Camilo de Polavieja: Rizal’s executioner

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

Today, December 13th, in 1896, Camilo García de Polavieja y del Castillo Negrete became the 113th governor-general of the Philippines. He was a man of many fine militaristic and administrative qualities, which earned him the respect of many, but he was also generally hated by several of his own countrymen for many reasons. For Filipinos, he was responsible for the execution of Jose Rizal, as he was the chief executive of the colony when Rizal’s trial and execution took place.

Camilo de Polavieja was born in Madrid, Spain, in 1838 to Camilo José García de Polavieja and María de los Ángeles del Castillo. Despite belonging to a well-off family, his father suddenly lost everything when he suffered a big financial setback, causing his early death and forcing Camilo to return to Spain and abandoning his dreams of entering the Academy of the General Staff Corps and volunteering simply as a soldier. It cannot be denied that he was truly a hardworking soldier; he participated in various military campaigns throughout the different Spanish colonies and earned multiple distinctions which led to successive promotions.

In 1873, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and fought under the command of several important generals and continued his meteoric rise in the military hierarchy until becoming general in 1876. At this time, he was appointed to Cuba and it was here where earned the distinction of being able to not just crush insurrections, but also to mediate between the government forces and the leaders of the insurrectos. Unlike many generals at that time, Polavieja personally managed all his military campaigns. His continued military successes caused Polavieja to receive the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabel la Católica and was promoted to lieutenant general.

He married María Concepción Castrillo y Medina in 1885, and their wedding was sponsored by the Spanish king himself. When the Philippine revolution broke out in August 1896, Polavieja was appointed second corporal and served as Governor-General Blanco’s second-in-command. His partnership with Blanco did not last long, as their superiors wanted the more able Polavieja to take charge, leading to Blanco’s resignation and Polavieja’s appointment as governor-general.

As soon as he took over, he implemented many policies to curb corruption and improve the bureaucracy. He began repression in the form of deportations accompanied by promises of pardons and trials, many of these ending in capital punishment, most memorable among them was Rizal’s execution after he was accused of rebellion, sedition, and illicit association. Under Polavieja’s direction, military operations began as soon as reinforcements arrived, and they actively pursued the rebels in their mountain bases. Because of disagreements with superiors in Madrid and his worsening health issues, he resigned within less than a year. Modern historians agree, however, that despite his brief stint as governor-general, he was effective in controlling the insurrection. Because of this, he was appointed president of the War Advisory Board and was awarded the Grand Cross of San Fernando.

Upon his return to Spain, he was initially praised for his works in the colonies and supported by most sectors of society. However, he soon began to receive criticisms in the press, and many of his former sympathizers gradually withdrew their support. He received accusations of favoritism for promotions granted during the campaign, especially in the Philippines, was strongly criticized for the death of Jose Rizal, and was blamed for the loss of the Philippines. He later dedicated himself to military studies and resumed his old hobbies of historical studies. As an amateur historian, he once stated: “A country that does not know its history and that knows something about it because it learned it in foreign books, cannot have aspirations of greatness.”

Although Camilo de Polavieja would always be reviled in the annals of Philippine history for being Rizal’s judge and executioner, he was also an exemplary and able military and administrative leader.

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