Looking Back

Murder in Cabanatuan

/ 10:18 PM February 23, 2012

Cabanatuan today is a first-class urban city that for a time was designated as the capital of Nueva Ecija. Its present claim to fame, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, is that it is the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines,” which probably puts it in the running as one of the noisiest and most polluted cities in the country.

I have only visited the city twice before, to attend commemorations of the so-called “Raid of Cabanatuan” in 1945 when a combined force of American soldiers and Filipino guerrillas attacked a Japanese camp, thus liberating 500 Allied POWs (prisoners of war). This footnote in Philippine history has been played up in a recent American film and two bestselling US books on the topic.


My interest in Cabanatuan goes farther back than World War II to the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). For a time, Cabanatuan was the headquarters of Emilio Aguinaldo, who was then traveling north from Malolos with the enemy in hot pursuit. Searching for a column topic in the thickest of the 5-volume compilation of documents, The Philippine Insurrection against the United States, by Capt. J.R.M. Taylor, I was struck by an unsigned document dated May 14, 1899, and addressed to the local officials of Cabanatuan ordering them to spruce up their sleepy town that was not only designated as Aguinaldo HQ but also considered the temporary capital of the First Republic.

The instructions are over a century old but they still hold true for any city, town, or barangay today:


“First. The market, which is on the principal street of the town proper, will be immediately moved to the neighboring barrio of Aduas, and the shops placed to the left of the road, including those that sell beef, pork, etc; in short, no shops of any kind are to be permitted on the streets or the sidewalks, but beneath the houses.

“Second. Cleaning the plaza of the church and presidential palace will be proceeded with, no wagons being permitted to stand in the plaza, but in front of the belfry.

“Third. The fronts of the houses on the principal streets must be repaired, branches of trees overhanging the fences trimmed, and fences built around unenclosed lots.

“Fourth. Each householder must have the front of his house cleaned daily, and a light hung out on nights when there is no moon.

“Fifth. The slaughter of animals must be confined to some specific place and under a shed.

“Sixth. Owners of houses must have rears built in case of absence thereof.

“Seventh. Construction of roads, ferries and bridges must be undertaken at once.


“Eighth. Heads of barrios must organize a night patrol for the safety of the residents and prevention of fires.

“Ninth. You shall impose a fine of from one to 10 pesos upon violation of these provisions according to the seriousness of the misdemeanor. You, together with the police commissioner and the police force, are charged with the execution of the above, due notice being given you that should this department note any nonenforcement of orders, a fine of 25 pesos will be imposed.”

Reading the above made me wonder what Cabanatuan was like in 1899 when it was the capital of the Philippines. The instructions indicate what the situation was then, though we do not know if these rules were complied with. They also indicate a sense of order: Market and shops were moved and regulated, there was no parking, the repair and cleaning of the fronts of houses were required, etc.

Today we have traffic, indiscriminate parking, and illegal terminals. Not all houses and frontages are kept clean, often leading local governments to cover the eyesore with a wall or tarpaulin.

The sprucing up of Cabanatuan in May 1899 becomes significant because the place became the theater of a bloody incident a few weeks later—the assassination of Gen. Antonio Luna and his aide Paco Roman by Emilio Aguinaldo’s bodyguards.

Textbook history tells us that Luna was summoned to Cabanatuan by Aguinaldo. Upon arrival on June 5, 1899, Luna was told that the president had left for Pampanga. The famous Luna temper flared, the man being tired and upset.

As choice expletives flew, Luna spotted insubordinate soldiers whom he had previously ordered disarmed and disciplined. He was first attacked by one, who was then followed by many others. Luna was caught by surprise and fended off knives, bolos and guns. He struggled out into the plaza where he managed to pull out and fire his revolver. He died of multiple stab and gunshot wounds numbering no less than 40, according to Teodoro Agoncillo.

His famous last words were recorded as “Cowards! Assassins!” One can probably add to those words an expletive that begins with “p.”

There is a small detail often left out of textbook history. When the assassins cautiously approached the general’s body, an old woman, identified later as Emilio Aguinaldo’s mother, looked out from the convent window and asked callously, “Nagalaw pa ba iyan (Is he still moving)?”

Reading the May 1899 instructions on sprucing up the town led me to imagine Luna’s last moments. How uncanny it was that the local officials had, weeks before, set the stage for the Tragedy at Cabanatuan. One seemingly ordinary and trivial historical document can be read as an indication of early urban planning; that same document gains relevance when put in the context of succeeding events.

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TAGS: Cabanatuan, Emilio Aguinaldo, featured column, History, opinion, World War II
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