Johnson that reads:
“To his Excellency Don Emilio Aguinaldo, Presidente del Gobierno Revolucionario de Flipinas y General en Jefe de Ejercito
“In the latter part of May last, after consulting [US] Consul Williams and through him Admiral Dewey, I offered you my services, which you did me the honor to accept.
“I at once came to headquarters and placed myself under your orders, but although I have applied to you, through your aides, several times for orders, I have as yet received none. [Emphasis Johnson’s]
“This inactivity is extremely distasteful to me when there is so much to be done and puts me in a very awkward position in regard to my compatriots.
“It has prevented me from taking service with the United States Troops as I should have done had I not already pledged myself to you.
“I trust that Your Excellency will give this your earliest attention and I would respectfully ask to be assigned to active duty at once. [Emphasis Johnson’s]
“Awaiting Your Excellency’s pleasure, I am, Yours to command,
“L.M. Johnson Late Colonel and Artillery Inspector, Imperial Chinese Army
“39 Calle Arsenal Cavite.”
Johnson, probably on the advice of Mabini, was ignored. He was not a member of Aguinaldo’s Army, he was not a member of Dewey’s fleet and, for all we know, was never part of the Imperial Chinese Army as colonel, artillery inspector or whatever else he claimed to be. The mysterious Colonel Johnson didn’t even make fried chicken, he was fake news.
One hundred and twenty-one years since, we have much to (un)learn concerning Independence Day.
Comments are welcome at [email protected]
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.