Nationalism and Myth
What remains of the Philippine national hero, Andres Bonifacio? The data we have about his early years turn out to be undocumented, and hence unproven. Some of them may be true, but we have no way of determining which are and which are not. His famous writings -- the newspaper article "Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog," the poems that schoolchildren have committed to memory, the translation of Rizal's poem, and the others -- cannot be shown to be his compositions. He may have written some of them; then, again, he may not have. Bonifacio's letters to Jacinto -- the core of his personal correspondence and, up to now, a major source on Bonifacio's role in the Philippine Revolution -- also may not have been his literary products. Indeed, my examination of their provenance, physical appearance, and linguistic properties suggests that they are probable forgeries. The standard account of the most important event in his life, the Tejeros assembly, has been exposed as a deception designed to hide the true role played at Tejeros by the author of the narrative, the former revolutionary Artemio Ricarte. Bonifacio's personality turns out to be a historian's imaginative construction. The claim that he was intimately connected with the Philippine millenarian tradition cannot be supported. In the end, the Bonifacio we have before us is mostly an illusion, the product of undocumented statements, unreliable, doctored, or otherwise spurious sources, and the collective imagination of several historians and a memoirist.
On one level, the story I have told here can be read as merely a cautionary tale about the perils of doing historical research -- a case study, as it were, of the problems of document authentication, the deficiencies of some secondary literature, the dangers of relying on published sources, and the like. On another level, however, it is a tale about nationalism and the function of history in emerging nation-states. In my view, to understand the invention of Andres Bonifacio, we must recognize that the process of posthumous re-creation was as much concerned with the promotion of Philippine nationalism as it was with historical reconstruction. Let me return briefly to the question of nationalism.
In his important book on the subject, Hugh Seton-Watson pointed out that nationalist movements generally have three objectives: independence ("the creation of a sovereign state in which the nation is dominant"), national unity ("the incorporation within the frontiers of this state of all groups which are considered, by themselves, or by those who claim to speak for them, to belong to the nation"), and nation building ("to build a nation within an independent state, by extending down to the population as a whole the belief in the existence of the nation, which, before independence was won, was held by only a minority").1 The first objective is pursued before the nation is created, the second either before or after, and the third only after.
Three of the Philippine biographers of Bonifacio -- Artigas, de los Santos, and Santos -- all of whom lived in a colonial state ruled by the United States, focused on the first two objectives: independence and national unity. Their writings, which honored the memory of an earlier, anticolonial struggle and transformed the life of the leader of that struggle into a classic hero story, were intended to build pride in things Filipino and keep alive the notion of an independent Philippines. By attempting to promote nationalist feeling in a colonial environment, they directly attacked the traditional order. Still, there were limits to their commitment to the nationalist cause -- none of them suggested manning the barricades, and two, Artigas and de los Santos, depended on the colonial regime for their livelihoods.
Although Agoncillo was only five years younger than Santos, he should properly be classified as a historian of a different era. Whereas Santos wrote virtually all his books in the 1930s, all of Agoncillo's historical writings were produced after 1946, the year in which the
Philippines received its independence from the United States. Not surprisingly, then, his objectives were different from those of the prewar historians: with independence no longer at issue he focused on national unity and nation building. The demands affected his construction of Bonifacio. To bind the new and heal the festering old wounds, he found it necessary to expand the pantheon of heroes and make room for the once discredited Emilio Aguinaldo. Thus was born the two Bonifacios, the hero of Manila and the demon of Cavite.
Ileto, too, was a participant in this nationalist discourse, and he also significantly altered our view of Bonifacio. But he was very different kind of nationalist. When he wrote Pasyon and Revolution, the Philippine state had been independent for more than thirty years. But in the eyes of Ileto and other college-educated people of his generation many citizens were not being well served by it: true nation building had not taken place because a majority of the people were excluded or exploited. With Ileto, the Bonifacio story, somewhat transformed, became a vehicle for both social change and a new type of nation building. Ileto moved the locus of nationalism from the
dominant elites to the common people.
Throughout this book, I have repeatedly used the word myth to describe the stories that have been told about Andres Bonifacio and mythmakers to describe the nationalist storytellers. No doubt, some readers will object to such usage, believing that it betrays an unduly critical stance toward both. But, in fact, I have chosen those words because they accurately describe the phenomena I have examined.
Michael Kammen, who has written much on the subjects of myth, tradition and heroes in order to explain a society's cosmology or sense of identity tells us that myths have at least three characteristics: they are likely to be fabulous, they typically involve a story, and the story is likely to concern "deities, demigods, or heroes in order to explain a society's cosmology or sense of identity."2 Most myths are of indeterminate origin, but that is not essential. The best-known mythical stories of the American past -- the tales about George Washington invented by Weems -- can be dated fairly precisely, as can some of those about Jackson and Lincoln.
The works of Artigas, de los Santos, Santos, Agoncillo, and even to some extent Ileto, in addition to being historical studies and contributions to an ongoing nationalist discourse, are, at their core, modern-day Philippine varieties of "hero myths" -- stories in the
tradition of Greek tales about Theseus and Herakles and Indian ones about Krishna and Karna.3 But, within that genre, they fall within a distinct, somewhat underexplored, contemporary category -- the national hero myth, the national hero being a relatively modern mythical figure since the nation-state is itself of recent vintage. Not surprisingly, then, both in form as well as content, many of the stories told by the Philippine mythmakers bear a striking resemblance to those found in Weems's biography of Washington and other early books about the heroes of the American Revolution. The hero's humble origins and intellectual powers are emphasized, even when, as in the case of Washington, the evidence does not necessarily support the claims. Also emphasized are the hero's virtues and strength of character.4 For American and Filipino mythmakers alike, the hero served as a model to be emulated.
But national heroes differ from truly legendary heroes in one important respect. As modern historical figures, their lives can be studied by historians. Furthermore, historians being what they are, the lives of the great and presumably great are much more likely to be studied and restudied, and then restudied again, than are the lives of anyone else. If modern-day hero stories are based on weak or nonexistent evidential foundations, it seems inevitable that they will eventually be exposed.
The exposure of hero myths invariably causes pain, since all of us, regardless of our nationality, have a deeply felt need for heroes. Doubtless, admirers of the mythical Bonifacio will find it difficult to accept the notion that he was probably not the humble plebeian, the literary master, and the superpatriot he has long been thought to be. Admirers of the mythmakers may find it just as difficult to credit my assertions that their writings are deficient. But I can only hope that any distress experienced will soon subside and that the loss of the mythical Bonifacio will not be mourned too long, because much important work remains to be done. Almost a century after his death, the time has come to devote our undivided attention to uncovering the real Andres Bonifacio.
1. Hugh Seton-Watson, Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (Boulder: Westview Press, 1977), 3. For other valuable efforts to define (and explain) nationalism, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991), 5-7; and Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 1-7.
2. Kammen, Mystic Chords, 25.
3. The books of Joseph Campbell deal most extensively with hero myths. See Robert A. Segal, Joseph Campbell: An Introduction (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987), 1-29; Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968); and David Adams Leeming, The World of Myth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 217-311.
4. Weems, Washington, xv, xliii-xliv, lii-liii; Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 41-43, 51-52.