Semantics of Colonization and Revolution

A review of Philippine history shows an analysis of certain events and historical figures like Andres Bonifacio that border on the ridiculous and the sinister.

Contributed to Bulatlat

Too often we transfer ourselves into what we see, hear or read. The author’s meaning and intent can therefore affect our own predisposed ideas. Add to this predisposition the unfortunate habit of some writers in loosely using terminology and in blindly borrowing foreign concepts. The result could range from the comical to the insidiously erroneous. My favorite description of this ailment is “changing the terrain to fit the map.”

Andres Bonifacio has been known to Filipinos as “the great plebian,” the anak pawis (member of the toiling masses) who inspired thousands of other anak pawis to fight the hated Spanish oppressors with only their bolos (long knives) and the pitifully small firearms available to them. For reasons known only to themselves, certain writers began portraying Bonifacio as middle class, albeit low-middle class, and not the anak pawis who led the Revolution of 1896. To support their claim, they point to his clothes, his marriage to the relatively wealthy Gregoria de Jesus, and his being a mason and membership in Jose Rizal’s La Liga Filipina that supposedly admitted only the “middle class” and the principalia.

What exactly do they mean by “middle class” in Rizal’s time? Was there a middle class during at least three decades before the Americans exported their brand of democracy to their new colony the Philippine islands that they bought from Spain for $20 million through the Treaty of Paris?

Throughout the Spanish colonial regime, there were only two distinct classifications: the colonizer and the colonized. There were two types among the colonizer: the Peninsular who was a Spanish born in Spain, and the Filipino who was a Spanish born in the colony that was then called Las Islas Filipinas. Among the colonized were three major groups: the Indio, that is, all natives except the Muslims in the South who were called Moro. The third was the Sangley or the Chinese. What should have been a fourth group consisted of the non-christian and non-moro like the Igorot, Manobo and Tiruray who were either conveniently ignored or simply lumped together with the Indio. Intermarriage resulted in a new type, the mestizo. Since the Spanish regarded themselves as a people separate – and quite a different “species” – from the colonized, the country was peopled by two different societies. Clearly, the social classes assigned by historians cannot apply to the country’s total population.

At the risk of being facetious, I shall use an analogy, assigning social classes in a land populated only by cats and dogs. There could be a middle class among the dogs and a middle class among the cats, each specific to the species, but there can neither be a cat-dog nor a dog-cat as an equivalent of the “middle class.”

To insist on doing so results in a species or social class that I can only call the “hotdog.” As we know, a hotdog is neither a dog nor hot; and the proportion between the meat and the other ingredients is better left unexamined. To assign a middle class for the whole society of the Philippines before 1900 can thus be described as a sandwich: the colonizer as one piece of bread, the colonized as the other piece of bread; and the hotdog between the two pieces.

Andres Bonifacio was a plebian as were the great majority of the colonized, but what is a “plebian”? The latter, simply defined, refers to the “common people.” Let us review what the inhabitants were like before the Spaniards consolidated their rule. Chapter 8 of Antonio de Morga’s The Philippine Islands has a description of the country’s social structure then. On top are the chiefs in each island and province who had their own followers and subjects. Morga wrote:

These principalities and lordships were inherited in the male line and by succession of father and son and their descendants. If these were lacking, then their brothers and collateral relatives succeeded. Their duty was to rule and govern their subjects and followers, and to assist them in their interests and necessities. What the chiefs received from their followers was to be held by them in great veneration and respect; and they were served in their wars and voyages, and in their tilling, sowing, fishing, and the building of their houses. To these duties the natives attended very promptly, whenever summoned by their chief. They also paid the chiefs tribute (which they called buiz), in varying quantities, in the crops that they gathered. The descendants of such chiefs, and their relatives, even though they did not inherit the lordship, were held in the same respect and consideration. Such were all regarded as nobles, and as persons exempt from the services rendered by the others, or the plebeians, who were called timaguas.

De Morga’s book was originally published in 1609 in Mexico, annotated and republished by José Rizal, and the above quote was from the translation of Blair and Robertson, now available at the Project Guttenberg website. Instead of “social classes,” de Morga used the term “conditions.” He wrote, “There are three conditions of persons among the natives of these islands, and into which their government is divided: the chiefs, of whom we have already treated; the timaguas, who are equivalent to plebeians; and slaves, those of both chiefs and timaguas. Clearly, the timagua were the freemen, which Blair and Robertson translated as “plebian.”

Tracing the origin of the word “plebian” then places Bonifacio among the timagua or freemen, but using that term was no longer possible during Spanish colonization. Everyone who was not Spanish simply became Indio who were decidedly not free and who hardly had property rights. José Rizal – supposedly the “First Filipino” which was, incidentally, the title of a Rizal biography written by Leon Ma. Guerrero – belonged to the ilustrado class and his family was among the principalia. However, his family did not own the hectares of land that gave them wealth and high social standing. Despite their wealth and social status, the Mercado-Rizals had “land troubles” and they could easily have lost all their property. To use present-day terminology, the Mercado-Rizals were in reality landless tenants because the many hectares they farmed were only leased to them from the vast friar estates. In short, those who were not Spanish were slaves to the foreign colonizer. This was the slavery that “the great plebian” Bonifacio attempted to eradicate.

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