Book Review: Inventing a Hero

by Hector Santos
© 1997 by Hector Santos and PHGLA
All rights reserved

Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio, by Glenn Anthony May, Madison, 1996. (University of Wisconsin-Madison: $19.95 for pb., 200 pp.)

Inventing a Hero As we go into the centennial celebrations of the Philippine revolution and independence, we see more and more books on these subjects. One book is sure to be controversial because it adds fuel to the fire of “my hero is better than your hero,” a game Filipinos love to play. That book is Inventing a Hero by Glenn May.

The title is unfortunate because it sounds too “tabloidy.” However, do not let it turn you off from reading the book which is not as hero-baiting as it sounds. It deals mostly with material used to define Bonifacio, not with judging Bonifacio’s qualifications to be a national hero. I foresee that many people will criticize the book without reading it mainly because the title gives the impression that the book is anti-Bonifacio. That is one problem with choosing a title that is an attention grabber.

We Filipinos have had the misfortune of learning in school history which was partly based on fraudulent documents. We learned that the story of the ten datus from Borneo came from an old document— it did not. We were taught the Code of Kalantiaw which was based on a brazenly fraudulent document. Then we came to know that information about Padre Gomez was also based on forged manuscripts.

These anomalies were brought to light by foreigners, namely William Henry Scott and John Schumacher, S.J. Their proofs were so strong that it was hard not to accept their conclusions.

Now another foreigner would have us believe that yet another fraud had been perpetrated on the telling of Philippine history. May tells us that some Andres Bonifacio papers were also fraudulent. How many more disclosures of historical fraud can our Filipino psyche take? Would it help our well-being if a Filipino had instead exposed this anomaly?

But fraud cannot be dismissed because we feel sorry for ourselves. We must accept facts as they come. The only question we must ask once again is whether May has convincing evidence for his assertion that the Bonifacio letters were forgeries.

Inventing a Hero starts out by mentioning examples of myth creation, something that is somehow related to the task of nation building. Newly independent people want to feel good about their heroes and so we have stories like George Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie.” Myth creation, happily, was not a Philippine invention.

May then tells of past frauds, forgeries, and their perpetrators: Sir Edmund Blackhouse, a leading China specialist who wrote fake diaries; Thomas Beer’s Stephen Crane letters; Augustus C. Buell’s letters and documents concerning William Penn, John Paul Jones, and Andrew Jackson; non-existent Margaret Johnson Erwin’s letters which were the basis of a book published by a respected university press; fake Hitler diaries; the Marquis de Sade’s spurious sources on the life of Isabelle; and the documents pertaining to the Bolivar-San Martin meeting in Guayaquil. They are the stuff on which some history had been based on.

May did not even mention anything about Mary Lefkowitz’s criticism of Black Studies programs which she feels substitute a “feel-good” agenda for historical truth. In a recent book, Not Out of Africa, Lefkowitz savaged Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, which was embraced by Afrocentric teachers. She also showed that the notion about the Greeks stealing Egyptian concepts of religion and philosophy came from the use of a book that came out after the turn of the last century, a book on Freemasonry that borrowed a lot from an 18th century French novel, the same book that was the basis for Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute.”

Much of what we know about the pre-revolution Bonifacio is traced by May to three people: Manuel Artigas, Epifanio de los Santos, and Jose P. Santos. Artigas was the earliest writer among the three. Available information about Bonifacio before their contributions is relatively insignificant. They deal with the books he read (attributed to testimony of Pio Valenzuela), and find that he wrote the some poetry, among other things. May’s criticism is the lack of documentation about how these writers came to their conclusions. We can only rely on faith that what they wrote about the pre-revolution Bonifacio was true.

Things get serious, though, when the father and son duo, de los Santos and Santos, started writing about documents de los Santos supposedly obtained from somebody in Tondo. They allegedly doctored their “transcriptions” of the letters of Bonifacio to Jacinto to make them look authentic because both father and son had suspicions that the documents in their possession were forgeries.

The first inkling that something was amiss came out when Ambeth Ocampo obtained xerox copies of the Bonifacio letters. Teodoro Agoncillo claimed in his book, Revolt of the Masses, that he had access to and had seen the original documents. Agoncillo included a photograph of Acta de Tejeros, also owned by de los Santos then, in his book.

Ocampo noticed that Agoncillo’s transcription did not match the words in the copies he had. He came to the conclusion that Agoncillo had been shown only a few pages of the Bonifacio papers. Ocampo thought that his former mentor had retranslated back into Tagalog the Spanish and English translations from Manuel Retana, and that de los Santos then claimed they were transcriptions. He believed that Agoncillo never had access to all the originals.

What Ocampo didn’t know was that Santos had furnished doctored transcriptions to Agoncillo. Santos was afraid that Agoncillo would find out that his father’s manuscripts were forgeries and so provided “transcriptions” that would be believable. The problem was not only that the handwriting was from different hands but that the grammatical style in the “originals” had problems.

Agoncillo fudged a bit when he said that he had access to the original manuscripts. At least, that is what May would have us believe. His evidence, while circumstantial, is very compelling.

How convincing is May’s presentation of evidence that the Bonifacio papers including, his letters to Jacinto and Acta de Tejeros, were forgeries? Borrowing a two-level requirement for proof in American jurisprudence, let us say that as far as proving “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the papers were forgeries (as in criminal cases), this has not been done. However, if we are looking for “a preponderance of evidence” (as in civil cases) then the Bonifacio papers are forgeries.

The smoking gun will not be found until the present owner of the Bonifacio manuscripts, Emmanuel Encarnacion, allows them to be examined and tested. Alas, that probably will never happen and that is the price we pay when historical documents and artifacts are in the hands of collectors instead of in public institutions where they can be examined by qualified people.

Agoncillo was not the only one to end up with egg on his face. Reynaldo Ileto, the brilliant author of Pasyon and Revolution, used the Agoncillo transcriptions in trying to prove that the revolution had a millenarian root and had less connection to the efforts of the Liga Filipina than many people believe. Unfortunately, his proof was based on his critical analysis of the language in the “Bonifacio” text of “Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog” which appeared in Kalayaan. No copy of Kalayaan has ever been found and many historians question whether Bonifacio actually wrote the article.

Believing that Bonifacio wrote the Kalayaan article, Ileto assumed that the Tagalog text of the article in Agoncillo matched the original text in the newspaper. However, Agoncillo merely reproduced the text in Santos’s biography of Bonifacio. Santos has never explained where he obtained the text from. May alleges that Santos made it up. His proof is quite involved and has to do with “if this was the original Tagalog text then Retana would have translated it this way in Spanish.” There is not enough space in this review to give all the examples.

If the Tagalog text of the Kalayaan article was forged, all of Ileto’s analysis will have to be dismissed because the words he was scrutinizing were made up and not Bonifacio’s anyway.

Finally, the accounts of historians about what happened in the Tejeros convention were all primarily based on Artemio Ricarte’s memoirs. Ricarte wrote his memoirs while he was in jail and had no access to diaries, documents, and other people. It was an account based purely on memory and what may have been a desire on his part to deflect his complicity in the ouster of Bonifacio as the Katipunan head. May decries the fact that historians have swallowed his story wholesale, disregarding all other accounts many of which conflict with Ricarte’s story.

Who was Andres Bonifacio? What was he really like? We know now that he was not as plebeian as we once thought he was— he was not a bodeguero but a prosperous agent for a foreign trading company. A hundred years after his death there are still many things we don’t know about him.

To cite:
Santos, Hector. "Book Review: Inventing a Hero" in Hector Santos, ed., Philippine Centennial Series; at US, 13 July 1997.

PHGLA Logo The Philippine History Group of Los Angeles invites you to send your comments to the author, Hector Santos, who is also the editor of this Philippine Centennial Series.

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