Three priests and a mutiny
- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil () - February 9, 2009 - 12:00am

In the cold, gray dawn of the 17th of February, 1872, people started to gather on the grassy field of Bagumbayan (now Rizal Park) south of Intramuros. At first, they were mostly Spanish soldiers and the Guardia Civil in their fine uniforms, office holders and letrados in suits, rotund friars with their sacristans, principalia in short black jackets worn over untucked baro. They were in a festive mood for they had come to witness a public execution, always a fiesta in the Spanish establishment.

As the sun rose, groups of dark, barefoot men, strangely mute, gathered around the scaffold that loomed in the center of the field. They wore frayed cotton shirts and faded trousers. These were workers, clerks and stable-boys, who had come from Tondo, Quiapo, or Santa Ana, sailors from Cavite, country folk from Morong and Laguna.

Soon, three priests in black cassocks, bound and manacled, escorted by Spanish friars, guards and drummers appeared at a gate in the walled city. They were the condemned men, Fathers Burgos, Gomes and Zamora, who had been sentenced to death for sedition against the Spanish Crown and were to be executed by garrote, the most dreaded form of execution: strangulation by a cast-iron vise tightened around the neck.

They had only one thing in common. They were secular native parish priests who did not belong to any of the religious orders (like the Dominicans, Franciscans etc.) but served in the dioceses directly under the Pope in Rome. They represented the bitter, divisive cause of natives claiming parishes for themselves for “secularization,” opposed by the all-powerful friar orders who maintained that Filipinos were capable only of being boatmen or peons, but should not think that, because they could mumble Latin prayers they could now aspire to run whole parishes.

Absurd as that may seem to Filipinos today, the penalty for holding such views was death by garrote, and those three Filipinos had been tried and proven guilty of such high treason.

The first to ascend the gallows was Father Mariano Gomes, white-haired and visibly aged (he was 72), and indio of Chinese or Japanese descent, who had been a popular parish priest in Bacoor, Cavite. Perfectly erect and serene, he spoke briefly, “Thy Will be done.”

Next came Father Jacinto Zamora, a Spanish mestizo Manileño, a classmate at Letran and Santo Tomas of the main “traitor” Fr. Jose Burgos. He stared vacantly into space and had to be led to the black chair. He was 36 and his arrest order had bore the name of “Jose Maria Zamora,” but the officer had ignored the obvious error of the mistaken identity because he had found a scribbled note in the house of Father Jacinto inviting him to a “reunion” where there would be “lots of powder and ammunition.”

It had actually been an invitation to a card-game and the reference to gunpowder was priestly slang for “gambling money.” Jacinto Zamora was the parish priest of Pandacan, but that night he had lost his mind.

His friend, Fr. Jose Burgos, 35, a handsome Creole, born in Vigan of Spanish parents, ascended last. He was the recognized leader of the “secularization” faction and had written vehement and eloquent manifestos. His being a full-blooded Spaniard made it plain that the fight was between the natives, born on Philippine soil, and the peninsulares, born on the Spanish peninsula. Burgos had called his faction “Hijos del Pais,” the original concept, which decades later, became Bonifacio’s “Anak ng Bayan.” Fr. Burgos, facing death, was not to be silenced. He angrily denounced the injustice of their sentence and execution. But to the kneeling, masked executioner, he said kindly, “My son, I forgive you. Do your duty.”

The usual traditional cheers from the Spanish soldiers and dignitaries erupted as Father Burgos expired. “Viva España!” “Viva España en Filipinas!”

But now an ominous wailing and chanting rose from the silent crowd, who had fallen on their knees and were reciting in thunderous tone, “Misere nobis, Lord have mercy. Let our cry come unto You!” Again and again, the Holy Litany of the Dying, taught to them by their parish priests.

Nick Joaquin, in his history of Manila, wrote that at that moment, the Filipinos were no longer a mob, “they were already a nation.” O.D. Corpus wrote that “the sorrow had wrought a miracle.” It was the suddenly altered consciousness of the Filipinos.

The Spaniards recognized it, too. For they fled, in great alarm, to safety behind the walls of Intramuros, clanging the gates after them. The very next day, they began a reign of terror: frantic arrests, executions and banishments. First a whole boatload of native parish priests to the Marianas (now Guam). Then a group of lawyers and rich men: Pardo de Tavera, Regidor, Basa, Paterno, de Leon, Mauricio, Maurente, Carrillo, Sanchez. Next the students, their teachers, the associates, disciples and friends of the Three Priests. Anyone who could be suspected of leading the emerging uprising was silenced. Everyone else went into hiding. Just what was it all about? What had happened?

In mid-19th century Philippines the balance of power between the Spanish and the natives had changed. The galleon trade had ended. Mexico declared independence in 1815 and, one after another, the Spanish colonies in South America were lost. A revolution and a new Constitution in Spain opened it to the liberal ideas of liberty and equality. A new governor general in Manila (horrors!) sympathized with the suffering natives and spoke of political rights. Carlos de la Torre was quickly replaced by Izquierdo, a hard-core Rightist, but the harm had been done. The natives were restless.

In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened, cutting travel time from Europe to Manila from four months to 30 days. In rushed a new world of Germans, French, British, East Coast Americans investors, merchants, teachers, scholars, sugar plantations, factories, dangerous ideas. The Filipino upper class became richer, better educated than the Spanish administrators and argued with the friars. Spanish monks and the security police in isolated towns increasingly wrote home saying they would probably be murdered in their sleep.

Into this ferment stepped the military and the clergy. The troops and the sailors complained about wages, the native priests about respect. A plague of rumors, worse than usual, hit Spanish Manila in 1870. The talk was that an uprising would install a new “king,” probably, the charismatic Padre Jose Burgos of the Manila Cathedral.

On the evening of January 20, 1872, a fireworks display at San Sebastian in Quiapo was mistaken by a group of disgruntled Marines in Cavite for the signal proclaiming reinforcements for their planned mutiny. Led by a Sergeant in Fort San Felipe, they rose and killed 11 Spanish officers, but were subdued and killed. Some said the friars had staged the mutiny to be rid of Fr. Burgos. In any case, the three priests involved in the secularization of parishes were arrested.

The connection between the Cavite mutiny and the execution of Fathers Burgos, Gomes and Zamora was never explained. Nor will the records of the priests’ trial ever be revealed. After many attempts by officials, historians, scholars after Philippine Independence in 1945, a Filipino diplomat/historian was told in the 1960s “terminantemente” — they would never be declassified because they were kept forever inviolate in a drawer in the Spanish archives containing documents pertaining to the Generalisimo Franco.

The exact identities of the victims of the mass arrests and executions after 1872 are nowhere obtainable either. Historians call it now the “period of repression.” No other attempts at armed resistance or organized protests took place between 1872 and 1896. All possible leaders had been killed off or exiled.

But Spain made one mistake. It did not learn the lesson taught by Herod the Great and did not massacre the innocents. The little native boys who grew up in the shadow of the terror and sorrow of 1872 became obsessed with it. 

In 1872, Rizal was 11; Bonifacio, 7; Mabini, 8; Aguinaldo, 3; They became the soul and muscle of the Revolution.

Rizal’s family changed their name from Mercado because his brother Paciano was a disciple of Burgos and Jose dedicated his revolutionary novel to the three priests. The password of Bonifacio’s Katipunan was “Gom-Bur-Za.” Mabini and Aguinaldo organized the first Philippine Republic.

M. H. del Pilar’s eldest brother, Toribio, was sent to exile. Marcelo headed the Propaganda Movement. 

Decades after, Mabini said it best, in describing that moment on Bagumbayan: “The Filipinos saw their condition for the first time. Feeling pain, they knew they were alive, and so they asked themselves what kind of a life it was that they led. The awakening was painful and working to stay alive even more so. But one had to live. How? They did not know and the desire to know, the anxiety to learn and understand, took hold and possessed the youth of Filipinos...”

If we had any historical sense, the remembrance of the 17th of February of 1872 would be as big a fiesta as Rizal Day. Burgos, Gomes and Zamora were the voices crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for Rizal and his generation and all the others who came after them. They were the precursors of the Filipino nation.

* * *

On Feb. 17, 8 a.m., the National Historical Institute will hold a commemorative ceremony at the small Gomburza monument to the right of the Rizal monument in Luneta.

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