The mark of Sakay: The vilified hero of our war with America
- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil () - September 8, 2008 - 12:00am

The mark of Macario Leon Sakay was the long, jet-black luxu-riant hair that, uncut and un-trammeled, cascaded from the top of a head, always held high and audaciously, down to his shoulders. With it, Sakay left a large imprint on the annals of the Philippine Revolution against Spain of 1896 and the Filipino-American War of 1899, for the sight of him on his horse, riding against the wind, at dawn or the dead of night, his black mane streaming behind him in order to set right some urgent wrong, alarmed his people’s enemies but gave instant hope to their hapless cause.

He had begun life as a fatherless boy (Sakay was his mother’s surname) in congested, urban-poor, Tondo on Tabora St., earning a living doing odd jobs as a blacksmith or as occasional tailor, also as an actor in street theater and comedias, but mostly as a barber. When he made his commitment to Philippine Independence by joining his friend, Andres Bonifacio’s Katipunan, he made hair the symbol of resistance and vowed he would cut his only after he had defeated the Americans.

During his brief lifetime, Sakay became the scourge of all his country’s oppressors — the Spaniards, the Americans, the misguided half-bloods and compatriots — trying in every way he knew to secure freedom from injustice for his people. He was more determined than Rizal, more fortunate than Bonifacio, purer than Aguinaldo, more lyrically mysterious than Mabini. If Filipinos had won the war with America, he would probably have been our Simon Bolívar or our Ho Chi Minh.

Instead, because most history is written by the victors and their partisans and in the American years, Filipino schoolbooks and acceptable public opinion followed the black propaganda of the American annexation and “pacification,” several generations of Filipinos lived and died, believing that Sakay was a criminal with lunatic pretensions, a brigand and a ludicrous bandit. In the late 1930s Lamberto Avellana, my brother Leoni’s chum from the American Jesuit Ateneo, movie director and National-Artist-to-be, made a film about Sakay where he was portrayed as the villainous bandit, with the Philippine Constabulary officer playing hero and leading man (Leopoldo Salcedo.)

What a little research can undo. After Independence, scholars intent on writing history from a Filipino viewpoint began to review the colonial versions and examine old records. They came to the conclusion that Sakay was an authentic hero in the best tradition of Bonifacio, Emilio Jacinto and Apolonio Samson who were his comrades-in-arms in the Katipunan. Far from being a bandit, he was a glorious die-hard, incredibly brave and tenacious, a heroic hold-out for Philippine Independence.

In 1952, Antonio K. Abad, a member of the Philippine Historical Society, published the definitive biography, General Macario L. Sakay: — the only President of the Tagalog Republic. Was He a Bandit or a Patriot? The foreword by Prof. Teodoro A. Agoncillo, read, “No Filipino has been so maligned in history as General Macario Sakay…Sakay and his men lived dangerously and thus invited the hatred of the early Americans who started a double-barreled campaign of imperialism and liquidation. The Americans called them bandits and outlaws… Mr. Antonio K. Abad has recreated the hero out of a mass of documents…His work is a vindication of the much maligned man who dared posterity to emulate his deep devotion to the ideals of independence.”

UP Prof. Renato Constantino also published his findings in the 1960s, demolishing the American colonial libel about Sakay. But colonial propaganda and its lies have a long shelf-life. Only last week I was painfully surprised when a couple of my Manileño friends, in reply to my remark that I was writing about Sakay, replied dismissively, “Oh, that bandit.”

After a hundred years, we still need the backstory of the Revolution against Spain in 1896 and our war with America in 1899 to understand Sakay and his generation.

The day Rizal was exiled to Dapitan, in July 1892, a group of middle-class Manileños met at a private residence on Azcarraga (now Recto) and founded the Katipunan (Ang Kataastaasang Kagalanggalangan Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan), the secret society that planned and initiated the armed struggle against Spain. In four years, the K.K.K.’s membership rose to almost 30,000: students, workers, merchants, farmers from the eight provinces that started the Revolution. Sakay was an early joiner.

After that disastrous first battle in San Juan in August, 1896, Sakay joined the forces that encamped in the hills of Marikina and Montalban and fought in the Katipunan battles, including the victory at San Mateo. After several reverses, the Manila Katipuneros retreated to Cavite where a new general, Emilio Aguinaldo, turned the tide, defeated Bonifacio in a power struggle (Aguinaldo’s Caviteño Magdalo vs. Bonifacio’s Manileño Magdiwang) and went on to win many encounters. The Spanish government called a truce and negotiated the Pact of Biyak-na-Bato.

The heads of the Revolutionary Army retreated to Hongkong, from where they spent the Spanish indemnity money on arms, befriended the US Consuls in Hong Kong and Singapore and resumed the Revolution in 1898 at the height of the Spanish-American War, assuming that the Americans were their allies and protectors. Aguinaldo proclaimed Philippine Independence in Cavite in June, 1898, with the revolutionary forces 80,000 strong, laid successful siege to Spanish Manila, proceeded to liberate Luzon and expected to enter the beleaguered capital and install a Philippine Independent Republic.

But the US had an altogether different agenda. It kept the Filipino forces from entering the city, signed a treaty of surrender with Spain and American troops entered Manila all by themselves, proclaiming the start of the US Occupation, on Aug. 13, 1898.

Dewey had destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay on May 1, and land troops, newly arrived under Gen. Wesley Merritt, took possession. They had to wait, however, for the Treaty of Paris in which Spain ceded a colony it no longer held to the US for $20 million, and started in February 1899, a first military encounter with Filipino troops holding the trenches around Sta. Mesa. The Filipino-American War was formally settled in 1902, after the capture of Aguinaldo in his mountain hideout in Palanan, Isabela, in 1901. But Filipino guerrilla action against the US forces did not end until 1907 when the first Filipino parliament was allowed by the US America spent $300 million more pacifying the Filipinos they thought they had bought at the bargain-basement price of $20 million.

Having survived the Revolution against Spain, Sakay was, at the beginning of the Philippine resistance to the US, an undercover man in Manila where he tried to reactivate the Katipunan, organizing commandos and intelligence and sabotage units. While head of the Dapitan section of the K.K.K., Magdiwang in Manila, Sakay was arrested and jailed by US authorities and released under the general amnesty of July 1902. He quickly took to the hills and organized huge guerrilla forces which operated in Rizal, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, and the foothills of Mt. Banahaw. No ragtag band, just one of Sakay’s commanders had 4,000 troops.

In his mountain lair, he proclaimed, on May 6, 1902 the establishment of the Kapuluang Katagalugan (The Tagalog Archipelago) with himself as president, Francisco Carreon as vice-president and Lt. Gen. Julian Montalan as chief of staff. The terms “Tagalog Archipelago” were chosen in contrast to the “Philippine Republic” of the rival Aguinaldo Magdalo.

In a second manifesto, a constitution was enacted and published in Tagalog and Spanish in newspapers edited by Lope K. Santos, proclaiming the Tagalog Archipelago as the “true revolutionists, with a government at Dimas-Alang,” beseeching the representatives of other nations “for help in acquainting the world with our true intent and aims for our unfortunate country.” Sakay’s government had a flag, a system of taxation, a disciplined army consisting of regular battalions and regiments of infantry, artillery, engineer and medical corps with separate commands in full uniform. It operated in total defiance of the hugely superior, first modern foreign army, infuriating and mocking US authorities in Manila. It was a hard state with strict laws impersonally and impartially executed, especially capital punishment and physical maiming imposed on informers, collaborators, and spies of the US government. It took the Americans 3,000 troops and two more years to think they had defeated Sakay. Although, “pacification” had formally ended, there was no let-up in the attacks of Sakay’s forces on US installations.

At last in 1905-06, the Americans devised a more successful trap. First, they passed a Brigand Act defining all forms of resistance to US rule as criminal acts deserving of capital punishment. American officials were able to wean many of the ilustrado elite from their anti-colonial advocacies. Men like T. Pardo de Tavera formed the Federalista Party that aspired to statehood in the US Union; the Paternos, Aranetas, Benitezes participated in other events; Epifanio de los Santos became a delegate to the US Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Alongside with Sakay’s guerrillas, bands of highwaymen, robbers, cattle-rustlers operated in the Luzon countryside and, when caught, claimed to be Sakay’s troops. Sakay himself, a dashing, romantic figure, was rumored to have kidnapped the comely wife of a provincial governor who vowed revenge. One of the most charming, persuasive ilustrados, Dr. Dominador Gomez, was asked by the Americans to approach Sakay and discuss amnesty for his thousands of soldiers.

Gen. Leon Villafuerte later testified that Dr. Gomez had told Sakay and his officers that, “The American governor-general has promised to create a national assembly of our countrymen elected by the people where our leaders can be trained for eventual self-government. As soon as we prove ourselves capable, we shall be granted independence.” After long treks to Tanay and several visits by Dr. Gomez, Sakay, Carreon, Villafuerte, Montalan and de Vega came to Manila on a safe-conduct pass from the Americans. Dressed in rayadillo uniforms, carrying pistols and daggers, their long hair neatly combed, they came on foot with hundreds of overjoyed townspeople showering them with food and other gifts, guitar music and singing. People acclaimed them as celebrity heroes and they were feted at banquets and dances.

On July 17, they were invited to a town fiesta in Cavite by US Col. Van Shaick, the acting Cavite governor. An orchestra played dance music amid American flags and bunches of flowers. At 11:30 a.m., US officers, pistols in hand, walked in and although Sakay fought unarmed against “his giant attacker,” he and his officers were disarmed. The building was surrounded by Filipino Constabulary officers.

Gen. Villafuerte shouted, “We have been betrayed and we are trapped. Doctor, what is the meaning of this?” Dr. Gomez stepped forward: “There’s no use fighting.” Sakay’s eyes were bloodshot. He said, “Tell the Americans to face us in the open field, in honorable battle.” And to the Filipino Constabularios, he remarked, “Aren’t you ashamed of what you are doing?” Manacled, they were taken by boat to the Hotel de Oriente in Binondo and then to Bilibid Prison. Captain Rafael Crame presided over the preliminary investigation and the accused were charged under the Brigand Act. They were defended by Attys. Felipe Buencamino and Ramon Diokno (father of the great anti-Marcos militant Pepe Diokno).

In Bilibid, the prisoners were allowed visits by family and friends who were astoundingly numerous, bringing food, gifts, letters. Sympathizers who pleaded for clemency, included Aguinaldo, Gregorio Aglipay, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, the Liga de Mujeres, the Union Obrera Democratica. The prisoners also witnessed prison atrocities (which today recall Guantanamo and Abu-Ghraib): 300 members of the Sakay forces were secretly hanged inside Bilibid and 100 more were injected with lethal serum. Many of them had surrendered because Sakay had told his troops they would not be harmed because the Americans had promised a congress of elected Filipino representatives who would rule the country if they abjured armed resistance.

At the trial at the Court of First Instance, using false witnesses, Sakay and his men were accused of robbery in band, murder, rape, summary executions, arson, kidnapping.

Dr. Dominador Gomez instructed them to plead “guilty” because they would then be pardoned. The public defenders, Attys. Buencamino and Diokno, advised them to plead “not guilty,” to show both innocence and non-recognition of US sovereignty. On Aug. 6, 1907, Judge Ignacio Villamor (who would become UP president) convicted them. Those who had pleaded not guilty, like Sakay and de Vega, were hanged. The others, who had listened to Dr. Gomez, had their death sentences commuted or were later released.

A discrepancy intrudes at this point. Just who was Dr. Dominador Gomez? The agent chosen by the Americans to lure Sakay into leaving his headquarters in the mountains of Tanay to come to Manila? From William J. Pomeroy and the National Historical Institute; we learn that he was a medical doctor, a graduate from the University of Sto. Tomas, who in 1903, at the beginning of the American regime, had taken over from Isabelo de los Reyes the leadership of the Union Obrera and had participated in a large anti-American rally. Gomez was arrested for sedition, tried and convicted to four years of hard labor and ordered to pay a fine. His case was on appeal to the Supreme Court (manned by US justices), his sentence un-served, when he began to negotiate Sakay’s surrender, going on arduous treks to Tanay for long discussions, showing a letter from the US governor-general that promised a Filipino assembly, “the door to freedom,” if Sakay and his generals laid down their arms.

The American betrayal in Cavite, Sakay’s and his men’s trial, and conviction have already been told in this article. What remains to be noted is that, two weeks after Sakay was hanged, Dr. Dominador Gomez’s pending case was summarily revived and quickly dismissed for “insufficient evidence.” Gomez then went on to become a representative for the First Philippine Assembly of 1907 where he was denounced and expelled by Sergio Osmeña and Manuel Luis Quezon, for having served as a surgeon in the Spanish army in Cuba and received a medal from the Spanish queen during the Spanish-American War. But in 1909, Gomez was re-elected to a second term because, despite his previous disgraceful expulsion, he was backed by the US authorities. The facts speak for themselves. Sakay was the plea bargain.

At 8:30 in the morning, on Sept. 13, 1907, Sakay and Col. Lucio de Vega were taken from their bartolina to the gallows. Reaching the platform, Sakay shouted at the top of his lungs, “I face the Lord Almighty calmly but we must tell you that we are not bandits and robbers as the Americans accuse us, but members of the revolutionary force that defended our country. Long live the Philippines! Adios Filipinas!” Sakay was 37.

The day before, a big crowd of Manila residents had gathered in front of Malacañang Palace in an unusual, emotional demonstration pleading for clemency, but the American governor-general refused to see them. Almost the same crowd, larger and more vociferous, was at the gates of Bilibid Prison asking to be allowed to wrap the bodies of Sakay and Col. De Vega in Katipunan flags before they were buried. They were refused.

The US Government kept their word about calling a Filipino assembly. In October 1907, the First Philippine Assembly of Filipinos elected (by men of property) was inaugurated at the Manila Grand Opera House on Calle Cervantes (now Rizal Avenue) by Secretary of War William H. Taft. Acting Secretary of the Philippine Commission Ferguson read the Spanish translation of Taft’s speech, followed by an invocation by Bishop Barlin. After the roll call, with names like Gabaldon, Gomez, Guerrero, Imperial, Osmena, Palma, Quezon, Velarde, De Veyra, roundly applauded, the session was adjourned till the afternoon. A young delegate from Cebu, Sergio Osmeña was elected Speaker by acclamation.

But Philippine Independence was granted by America only 40 years later, on 4 July 1946, after a devastating war, and on several conditions: equal rights to US citizens in the development of natural resources, US military bases in perpetuity, economic treaties including the onerous “free trade” (that denied industrialization to this country), also interventions in Philippine elections and in foreign and educational policies.

It was the kind of independence, Macario Leon Sakay, Katipunero and patriot, an “organization genius” as his American captors described him, never would have settled for or even considered. He would have chosen instead to die fighting America, if he had known the truth and seen the future of his adored Filipinas.

* * *

(The National Historical Institute and the University of the Philippines have erected a marker at the foot of Mt. Banahaw where General Macario Sakay and his troops operated. The Manila Historical Heritage Commission held a commemorative program last year at Plaza Morriones Tondo in honor of Macario Sakay. This year, on Sept. 13, 2008, a life-size statue of Sakay will be unveiled at Plaza Morga Tondo by the Manila Historical Heritage Commission.)

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