Looking Back

Learning history from primary sources

July will be a month of many firsts for me.

Since I joined the Ateneo in 1998, I have taught juniors, seniors, and graduate students. This semester, I meet freshmen formed by the K-to-12 curriculum. Over two decades, I mastered Philippine History, with Rizal thrown in, but now I will teach a revised course with more Rizal than history, as stated eloquently in the course title: “Rizal and the emergence of the Filipino nation.”


The course emphasizes primary sources (Rizal’s own writings: novels, diaries, essays, etc.) and will be completely online: asynchronously, so students can open the learning modules at their own time and pace; and with teacher/coach meeting them, synchronously, all at an agreed time, only for consultations. Having both mastery and content, the challenge is migrating from classroom lectures to teaching to a computer or smartphone screen.

During quarantine, I trawled the National Library of Singapore online, downloading newspaper articles on the Philippines from the 1890s to the 1950s. “A Queer Story” from the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 10 August 1901, Page 3 reads:


“According to the New American, sensational disclosures may soon be expected which will open the eyes of the Filipino to real treachery and rascality on the part of their political leaders who pretended at one time to fight only for the independence of their country. Documents are said to have been found, which go to show that Aguinaldo’s and his generals’ dream was the setting up of an empire or kingdom, as soon as the republic should once be firmly established.

“Emilio Aguinaldo was to have been the emperor or king under the title of Emilio I, and the ex-secretary of State of the Republic was to have been the first Duke of the empire. This same embryo Duke, Pedro Paterno, is said to have been the instigator and moving spirit in this ambitious scheme; only General Luna, the bravest and most honest of Filipino patriots, held aloof and rejected all offers, saying he fought for the liberty of the people, not for politicians. This is presumed to have been a moving factor in his assassination, ordered by Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo is said to have been embarrassed when questioned on the subject, and while he did not acknowledge the truth of the story, neither did he deny it, but seemed surprised that the secret was out. This is the New American’s version of the affair.”

Students learn how to dig up primary sources online or from a physical library, when these are allowed to open, but more importantly they must be able to compare the above with other sources to validate its reliability or truth. They should explain why they used one document over another not because of their personal biases, but by research and the practice of historical method. Unlike the old way of “learning” when rote memory of textbook and teacher lectures was rewarded with a high grade, this method provides the student with a sense of how historians do their work.

In another article from the same obscure Singapore newspaper, from March 23, 1899, we learn about a court hearing regarding the funds from the Pact of Biak-na-Bato that Aguinaldo deposited with the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation:

“…in January of last year [1898] Aguinaldo deposited with HSBC the sum of $200,000. On the 31st of January of this year [1899], in accordance with the terms of the loan, at the expiration of the year, Aguinaldo sent two men—plaintiffs in this case—to the Bank. They went to the Bank and presented a power of attorney and the original deposit receipt and demanded the money. The deposit receipt in question was dated January 3rd, 1898 and bore the following endorsement, ‘Please pay the sum of $200,000 with the pre[mium?] called for by this receipt to Messrs. Felipe Agoncillo and Vito Belarmino.’ The power of attorney was signed by Emilio Aguinaldo and also bore the signature of Oscar F. Williams, the U.S. Consul in Manila.”

HSBC refused to hand over the funds because they doubted Aguinaldo’s representatives.

Students become historians as they dig up additional material to make sense of details, and in so doing discover much more about human nature than they ever will from a dry outdated textbook. Grappling with primary sources arms them to deal with fake news, and prepares them for real life rather than a quiz.


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, history sources, Jose Rizal, Looking Back, primary sources, Rizal course
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