Bonifacio Is Your Cubicle Seatmate

Bonifacio Is Your Cubicle Seatmate

And chances are your office complaints reflect the grievances of the Philippine Revolution.

( Bonifacio had a modest—though not that modest—background, it’s true. But let’s look at what that precisely meant. His father, Santiago, was a tailor, but had also served as a teniente mayor, one of those petty barrio district positions handed out by cabezas de barangay. A rough analogy might be that Bonifacio was the son of a barangay kagawad. His mother was a Spanish mestiza. He had tutors as a child but it was being orphaned that led him to being a vendor and then a calligrapher—“designing advertising posters,” joining a foreign firm, Fleming & Co. in his teens, then Fressel & Co., starting as a night-watchman, clerk-messenger, and then agent and broker, making him perhaps the equivalent of a Unilever employee today.

Bonifacio’s wife, the truly formidable Gregoria de Jesus was gentry—the daughter of a gobernadorcillo of Caloocan. So this equivalent of the son of a barangay kagawad was married to the daughter of a barangay chairman who owned land. Gobernadorcillo de Jesus sent his daughter to supervise tenants and laborers and pay their wages. In fact, her father’s objection to her marrying Bonifacio was not his social standing, but his being a Mason—and thus condemned by the Church (but good enough to join an association to which ilustrados belonged).

In our class and status-conscious society, Bonifacio then might be very much your cubicle seatmate if you work at a multi-national corporation or even in a call center, someone who is nobody in the overall scheme of things but someone who is a kind of somebody both in his neighborhood and the barangay of his father-in-law. And this is the point: He is not a remote figure at all, in terms of how we make sense of our surroundings, which includes finely tuned social antennae. Whatever the high and mighty think, it’s the people who get things done who are often the shrewdest when it comes to figuring out not only who’s who, but what’s what. Which explains much of Bonifacio’s success, and also, his eventual downfall. He was one of the obscure people who got things done.

Nor were his times so vastly different as to be incomprehensible. There were telegraph cables connecting Manila to Hong Kong in 1882. The first bicycle had been introduced in 1889. There were telephones since 1890 (the first telephone line had connected the Governor General of the Philippines’ office in Intramuros to the Archbishop’s Palace also in Intramuros, showing the lines of authority that not only mattered, but were joined at the hip), the British had built a railroad in 1892, streetcars were introduced in 1893; in the same year, gas lighting gave way to electric lighting in Intramuros and its suburbs including the Luneta (on the night of August 29 to 30, 1896, Aguinaldo later wrote he kept watch, looking to see if the lights of the Luneta, “nine miles away,” would go out, the signal for the attack of the Katipunan on Intramuros). Five months after the revolution broke out, the first movie was shown in Manila, while the first interisland submarine cable for telegraphs linking Manila to the Visayas was built in 1897.

Andres Bonifacio, according to the historian Jim Richardson, insisted on everyone having a photo ID on file in the Katipunan HQ and even kept a cabinet of shame, where the ID photos of delinquent or disgraced members were kept, to be exhibited and scorned during meetings. Yet we only have one faded photo of Andres Bonifacio, and most of the familiar representations of him only have a slight resemblance to that authentic image.

Practically all our founding fathers (and founding mothers) took time to have their photos taken, which, when you think of it, should remind us that the era of the Philippine Revolution was in many ways, the modern era. But these were modern times only up to a point. To the catalog of things that were features of life at the time, must be added something that was not. Among Bonifacio’s skills, for example, was that of being a calligrapher—there may have been telephones and telegrams and printing presses but somehow, not many typewriters, which is why men capable of beautiful penmanship like Bonifacio, could make a living as clerks in commercial enterprises.

Hence we are close in enough in time to relate but far enough in time to need to be careful in our comparisons. In many ways, our society remains unchanged but its component parts have evolved since then.

We have to understand four great divisions in our society at the time. They were: The principalia, the ilustrados, a tiny middle class, and everyone else.

In simplest terms, the principalia were the provincial barons, inheritors of authority in local communities derived from leadership since precolonial times. A barrio was headed by a cabeza de barangay, and the cabezas de barangay in an area would in turn pick their gobernadorcillo (a title known after 1890 as the capitan municipal), whose job it was to coordinate the gobernadorcillos when it came to their two top duties: Collecting taxes from payment of the residence certificate or cedula, and organizing the periods of community labor everyone (except of course the cabezas and capitanes) were required to render the Spanish government for free 40 days out of every year.

Gobernadorcillos of course also had the power of patronage: They appointed or were served by elected, flunkeys tasked with police work (including selecting and supervising the local cops), establishing property and pasture boundaries, and picking clerks to do paperwork. We know that by the twilight of the Spanish period, they had become dissatisfied with the setup because their duties had come to outstrip their privileges. Prior to 1844, the principalia by virtue of office acted as the commercial agents of the Spanish provincial governors who in turn, had “virtually monopolized insular trade.” In addition, the principalia also got a cut of the taxes they collected. A third source was from bribes from local residents, say to avoid the 40 days of annual service required. A fourth source was skimming from buying official supplies for the town.

But ironically, as the derelict Spanish empire tried to modernize and make its colonial rule more efficient, the age-old opportunities for making money started being reduced. To make things worse, imperial Manila decreed that if, say, a barrio was supposed to produce a certain amount of taxes, and the cabeza didn’t collect that expected amount, then the cabeza would have to fork over the difference out of his own pocket. This also meant that government work required more and more paperwork, and more and more fees: The public started hating their local officials every bit as much as the foreign overlords.

In the meantime, a new type of Filipino was emerging who may not have had inherited prestige like the principalia, but who, because of education and the opening up of the economy, suddenly had more money and thus, eventually more prestige, than the established principalia families. These were the ilustrados who, on the other hand, identified themselves primarily by means of educational attainment, but this was made possible by wealth from the opening up of the Philippine economy to agricultural trade abroad: Coffee, tobacco, hemp, and sugar, primarily. We also know that by the twilight of the Spanish era, the main connections that made wealth possible was with the American and British economies and not the Spanish one: Wealthy ilustrados not only had access to books but other luxuries—American clipper ships brought in ice from New England—but were also globalized in their perspective. They looked less to Spain perhaps, and more to the British economy, which had stimulated the growth of our sugar industry and sold Filipino landowners the technologies needed for modern sugar production.

And with the rise of bureaucracy and the growth of the big cities came another type: The middle class. This was primarily an urban phenomenon: It was in the city that you could pursue a trade. Thanks to Guillermo Masangkay listing down the Katipuneros he could still remember being in Balintawak half a century previously, we have an interesting snapshot of who the Katipuneros were. Ambeth Ocampo has written about what their backgrounds were, and you can look at this infographic to get an immediate visual clue. They’re the type of people you know from school: Low- to mid-level government employees, small-scale, buy-and-sell types, not exactly somebodies but definitely not nobodies, either. But as Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson put it simply, such city folk were still fundamentally different from their fellow Katipuneros who came from the principalia: “Simply put, the advancement of Bonifacio’s career depended largely upon his willingness and ability to carry out orders: Aguinaldo’s class matrix demanded that he give them.”

An interesting detail is that as the security situation deteriorated in Manila, paranoid Spanish officials decided Malacañan Palace needed a better fence—and the one who won the contract to build the new perimeter wall for the Palace was a Katipunero. Again, as in Masangkay’s list, this suggests a particular type of mid-level middle-class person, in this case, a contractor, the likes of which there are still aplenty of in our society today.

As for everyone else: The silent majority are silent because unlike the middle and upper classes, they did not record—nor did too many people record for them—their opinions and views on things going on, primarily because they were illiterate. Which is not to say that they did not have opinions or think things through, but their means of communication were not the kind that survives in documents. Their thoughts and aspirations exist in stories, in songs, in objects such as talismans, and in instances where their words were listened to, and recorded (accurately or not, it depends) by scribes or their leaders in decrees, letters, and memoirs.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. You could be born into wealth, or have made your own fortune, but sooner or later you need people from other backgrounds to work for you. So in this manner, our society plays both fast and free with the pecking order. Families that produced generations of gobernadorcillos and cabezas de barangay, might find themselves marrying into ilustrado families; lazy cabezas and enterprising ilustrados in turn might seek out poor but eager classmates or other individuals to be clerks, book-keepers, or assistants, in the same manner that British, Spanish, or German merchants would need similarly-skilled workers to keep their books and manage inventory.

But everyone, sooner or later, would find their ambitions checked by the presence of the Spaniards. The principalia had to answer to them. The ilustrados had to kowtow to them, exasperated by their inefficiency compared to their businesslike partners and customers from Britain or America. The middle class knew they could never go beyond middle management because not only was upper management for principalia or ilustrado types, but the real power still lay in the hand of the Spaniards. And the silent majority found itself, if in the provinces, no longer independent farmers but mere sacadas or kasamas, or in the cities, dwellers of slums trying to eke out lives as vendors, laundresses, and so forth.

Whether in Letran, the Ateneo, or UST, old and new rich and upwardly-mobile young men not only got to know each other but got exposed to big ideas from the outside world, where Spain was considered a decrepit country, and where the union of Church and State was already, in the 19th, something considered a scandalous relict of the 18th century. People from different regions and different backgrounds not only got to know each other (a random sampling: In UST in the early to mid-1890s, Ignacio Paua, Emilio Jacinto, Juan Sumulong, Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, and Vicente Madrigal were all either contemporaries or actual classmates) but were exposed to the same official teaching (mocked by an earlier generation of writers such as Rizal) and the same illegal ideas, which in turn was picked up by self-made men like Bonifacio whose bookshelf included the lives of the American Presidents and the history of the French Revolution. And all, in one way or another, if you look at the story of their lives, reached the same fundamental realization: Whatever their personal worth, they were considered second-class citizens compared to the Spaniards.

As the first to express the colossal stupidity of this reality, and to suggest that yesterday’s indio was actually something that ought to be known as a Filipino, Rizal was head and shoulders above all others in the eyes of every single person who was fed up with this reality. When Rizal tried to put together La Liga Filipina, which is a candidate for consideration as the first Filipino NGO, it was headed by an ilustrado, himself, but included able but obscure people like Apolinario Mabini and Andres Bonifacio himself. Imagine that—though even today such a mix of backgrounds wouldn’t be surprising in a Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, or Masonic Lodge.

Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson wrote that if there was one single idea that set apart the city Katipuneros from not only other Katipuneros from the provinces, but the ilustrados and the principalia, it was the idea of equality. Up-to-date on the kind of thinking going on abroad, some ilustrados categorized the Katipuneros as “communistic,” even though Fast and Richardson point out that Emilio Jacinto himself had written that “superiority in…wealth” was “to be understood”—what the Katipunan objected to was exploitation, just as it opposed the idea that some people might be inherently superior to others. And besides, while Rizal, Luna, Mabini, Bonifacio, and to a certain extent possibly even Aguinaldo might be familiar with the same events and concepts—the French and American revolutions and Masonry, for example—each of them might interpret not only those events but the ideals they represented in different ways. So Rizal announced, from jail, his belief reforms would only work if they came from above, and denounced the Katipunan as rash and ill-fated; Antonio Luna mocked the invitation to join the revolution by baring his teeth and asking, did they intend to fight it armed only with their pearly whites, Mabini, as a lawyer, thought it ill-advised as Rizal did, while only Bonifacio dared actually not only plot, but lead, urban insurrection, while Aguinaldo, from his municipal chieftain’s point of view, eventually joined the fight.

Bonifacio had the organizing ability in the city, but it was people like Aguinaldo who had a bailiwick which granted not just a certain degree of self-assurance, but numbers to command; neither Rizal, who only had his bulging brain or the Lunas, who had social standing and wealth but neither armed followers nor a home turf to command, had any assurance that what began might continue on the track originally proclaimed. Fast and Richardson in their book explore at length the thought processes, candidly expressed at the time, of many members of the principalia and the ilustrados: We may despise Spain; we may want to control our own destiny; but what if it fails? What will we lose? Or worse, what if we win but lose control? Outnumbered not only by these city folk, these clerks, minor officials, and other small people, but by the farmers and other peasants being told stories about liberty, equality, and brotherhood—where would it stop? If they chop off the noses of ivory santos now, might they not cut off the heads of mestizo planters tomorrow? And so it would turn out: Bonifacio, the man who got things done, would be done in by the men who didn’t want all that much done, in case it did them in. The ilustrados with their long view, could think in terms of generations. The principalia had a much shorter time frame and much blunter objectives: to be top dog but leave the pack system unchanged.

Thus in the two stages of the Katipunan: The ultra-secret society from 1892 to 1896 (Bonifacio came to head it in 1894), and the period when the organization grew by leaps and bounds outside Manila in early 1896, the combination of middle class and minor principalia types that originally comprised the Katipunan, came into greater contact with the ilustrados (it was Rizal who advised the Katipuneros to contact Antonio Luna around July 1896) and the principalia in the provinces like Aguinaldo. The signs of things to come became evident in these last few months before the revolution actually broke up. The ilustrados refused to join; while the massive expansion of the Katipunan meant that Bonifacio and his city-based originals were now outnumbered by provincial barons used not only to deference, but literally calling the shots.

I’ve gone over the dynamics of that confrontation in my article. But today’s essay is meant to remind us that the circumstances pushing different subsets of our society to push out the Spaniards, is both modern enough—particularly in the attitudes, and dynamics, of each and in the way they interacted with each other—and traditional enough, for us to understand the dilemmas and the outcomes that resulted from those circumstances.

We will, each of us, individually gravitate to those members of our founding generation who resemble each of us the most; but it shouldn’t mean we should stop there. That should only be the start: So similar, yet so different, so us; in a word: Not just so Filipino, but so universal. The Philippine and French Revolutions were over a century and half a world apart, but they happened because a decrepit monarchy in both cases tried to modernize—but not enough—and by so doing left everyone fed up; it created enough wealth to give a middle class a chance to rise, an intellectual class to develop ideas, and for both to affect the anonymous many to rise up against the few who would not change. It unleashed blood in the name of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, and devoured its own children until, at a certain point, a society that had revolted settled for peace after dictatorship and foreign conquest. Robespierre and Bonifacio, faces bloodied and shattered after being arrested, and subjected to a show trial and execution, died as they had previously condemned others to die; replaced in both cases by a dictator who promised competence, order, discipline, and success.


Much of the above is from Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson’s book, Roots of Dependency: Politicial and Economic Revolution in 19th Century Philippines (Foundation for Nationalist Studies, Quezon City, 1979). For latest in scholarship on Bonifacio a good place to start is the website of Jim Richardson. You can learn more from these links: Bonifacio 150; The Founding of the Katipunan; Tejeros Convention; The Trial of Andres Bonifacio; Transcript of the Trial of Andres Bonifacio; Flags and Banners of the Colonial Era in the Philippines. And check out, Evolution of the Revolution because maps are love.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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