Mabini’s carabao’s milk | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Mabini’s carabao’s milk

Those who read or imagine ideological bias in my columns point to the fact that I write more about Rizal than Bonifacio, whose 150th birthday we commemorate this year. They may also find it significant that next to Rizal my favorite hero happens to be Apolinario Mabini, whose 150th birthday we celebrate next year.

I would write more about Bonifacio if I could, if there were more readily available primary sources, more documents actually written by the Katipunan Supremo. At the moment we have only a handful of Bonifacio letters handed down to history by Epifanio de los Santos, who found them in a chicken coop before the war. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that somewhere, somehow, more Bonifacio letters and documents are waiting to be found in some grandfather’s baul or aparador, but in the meantime why not use the 25 volumes of Rizal’s writings available to everyone in the original Spanish as well as translations in English, Filipino, Cebuano, Ilocano, etc.?


Mabini wrote a lot like Rizal, but he, too, remains largely unread because he is separated from our generation by dint of language. Much of Mabini’s writings remain in the original Spanish, and I am glad that an English translation of Mabini’s “Cartas Politicas”  by Alfredo S. Veloso (limited mimeograph first edition, 1964) is made available to the public once more by Jose R. Perdigon, who has recently published an updated-edition “Apolinario Mabini: Testament and Political Letters” as the first in a series of “Fil-Hispanic Classics.” The National Historical Commission has reprinted a volume, “Letters of Mabini,” edited and with an introduction by then National Library Director Carlos Quirino a number of times, but the superior compilation is that published by then National Library Director Teodoro M. Kalaw in 1930.

The Quirino “Letters of Mabini” (National Heroes Commission, 1965) were drawn primarily from Kalaw’s 1930 volume, all the letters arranged chronologically and translated from the original Spanish. It is the Quirino edition of Mabini that often forms the first encounter between students and the hero often referred to as “The Sublime Paralytic” (whatever that means). Mabini is not yet available in Filipino. The 1965 publication unfortunately left out Kalaw’s comprehensive prologue as well as the thematic arrangement of  Mabini’s 148 letters. Unlike the “Epistolario Rizalino” that contains letters to and from Rizal, the Mabini volume only contains Mabini’s letters, making us guess what he is replying to or what is the context for his letter. It will take a lot of research not only to compile the letters to Mabini but also to trace every letter to its source, if only to check the accuracy of transcription and translation.


Anyone who wants to write a new biography of Mabini or get to know him better should start with Cesar Majul—first the Mabini biography (1964) and a more engaging narrative of the development of Mabini’s ideas in the context of the Philippine revolution (1960). After Majul it is recommended that you dip into Kalaw, who has a different biographical outline. Kalaw divided Mabini’s life into seven principal periods: his student life; his campaign for reforms under Del Pilar and Rizal; his revolutionary involvement; his retirement following his fall from the Cabinet of Emilio Aguinaldo; his imprisonment in Manila (Calle Anda); his exile in Guam; and his return to the Philippines and death soon afterward.

Kalaw’s edition of Mabini’s letters is not just a chronological compilation but also a thematic arrangement that places the letters in the context of the various periods in the hero’s life. Those who think Kalaw was just a politician who was appointed to the National Library, a man who just put his name on the volumes of historical material published under his direction, should think twice and rediscover Kalaw the historian. For this, one can gain much from fellow scholar and Batangueño Teodoro A. Agoncillo, whose lecture “Historiography in the Age of Kalaw” is available in print.

When all the primary sources have been studied, then we can dig up all the secondary sources—for example, an article published in the Philippines Free Press in 1955 on the death of Mabini. Librado T. Austria interviewed Alejandro Mabini, then 76 years old, the hero’s brother who claimed that Mabini’s paralysis began in his youth when he got drenched in the rain in search of his pet horse. In the 1980s Mabini’s remains were exhumed and examined by a Dr. Pujalte of the National Orthopedic Hospital; the conclusion was that Mabini’s paralysis was caused by polio and not, as suggested by some, syphilis.

Alejandro Mabini said the breakfast and lunch of his brother Kaka Pole starting from when he was paralyzed consisted of a special gruel boiled in carabao’s milk. In the evening he took a light merienda or a glass of (carabao’s) milk. Alejandro narrated that on the afternoon of May 12, 1903, Kaka Pole asked for his milk. After tasting it, he flared up and accused Alejandro of giving him spoiled milk. The cause of Mabini’s death, according to the newspapers, was cholera that probably came from tainted carabao’s milk.

We can only hope that new works on Mabini will see print next year because he is but one of many underrated heroes who should be better known and appreciated.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Apolinario Mabini, Carabao’s milk, History, Looking Back, opinion
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