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Historical research is like a box of chocolates

Last week at the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Room, I requested three different record groups that, according to the online catalog, contained material relevant to Philippine history. These were: the Emilio Aguinaldo Papers (one box), the Edwin and Rounsevelle Wildman Papers (five boxes), and the John R. Thomas Jr. Papers (one box).

Opening each box reminded me of Forrest Gump, whose mother told him that “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” The same advice holds true for historical research, because when you open a box of material or a bundle of archival documents for the first time, you don’t know what you are going to get.

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One would think the Aguinaldo box would be the most promising, but it only contained two documents of the period, neither of which was an original in the general’s distinctive handwriting. The Wildman brothers had five boxes full of relevant material, since Edwin Wildman was a journalist who wrote a book about Aguinaldo, and Rounsevelle Wildman was the US Consul in Hong Kong who claimed to have facilitated Aguinaldo’s return to the Philippines from exile to assist Admiral Dewey and the American forces in the Philippines to bring a happy end to the Spanish-American War.

By far, the John R. Thomas Jr. Papers were the most significant, as they contained a manuscript autobiography of Aguinaldo in his own hand. This is significant, because Aguinaldo’s “Reseña Veridica de la Revolucion Filipina” (Tarlac, 1899) and its translation from the original Spanish as the “True Account of the Philippine Revolution,” was formerly attributed to Felipe Buencamino, because it was said Aguinaldo did not know enough Spanish to have written it.

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Well, in the Thomas Papers is the Tagalog draft of the “Reseña” in Aguinaldo’s own handwriting, complete with erasures, notes and other editorial marks that reveal the process of its creation.

The papers in the Thomas Collection seem to have come from one file dating to Aguinaldo and his government’s stay in Tarlac in 1899. Aside from papers from Aguinaldo, there are others in the hand of Felipe Agoncillo, and even Antonio Luna. For me, the most thrilling documents were those written in Apolinario Mabini’s small, almost feminine, handwriting. Some seem to have been draft letters or replies to the enemy, particularly Admiral Dewey, General Otis or General Anderson. These suggest that Mabini was really the President’s gatekeeper, the person who sorted all incoming mail addressed to the president, drafted replies or provided recommendations and solutions to problems.

There are some printed materials in the Thomas Collection: two copies of the Malolos Constitution, one with a cover price of 20 centimos and the other 25 centimos; an autographed copy of the “Reseña”; and an 1898 copy of the “Obligations of Chiefs and Officials of the Malolos Government.”

Listed as “Miscelany” are calling cards with notes written on them by: Emilio Aguinaldo, Hilaria del Rosario de Aguinaldo (the general’s first wife), Felipe Buencamino, Pedro Paterno, and Francisco Makabulos y Soliman.

The Wildman papers had the most surprises: a letter by Josephine Bracken de Abad (she married a Cebuano named Vicente Abad), with an accompanying photo not familiar to me. There was a photo of a group of Filipinos on a picnic that I remember from a book that supplied the caption “Aguinaldo’s family.” The photo is so clear that I was able to make out Juan Luna and his wife Paz, Nellie and Adelina Boustead (both women romantically linked to Rizal), Juliana Gorricho (Luna’s ill-fated mother -in-law), Baldomero Roxas, Gregorio Aguilera and, in the center of the photo, with a blurred face due to movement before the film had set, Jose Rizal!

Two days of research in the Library of Congress yielded so much. One can only imagine what else I will find if I have a month or two. I have always seen archival or library finds like these as a streak of good luck, but the late National Artist Alejandro Roces once told me that it was more than luck. Perhaps it is destiny, because the documents fell into my lap instead of someone else’s. Others have gone through the same boxes before but missed these, or maybe they were in search of something else.

Historical research is like a box of chocolates, indeed…

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