By understanding the roots of our colonial past, historians believe we can comprehend, be a participatory force—and not merely gaze—at the power dynamics shaping the surge towards a new global transformation.
“It’s only through [our] appreciation of history that we understand what is happening in the present and what might happen in the future,” Prof. Renato De Castro said at a recent historical forum on “The Philippines: Born in the Midst of a Global Power Shift.” The forum, held at the Museo Emilio Aguinaldo in Kawit, Cavite, in collaboration with Fundacion Santiago, looked at the Declaration of Philippine Independence to appreciate its relevance while honoring the late historian, diplomat and UST Law dean Dr. Antonio Molina and his contribution to Philippine historiography.
Call it déjà vu, but “what happened in the past is something that is alive,” said De Castro, an expert on geopolitics at the De La Salle University. As an emerging archipelagic “country state,” he recalled how Filipinos had fallen prey to the United States after over three centuries of Spanish colonial rule.
This time around, he noted how “we are confronted again by the US active participation in the region,” especially in the light of the “US-China strategic competition.”
He continued: “The reality is, as an ally of the United States and [on] the basis of our geography, we cannot help but be caught in the middle of the strategic competition.”
De Castro believes that when the Americans first encountered the country, “they simply didn’t know what to do with the Philippines.” They only realized its strategic importance when they looked at the map and found that the Philippines is a “steppingstone” to China.
At that time, he said the Americans were looking at engaging other European powers in “dividing China like a melon.” In reply to a question from the audience on whether, if the Philippines had not fallen into American hands after Spain, would Japan have stepped in, he said, “If not the Americans, the Germans can also grab the Philippines in their expansionist quest.”
That explains the standoff between the US forces led by Commodore George Dewey and the German squadron which wanted to link the Philippines to the Liaotung Peninsula in northeastern China. It happened at the time when European powers were trying to stop Japan from acquiring the Chinese territory following the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese had to wait until 1904 before testing their expansionist power after defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War.
“We can only ensure our independence if we are prepared, independent and, of course, we can only do it if we are armed and we are militarily capable… and have a very dynamic economy,” he asserted. “The way for us was to develop our navy, realize our goals as an archipelagic state with archipelagic interests,” he said.
But sadly, he lamented that “in the last 70 years we focused on domestic issues” like the secessionist movement and political corruption.
The trouble with our ‘Declaration of Independence’
THERE were earlier attempts to declare Philippine independence before Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo finally raised the Philippine flag on June 12, 1898, from the balcony of his ancestral house, and declared himself the President of the first Republic. According to Eufemio Agbayani of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), the process of such a declaration is embedded with several trivial albeit interesting issues that may prove relevant as we move forward as a nation.
It was after the Filipino revolutionaries were already “winning battle after battle in Cavite and elsewhere” that Aguinaldo felt it was “high time” to declare independence, the government historian said.
Agbayani recalled how Aguinaldo asked Cavite resident Julian Felipe to compose a national anthem which he completed within six days, but which some critics later said appeared similar to parts of the “Spanish national anthem.” To this, all speakers at the Molina forum said the matter is understandable, as Filipinos had been exposed to so much of Spain for three centuries.
Aguinaldo then assigned Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista, a lawyer from Biñan, Laguna, to prepare the “kilometric” (21 pages) document to be embodied in the declaration. But the question raised, Agbayani said, was, “Is it a Spanish theme or is it a Filipino theme?”
The general himself had to meet with American Consul E. Spencer Pratt over lunch in Singapore after finding him “sympathetic” to their cause and consult him about their plan to declare independence from Spain. He later gifted the consul a copy of the new Philippine flag.
When they had set the date and time for the proclamation, Aguinaldo asked Felipe to proceed to San Francisco de Malabon (now the municipality of General Trias) and teach the local band the new national anthem, which according to plan was supposed to be officially performed at the 4 p.m. independence rites inside the Aguinaldo mansion in Kawit. However, it was prematurely played by the band during the June 12 Sunday morning mass.
Another independence trivia: When Apolinario Mabini noticed in the independence declaration that the Philippines was to become a “protectorate of the Great American Nation,” he persuaded Aguinaldo to make another proclamation for independence. “The advantage of the [second] August 1, 1898, proclamation was that it required town mayors to attend, and therefore representatives of different provinces were there to sign the proclamation independence,” Agbayani said.
In that proclamation, the revolutionary leaders finally and categorically shunned the move to become a US “protectorate.” As Agbayani put it, the document that was presented in August “made our intentions clear that we want independence.”
AS a history researcher, Prof. Eloisa Parco-de Castro of UST, another speaker, confided that she made a dissertation—the “Segunda Esperanza”—during her graduate studies on the life of General Aguinaldo, wondering why he “does not enjoy the popularity in all sectors.”
For one, the general’s record as a leader was always being questioned from the time his Magdalo faction took over the leadership of the Katipunan from its founder, the Supremo Andres Bonifacio, until the Japanese occupation during World War II.
First, Parco-de Castro looked at over 100,000 “paying students” of all secondary schools from 1865 to 1898, where she found documents confirming that Aguinaldo reached only third year in high school at the San Juan de Letran after two years, and prior to that, another two years in his second year.
“And there were some reasons for that—not only because of his own admitted lack of interest in studying when he would prefer to watch the boats along Manila Bay, as the general cited in his memoirs Gunita ng Himagsikan,” she said.
The general had also lost his father at an early age, thrusting him to the role of secondary breadwinner to help his mother; he would become a successful trader and later a respected local official in his hometown before committing to the Revolution.
It also turned out that accounts of some historians were “really conflicting” with Aguinaldo’s autobiography, but one of his descendants, former Prime Minister Cesar Virata, later explained to Parco-de Castro, when she presented a paper on Aguinaldo at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, that the general “had written his memoirs quite late in life and naturally the memoir would not be as clear as they were during the time it happened.”
Parco-de Castro, a native of Cavite, said the general was even described in one article as “half literate.” But the writer was prejudiced, being an American, she said.
Angelo Aguinaldo, a descendant of the late general and former curator of the Aguinaldo shrine, said he was also questioned by a foreign researcher on Aguinaldo’s alleged lack of comprehension of the Spanish language, prompting him to show the foreigner hundreds of documents, handwritten by the general himself, in Spanish.
There must be some problem why he was depicted this way, and that convinced Parco-de Castro to “restudy the historiography of General Aguinaldo whom some people in power would like us to absorb…without critically assessing who said it.”
How to develop nationalism
But the bigger problem, Angelo Aguinaldo said, is the question of how to develop nationalism “when you don’t [even] know the place where you came from.”
He noted that the new Heritage Act, which amended the previous law in 2009, has empowered the local governments to conduct cultural mapping in their areas. “Bago n’yo malaman ang history ng Pilipinas, alamin n’yo muna ang history ng ating pinanggalingan [Before you fully learn Philippine history, study first the history of your place of origin],” he said.
In Kawit, she said that they were fortunate to have collaborated with Fundacion Santiago in completing the cultural mapping of their town. As Fundacion Executive Director Chaco Molina noted, “the more that we realize that history—the story of the people and how we live—the more we realize that it’s relevant.”
During the forum, they all agreed that to understand history better, it was best to keep “learning and re-learning history.” “Because it always comes back to haunt us,” according to the forum’s moderator, BusinessMirror Editor-in-Chief Lourdes M. Fernandez.
After all, by understanding the successes and mistakes when the Philippine Republic, Asia’s first, was born amid a global power shift over 125 years ago, we can make informed decisions from a broader perspective, given the complexities and rapidly changing developments of the current situation.