Lost in translation? | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Lost in translation?

One of the most popular dioramas in the Ayala Museum depicts the declaration of Philippine independence from the balcony of Emilio Aguinaldo’s house in Kawit, Cavite, on June 12, 1898. Some visitors rightly comment that the reading of the proclamation by Aguinaldo’s chief political adviser, Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista, followed by the waving of the flag and the playing of the march that have since become our national flag and anthem, was actually made from a window, and not the iconic “Independence Balcony” that was added to the house only two decades later.

Few visitors pay attention to a thin disabled man on a hammock among the jubilant crowd in front of the house. Summoned by Aguinaldo, the “Sublime Paralytic” Apolinario Mabini was carried in relays from Batangas to Cavite for days, arriving just in time to catch the declaration of independence. A short while later, Mabini was brought upstairs into Aguinaldo’s presence and, instead of pleasantries he asked very direct—some would say impertinent—questions.

Contrary to popular belief, Mabini did not approve of the timing of the independence declaration. He inquired about the terms of Filipino assistance to the US Naval Fleet under George Dewey in the war against Spain. Dewey had sunk the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, and established a blockade, but he did not have the land forces to take and occupy Spanish Manila or Intramuros.


Mabini asked if there was a formal, written agreement between Aguinaldo and the Americans regarding Philippine independence. What exactly was promised in return for Aguinaldo’s cooperation against the Spanish? Aguinaldo had nothing in writing, nothing but vague promises from the US consuls in Singapore, Hong Kong and Cavite, and one of Dewey’s subordinates. Mabini was of the opinion that it was best to keep the aspirations of the Filipinos a secret lest the Americans withhold weapons and assistance to a people fighting for independence.


Unfortunately, the cat was out of the bag and Mabini was called upon to solve the problem. Aguinaldo “liked the clearness and logic with which [Mabini] expressed his ideas, and the serenity and sincerity with which he argued,” so then and there Mabini replaced Rianzares Bautista as chief adviser. Mabini had the president’s ear and held a powerful position for barely a year of living dangerously. He was the brains and soul of the First Philippine Republic when it was born. Unfortunately, the republic was nipped in the bud and the independence won in 1898 was only returned when the United States recognized the Philippines as a free and independent nation in July 1946.

Mabini’s reservations came to mind recently when I reread Dewey’s remarks at a US congressional inquiry into the matter. Dewey said—under oath, I presume—that he did not promise US recognition of Philippine independence. As a matter of fact, US Consul Oscar Williams in Cavite and Dewey on Manila Bay discreetly absented themselves from the declaration of Independence in Kawit. However, in the original declaration signed by 97 Filipinos, you will find a certain “M. L. Johnson” described in all the sources as a “US Colonel of the Artillery.”

Four days after the declaration of independence, on June 16, 1898, Consul Williams informed the US State Department that:

“For future advantage, I am maintaining cordial relations with General Aguinaldo, having stipulated submissiveness to our forces when treating for their return here. Last Sunday, 12th, they held a council to form provisional government. I was urged to attend, but thought best to decline. A form of government was adopted, but General Aguinaldo told me today that his friends all hoped that the Philippines would be held as a colony of the United States of America.”

Later it was claimed that Commander E.P. Wood, captain of the USS Petrel, said: “The United States, my general, is a great and rich nation, and neither needs nor desires colonies.” This was not put into writing. Felipe Agoncillo, protesting the Treaty of Paris in December 1899, wrote that:

“At the time of employing their armed cooperation, both the Commander of the Petrel and Captain Wood in Hong Kong, before the declaration of war, the American Consuls-General Mr. Pratt in Singapore, Mr. Wildman in Hong Kong, and Mr. Williams in Cavite, acting as international agents of the great American nation, at a moment of great anxiety offered to recognize the independence of the Filipino nation, as soon as triumph was obtained.”


At the root of all these conflicting accounts is a certain Howard Bray, interpreter for Aguinaldo in Singapore, and author of pamphlets in support of the Filipino cause. One wonders if something was lost in translation during discussions with Aguinaldo who spoke no English, and the Americans who spoke neither Spanish nor Tagalog. Was recognition of Philippine independence really promised, or did Aguinaldo misunderstand what was actually said? Perhaps something was lost in translation between the different parties and their understanding of the words independencia, independence and kalayaan, as well as the nuances of each concept?

Why the Filipinos broke away from the shady Mr. Bray is the key to understanding the sources and will explain why Emilio Aguinaldo and the United States acted the way they did during the birth of the Filipino nation.

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TAGS: Apolinario Mabini, Ayala Museum, Emilio Aguinaldo, Independence Day

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