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A plot to kill a general |

Arts and Culture

A plot to kill a general

- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil -

The worst thing that happened to the Filipinos in the Filipino-American War of 1899 was the assassination of Gen. Luna at the convent house of Cabanatuan on June 5 of that fateful year.

Perhaps Antonio Luna had invited it by a brilliance that dazzled the envious, the enormity of his talent and diligence, the passion for excellence that ignited his short temper, also, his look of dashing, stylish celebrity — for he had all of those in spades.

Even the American enemy, who had come, prepared to tangle with the reportedly half-naked savages of their new island possessions, developed an astonished admiration for him. One of them, Gen. Hughes of the American Army, said, of his death, probably relishing the irony, “The Filipinos had only one general, and they have killed him.”

Today’s Filipinos know him mostly from the street signs on the Gen. Luna St. that winds from Paco through Ermita to the entrance in the walls to Intramuros. Or, on occasion, from the relic of a stone mansion (now a Chinese warehouse) in Binondo, near the Pasig. A historical marker now attests that it is the house where Gen. Antonio Luna was born on Oct. 29, 1866. More infrequently, a charming country house in Badoc, Ilocos Norte (restored by the Marcoses who, along with other prominent families, claim descent from him) reminds passersby that it is where the Luna parents started out.

These days probably only a few people care to learn more about Antonio Luna. But it would be their loss. His significance flashes a bright light on our present lives. Without him and the happy few others like him, the conquering American colonizers would have treated the indios Filipinos as they did the native American Indians, and we would now all be living, permanently drunk on cheap whisky and cheaper casinos on barren badlands called Indian Reservations.

But Antonio Luna helped earn American respect for the people of this country. It took him only a few years for he died at 33. (The data in this article are from Vivencio R. Jose’s biography of Gen. Luna). He was the youngest of the brood of Laureana Novicio, a Spanish mestiza, and Joaquin Luna of Zambales and Ilocos Norte, a traveling salesman of the products of government monopolies, who later became a prosperous merchant in Binondo. Antonio went to the Ateneo Municipal, like the two other brothers, Manuel and Juan who later traveled to Europe to learn music and painting, respectively. Still in Manila, Antonio studied chemistry and pharmacy, swordsmanship, fencing, military tactics, and became a sharp- shooter. Two other brothers, Jose, became a doctor and Joaquin a governor and later senator.

Antonio was sent by his doting parents to Spain, to acquire a licentiate and doctorate in Pharmacy. He became one of the Filipino expats who mounted the “Propaganda Movement” and wrote for La Solidaridad under the penname “Taga-ilog.” He found Spain “acrid and dry, raquitic and impoverished” and the people, ignorant and racist. “The women,” he wrote, “are pretty, a treasury of charms.” He fought duels with Spanish writers who wrote insultingly of Filipinos, went to Paris and worked as assistant in histology and parasitology laboratories, published his articles in The Soli, in a book, “Impresiones.” He frequented the ateliers, the fencing halls, the theaters and restaurants, imbibed the niceties of upper-class European life. Like Rizal, he was something of a ladies’ man. In Europe, the two of them quarreled over their interest in the same girl, a French mestiza.

The days of roses and white nights of thorny patriotism came to an end in July 1892. Both the Liga and the Katipunan had been

founded, and Rizal was exiled to Dapitan. It was time for the Indios Bravos to go home and fight a revolution. But a family tragedy intervened. In September 1892, in a fit of jealousy, Juan Luna shot and killed his wife and mother-in-law and wounded his brother-in-law, Felix Pardo de Tavera in their Paris apartment. Juan Luna was tried, absolved and fined a few francs for what in France was considered a “crime of passion.” It was May 1894, before Antonio took a ship from Marseilles to Manila.

He joined the competitive examination for chief chemist of the Municipal Laboratory of Manila, came in first and won the position. He also opened a sala de armas, a fencing club, and learned of the underground societies that were planning a revolution, and was asked to join. His answer, that of an ill-informed, recently repatriated ilustrado, he regretted all the rest of his life. It was: “And what shall we fight with? With these?” (baring his strong, white teeth). He considered an armed uprising a premature adventure which would deteriorate into an “armed riot” because “you cannot get two Filipino to agree on one opinion.”

Nevertheless, after the Spanish authorities discovered the Katipunan in August 1896, Antonio, Jose and Juan Luna were arrested and jailed in Fort Santiago, as part of the Spanish list of “usual suspects.” Months later Jose and Juan were freed. But Antonio was exiled to Spain. The sportsman, expert chemist, propagandist, polemicist, songwriter, a favorite of Manila society hostesses had been jailed for rebellion!

His more famous and controversial brother Juan, who had been pardoned by the Spanish Queen Regent herself, left for Spain to use his internationally acclaimed, prize-winning artist’s prestige to intercede for Antonio. Influence worked. The case was dismissed by the Military Supreme Court and Antonio prepared himself for the revolutionary war he had decided to join. But first, he went to Madrid and other cities in Germany and Belgium, studied military strategy and tactics, field fortifications, guerrilla warfare, organization, and other aspects of military science. In HK he went to the Filipino Junta who gave him a letter of recommendation to Aguinaldo. And in July 1898, he signed on, his head filled with suspicions of American treachery, his heart bent on fighting to the death. This time, Luna no longer stood with haughty ilustrados publishing satires and well-reasoned demands for reform, but with peasants, factory clerks, unlettered peons, laborers from shipyards and mines, who (lacking guns and bullets) would bare their chests before American bayonets while General Luna shouted, “Take cover! Bravery is not enough!”

He first saw action in Manila on August 13, 1898. Since June, Spanish Manila had been completely surrounded by the revolutionary army. Luciano San Miguel occupied Mandaluyong; Pio del Pilar, Makati; Mariano Noriel, Parañaque; Pacheco, Navotas, Tambobong, and Caloocan. Gregorio Del Pilar marched through Sampaloc, taking Tondo, Divisoria and Azcerraga; Gen. Noriel cleared Singalong and Paco, held Ermita and Malate. Antonio Luna thought the Filipinos should just walk in and enter Intramuros. But Aguinaldo decided to listen to Gen. Merritt and Commodore Dewey, who had gunships in Manila Bay, and sent Luna to the trenches where he ordered his troops to fire on the Americans. After the disastrous farce of the American Occupation, Luna tried to complain to US officers at a meeting in Ermita about the disorder, the looting, rape, mayhem by US troops. To quiet him, Aguinaldo named Luna assistant secretary of War, head of the military college at Malolos and, in quick succession, director of war and supreme chief of the Army, arousing the jealousy of the other generals. Antonio felt that bureaucratic placebos were being thrown his way, when all he wanted was to organize and discipline the enthusiastic, ill-fed and ill-trained young indios into a real army.

First, Luna recruited all those, including mestizos and Spaniards who had fought in the Spanish army into defecting and joining the Revolution. A score of veteran officers became the teachers at his military school. He devised two courses of instruction, planned the reorganization, with a batallon de tiradores and a cavalry squadron, set up an inventory of guns and ammunition, arsenals, using convents and municipios, quartermasters, lookouts and communication systems. He even asked his brother Juan to design the uniforms and insisted on strict discipline over and above clan and clique loyalties. He had a few ilustrados on his side. The others had become autonomists, federalists, pacifists and counted more with Aguinaldo, the President and Commander-in-Chief.

Knowing that the Revolution and the infant Republic were a contest for the minds of Filipinos, Antonio Luna turned to his other avocation: journalism. Filipino hearts were stout, impregnable fortresses of courage and fortitude, but their minds needed to be strengthened with the ideas of nationhood and the need to fight a new imperialist enemy. He decided to publish a newspaper, “La Independencia.” Manned by the best writers, the four-page daily was filled with articles, short stories, patriotic songs and poems. The staff was installed in one of the coaches of the train that ran from Manila to Pangasinan. The paper came out in September 1898, and was an instant success, a movable feast of information, humor and good writing printing 4,000 copies, many more than all the other newspapers put together. 

When the Treaty of Paris (where Spain ceded the Philippines to the US) was made public in December 1898, Luna quickly realized that only decisive military action could save the First Philippine Republic.

His military strategy was to bottle up the Americans in Manila before more of their troops could land, execute surprise attacks while building up Filipino armies north of Manila and, should the enemy pierce his lines, wage a series of delaying battles and prepare a fortress in the northern highlands of Luzon.

But the High Command did not agree with Antonio Luna.

While they dithered,the Americans gained the time and the opportunity to start hostilities with the Philippine Republican Army at the place and time of their choice. On the night of Feb. 4, 1899, a weekend when they knew most of the Filipino generals were on furlough in Bulacan, they staged an incident along the concrete blockhouses in Sta. Mesa near the San Juan bridge. An American patrol fired on Filipino troops, claimed afterwards that the Filipinos had started shooting first (thus ensuring that the US Congress would vote for annexation) and the whole Filipino line from Pasay to Caloocan returned fire and the first battle of the Filipino-American War broke out. It became a war of conquest, occupation and annexation which Luna, Mabini, among others, had predicted and repeatedly warned Aguinado and his generals against.

Gen. Luna was at the front line, leading three companies to La Loma, to attack the Americans under Gen. Arthur MacArthur. Fighting went on at Marikina, Caloocan, Sta. Ana, and Paco. The Filipinos were subjected to a carefully planned attack with field artillery, using the guns from the US ships in the bay. Filipino casualties were horrific. At one point, Luna carried wounded officers and men himself to safety. A foreigner’s reaction has been documented by Vivencio Jose. “This is not war. It is simple massacre and butchery. How can these men resist your ships? What wrong have they committed to provoke this fearful slaughter? You came to protect them. Aguinaldo assisted you. I am a stranger here. I am horrified and amazed. Have you forgotten that without their assistance you would have serious trouble with the Spaniards taking Manila?”

An American’s reply: “Perhaps you’re right. But the US wants the Philippines and we have got to take them.”

At that battle, there were for every man with a gun, 50 other Filipinos, ready to take his place when he died.

On February 7, Gen. Luna issued detailed orders with five specific objects to the field officers of the territorial militia. It began “By virtue of the barbarous attack upon our army on February 4,” and ended with “War without quarter to false Americans who wish to enslave us. Independence or death!” Since the outbreak of war the US forces had continued bombardment of the towns around Manila, burning and looting whole districts.

A counter-attack by Filipino forces began at dawn on February23. The plan was a pincer-like movement using the troops from the North and the battalions from the South, with the sharpshooters (the only professionally trained troops) at crucial points. The counter attack was only partly successful because at a moment of extreme peril, with some companies already bereft of ammunition, the battalion from Kawit, Cavite refused to move, saying they had orders to obey only instructions directly from Gen. Aguinaldo. 

That kind of insubordination had been plaguing the Filipino forces. Most of the troops owed their loyalty to the officers from their provinces, towns or districts and not to the central command. The hostility of the Caviteños towards the Manileños was an old wound. The Manileño ilustrado, Antonio Luna, was resented by companies or battalions commanded by warlords and landlords from other provinces. At one point, Luna had to be restrained from shooting a Caviteño colonel.

Nevertheless, despite their superior firepower and more newly arrived reinforcements, the Americans were so compromised that Gen. Lawton, still in Colombo in Ceylon with his troops, received a cabled SOS, “Situation critical in Manila. Your early arrival great importance.”

And so it went, battle after battle, incident after incident until Gen. Luna proferred his resignation and, under pressure from his detractors and the enemies he had made enforcing discipline, Aguinaldo accepted his resignation.

Meanwhile, Gen. Henry Lawton had arrived with new troops and was sent to clear the south side of Laguna de Bai in Laguna. An American reporter embedded with the Lawton brigade, saw the immensity of the US Military superiority and reported: “Why did these Filipinos not surrender? Heaven only knows. It was an exhibition of solid heroism, the like of which I shall never see again.” 

Luna was absent from the field for three weeks, during which the Filipino forces suffered several defeats and setbacks. Swallowing his pride, Luna went to Aguinaldo and asked to be reinstated, begging for more powers over all the military chiefs, and Aguinaldo agreed. In May, during an encounter in Pampanga against Col. Funston’s troops, Gen. Luna, who was leading the charge, was hit in the gut and fell off his horse. Certain that he was dying, he told his aides to save themselves, grabbed his revolver and was about to shoot himself before the Americans could take him prisoner, when he noticed there was only a little blood on his uniform. He smiled. The gold coins in his silk money belt, a gift from his wealthy family, had apparently deflected the bullet and he had only a small flesh wound that needed a little treatment.

At the end of May, Col. Joaquin Luna, Antonio’s brother, warned him about a nefarious plot that was being concocted by “old elements’ of the Revolution (who were bent on accepting autonomy under American sovereignty to stop the terror of “the American rampage” that was ravaging the country) and a clique of army officers whom Luna had disarmed, arrested or insulted. Had President Aguinaldo succumbed to rumors and intrigues regarding Luna’s dangerous ambitions? Luna shrugged off all these threats and continued building defenses at Pangasinan where the US planned a landing.

He received two telegrams. One asked for help in a counter attack in San Fernando, and the other, “purportedly” signed by Aguinaldo, ordered him to come to the Aguinaldo headquarters at Cabanatuan, to form a new cabinet. Elated, Luna thought that, maybe, he would be named Premier and Secretary of War. He set off, first by train, then on horseback and eventually in three carriages to Nueva Ecija with his main aides. Two of the carromatas broke down and he proceeded in the only one left, with Col. Francisco Roman and Capt. Eduardo Rustica, having earlier shed his cavalry escort. 

At 2 p.m. under the scorching sun, Gen. Luna alighted, telling his aides to wait in the carromata while he conferred with Aguinaldo. He went up the stairs of the convento, joyfully expectant, and ran into an officer whom he had previously disarmed for cowardice and an old enemy, whom he had once threatened with arrest, a hated “autonomist,” and was told that Aguinaldo had left for San Isidro in Tarlac. Enraged, Luna asked why he had not been told the meeting was cancelled.

A single shot from a rifle on the plaza rang out. Beside himself, outraged, and furious, he rushed down the stairs and met Capt. Pedro Janolino accompanied by some of the Kawit troops he had previously dismissed for insubordination during a battle. Janolino swung his bolo at Gen. Luna, wounding him at the temple. Some soldiers in the party of Janolino fired at Luna, others started stabbing him, even as he tried to bring his revolver to bear. He staggered out to the plaza where Col. Roman and Capt. Rustica were rushing to his aid, but they, too, were set upon, shot again and again at close range while Luna, with his last breath, blood gushing from his multiple wounds, uttered his last imprecation, the worst he could think for any man — “Cowards! Assassins!”

From a window on the second floor of the convento, an old woman called down to the soldiers on the plaza, in Tagalog, “Is he dead yet?”

Thus was the brightest beacon and firebrand in the Philippine struggle for independence brutally extinguished by divisiveness, the fatal flaw in our national character. The rest was the darkness and defeat of American colonization. Today, we should at least remember how it came about.

* * *

The Manila Historical and Heritage Commission will hold a memorial program on the birth anniversary of Gen Antonio Luna on Oct. 29, at No. 843 Urbiztondo St., Binondo, Manila at 7:30 a.m. The public is invited.

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