Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Larkin, John A. Review of Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio, by Glenn Anthony May. The Journal of Asian Studies 56.3 (August 1997): 858-9.


Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio. By Glenn Anthony May. Madison: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison in cooperation with New Day Publishers, Manila, 1996. xi, 200 pp. $40.00 (cloth); $19-95 (paper).

To most Filipino intelligentsia, the struggle for independence from 1872 to 1901 is the initial, defining event in the formation of their nation. The heroism and sacrifices of that era have provided models of proper action and justified the Philippine claim to separate, unique nationhood in the modern world. The period has about it a sacred quality, and foreign criticism of its heroes, no matter how rational, provokes Filipinos of diverse ideology. What Glenn May has published will surely arouse their resentment.

In this brief volume, May questions much that historians have written about Andres Bonifacio, an important leader of the revolution. To certify his inflammatory claim, May scrutinized the extant sources, small in number, and found that most possess a dubious provenance. He inspects the evidence for logical, linguistic, and paleographic inconsistencies, which he finds in abundance.

In the first two chapters he critiques the sources provided by Manuel Artigas, Epifanio de los Santos and his son, Jose P. Santos, and doubts that these letters, poems, and articles are authentic. The absence of most of the originals makes investigation difficult, for the three prewar historians provided little explanation about where they obtained their information. May asserts that without the originals and more background about them the sources should not be trusted, and in some cases may well be forgeries. In other instances, he shows that even if the materials prove genuine they cannot be verified to have been composed by Bonifacio. Next, he dismisses comments referring to Bonifacio found in the memoir of Katipunero Artemio Ricarte, whom May finds self-serving and therefore unreliable.

Having eliminated these crucial sources, May concludes that too little evidence remains to support Bonifacio's current reputation. In the final two chapters, the author considers the work of two major Filipino historians, Teodoro Agoncillo and Reynaldo Ileto, who have utilized this data to construct their portraits of the complex, putative proletarian. He points out that their dependence on this shoddy material means that the characterizations cannot stand. What May says about the supposed motivations of the five historians most responsible for creating the portrait of Bonifacio is less convincing, at times accusatory, sometimes exculpatory. His case about the documents is more thoroughly and solidly grounded than are his explanations of intentions.


May knows that his foray into revolutionary history will incite a heated response. In the past he criticized the historical writings of nationalist Renato Constantino and received considerable flak from Filipino scholars. May has tried to keep the focus on evidentiary grounds and avoid the interpretive side of the debate. He follows in the traces of William Henry Scott, who used similar methods to expose the weakness of pre-Hispanic sources about the Philippines. The same thing that happened to Scott might well happen to May: Filipino writers, lay readers and patriotic intellectuals will deny or ignore his findings. The construction of Philippine history remains thoroughly intertwined with the aspirations of this still relatively new nation; hence, reality and myth-making intersect in much of the historiography. At least initially, few will care to see the sense in what an American historian has to say about one of their founding fathers.

Still, May's relentless inquiry is persuasive, and he rightly lands on the side of skepticism about these documents. His employment of background literature to justify his points is thorough and apt. Others who wish to resuscitate Bonifacio's reputation must now deal with May's queries or, better yet, find new, more authentic materials.

That May points out that many historians, including himself, were earlier taken in by the hoax provides little comfort. While tearing down the existing portrait, he has left little to build upon. Because of storage conditions in the Philippines, there will always likely be a shortage of documents on key historical subjects. Inevitably, forgeries will appear to fill the gaps, so watch dogs become necessary. Hopefully, historians will appreciate the services such sentinels provide.

While May's writing style makes the reading easy for the most part, this is a book about the crafting of history, of more interest to the specialist than to the beginner or casual reader.

John A. Larkin
State University of New York, Buffalo