The impossible man
- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil () - November 24, 2008 - 12:00am

Nobody else could have done what Bonifacio did to vindicate our race. We needed a man like him to provide what was necessary for the success of our Revolution. Fortunately, his work was done when he died. He was an impossible man.”

That was the testimonial of Clemente Zulueta, a surviving Katipunero, who disliked Bonifacio because he had once accused him of being a Jesuit agent. Yet it is the most cogent tribute to the great hero of the 1896 Revolution against Spain, the event that ended the 333-year yoke of the Spanish empire.

The quotation comes from the Bonifacio biography by Epifanio de los Santos, the scholar whose name we have given to the highway, EDSA, which now stands for revolutionary fervor.

But why “impossible man”? What did it mean? 

In the original Spanish phrase, “Un hombre imposible” translates into “difficult, ornery,” but also “improbable, incredible,” a man who taxes both your imagination and your patience, who surges from nowhere, unannounced and unbidden, the most unlikely person to light the essential fire that will spread over the captive countryside.

Bonifacio’s personal history explains why he did not fit the requirements for a savior of his country. He had nothing going for him, except perhaps, that he liked to read books. He had only four years of schooling and was a peddler of canes and paper fans in the grimy streets of Tondo, then as now, the armpit of the raucous city of Manila.

He must have been personable and well-spoken in Spanish (he had a Spanish forbear) for he found a job in a British firm as messenger and agent. He went on to work at Fressel, an English brick factory, where he was a warehouseman. The bodega gave him the time and space to collect books, where we learn from the reports on furtive searches by the Spanish government that he had squirreled, away a library and archives of his own. During the trial of Rizal in Fort Santiago, Bonifacio’s bookshelves were presented as part of the evidence of sedition. Historians can now gleefully list the volumes on US Presidents and the French Revolution, novels by Victor Hugo and Rizal, “The Wandering Jew” and “The Ruins of Palmyra” among Bonifacio’s reading material.

In the streets of Tondo and Binondo, he would have picked up the connections and information that led him to join a Masonic Lodge and Rizal’s patriotic society, Liga Filipina, a tribute to his upward mobility, for he was definitely not one of the ilustrados.

Andres Bonifacio seemed to have been, most of his life, the odd man out perpetually on the run, always just a few steps ahead of the Guardia Civil, the spies and intelligence agents, the friars and, in the end his own dissident Katipuneros. That was probably the reason why he deliberately left little documentation of his heroic life: a few paltry verses, a revolutionary primer and only one photo, taken at his wedding. We don’t know which wedding for he was married twice, first to a leprous girl and, after he became Supremo, to the muse of the Revolution, the Lakambini Gregoria de Jesus. The picture tells us he was handsome, with soulful eyes, well-defined features, on that occasion wearing a starched collar, a suit with a fabric rose in its lapel. The opinions of his contemporaries vary; he was charming and charismatic, despotic and arrogant, full of himself or hail-fellow-well met. Highly disciplined, he was also four hours late for the Battle of Pinaglabanan, undoing the planned midnight attack on Manila.

He was indeed quite an impossible man. But we cannot speak of him without mention of his close friend and counselor, Emilio Jacinto, only 19, a brilliant and passionate boy-genius, a law student at the University of Sto. Tomas. They shared the same dream, an independent Filipinas of equality, virtue and prosperity. Jacinto was bilingual but wrote the primer, the poetry, the manifestos, statutes and most of the articles and editorials of the Katipunan’s newspaper, Kalayaan (Freedom) in Tagalog. A curious sidebar to that paper is that its printing press was a donation of the two indio overseas workers who bought it with their salaries, one of the many contributions of the OFW’s of this nation.

Jacinto also headed the Katipunan delegation to a Japanese admiral to whom they handed a memorial to the Emperor of Japan seeking, in lyrical language, his support. Had they foreseen the Co-Prosperity Sphere of the Japanese invasion of 1941? Disguised as a Chinese peon, Jacinto also once visited Rizal’s cabin to try to persuade him to join the Revolution. He was also the sole adviser of the Katipunan’s Supreme Council, later the general in charge of the army of the North, a knowledgeable supplier of firearms, ammunition, even bows and arrows, and musical compositions.

During a battle in Mahayhay, Laguna, Emilio Jacinto was wounded in the thigh, captured by Spanish troops. He died in prison, of his wounds, in April 1899. Bonifacio always called him “the soul of the Katipunan.” Succeeding generations of Filipino university students have made Emilio Jacinto their inspiration and patron saint.

What Bonifacio gave to our Revolution was what Mao Tse-tung called, decades later, “the spark that lit the prairie fire.” Our prairie had been desolate for more that 300 years, and there had been a multitude of little sparks. The yearly revolts by sacristans, forced laborers, farmers, intrepid widows, native priests, galleon-builders, port-sergeants had drenched the prairie with blood. Despite Gabriela Silang, Balagtas, Gomburza, the Propaganda Movement of the ilustrados, the secret societies, the poets, artists, lawyers, polemicists, the novels of Rizal, it had not caught fire. All we needed was Bonifacio’s foolhardiness, his derring-do against all odds. 

Who but a feckless, rash adventurer, would dare lure desperate farmers, clerks and ropemakers to make a public outcry at the Pugad Lawin (Eagle’s Nest) promontory to tear up their papers, (the loss of which would mean torture or death) and go and scrawl the very devil’s graffiti on the walls of Montalban, “Viva la Independencia!”

Who else would put the lives of thousands (at least 30,000, although the Spaniards said 100,000) into mortal danger by enrolling them in cabalistic pledges, signed with their own blood, and then lead them into hopeless battles armed only with long knives and a few ancient revolvers against the artillery of an empire that had ruled the whole world?

Who but an impossible fool would inspire careful men like Aguinaldo, or Edilberto Evangelista, Belgian-trained engineer; or Antonio Luna and his brothers, the learned Pio Valenzuela, Apolinario Mabini and a score of snooty, horrified ilustrados to take up arms? Only Andres Bonifacio.  

It’s quite true that he lost most every battle he led. He was an ideologue, a passionate recruiter and a tireless organizer. But he had no idea of the tactics and strategies of military combat. He made a poor commanding general.

At Pinaglabanan, late August, 1896, he started out with almost 1000 men from Krus na Ligas (the present site of UP). More fighters joined him from Marikina, Mandaluyong, Santolan and San Juan. They carried knives, axes, lances, a few shotguns and old revolvers. They had barely eaten or slept for days and then they attacked, with incredible bravery, a fortress on a hill defended by artillery. Even before they got there, their flanks were attacked by Spanish troops and they were further surprised by reinforcements from Intramuros who came on the new electric tramway. They were mercilessly mowed down and, in the end, Bonifacio was left with 50 men.

The fields and streets were strewn with dead bodies. After the battle was over, Spanish troops searched every hut in neighboring towns, dragged the wounded to their yards and shot them before their own children. San Mateo and Langka River were almost as bad.

But, because of the debacle, the countryside around Manila rose as one enraged people’s army. The prairie had caught fire and it was spreading like a conflagration across the land. The Spanish governor-general, at the end of August, recognized the rebellion and declared a state of war in Manila, Bulacan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Laguna, Cavite and Batangas. They are now represented by the eight rays of the sun in the Filipino flag. “The Katipunan would become the first concrete embodiment of the Filipino nation,” writes O.D. Corpus.

After the lost battles, Bonifacio withdrew to Balara to recoup, reorganize, plan new battles. In October, Filipino soldiers in Spanish forts mutineed. Upon repeated invitations of Mariano Alvarez, a relative of his wife Gregoria de Jesus, Bonifacio traveled to Bacoor and Imus with her, his two brothers, Gen. Luciano dela Cruz and 20 men. His army was fighting in small bands, retiring into the woods after every skirmish, looking for “targets of opportunity”. The Spaniards arrested and executed at random. Every skirmish and execution fueled the Revolution.

In Cavite, Aguinaldo country, Bonifacio was drawn into the provincial rivalry between Aguinaldo’s Magdalo faction and the Magdiwang of the Alvarezes. A convention was called at Tejeros in March to organize a post-Katipunan revolutionary government. It degenerated into an on-the-spot election for the top offices of the Revolutionary Government, during which Bonifacio lost every office from the President down and was reduced to Interior Minister. A Magdalo, Daniel Tirona, questioned his qualifications, saying he lacked a diploma and a college degree. Insulted and infuriated, Bonifacio drew his gun, dissolved the convention, which had elected Aguinaldo president and declared the results of the election null and void.

Worse was to come. In December, a new Spanish governor launched a counter-attack against the liberated province of Cavite. On Dec. 30, Rizal was executed, followed by more executions on the Luneta which had become a killing field. In Cavite, Aguinaldo’s presidency and cabinet were formally organized.

Bonifacio decided to leave Cavite and return to Morong. But first an incident was reported to Aguinaldo: Bonifacio had shouted orders to his troops to burn a town where some partisans of Aguinaldo had refused food to Bonifacio’s followers.

On April 27, Aguinaldo ordered Bonifacio’s arrest, and a pre-trial hearing at Naic. He was court-martialed for sedition. The verdict was death for Andres and Procopio Bonifacio. Aguinaldo approved the verdict but commuted it to “indefinite exile.” For still unknown reasons, Aguinaldo’s commutation was not obeyed. In the woods of Mt. Buntis the Bonifacio brothers, wounded and helpless, were executed by a detail headed by Major Lazaro Macapagal on 10 May, 1897.

Fate heaped another indignity on the “impossible man” who had made the Philippine Revolution possible. The ossuary containing his bones was irretrievably lost during another war, another Filipino tragedy when the US bombed Manila during the war with the Japanese in 1945. But nothing and no one can take away his glory. 

Every year, on Nov. 30, the feast of St. Andrew or San Andres, the nation celebrates the birth anniversary of Bonifacio with such dedication that many Filipinos call it National Heroes Day. It is not. It is the day sacred to only one hero, the one called Andres who had guts and gumption like no other.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with