pop Mabini: Wounded Hero

by Dr. Robert L. Yoder, FAPC


His last years were his most painful. Apolinario Mabini was one of the foremost of the Philippine revolutionary heroes. He was the "brains" of the revolution. Crippled as a young man by polio, he realized that his physical limitations not only limited his personal life but the struggle his beloved homeland was undergoing to become a sovereign republic. He would also find his high ideals wounded by persons he sought to serve and by the cruelties caused by warfare.

His wounds were of the body and of the spirit. His physical problems were perhaps most painful in the way it seemed, even to his own eyes, to diminish his usefulness. The struggles in the fight for independence from Spain were hurtful as well. They involved cutting the ties with Spain that, despite its flaws, had emotional bonds that were hard to untangle. They involved an ugly and brutal war with the United States, a country with democratic ideals, but painfully flawed racism.

Now, however, in his last years, Mabini found himself as an exile from the land he held most dear. No one tortured or mistreated him. He taught his prison guards Spanish while they, in turn, returned the favor by teaching him English. As prison life goes, it was not a harsh life. It was here that he wrote his chief work, La Revolución Filipina. In it he sought to state for future generations his philosophy of life and the reasons he resisted the rule of both Spain and the United States.

Yet he longed for his homeland and the place he loved most dear, the place he was willing to live and die for was not his to enjoy. There were American sympathizers such as Senator George Hoar, who urged his release. However, the arguments of no less than Elihu Root, the Secretary of War and William Howard Taft, the Governor of the Philippines, and later President of the United States, opposed the action. Taft would write that Mabini was "the most prominent irreconcilable among the Filipinos." He feared that the civil war would break out anew were Mabini to return to the islands.

Mabini, therefore, remained in seclusion in Guam. Deported in 1901 he would remain there until a few months before his death in 1903. Today Filipinos deeply admire Mabini. In those years, however, his countrymen largely forgot him. When he returned to the Philippines people welcomed him as the nationalist he was. However, the Philippines was turning to the ways of its American tutors. It would not be for another fifty years that the dream of an independent nation would become a reality. In many ways Mabini's dreams of independence seemed irrelevant. He died in poverty.

While he was one of the ilustrado class, he had risen from the peasantry from Talaga, Tanauan, Batangas. His Father was a "cabeza de barangay" (headman and taxgather for fifty families) but uneducated. His mother had some formal education and from her Mabini gained some rudimentary education. Mabini dedicated his closing memoirs, La Revolución Filipina to his mother and indicated that she had aspired that he be a priest. "Realizing that you were too poor to meet the expenses of my education," wrote Mabini, "you worked as hard as you could, heedless of sun and rain, until you caught the illness that took you to your grave."

His grandfather, Juan Maranan, was a popular teacher. While tutoring Mabini's elder brother, his grandfather noticed that young Apolinario learned the lesson earlier. Although impoverished he was able to study in Manila. He began his studies at the Colegio de San Juan de Letrain in 1881 and later received a law degree in 1894 from the University of Santo Thomas.

During this time he supported himself in part by teaching Latin. His work as a copyist in the Court of First Instance, however, proved even more important. It was here that he came under the influence of Numeriano Adriano who was not only his superior but one with whom Mabini would develop a deep friendship. It was here that Mabini first began to sense the nationalistic feelings that were spreading among educated Filipinos. The social and political issues of the day developed a spirit to which Mabini would dedicate his entire life. It was also during this time, around 1896, that Mabini developed polio mellitus that was to deprive him of the use of his legs.

In 1896, when Andres Bonifacio began his revolt, authorities arrested Mabini as a member of his revolutionary movement, the Katipunan. In truth, Mabini was not a member of this movement but, rather, of the reform association of José Rizal, the La Liga Filipina. Bonifacio's movement sought military insurrection; Rizal's movement aimed at gradual reform. At first, Mabini opposed to Bonifacio and the insurrection.

Events, however, would transpire that would change Mabini's life forever. Spain would execute by strangulation three Filipino priests: Padres Burgos, Gomez, and Zamora. They would bring the man Mabini most idealized, José Rizal, to the Luneta, and would execute him by musketry.

The Filipino people, especially in areas such as Cavite which were most deeply controlled by Spanish friars, broke out in complete revolt. Mabini, convinced of the people's almost fanatical desire for freedom, turned from the ideals of Rizal's reforms to the zeal of Bonifacio's revolution. Joining the Katipunan, Mabini became a foremost propagandist, appealing to his countrymen to join the revolution against Spain.

In May of 1896, General Emilio Aguinaldo summoned Mabini to act as his advisor. Both Aguinaldo and Mabini were aware of the severe limitations that his lameness brought. Aguinaldo conveyed Mabini to his headquarters in Cavite by hammock. How could an invalid be of use to the revolution in the exigencies of a revolutionary atmosphere? However, Aguinaldo soon realized that Mabini's keen intellect, married to his devotion to independence, far outweighed this liability. He had a largeness of mind, soul, and vision that dispelled any doubts in Auginaldo's mind.

While devoted to democracy, Mabini first sought to make Aguinaldo a dictator of the Philippines as a temporary measure. His sentiments mitigated against this; the effect of war was the sole reason for this drastic compromise with his own philosophy. The decree, given on June 18, 1898, had a sentence that epitomized his true beliefs: "The first duty of the government is to interpret the popular will faithfully."

During the first moments of the Filipino experiment in self rule, Mabini served Aguinaldo faithfully. He supervised the administration of justice. He managed the election of delegates to the revolutionary congress. He established the first rudimentary mechanisms of the revolutionary government.

However, quite soon cracks began to develop in the revolutionary movement that would doom its cause. This was true especially as the revolution turned from a revolt against Spain to its more powerful "liberator," the United States.

Two factions composed the movement. Bonifacio's revolt was a popular uprising of the masses. The more educated illustrado class had a different agenda. These learned nationalists could not bring themselves to trust the uneducated common man. Perhaps the bloody lessons of the French revolution caused some concern in their minds.

As time would show, Aguinaldo would side with the illustrado class and abandon the aims of the revolt. His lieutenants would murder Bonifacio. Many believe that Aguinaldo was instrumental, also in the assassination of the revolution's most able general: Antonio Luna. Luna, despite his faults, was, like Mabini, an illustrado who sided with the common man. Mabini wrote, "Aguinaldo ... ruined himself, damned by his own deeds. Thus are great crimes punished by Providence." (La Revolución Filipina, Chapter X)

The revolutionary congress reconvened in Barasoain, Malolos, Bulacan, on September 15, 1898. At this time the sentiment of the majority of the representatives was to draft a complete constitution. Filipe G. Calderon wrote such a document. Mabini felt that the revolutionary nature of the times mitigated against anything but a temporary dictatorship. Mabini opposed it and wrote a different constitution that gave much more authority to the President (Aguinaldo). The delegates, however, adopted the Calderon document. As time passed, relations between Mabini and Aguinaldo became more strained. Mabini, however, continued to serve his commander in chief until his eventual capture.

There were several reasons why the Philippine Revolution failed in its struggle with the United States:

  1. The United States had better weapons. However, the difference in armed power in the Filipino - American conflict was not nearly as great as would be the later Vietnamese - American conflict.
  2. With the murder of Antonio Luna, the struggle lost its most effective military strategist. The Americans were, on the whole, more adept at military science. If the Filipinos had carried out a full scale guerrilla operation from the beginning of the struggle, the revolution might have lasted longer and (as in Viet Nam) the American public might have eventually tired of the effort. Even after the capture of Aguinaldo, General Miguel Malvar continued the desperate struggle with guerrilla tactics against America until 1902. In fact Macario Sakay continued with guerrilla activity against the United States until 1907 when he was captured in a ruse.

  3. Time would determine that the illustrado class, joined with the wealthy hacienderos had a greater loyalty to their own interests than that of Filipino independence. Mabini exposed a vicious opportunism of such illustrados as Pedro Peterno and Felipe Buencamino who sought to gain control over and profit from the financial transactions of the revolutionary movement.
    Even Aguinaldo would evidence this trait. He would submit to self-exile in Hong Kong under an agreement with the Spanish at Biak na Bato. When captured by Colonel Frederick Funston in Palanan, Isabela, he proclaimed submission to the Americans. At the end of his life, he would likewise embrace the occupying Japanese. Mabini could not contain the disappointment he felt in the man he served so faithfully. "To sum it up, the Revolution failed because it was badly led; because its leader [Aguinaldo] won his post by reprehensible rather than meritorious acts; because instead of supporting the men most useful to the people, he made them useless out of jealousy. Identifying the aggrandizement of the people with his own, he judged the worth of men not by their ability, character and patriotism but rather by their degree of friendship and kinship with him; and, anxious to secure the readiness of his favorites to sacrifice themselves for him, he was tolerant even of their transgressions. Because he thus neglected the people, the people forsook him; and forsaken by the people, he was bound to fall like a waxen idol melting in the heat of adversity. God grant we do not forget such a terrible lesson, learned at the cost of untold suffering." (La Revolución Filipina, chapter X) The Philippine society of a few rich and many poor plagues democracy to this day. While Filipinos control the Philippines, the unequal distribution of wealth continues to be a source of unrest and often results in armed conflict.
  4. It also became apparent to the common Filipino that Americans were not the severe colonial masters as were most European conquerors. With the arrival of American schoolteachers, and the advent of universal education, the lowliest peasant realized his aspirations for education. Ingrained in Americans were the ideals of democracy. Despite many flaws, their goal was a democratically stable Philippine government. Spain subjected the Philippines to its control for three hundred years; the United States tutored the Philippines for fifty.

Mabini was a man who sought to live a principled life. The effects of war were troubling to his spirit. As the United States would learn many years later in Viet Nam, brutality, on both sides, brought out the worst of the human spirit. Especially troubling to Mabini were the abuses of Filipino soldier to Filipino citizen. His decree of June 18, 1898, included provisions (see Article 8) that would curb military abuses. He brought those abuses that came to his attention before Aguinaldo. The general, however, ignored most of these criminal actions. He would put in his closing remarks in La Revolución Filipina the "disgust I felt whenever I heard of the rape of Filipinas by Filipino soldiers..... I am sure that the first instances would not have been repeated if the commanders concerned had punished such outrages energetically and without hesitation. How shall we get foreigners to respect our women when we ourselves set the example of offending them?" (Chapter XI)

American forces captured Mabini on December 10, 1899. Soon thereafter, Aguinaldo met a similar fate. For awhile, Mabini lived under house arrest. Refusing to submit to American authority, Mabini continued to write inflammatory tracts against the occupying power. The American government exiled Mabini to Guam in 1901.

Mabini, like José Rizal, was a true Filipino nationalist and a devoted patriot. Fate would place his life as that of a mediator between the people's will and the decisions of the first leadership of the Philippines. His life, despite some flaws, was selfless and motivated by high ideals. He would state, "I have no other balm to sweeten the bitterness of a harsh and melancholy life [in exile] than the satisfaction given by the conviction of having always done what I believed to be my duty. God grant that I can say the same at the hour of my death." (from La Revolución Filipina, e Introductory Manifesto)

The End.

See also by the same author:
"Philippine Heroines of the Revolution: Maria Clara they were not" and "Graciano López Jaena".

E-mail to the author: r.yoder@prodigy.net

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created: August 24, 1998
updated: September 1, 1999
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger