Determining the Truth About Forged Documents in Writing the Story of Andres Bonifacio
Malcolm H. Churchill
On April 7, 1995, Prof. Glenn A. May of the University of Oregon delivered a paper entitled "Andres Bonifacio, Inventing a Hero" to the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Washington, D.C. In his paper, May alleged that the documents on which the prevailing views about Andres Bonifacio are based are forged, and that we in essence know virtually nothing about the life of this leading actor in the Philippine Revolution against Spain.
The University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asia Studies has announced the forthcoming publication of a book by Glenn May expanding on these ideas. The University's flyer about the book, Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio, states that "Glenn May has revealed a story of a fabrication of a national hero -- a history of deception, dissimulation, and distortion. By now, Prof. May argues, "...all that can be reliably known is the illusion itself, the product of doctored, spurious or undocumented sources and the collective imagination of several generations of historians."
These are strong words. They call into question not only the image of a national hero but the integrity of three generations of prominent Filipino historians and national figures. However, the foundation of Glenn May's thesis is in fact constructed on shifting sands. In evaluating his book when it appears, it will be important to place it within the context of Glenn May's previous writing on Bonifacio, as well as a significant shortcoming in his understanding of Tagalog as a language.
Prof. May has a long-standing interest in Andres Bonifacio. However, this interest has to date manifested itself more in efforts to cast doubt upon existing knowledge than to expand our understanding of this revolutionary hero. Although this pattern obviously is continued with the forthcoming book, a dramatic and controversial prior example was May's assault upon Prof. Teodoro A. Agoncillo's The Revolt of the Masses.
In the fall 1991 issue of Pilipinas, Prof. May argued in an article, "Agoncillo's Bonifacio: The Revolt of the Masses Reconsidered," that our image of Andres Bonifacio is formed by Agoncillo's book and that this book is badly flawed. The Revolt of the Masses, though published in the 1950s, was written for a 1947-1948 Bonifacio biography contest. "The Bonifacio depicted in [The Revolt of the Masses]" May asserts, "is Teodoro Agoncillo's invention."
It is important to note that, besides alleging bias, May faults Agoncillo primarily for his heavy reliance on interviews. Dr. May now argues that Bonifacio was a heroic creation of forged documents; he then was arguing that the documents were inadequate to support what he saw as the "too flattering" depiction of the early Bonifacio as well as Agoncillo's depiction of Bonifacio after his arrival in Cavite.
May's present allegations of forgery center on four Bonifacio letters. These constitute the bulk of the Bonifacio materials available to Agoncillo and other scholars from Bonifacio's period as Supremo of the Katipunan. Originals of the letters had been owned by Epifanio de los Santos, a noted scholar and one-time Director of the pre-war Philippine Library and Museum. In 1989 a collector purchased what he apparently believed to be the originals of these letters from another collector, who apparently had acquired them from Epifanio de los Santos's granddaughter, Teresita Santos-Pangan. She had acquired them upon the death of her father, historian Jose P. Santos.
Prof. May's conclusion that these letters were forgeries is described in a January 27, 1994 article by him in the Far Eastern Economic Review. "After contacting the owner of the Bonifacio letters, I was permitted to see a photographic copy of the original documents. I examined it at the business office of a friend of the owner, himself a wealthy collector, who is collaborating with the owner on a book about Bonifacio... After examining the letters for an hour, I was not convinced that they were authentic. Even my untrained eyes could see that one of the letters was written in a distinctly different hand from the others. When I pointed this out to the collector and urged him to submit the document to a handwriting expert, he was taken aback, though it was unclear to me whether he was more worried about the monetary value of the documents or the scholarly value of his transcriptions."
In his April 7,1995 presentation to the Association for Asian Studies, Prof. May went a step further. He alleged that the letters were pre-1917 forgeries promulgated with the collusion of Epifanio de los Santos. However, before examining this allegation, we should note that Prof. May ignored or overlooked persuasive evidence that the originals of the four Bonifacio
letters passed out of the hands of the de los Santos family prior to the time of the sale by Teresita Pangan. The probability is that the documents examined by Prof. May were family copies and thus neither originals nor forgeries.
The disposition of the Filipiniana collection of Epifanio de los Santos (Don Panyong) is discussed by Prof. Agoncillo in a 1973 book entitled The Revolutionists. On page xi, Agoncillo states: "A passionate collector of objects d'art and rare Filipiniana (books and manuscripts), Don Panyong made it known that he would not sell his rare collections nor keep them for his family. 'I feel,' he said, 'that they ought to be the heritage of the Filipino people.' But when he was gone, a part of his library was purchased by the government for something like P19,000. The best parts of his wonderful collection of rare Filipiniana were kept by his eldest son, the late Jose P. Santos, who, before the last World War, placed them in the Filipiniana Section of the University of the Philippines Library for safekeeping -- and lost all of them when the Japanese soldiers used the books of the University Library as fuel to cook their food on the old campus on P. Faura Street in Manila."
In considering the two sets of handwriting that Dr. May saw, we must remember that xeroxes did not exist at the time the Epifanio de los Santos collection was being placed in the hands of others. Jose P. Santos published books on Bonifacio in 1933 and 1935. It would have been logical for him to have had copies made of some of the more important papers in his father's collection before giving them up. More than one scribe might well have been engaged in the effort, leading to copies of the four letters being in two handwritings. Thus, the dual handwriting is more likely indicative of an accurate reproduction of original documents than of fraud.
The four Bonifacio letters under discussion first appeared in the printed form in English and Spanish translations published in 1917 and 1918 by Epifanio de los Santos. In his April 1995 oral presentation at the Association for Asian Studies, Dr. May asserted that Epifanio de los Santos knew the four letters to be forgeries and "corrected" the Tagalog before publishing them in translation.
May summarized his argument for this astonishing allegation by stating that the alleged forger in effect switched active and passive-voice, using what May asserts was the wrong Tagalog "focus" for the era. Dr. May believes the correct voice for pre-1917 Tagalog is the active voice, whereas the Tagalog of the four Bonifacio letters is in the passive voice. Since the English and Spanish translations are in the active voice, May concluded not only that the Tagalog original was a forgery but that Epifanio de los Santos "corrected" the Tagalog for the English and Spanish translations. May explained to the audience at the Association meeting that Epifanio de los Santos would have known the forger was using the wrong "focus" for Bonifacio's time.
The first obvious problem with May's contention is that if Epifanio de los Santos knew enough to correct the "focus," a pre-1917 forger would likely have known enough to get it right in the first place. The alleged forgery took place, after all, less than twenty years after Bonifacio's death. The alleged forger clearly would have been knowledgeable about Bonifacio and the Katipunan and presumably of an age to have been familiar with the Tagalog usage of Bonifacio's day.
The second obvious problem is Dr. May's conclusion that the use of active voice in Spanish and English translations
demonstrates that the Tagalog original ought also to have been in the active voice. The translation process always confronts translators with the need to balance literal translation against meaning, and each translator deals with this problem in his or her own fashion. An English or Spanish translation in the active voice signifies nothing about what the Tagalog original was or should have been in. Active voice is customary, idiomatic usage in Western languages.
The complexity of translating Tagalog to English is discussed in the August 13, 1963 "Introduction" by Teodoro A. Agoncillo and S.V. Epistola to their book The Writings and Trial of Andres Bonifacio. "In translating the documents, we tried our best to retain the 'flavor' of the original without sacrificing readability in English. It would have been easier for us to cull the substance of the document and express it in idiomatic English, but we thought that the result, while easy to read, will lose completely the 'atmosphere' of the period and the 'flavor' of the original. On the other hand, a literal translation would result in an absurdity, particularly because the structure of Tagalog is so different from that of English... In (prose works), one finds Bonifacio employing tautological expressions and the passive construction... Filipinos as a rule are in the habit of employing the passive rather than the active voice in their writings" (Underlining supplied).
Dr. May's contention that Bonifacio would have written in the active voice comes from his archival research on Tagalog documents from the revolutionary period, he stated in his AAS presentation. Tagalog usage, he assets, has changed since then.
Dr. May's archival research has primarily been with documents from Batangas and Cavite. Although his knowledge of Tagalog may be considerable for a non-native speaker, his knowledge both of present-day and revolutionary period
Tagalog is deficient. This is illustrated by his comment to two Filipina scholars during the 1995 Association meeting that Aguinaldo's use of the "mag" prefix was "weird." Had he made his comment to someone other than a speaker of Cavite Tagalog, the remark might have gone unnoticed. However, one of the two Filipinas, being a Caviteña history professor, immediately recognized that what Dr. May regarded as "weird" was in fact standard Cavite Tagalog usage, used by Aguinaldo and unchanged from Aguinaldo's day to the present.
Speakers of Cavite Tagalog, and also of Batangas Tagalog, which is very close to Cavite Tagalog, regularly use the "mag" when Tagalog speakers from other area would use an infix. In the present tense they also use a "na" form which is unique. Inasmuch as Caviteños and Batangueños use their own language only when conversing among themselves, many Tagalog speakers are not aware of this dialectical difference, much less a non-native speaker of Tagalog like Prof. May.
The significance of Cavite/Batangas Tagalog usage is that it sometimes, but not always, results in a verb being in the active rather than the passive voice. If a Cavite speaker were to use the form "Nakain ako," "I am eating," for the Manila Tagalog usage "Kumakain ako," the tense remains unchanged, and a non-native speaker of Cavite Tagalog might find it "weird." If, on the other hand, a Batangas writer were to state "Nagsulat ako ng liham," "I wrote a letter," instead of the Manila Tagalog "Sinulat ko ang liham," "The letter was written by me," the "focus" has been shifted to "ako" from "liham" and the sentence in English translation has been transformed from passive to active.
Andres Bonifacio was from Tondo. He spoke Manila Tagalog. He used the passive voice. That the fourth Bonifacio letters that Prof. May examined use the passive voice proves
nothing other than that Bonifacio was not from Batangas or Cavite!
If there is any remaining doubt in anyone's mind as to the improbability of Dr. May's contention that Epifanio de los Santos "corrected" the Tagalog of a forger, it can be quickly laid to rest by a simple test of logic. Why would Epifanio de los Santos, or his son, retain forgeries so crude that any scholarly examination would likely expose them as forgeries? The answer is that it makes no sense at all. Forgeries would have served their purpose once they had been published in translation and accepted as genuine. If they were forgeries, the logical course would have been to destroy them. That they, or at least copies of them, were preserved, is in fact strong circumstantial evidence that the original letters were genuine.
May argued in his Fall 1991 Pilipinas article that the documents were insufficient to tell us what we would like to know about Bonifacio's life. Now in the "forgery thesis" of May's AAS presentation, he argues that these documents were created by pre-1917 forgers to present a more favorable view of Bonifacio than was justified, for the purpose (as May explicitly asserted) of sustaining the image of Bonifacio as a national hero. This thesis is singularly unpersuasive when one considers what a remarkably poor job his alleged forgers did, having failed, as May concluded in 1991, to document the life they wished to depict as heroic.
A further observation is in order. Dr. May in 1991 argued that Bonifacio was an "invention" of Teodoro A. Agoncillo. In 1995 he is arguing that Bonifacio is an invention of an unknown and incompetent forger. That the 1995 thesis is without validity must lead one to question the 1991 thesis. Prof. May
has inadvertently bolstered the argument for Prof. Agoncillo's portrayal of Bonifacio's Cavite days as being generally accurate.
Dr. Glenn May's book obviously will be enormously controversial in the Philippines, casting doubt not only on long-accepted understandings of Philippine history but on the integrity of Filipino scholars and revolutionaries. As with all such works, however, much of the public will be familiar with the book only from reviews and discussion rather than from first-hand reading. Moreover, even many Filipinos will not be familiar with the dialectical differences between Cavite/Batangas Tagalog and the Tagalog of Manila and other regions. Accordingly, in evaluating the evidence and argumentation presented by Dr. May in his book, it will be exceedingly important to realize that there is sound scholarly evidence for believing that the documents which Dr. May believes to be forgeries are in fact genuine.
This article first appeared as "Historian questions Bonifacio's heroism," Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 29, 1996.
I am indebted to my wife, Dr. Bernardita Reyes Churchill, for the materials utilized in this paper as well as for many hours of discussion of the issues raised in it.