The Philippine Revolution Against Spain

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The Philippine Revolution Against Spain

1996 is a significant year for Filipinos all over the world. It marks the centennial of the Philippine Revolution, which started in 1896 and officially ended in 1902. The amount of literature generated during and after the Revolution, coupled with the continuing fascination on this period by historians and alike which have produced an infinite number of scholarly works, have validated the widespread perception that this was the most glorious page in the history of the Filipino people. The Philippine Revolution ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule which began when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi founded the settlement of Cebu, the oldest Philippine city, in 1565.

The Revolution is also heralded as the first anti-colonial independence movement in Asia. The Filipino proclamation of their independence two years after the outbreak of the Revolution was a momentous event for Filipinos of all persuasion. The Revolution began with the masses through the Katipunan, a secret, revolutionary, mass-based organization, and was later embraced by the middle class. Indeed, the Revolution was one of the few times where there was a convergence in the nationalist movements of the masses and the elite.

The Katipunan

The Katipunan (meaning “Association”) planned and initiated the Philippine Revolution. It was founded in Tondo, Manila, by Andres Bonifacio and a few other fellow urban workers on July 7, 1892. Its full Tagalog name is Kataastaasan Kagalang-galang na Katipunan nang manga Anak ng Bayan (Highest and Most Venerated Association of the Sons and Daughters of the Land). From its inception, Katipunan was forged by blood, with all its members enacting the traditional blood compact and signing their names with their own blood. The foremost goal of the Katipunan was political, the separation of the Philippines from Spain. Its members also recognized and performed a civic duty which was mutual assistance and the defense of the poor and the oppressed.

The Katipunan was steered by Bonifacio, who became known as the Supremo (Supreme) of the Katipunan, and he was ably supported by Emilio Jacinto, who emerged as the “Brains of the Katipunan.” Philippine historians regard Bonifacio as the “Great Plebeian” because he came from a poor family in Tondo and worked as a warehouse clerk. Despite his poverty, Bonifacio was able to educate himself by reading the works of Rizal and the French revolutionists. Because of its brotherhood appeal, Katipunan was swift in recruiting members from the peasants and the working class. Philippine historian Reynaldo Ileto points out that the Katipunan belonged to a long tradition of social movements in Philippine history which fortunately have been disparaged and branded by authorities and the elite as “illicit associations” and its members as bandits. Like most of these popular movements, the Katipunan was clothed in millenarianism.

In their writings, Bonifacio and Jacinto described the pre-Spanish period as an era of kasaganaan (great abundance) and kaginhawaan (prosperity). The demise of this glorious era was a result of the tyranny of Spanish colonial rule. The Katipunan then envisioned the future as one marked by kalayaan (independence), a state of being where there would once again be liwanag (knowledge) and kasaganaan (prosperity). Kalayaan would mean a return to the pre-Spanish condition of prosperity, bliss, and contentment. But it entailed cutting ties with the colonial mother, Spain, and the birth of a nurturing real mother, Inang Bayan or Motherland, meaning Philippines. From the start, the Katipunan drew inspiration from Jose Rizal, whose nationalist writings stirred an oppressed nation into action.

His two novels, the Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and the El Filibusterismo (The Subversive), denounced the decadent colonial order presided by the incompetent and abusive colonial officials and the backward and immoral frailocracy. In the 1880s, Jose Rizal and his fellow ilustrados launched the Propaganda Movement in Europe where they vigorously campaigned for the implementation of the much needed reforms in the Philippines. Their failure to force Spain to institute reforms convinced the Katipunan that the call must be for revolution and not reform.

In 1892, Bonifacio sought the counsel of Rizal on their planned revolution and the latter cautioned them because of its untimeliness and the people’s unpreparedness. Events forced Bonifacio and the Katipunan to launched the revolution. On August 23, 1896, the Katipunan was discovered by the Spanish authorities, prompting Bonifacio and the Katipuneros to tear their cedula (identification card), which symbolized their colonial oppression, and to declare in Pugad Lawin the beginning of the Philippine Revolution. The Spanish execution of Rizal on December 30, 1896 further emboldened the religious Filipinos who saw Rizal’s martyrdom as similar to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, i.e., to redeem his people.

Ethnicity and the Creation of National Identity

Initially, the Revolution appeared to be an entirely Tagalog affair. The first eight provinces to rise in arms were all in the Tagalog region and its adjacent areas: Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Pampanga, Manila, Laguna, Cavite, and Batangas. Even among these provinces, fighting was minimal except for Cavite, Bulacan, and, of course, Manila. Most of the principal revolutionary leaders were Tagalogs, and their initial appeal of support was directed towards the Katagalugan or the Tagalog people. This was not surprising since prior to the Revolution, Filipinos did not think of themselves as one homogenous race. Identity was instead linked with regional ethnicity. The Spanish policy of divisiveness aimed at effecting colonial rule promoted and encouraged regional isolation and ethnic distinctions. By the nineteenth century the term “Filipino” referred to the Spanish insulares or those born in the Philippines.

The Filipinos in general were loathingly called indios and their identity was rooted on their regional origin or ethnic affiliation: Tagalog, Kapampangan, Cebuano, Ilocano, Ilonggo, etc. In the first two years of the Revolution, battles raged mainly in the Tagalog provinces. Outside the Katagalugan, responses were varied. Pampanga, which was close to Manila, was uninvolved in the Revolution from September 1896 to the end of 1897, perhaps because the conditions which drove the Tagalogs to rise in arms were not totally similar in Pampanga. For instance, friar estates or church monopoly of landholdings which triggered agrarian unrest in Tagalog areas was not pervasive in Pampanga. Besides apathy, there were those, such as some Albayanos of Bicol, who were even apprehensive of rumors of a “Tagalog rebellion” aimed at ousting the Spaniards and exercising Tagalog hegemony over the non-Tagalog ethnic groups.

Historian Leonard Andaya claims that what brought the Revolution to the non-Tagalog areas was Aguinaldo’s policy of encouraging his military officials to return to their home province and mobilize local support. For instance, the Revolution came late in Antique, and it was due to General Leandro Fullon, an Antiqueno principalia general of Aguinaldo, who went to his home province to spread the Revolution. Even after the Revolution spread to the rest of Luzon and the Visayas, there were still suspicions as to the real motives of the Tagalogs. For example, the Iloilo elite changed the name of their provisional revolutionary government and called it the Federal State of the Visayas since they did not want to recognize the supremacy of Aguinaldo and the Tagalogs. They preferred instead a federal arrangement composed of the three main island groups – Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

These reservations and suspicions by non-Tagalogs were somehow reinforced by the initial writings and proclamations of key Tagalog personalities of the Revolution. Bonifacio wrote a revolutionary piece which he entitled “Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog” or “What the Tagalogs Should Know.” Aguinaldo, in his memoirs, wrote chapters entitled “The Tagalog Government Begins” and “Long Live the Tagalogs.” But in the absence of a general, generic term to collectively refer to the inhabitants of the archipelago, Filipino being a term originally reserved for the Spanish insulares, Tagalog may have appeared to the leaders of the Revolution as a logical substitute because of its indigenous element. In due time, however, Aguinaldo’s proclamations gradually introduced the idea that all the inhabitants of the Philippines are Filipinos.

Tagalog became less used and in its place Filipino was increasingly mentioned. The Revolution likewise assumed a national character. The declaration of Philippine independence was both significant and symbolic in the imagining and forging of a Filipino nation-state. Although there was a gradual acceptance of the term Filipino, nonetheless up until the early American period, Tagalog was still occasionally used. General Macario Sakay, a Tagalog general who continued the war against the Americans even after Emilio Aguinaldo was captured, called his government in 1902 the Tagalog Republic, although its charter noted that Visayas and Mindanao were included in his Republic.

Filipino Women Revolutionaries

Like ethnicity, gender played a significant role during the Revolution. As early as 1892, the Katipunan had a women’s chapter, Katipuneras, which was mostly made up of the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the Katipuneros. While the Katipuneros men held clandestine meetings in the interior or back of a house, the Katipuneras provided the diversionary tactics in the living room for passers-by to see. Some of these Katipuneras were Gregoria de Jesus, Andres Bonifacio’s wife, who became known as the Lakambini or First Lady of the Katipunan; Jose Rizal’s sisters; and Melchora Aquino who was also called Tandang Sora (Old Sora). Tandang Sora became a legend because she was a medicine woman who stitched the wounded and cured the sick. Her home was used by the Katipunan for their clandestine meetings and she served the Revolution by rendering her “medical” expertise to Katipunan members.

There were also numerous Filipinas who distinguished themselves in the battlefield. In 1896, Gregoria Montoya y Patricio, upon the death of her Katipunero husband, led the charge of a thirty men unit while holding a Katipunan flag on one hand and a sharp-bladed bolo (machete) on another hand. She used a white piece of cloth, commonly used during mass, to ward off bullets. Another Filipina revolutionary was Agueda Kahabagan who fought the Spaniards armed with a rifle, brandishing a bolo and dressed in white. Teresa Magbanua, on the other hand, earned the sobriquet “Joan of Arc” of the Visayas for the valor she displayed in many battles.

But Filipino women’s participation during the Revolution was not confined to actual fighting. Rosario Lopez, a scion of the wealthy hacendero Lopez clan of Negros, donated firearms to the revolutionary cause. Similarly, women of Cavite utilized their business connections to form a network of contacts for the Revolution. The Filipino Red Cross, established in 1863, became another venue for women participation in the Revolution. In 1899, the Red Cross, under the leadership of the wife of Emilio Aguinaldo, had thirteen chapters spread out from Ilocos Norte to Batangas. Conventional female activities such as sewing and cooking were utilized outside the homes to serve the needs of Filipino troops.

Struggle Between the Masses and the Elite

Aside from ethnicity and gender, class conflict was central to the Revolution. In the aftermath of the outbreak of the revolution, most of the ilutstrados or the nineteenth century middle class denounced the Katipunan and renewed their loyalty to Spain. Many ilustrados immediately condemned the revolution as an irrational action of uneducated masses. Some, like Rizal, believed that it was an ill-timed and ill-prepared struggle. But many did so out of allegiance to Spain. Later when the Katipunan was winning battles, some ilustrados gradually turned around and embraced the revolution. These ilustrados, though driven by nationalism like the masses, fought to preserve their social status and economic wealth. Their interests and agenda vastly differed from the objectives of the Katipuneros. Other ilustrados preferred to remain fence-sitters until the tide of the Revolution was clear. In a study of the municipal and provincial elite of Luzon during the Revolution, Milagros C. Guerrero concluded that well-to-do Filipinos as well as municipal and provincial officials refused to join the Revolution during 1897 and early 1898.

There was even hesitancy even after they did join. Many history books assert that class coflict was symbolized by the leadership struggle between Bonifacio and Aguinaldo. In contrast to the working class background of Bonifacio, Aguinaldo was an ilustrado and a former gobernadorcillo or town executive in his home province of Cavite. Aguinaldo’s ascendance to prominence as a result of his strategic victories in battles naturally brought him into conflict with Bonifacio over the leadership of the Revolution. In a sense, their bitter struggle reflected the falling out of the masses and the ilustrados during the Revolution. It started as a result of the intramural between the two factions of the Katipunan in Cavite – the Magdiwang and Magdalo. Their conflict had deteriorated such that each one refused to assist the other in battles. Moreover, in one of the battles in Manila, the Caviteno forces even failed to provide assistance to the revolutionaries of Manila.

Bonifacio as Supremo of the Katipunan was invited to Cavite to resolve the factional differences and thus ensure a united front against the Spaniards in the province. Once in Cavite, the ilustrados maneuvered to ease Bonifacio from the leadership. In the Tejeros Convention of March 22, 1897, they voted to supersede the Katipunan with a revolutionary government and an election of the officers of the new government was conducted. Aguinaldo was elected as President while Bonifacio lost in several elections for key posts before he finally won as Director of the Interior. But a Caviteno, Daniel Tirona, immediately questioned his lack of education and qualification for the post, and insisted that he be replaced instead by a Caviteno ilustrado lawyer, Jose del Rosario.

Insulted and humiliated, Bonifacio as Supremo of the Revolution declared the election and the formation of the new government void. What followed was a black mark in the history of the Revolution. Aguinaldo, upon the prodding of his fellow, ilustrados, ordered the arrest and trial of Bonifacio on the grounds of treason. A bogus trial found Bonifacio and his brother, Procopio, guilty, and they were sentenced to death. Aguinaldo gave his approval and the Bonifacio brothers were shot on May 10, 1897, at Mt. Tala, Cavite. In rationalizing the fate of Bonifacio, Aguinaldo and his men claimed Bonifacio was establishing his own government which would have subverted the revolutionary cause. His elimination was necessary to maintain unity under Aguinaldo’s leadership. Ironically, Bonifacio, the father of the Revolution, became a victim to the ambition and self-serving interests the ilustrados as personified by Aguinaldo.

Truce of Biak-na-Bato and the Betrayal of the Revolution

The death of Bonifacio was a turning point in the Revolution. The stewardship of the Revolution was left to Aguinaldo and the elite. But the Filipinos and the Spaniards faced a long haul. Aguinaldo’s troops were being routed in Cavite and, thus, his revolutionary government moved to the more secluded Biak-na-Bato in Bulacan. At this time, Aguinaldo’s commitment to the revolutionary cause became suspect. His military advisers persuaded him to issue a declaration that his Biak-na-Bato government was willing to return to the fold of law as soon as Spain granted political reforms. These reforms included the expulsion of the hated Spanish friars and the return of lands they appropriated from the Filipinos; Filipino representation in the Spanish Cortes; freedom of the press and religious tolerance; equality in treatment and payment for both peninsular and insular civil servants; and equality for all before the law.

This pronouncement by Aguinaldo proved that he and the ilustrados were willing to return to the Spanish fold provided there were reforms and the ilustrado interests were met. The standoff in the battlefield prompted both sides to agree to an armistice. The Truce of Biak-na-Bato stipulated that Spain would pay financial remuneration to the Filipino revolutionaries in exchange for the surrender of arms and the voluntary exile abroad of Aguinaldo and the other leaders. Toward the end of December 1898, Aguinaldo and the other revolutionary leaders went into voluntary exile in Hong Kong and they were given the initial sum of 400,000 pesos, most of which were deposited in a Hongkong bank and used later on to purchase more weapons. Distrust on both sides resulted in the failure of the truce. Both sides were only biding time until they could launch another offensive. The coming of the Americans marked the second phase of the Philippine Revolution.

In Singapore, Aguinaldo met U.S. consul Spencer Pratt who persuaded him to cooperate with the Americans. In February 1898, the American warship Maine was mysteriously sunk in the waters of Havana, Cuba. This incident was the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War. Admiral George Dewey who was stationed in Hongkong received a cable on April 25 announcing that war had commenced between the two countries. He was ordered to retake the Philippines and, on May 1, 1898, his flagship U.S.S.

Olympia defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay at a cost of eight wounded Americans and around five hundred casualties on the Spanish side. Back in Hongkong, Aguinaldo was told by U.S. consul Rounsenville Wildman that Dewey wanted him to return to the Philippines to resume the Filipino resistance. Aguinaldo claimed that the American officials prodded him to establish a Philippine government similar to the United States, and that they pledged to honor and support the Filipinos’ aspiration for independence. Spencer, Wildman, and Dewey would later deny having made any promise or commitment to Aguinaldo.

Proclamation of Philippine Independence and the Birth of the Philippine Republic

With transportation provided by the Americans, Aguinaldo and his leaders returned to Cavite. They resumed their war offensive against Spain and reestablished the revolutionary government. Because of the exigencies of the time, Aguinaldo temporarily established a dictatorial government, but plans were afoot to proclaim the independence of the country especially since the Spaniards were reeling from defeat one battle after another. From the balcony of his house in Kawit, Cavite, Aguinaldo declared on June 12, 1898 the independence of the Filipinos and the birth of the Philippine Republic. For the first time, the Philippine flag, sewn in Hongkong by the womenfolk of the revolutionaries, was unfurled. Two bands played Julian Felipe’s Marcha Nacional Filipina which became the Philippines’ national anthem. The declaration further emboldened the fighting Filipinos. On June 18, 1898, Aguinaldo passed a decree calling for the reorganization of the provincial and municipal governments.

In her article, Guerrero claims that following the liberation of Luzon from the hands of the Spaniards, elections were held in Cavite, Bataan, Batangas, and Pampanga in June and July; in Manila, Tayabas (now Quezon), Pangasinan, Ilocos Norte, and Ilocos Sur in August; in Abra, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, and Nueva Ecija in September; in Nueva Vizcaya and La Union in October; and in Isabela, Catanduanes, Albay, and Sorsogon in December. The elected provincial and town officials were mostly the same local officials during the Spanish period. This was because the requirements for voting and nomination to public office were restricted to those who were “citizens of 20 years of age or above who were ‘friendly’ to Philippine independence and were distinguished for their ‘high character, social position and honorable conduct, both in the center of the community and the suburb’.”

These provisions automatically excluded the masses in the electoral process, and insured continued elite supremacy of local politics, even by those who were Spanish supporters and sympathizers during the early phase of the Revolution. Since the ilustrados had exclusive control of the electoral process, the provincial and municipal reorganization merely resulted in perpetuating elite dominance of society and government. Guerrero claims that records of the period reveal the composition of the municipal elite was unaltered and local offices simply rotated within their ranks. But not all areas of Luzon came under the control of the ilustrados during the Revolution. In some towns, “uneducated” and “poor” masses were elected by an electorate who most probably did not meet the qualifications stipulated in Aguinaldo’s decree.

Guerrero claims that the principalia or ilustrado local officials of Solano in Nueva Ecija and Urdaneta in Pangasinan complained over the election of the “uneducated and ignorant” who they argued were “totally incapable” of governing. But this was more of an aberration since the general picture was one of elite dominance and the alienation of the masses. Despite Aguinaldo’s order abolishing three hundred years of Spanish polo or forced labor, the local elite persisted in demanding personal services from the people, on top of the taxes levied against them. In some towns and provinces conditions were even worse as the elite wrangled among themselves, especially since Aguinaldo did not clearly delineate the responsibilities of the elected civilian and appointed military officials.

This leads some historians to conclude that the masses in towns and countryside were the eventual victims of what transpired during the Revolution. The American entry into the picture convinced the remaining fence-sitting ilustrados to support the Revolution. When rumors of an impending Spanish-American War were circulating in April 1898, several noted ilustrados led by Pedro Paterno offered their services to the Spanish governor-general. Yet when Aguinaldo returned from exile, several ilustrados serving in the Spanish militia, like Felipe Buencamino, abandoned the Spaniards and announced their “conversion” to the revolutionary cause. Indeed, the resumption of the revolution brought an electrifying response throughout the country. From Ilocos in the north down to Mindanao in the south, there was a simultaneous and collective struggle to oust the Spaniards. Months later, when the Filipino-American War commenced, many ilustrados played the middle ground, i.e., on one hand, they sent words of support to Aguinaldo and, on the other, started contemplating on an autonomous status for the Philippines under the United States.

An example was the Iloilo ilustrados who eventually sided with the Americans since their economic interests – sugar production and importation – dictated collaboration with the new colonizers. Indeed, in the parlance of contemporary Filipino political culture, the ilustrados were the classic “balimbing” or two-faced. Despite the constant vacillation of the elite, Aguinaldo and his advisers tapped on their services in organizing the Philippine Republic. Aguinaldo was eager to prove that the Filipinos could govern themselves, and in the process it would legitimize the Philippine Republic. Moreover, since he and his advisers were ilustrados, Aguinaldo only trusted his own kind – the wealthy, educated, and politically experienced – in the matter of governance. Thus, he called on them to convene and create a Congress which would draft a constitution. He wanted a Philippine constitution to complete the required trimmings of a sovereign, nation-state – flag, army, government, and constitution.

In his actions, Aguinaldo was advised by Apolinario Mabini who became known as the “Sublime Paralytic” because his spirit was not deterred by his physical handicap, and the “Brains of the Revolution” due to his intellectual acumen. On January 21, 1899, Aguinaldo proclaimed the Malolos Constitution which was drafted by the ilustrados of the Malolos Congress. Two days later, the Philippine Republic was inaugurated in Malolos, Bulacan, the new capital of the fledging government. The Philippine Republic was, however, short-lived. From the start, Aguinaldo’s forces were fighting the Spaniards without military assistance from the Americans.

Except for the Battle of Manila Bay, the United States was not a major force in the fighting. The American troops did not arrive in the country until late June, and they saw no military action until August. But events starting with the Spanish surrender of Manila on August 13, 1898, doomed the end of Philippine independence. Although the Spanish troops had been routed in all fronts by the Filipinos, the continuing presence of the Americans was unsettling. Questions on actual American motives surfaced with the continuous arrival of American reinforcements. It did not take long for the Filipinos to realize the genuine intentions of the United States. The precarious and uneasy Philippine-American alliance collapsed on February 4, 1899, when the Philippine-American War broke out and threatened to annihilate the new found freedom of the Filipinos.


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  • Date: 27 September 2016

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