Thursday, June 12, 2014

Of books, bolo and Bonifacio

Rappler 6/12/14

We have a fascination for the extraordinary

My personal library alone is stacked with entrancing biographies about extraordinary figures, great men who, for a moment in time, have set the world on fire and changed the course of history.

From Churchill, Jefferson, and Ghandi to Rizal, Recto, Laurel, and Marcos, these men appeared to have been endowed with wisdom and erudition that would distinguish them from the genius of the ordinary.

I have often wondered if there is any room for ordinary men to shine in history. But I have long since answered this question. Quite honestly, one need not look any farther because the leader of the “bolo movement,” Gat Andres Bonifacio perfectly fits the bill.


True, he hardly had a formal education. He did not seem to possess any special talent unlike his professional paisanos in the propaganda movement. In many respects, the simple Andres Bonifacio was no match to the oratorical prowess of Graciano Lopez Jaena nor did he write with the flair of Jose Rizal. Even in terms of military acumen he was no way within the range of Emilio Aguinaldo; and as evidenced later in the Tejeros Convention of 1897, he was definitely not a good politician either.

But cutting through the surface and superficialities, Bonifacio’s supposed “ordinariness” says something about his indubitable conviction and strength of character that would ultimately foster the birth of a secret society known as the Katipunan.

Among the handful illustrious figures in the pantheon of national heroes, Andres Bonifacio towers above everybody else because he came from the common people of his day, the unlettered indios who formed the womb of the revolutionary movement in 1896. But that is not the end of story. My admiration for the Supremo goes beyond personal abhorrence on elitism and rooted empathy for the underdogs; my own personal struggle against the fripperies of life─ striving for recognition in my chosen field─ accounts for my choice of hero.

Indio origins

Born of lowly parents in Tondo, Manila, it is said that Bonifacio had died as he had lived, a poor man. Orphaned at a very young age, Bonifacio abandoned schooling and had to work all his life to support his siblings. He peddled canes and paper fans, dabbled in zarzuelas, and did some clerk work for an English firm. Yet, despite all the restrictions that poverty has to offer, Bonifacio was not exactly the classic indio that we pictured him to be. He was, by and large, a self-taught man─ a wide reader in his own right.

Setting the record straight

Contrary to popular belief, he was in fact a home-schooled fellow, having learned to read and do simple math under the care of a private tutor. As he grew older, and as life becomes more and more pressing, Bonifacio struggled to improve himself by sharpening his mind through books. As the story goes, while working as a bodeguero in a brick factory, the young Bonifacio was often seen with a book propped open in front of him even while he was eating his lunch. And before the night ends, armed with a flickering lamplight, Bonifacio would once again pore over his tomes, one of which was a book on the history of the French Revolution.

From this, chroniclers and scholars are one in saying that Andres Bonifacio could at least speak some English (having worked as a messenger-clerk in an English firm), and could read Spanish too for almost all the books in his collection were either written or translated into Spanish.

The making of a revolutionist

Of the books found in his small library in the warehouse, mostly in Spanish translations, these were his favourite titles: History of the French Revolution, Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew, Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Ruins of Palmyra, the Bible, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Lives of the Presidents of the United States, the Penal and Civil Codes and International Law.

Of course, we could not say with optimum certainty that Bonifacio read all those books from cover to cover, much less understood every word in them. But by all accounts, it is reasonable to say that this progressive literature vividly explains why Bonifacio’s passion for revolution turned out to be infectious; that he was able to sway others, cultured or not, to follow him even unto death. Undoubtedly, the sufferings of the people of his class and the circumstances of his life could have been enough reason to raise his bolo and challenge the power of Spain─ but Bonifacio walked the extra mile.

His selective readings, I believe, did appear fruitful for it gave him the idea of revolution.

Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog, a call-to-arms manifesto against Spanish tyranny, showcased Bonifacio’s bent as the emerging revolutionist of the people. The amount of time he spent devouring the philosophy of the French Revolution had indeed showed him that it can be done.

It was a rare yet poignant combination of ‘feelings’ and ‘thought,’ of personal injustice and native intellect that moulded him; that ultimately ushered his people into the glorious period of Philippine history and the Revolution.

And so while the ilustrados, the perceived extraordinary men of his day, cried for gradual reforms, for Bonifacio, it’s all or nothing. No fuss, no frills: death or independencia!


It is a fact that the middle-class, the intellectual segment looked down on Bonifacio on account of his uncultured ways and intellectual shortcomings. Yet, in a blink of an eye, the ruling class captured the “revolution” from the masses and coloured it as its own. In a larger sense, one could only imagine what he went through as he tried to forge a united front against a common enemy, Spain. On his side, however, another war was brewing headed by the ilustrados themselves, this time, he was the target.

But Bonifacio was not to be distracted by innuendos. With a wave of hand, maybe he simply dismissed “regionalism” and “elitism” as mere frivolities. Instead, in his naiveté, he focused his energy on the mission to liberate the Filipino people not knowing the pitfalls of power.

History records that Andres Bonifacio did not live to see the glorious day of our redemption. At the age of thirty-three, he was summarily executed on the hills of Maragondon for wanting to destroy the revolution that he himself had started.

But this seemingly ordinary folk hero still haunts the victors or traitors like the pursuing “tabak” that allegedly butchered him to death. Very Bonifacio, his life and death, remains a silent call for the rise of the ordinary under extraordinary circumstances.

Mabuhay ang mga Anak ng Bayan!-Rappler

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