COMMENTARY: Points to recall and note when celebrating June 12, 1898

There are three quite weighty ideas in the original title which I think I better leave open for further reflection—“Philippine Independence,” “Nation’s Progress,” and “Relevance (of celebrating June 12 Independence Day).” Historians, social scientists, and maybe almost everyone in the academic settings, are known for giving in to much, sometimes too much, thinking on “concepts” and “theories” about ‘independence,’ ‘progress,’ and ‘relevance’ (of History, in general), that these terms have become rallying points for debates.

As this will just be a short talk, we will escape, for the meantime, possible heavy contentions and focus on some light-weight and bantam-weight points about June 12, 1898, the surrounding times, and its celebration.

Light- and bantam-weight points on late 19th century

The 1890’s, in the life of our Nation and its History, should supposedly be recalled as the height of our nationalistic and revolutionary fervor. When one reads the histories, however, without much romantic views, one feels some comic side to the events, perhaps with a tragic tint, but comical nonetheless. Imagine a cartoon movie: there is a pompous gathering, people are waiting for the Great King, and when, with trumpets and hand-claps, he finally emerges, he slips on a banana peel and falls comically to the floor.

Consider the following historical facts:

One: There have been multiple independence-declarations in the 19th century. Independence—in both the Spanish and Filipino terms (Independencia! and Kalayaan!)—have been declared or shouted, several times in the 1890s. June 12, 1898, therefore, is just one of the several declarations. In every one of these, what starkly comes to view is the gap between the utterance and the obtaining situation, the sigaw and the kaayusang umiiral.

Here is one such sigaw. According to the historian O. D. Corpuz:

In April 1895 Bonifacio (nom de guerre, "Maypagasa") brought a band of Katipuneros into the Montalban hills, initiating some men of the area. Here in the Pamitinan cave the band assembled; their presence is evidenced by an inscription scratched in charcoal on the walls: "Viva la Independencia de Filipinas!" This was the Filipinos' first cry for liberty and independence.

Andres Bonifacio was, as we all know, later killed under the directives of Emilio Aguinaldo, and so Aguinaldo himself had his chance, three years later, of declaring, or re-declaring, the “independence.” A few days later after June 12, Apolinario Mabini, the “brains of the Revolution,” thought that the declaration was “premature” and advised Aguinaldo to make changes in the declaration. In our present parlance, revisions were done, with gaps of just weeks, in the press releases of “independence” given by our revolutionary fathers. It seems that after re-declaring independencia, the leaders could not make-up their minds as to its real meaning and details.

Just a side-note: There might even be an earlier cry of “independence,” much earlier than Bonifacio’s 1895. In the evening of January 20, 1843, some Filipino soldiers did a kind of coup d’etat and took Fort Santiago and struck fear on the Spanish authorities at Malacañang. Although they lost, here is the report of the French consul at that time:

the rebels were heard to cry out to their countrymen to rise in arms and fight for independence. This was the first time that word, independence, had been uttered in the Philippines, as a rallying cry. It is a milestone, Your Excellency, on the road to freedom.

Two: The obverse of 1898 independence-declaration was re-colonization. At the very festive moment when Aguinaldo and his Malolos government were issuing a declaration of “Independence” June 12, 1898, fleets of American military forces are already crossing the Pacific Ocean, moving to re-colonize the archipelago. Imagine that: at that very moment of reading, as one colonial force is moving out, a new imperialist force is coming in.

What is even more comic is when one reads the lines of the declaration:

And summoning as a witness of the rectitude of our intentions, the Supreme Judge of the Universe, and under the protection of the Mighty and Humane North American Nation, we proclaim and solemnly declare, in the name and by the authority of the inhabitants of all these Philippine Islands, that they are and have the right to be free and independent; that they are released from all obedience to the Crown of Spain, that every political tie between the two is and must be completely severed and annulled. .


 The irony of history did not escape the historian Renato Constantino’s comment:

As [the above] passage indicates, while the June 12 statement was a declaration of independence from Spain, it put the United States in the special position of protector of that independence.

Unwittingly, the idea of being an American protectorate had hitchhiked into the text of the supposed declaration of our nation’s independence.

Three: The Malolos government of Aguinaldo tried to forge a nation while remaining elitist in composition. Let us ask some speculative questions: What was happening in Mindanao at that very moment when June 12 Independence was declared? What was happening to Davao, to Tugbok, at the time when Filipinos elsewhere were in the grip of transformative desire to lift their nation from bondage to freedom? It is easy to imagine that while the flag of Philippine Independence was being raised in Malolos, some kids in what will be called later as Mintal are playing paaway-sa-damang while their parents are peacefully working in the field, pulling weeds around the corn stalks. “In the late 1890s,” our local historian Mac Tiu said, “when the revolution was raging in Luzon, the Davao Gulf area remained uninvolved.” Communication obstacles given archipelagic distances, plus other social and material factors contributed to these discordant 1898 snap-shots of Malolos and Davao.

Months after the declaration, when Aguinaldo convened the Malolos Congress, one observes the lack of actual representations from places far from Bulacan, with the person sitting for Davao being a Manileña named Leon Guerrero. The Congress convened to help forge the nation lack representatives from various provinces; more importantly, as shown by Renato Constantino, it did not have mass/sectoral representatives, being composed predominantly of elites and ilustrados.

Of course, there are great historical constraints that prohibit us from casting full-blames on Aguinaldo, his forces, and the wider actors of that time. There are change-resisting social and class factors and they acted on the pragmatics of the situation. Still, we could state this point as a historical fact: what obtained during that supposed-to-be peak-moment of our nation’s history was non-concern on one hand and sectoral marginalization on the other. The “nation” that was forged was anemic and contrasts with their robust ideals.

What lessons can we draw?

So what emerges from the above historical bits? It is not even required to dig these because they readily surface from the above survey.

One: it is not impossible, both now and in the past, to see a comic situation wherein simultaneous with the celebratory atmosphere of independence-declaration, wider forces of re-/neo-colonization are hovering around us. Sometimes, with a sense of the absurd, it could even have the unwitting approval of those leading the celebration, as in the case of Aguinaldo’s. In that fateful day of June 1898, the declaration shifted the attention of the people from seeing the obverse reality of American imperialism and the continuation, not transformation, of the same social, political, and economic arrangements.

Two: the various historical cries for independence are declarations of desires and visions. It appears comic if we misread them as voicing a description of Philippine reality.

Veneration with understanding

Now with the benefit of historical hindsight, we celebrate that great expression of kalayaan/kaginhawaan with full awareness of its ironies and obstacles. The deep desire for independence—kalayaan and its inner meaning, kaginhawaan—expressed several times, matched with revolutionary sacrifices, however comic and bungling sometimes: that is what we are celebrating now. 

Many years ago, the historian Renato Constantino chides those who blindly worship historical figures as guilty of “veneration without understanding.” The following books I listed below will help us understand better our long and winding struggle for kalayaan and kaginhawaan. Armed with greater historical consciousness, we could appreciate better what we are doing, like a yearly ritual, every 12th of June. Let us study our history from diverse angles and catch its transformative call. Mabuhay ang malayang Pilipinas!  


References/Required Readings

Constantino, Renato. 1975. The Philippines: A Past Revisited. Quezon City: The Foundation for Nationalist Studies.

Corpuz, O. D. 1989. Roots of the Filipino Nation. Volume One. Quezon City: Aklahi Foundation.

Salazar, Zeus. 1999. Ang Kartilya ni Emilio Jacinto at ang Diwang Pilipino sa Agos ng Kasaysayan. Quezon City: Palimbagan ng Lahi.

Tiu, Macario. 2005. Davao: Reconstructing History from Text and Memory. Davao City: RPO-Ateneo de Davao University.


[1] Delivered as a talk for the Tugbok District’s 109th Anniversary of Independence Day Celebration, Tugbok District Hall grounds, 12 June 2007.