1. He was not a plebeian.
In his only surviving photo (he and his wife Oriang lost everything in a house fire), Bonifacio is wearing a cravat, which is a short tie. That’s the first clue. He’s definitely several sartorial notches above the nineteenth century proletariat. The Bonifacio in camisa chino, panuelo, and folded red pajamas of countless school plays was the romantic creation of 60s radicals. He also read Voltaire. That’s the second clue. A semi-literate indio could never have joined the two exclusive gents’ clubs of that time: the masonry and the La Liga Filipina, which Jose Rizal founded shortly before his exile to Dapitan.
Yes, he was from Tondo, but not all of Tondo is isla puting bato or Baseco. There are actually a lot of wealthy families from Tondo. The best evidence comes from his sister, Espiridiona, in 1954: “…we were not poor as rats as pictured by some writers. Just because we made fans and canes does not mean we were destitute. In fact, the family business was doing fairly well and some of our fans sold from fifty to one hundred pesos.” Another piece of evidence was his job: Bonifacio was a sales clerk (the word “bodeguero” was a failure of translation) for a British and later German trading company. That’s probably the 1890s equivalent of working for ...hmm a BPO?
2. He was a poor military commander
Bonifacio wanted an uprising against the best advice of Jose Rizal. But the skilled underground organizer proved inept on the battlefield. The “Battle of Pinaglabanan”, the raid on the Spanish polvoron in San Juan, was a debacle. Bonifacio didn’t even show up for the fight.
He was on the run in the hills of Montalban in 1897 (one historian calls it strategic retreat) when the Katipuneros of Cavite invited him to mediate between the feuding Magdiwang and Magdalo factions. He ended up taking sides. When the leadership came up to a vote, he lost the presidency to Emilio Aguinaldo, who was not even around during the voting because he was busy fighting the Spaniards. Was it “Cavitismo” or regionalism? Or did the Katipuneros simply feel they needed a better battlefield commander like Aguinaldo at a time of war?
3. He framed Antonio Luna.
While in his Dapitan exile, Rizal counseled Bonifacio’s emissary, Dr. Pio Valenzuela, that if the Katipunan insists on an uprising, it would be best to enlist the services of Antonio Luna, a chemist by training who also studied military tactics while in Spain. Luna declined. Still, when the Spaniards started cracking down, Bonifacio implicated Luna and other prominent citizens of Manila who knew nothing of the Katipunan plot. It was off to Fort Santiago for Luna and others who suffered beatings in the hands of Spanish authorities. (Communist leader Jose Maria Sison may have taken a page from Bonifacio’s playbook when, as another intriguing story goes, he supposedly plotted the Plaza Miranda bombing in 1971 as a way to force the heavy hands of Marcos on the population and consequently drive more citizens to the cause of rebellion.)
4. He was a coup plotter
In 1897, Bonifacio presided at the Tejeros convention in Cavite where the Katipuneros were to elect a new leadership. The supremo reminded everyone that the results were binding to all. But it ended with him walking out. Historians blame Candido Tirona for questioning the supremo’s election to the fourth runner-up position of interior minister because he was not a lawyer. For that blasphemy, the supremo drew his pistol and nearly shot Tirona. Cooler heads intervened and all would have been well and settled. But Bonifacio was already royally piqued: he declared all the results null and void – including the election of Aguinaldo in absentia as president. He went on to rally a breakaway faction. This move would’ve split the revolution at a time the Spaniards were on the offensive. President-elect Aguinaldo quickly dispatched troops to arrest the Bonifacio brothers. They were convicted for treason and sentenced to exile. Curiously, it was one of the erstwhile Bonifacio conspirators, Pio del Pilar, who convinced Aguinaldo that Bonifacio alive was a danger to the revolution. In the end, the supremo was betrayed by one of his fellow plotters.
5. He fell on his knees and begged for his life.
So he was not a-tapang a-tao, as the ditty goes? In the book Revolt of the Masses by Teodoro Agoncillo, the account of the supremo’s final moments seem short of heroic. It was May 10, 1897, in Maragondon, Cavite. Major Lazaro Makapagal was handed a sealed letter and told to take four men and bring the brothers Andres and Procopio to Mount Tala. The order was for him to open the letter when they reached Mount Tala and read its contents to the Bonifacio brothers. The younger Procopio was the first to be taken away and shot. From Agoncillo’s book: “(Makapagal) returned to the supremo, who upon seeing him approach, said: you have killed my brother. Now I implore you to set me free.”
The major said, “I am sorry”. It was then that Andres fell on his knees and said, “Forgive me, brother.” Realizing that the major was determined to carry out his order, Bonifacio ran. His executioners caught up with him. Bonifacio was too weak from the bullet wounds that he suffered in his neck and arms when he was arrested days before.
Seen today, these stories will seem outrageous, even offensive. We need to be reminded that they happened at a specific time and place. It would be like fretting over George Washington owning a slave. Or being confused at how a great military commander like Alexander can go to bed with one of his generals. Or finding insolence in Jesus Christ’s calling his mother “woman.” History that happened then cannot be judged by today’s ethical standards. There were circumstances that surely explain why heroes acted one way or another.
Still roiled over what you just read? Let’s remember the cliché that heroes are human too. Even Marvel makes humans out of real cardboard heroes. In the movie Civil War, Iron Man splits the Avengers because he couldn’t forgive Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier, for killing his parents. In Infinity Wars, the Avengers lose their one chance at defeating Thanos because Star-Lord was too emotional.
Bonifacio has done great things we’re all familiar with to secure his place in our pantheon of heroes. I’ll end with the opening stanza in a poem he wrote:
Aling pagibig pa ang hihigit kaya
Sa pagka-dalisay at pagka-dakila
Gaya ng pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa?
Aling pagibig pa? Wala na nga, wala.