His last day
The current debate debate in history departments over the true date of Andres Bonifacio’s execution, reflected in historian Ambeth Ocampo’s two most recent columns, is not without its advantages. The biggest boon is basic: It provokes discussion about Bonifacio’s place in the Philippines’ pantheon of heroes. The controversy over whether Bonifacio was executed, under orders from Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, on April 26 or May 10, the traditional date, has served to stimulate more interest in Bonifacio than last year’s commemoration of his 150th birth anniversary.
Let the debate continue, especially if today’s students are encouraged to sift through the available evidence themselves. At the same time, let us not lose sight of the essential.
Born on Nov. 30, 1863, Bonifacio was killed in 1897, at the age of 33. He founded the Katipunan revolutionary organization in July 1892, at 28; he was executed by the organization’s soldiers less than five years later. He started the Philippine Revolution in August 1896 (again the exact date is controversial); his life was claimed by the revolution he had led, only eight or so months later.
In short, Bonifacio led a short and brutal life, especially in its last months. The revolution having gone badly in the territory he commanded, he moved to Cavite but failed a crucial leadership test; the odds, and even the mechanism of the test, were stacked against him. When he refused to recognize the ascension of Aguinaldo—the local leader he had personally inducted into the Katipunan and who had become the most successful military commander against the Spanish colonial authorities—to the leadership of the revolution, he was arrested, tried, brutalized and executed, in short order. It may be truly said that revolutions devour, not only their own children, but their fathers, too.
But it was also a full and glorious life. From an early age the orphaned Bonifacio had looked after his family; he sought to complete his interrupted education by teaching himself to read the most important books and newspapers available; he worked hard and rose to positions of responsibility at two European firms doing business in the Philippines. He was also a patriot from a young age, first as a reader and follower of Jose Rizal’s, then as the organizer of the Katipunan. The exact number of members can never be known, but in 1896 it was running into the thousands—an extraordinary feat, considering the repressive nature of the Spanish colonial regime. The Katipunan’s growth was due, in large part, to Bonifacio’s distinct gifts, first as an organizer and secondly as a polemicist.
Did Bonifacio go to his grave aware that his death was his last gift to the land he loved, or did he die in despair, sickened by the betrayal of his fellow patriots? We hope that the self-taught student of the French Revolution recognized not only the ironies but also the inevitabilities of history. We hope that he died confident that the revolution he had started had reached the point of no return, and that the defeat of the colonial regime he hated was only a matter of time. We hope that, in his last moments, he received a glimpse of what was to come, that he would be remembered not for his ignominious death but for the heroic life he led.
But we cannot be certain. Indeed, the opposite is likely true. He died fully conscious that the revolution he had started was slipping into the wrong hands. The last two letters he wrote Emilio Jacinto, both dated April 1897, show that he knew. The letter of April 24 reiterates points first made in the letter of April 16. There are several passages like this (in historian Jim Richardson’s translation):
“A piece of sickening news I can tell you is the treachery committed by the chiefs of the Magdalo Council who have applied for pardon or gone over to the Spaniards. These are Daniel Tirona, Minister of War; José del Rosario, Minister of the Interior; José Cailles, Lieutenant-General, and nearly all the Tanza people, even the parish priest there, the whole lot of them henchmen or partisans of Capitan Emilio [Aguinaldo]. For this reason, many people strongly suspect that they strive so hard to get control of the Government in order to surrender the whole Revolution.”
It is worth remembering Bonifacio on his last day, if only to consider the factionalism, the infighting, the striving for control, that led him to his grave.
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.