detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Thursday, June 02, 2005

: . Why Fell the Supremo? by Nick Joaquin (continued)
The Caldron of the Sorcerer

The Katipunan was of Manila, but the Revolution was of Cavite. After the cry of revolt in August, 1896, and the Battle of San Juan, the Katipunan fades away into the hills of Balara, and the Revolution emerges in Cavite. The greatest drama in our history was to have had Manila for its stage but didn’t. Its place names are all provincial: Imus, Binakayan, Tejeros, Maragondon, Biak-na-bato, Kawit and Malolos. What was conceived in the city never saw the city.

Manila’s Katipunan failed in the Battle of San Juan – failed to take the city, failed to take the suburbs failed to become an army. But the Revolution in Cavite had a baptism of triumph. Only a couple of days after the San Juan fiasco, the first three towns in Cavite to revolt – San Francisco de Malabon (now General Trias), Noveleta and Kawit – were in the hands of the rebels. And these rebels belonged, from the start, not to one army, the Katipunan, but to two: the Magdiwang and the Magdalo. The daughter councils of the Katipunan had completely outgrown their parent.

Bonifacio’s Katipunan was never more than a band of guerrilleros, disorganized and ineffectual – swooping down from the hills to sack a town, only to be driven out the next day. But before the end of ‘96, the revolution in Cavite had taken almost the entire province and had turned it into a formal front. Bonifacio’s men, bottled up in Balara, were awed to hear that the Caviteños had built a system of trenches and fortifications, had an organized army led by generals, had a hierarchy of officers in uniform. The telling fact here is that Spain’s military attempts to crush the rebellion were directed, not against the Katipuneros in the Balara hills, but against the insurrectos in Cavite. No great armies were sent against Bonifacio; the Spanish expeditionary troops [end of page 90] were hurled against Aguinaldo.

Bypassed and ignored, Bonifacio gravitated toward the heart of the revolt: it drew him; he could not draw it to himself. When he went to Cavite in December, 1896, it was ostensibly to mediate between the Magdiwang and the Magdalo, and he felt flattered that his authority as Supremo was still recognized in Cavite; though the truth is, only one faction, the Magdiwang, had invited him to mediate. But the moment he set foot in Cavite, already free land, he realized he had no authority at all there. He spotted in Imus an officer he believed responsible for the San Juan fiasco; but when he ordered the officer arrested, nobody obeyed him.

To the Caviteños, even the Supremo, the founder of the Katipunan, was but an outsider, was but one more in the stream of refugees from Manila for whom the Caviteños of the time coined a contemptuous term: “alsa balutan.” The outsiders were suspected of having come to Cavite merely to save their skins; but having saved their skins, they would now capture the victorious revolution of the Caviteños, the uprising in Manila having flopped.

If there was anything in which the Magdiwang and the Magdalo were united, it was in this hostility to outsiders. The refrain in the meetings between the two camps was ever “We, the rebels of Cavite,” or simply “We of Cavite”; and the refrain voiced the Caviteños’ refusal to have their war directed, or themselves ruled, by people “from other pueblos.” The officials of the first revolutionary government elected in Tejeros were all Caviteños, save for Ricarte (who was, however, though born in the Ilocos, considered a Caviteno because he had long resided in the province and had married there) and Bonifacio – and the objection to Bonifacio’s election as secretary of the interior was, as one Caviteño put it at the convention, that “we have in our province a lawyer, Jose del Rosario,” more apt for the post.

Bonifacio thought the Magdiwang his ally; but when it came to choosing between Bonifacio and Cavite, the Magdiwang chose Cavite. The convention in Tejeros, though Magdiwang-packed, discarded the Supremo, an outsider, in favor of Aguinaldo the Caviteño, though Aguinaldo belonged to the hated faction of the Magdalo. And when Bonifacio had fallen, the Magdiwang made no move to save him. The revolutionaries had closed ranks behind Aguinaldo, and the price of unity was Bonifacio’s blood. That’s the kindest explanation for the fact that Bonifacio’s own men turned against him, testified against him, and allowed him to be killed.

As in Shakespeare, the tragedy was of the hero’s making. Though already only a Supremo in name when he went to Cavite, Bonifacio could still [end of page 91] have become, in reality, the leader of the Revolution by proving himself forceful enough and politic enough to unite the feuding factions. Instead, he played one against the other.

Though the Magdalo had not invited him to mediate, it seems to have been willing enough to wait and see what the Supremo could do; and there was, consequently, during that December of 1896 – the moment when unity could have meant the triumph of the Revolution – a chance for him to win over the Magdalo just by showing he had no other desire but to fuse the rival armies against the government’s crumbling troops. Instead, he antagonized the Magdalo by acting, when he arrived in Cavite, “like a king.”

In Cavite, he could have accomplished what he failed to do in San Juan: lead the Revolution into Manila. But to be able to lead the Caviteños, he had to fire them with an enthusiasm larger than their local pride, and to symbolize this larger spirit himself by rising above both the Magdiwang and the Magdalo. Instead, he became as pettily factional as they were.

He was already suspect to the Caviteños in general because he was an outsider, and to the Magdalo in particular because he was related, through his wife, to the chieftain of the Magdiwang; and he should, therefore, have been exquisite in his carefulness not to lean toward any one faction, to quench the suspicion that he had come, not as a disinterested mediator, but as an interested meddler scheming to make Cavite’s success his own. Instead, in the fatal Imus Assembly, he openly snubbed the Magdalo, openly favored the Magdiwang.

The rift he should have healed, he rent into a chasm. And into the chasm he had created, he himself fell. Five months after Imus, he lay dead on a hillside in Maragondon.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Of our heroes, Andres Bonifacio has had, like an uncouth guest at a swanky party, the most trouble getting seated at the table of honor – if all that talk about his being “downgraded” has any meaning. The ilustrados are partly blamed for this; but the fact is, it was an ilustrado group, headed by Don Fernando Maria Guerrero of El Renacimiento, that started the Bonifacio cult back in the early 1900’s, when the Supremo was all but forgotten, and Aguinaldo and Rizal were getting all the attention. The argument that he was “down- [end of page 92] graded’ in American days because he was a revolutionary doesn’t hold water. Didn’t Aguinaldo lead a revolution; aren’t Rizal’s writings dangerous and inflammatory? Or maybe we were being snobbish and couldn’t stomach Bonifacio because he was lowborn. But we had no trouble placing Mabini the peasant, though Mabini’s origins were miserable.

Since Bonifacio’s place in our pantheon is now secure, it’s time we faced up to the reasons we have not been so ready to exult over him as over Rizal – and the reasons go back to racial memory, back to the attitudes of the men who knew Bonifacio. He was not charming, he was not likeable; he had a rough temper; he was impatient, rash and domineering, he had the insecurity of the poor, the touchiness of the upstart. Pio Valenzuela is said to have described him as “algo despota” – rather despotic. There’s the story that when a brother-in-law he had appointed minister of war demurred on the ground that he knew nothing of military science, Bonifacio screamed. “Do as you’re told, because I’ll shoot you if you don’t!” Such stories may be apocryphal , but they indicate the contemporary view of him. Not apocryphal at all are the stories of his behavior in Cavite, which turned Caviteno feeling against him and ultimately led to his killing.

Freud has a theory that Jews bear a burden of guilt because they murdered their leader Moses, a man reputed to have had a violent temper and domineering ways. Isn’t it possible that our ambivalent attitude toward Bonifacio – a reluctance to “accept” him at the same time that we insist he should be placed higher than or equal with Rizal – a product of similar racial guilt feelings? Bonifacio, like Moses, undertook to lead his people out of Egypt into the Promised Land; but, unable to bear his temper and his harshness, we did away with him; and haven’t we borne a feeling of guilt in regard to Bonifacio ever since? He is such an uncomfortable hero. About Rizal we can say righteously: “The Spaniards, they killed him.” But about Bonifacio, we cannot be so smug. We know who killed him. It was our hands that pulled the trigger, our hands that swung the blade. It was we who decreed, on that mountain in Maragondon, that he was not to finish the Revolution. We don’t call him martyr – because who was the butcher?

The man who fell in Maragondon was so much of his native city that, when uprooted from its streets by the Revolution, virtue seemed to have gone out of him: he lost authority and direction. The Bonifacio in Cavite is a displaced person, a being out of its element, a lost wraith blowing this way and that. Happier then to dwell on the Bonifacio of Manila, on the boy born in the city on the day of its patron saint, Andrew the Apostle, whose name he [end of page 93] was given.

He was of Tondo, born in Tutuban, on a street that’s now the railroad station’s plaza.

There were six children in the family, four boys and two girls; the mother died soon after the birth of the younger girl. Andres studied under Maestro Guillermo Osmeña; early acquired a command of Spanish and fine penmanship. When he was 14, his father died. He became the head of the family, and he supported it by making and peddling paper fans and bamboo canes. On the side, he drew ads for business firms.

His first outside job seems to have been as bodeguero for a mosaic tile factory in Sta. Mesa, owned by the Preysler family. The Spanish patrona, Doña Elvira Preysler, is said to have recalled later that the young Bonifacio was a voracious reader; she noticed that he had a book propped open in front of him even while he was eating lunch. Sometimes he would approach her and ask what this word or that phrase meant. She also found that he took careful note of how she, a Spanish-born lady, spoke. Once he asked her why she pronounced it virtu when it was written virtud; she explained that the Spanish-born omitted terminal d’s. It was more colloquial and smart to say uste than usted.

Her young learner was clearly the poor little boy with an eye for that room on the top. In a freer society, he might have replayed the Horatio Alger story and ended up a successful industrialist with a penchant for dropping his d’s. In the Philippines of the last half of the 19th century, he found his drive to rise blocked; and the frustration may explain the souring of temper, the rage to pull down a society in which he could not climb. Of the books listed as his favorite reading when young, the significant one is not Dumas or Sue but “Lives of the Presidents of the United States.” In America, a poor boy could become president; in the Philippines, a poor boy could feel he was condemned to be a bodeguero all his life.

Bonifacio showed his drive to rise by ceasing to be a bodeguero. He wasn’t out of his teens yet when he became an escribiente, or clerk, for Fleming and Co. Presently, he was something even more exalted: a sales agent for Fressel and Co. He dabbled in dramatics (it was fashionable to be an aficionado of the teatro) and read the latest French novels as well as those daring writings of the Propagandists (they were becoming the rage among the educated classes). In the style of the young bucks of the period, he joined the Masons. Every Filipino who went to Europe to study came back a member of some Spanish lodge or other – but that was an ultimate distinction that the sales agent of Fressel and Co. could not hope for. [end of page 95]

The Bonifacio of this period eyes us coolly and stylishly from the only authentic photo we have of him, taken, it is said, on his second wedding; and it jars with our picture of him as the Great Proletarian, in camisachino and kundiman trousers. This wedding-day Bonifacio is certainly groomed to the ears. The hair is slick; the brow is polished; and he looks resplendent in wing collar, cravat, vest and morning coat – very dandy. It’s as if the poor boy from Tondo were showing all those rich boys in Binondo and Sta. Cruz that he, too, knew how the best people dressed. Ironic that the best-known Bonifacio portrait mocks the tag we have put on him.

By 1892, the Fressel agent had become prominent enough to join the gatherings of the ilustrados. When Rizal founded the Liga, Bonifacio was present, was elected treasurer of a society in which, according to Retana, only the well-to-do or the cultured (“las clases acomodadas o ilustradas”) could become members. The Liga never really functioned. Three days after it was organized, Rizal was arrested and banished to Dapitan. The following night – July 7, 1892, a Thursday – Bonifacio joined the small ilustrado group that, at No. 64 Azcarraga, founded the Katipunan.

Joaquin, Nick. “Why Fell the Supremo?” A Question of Heroes. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing Inc., 2005 [1977]. 86-108. Read the full chapter here.

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