“I don’t pretend to be a man of the people. But I do try to be a man for the people.”
That quote was from the movie “Gladiator” said by the composite character Senator Gracchus. It’s a very appropriate quote for this particular primary source collection. This collection is also not a book or a pdf as usual, but a link to an outside site: Dr. Jim Richardson’s site Katipunan: Documents and Studies.
As the title of the site implies, this is a collection of documents from the revolutionary organization, the Kataas-taasan Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng Anak ng Bayan, (“The Most High and Honorable Society of the Children of the Country”). This organization precipitated the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain and has been at the center of much historiographical attention and controversy since the publication of Teodoro Agoncillo’s book Revolt of the Masses in 1956.
History is all about one’s interpretation–it is not a field with “absolute truth” and never trust somebody who claims to be telling you “absolute historical truth.” And in this process of interpretation, the circumstances of the historian’s present (social, political, economic conditions, the historian’s agenda, etc…) are as important in determining the resulting political idea as to what actually happened in the past. In that vein, the Katipunan and its members, like leader Andres Bonifacio, have been used, interpreted and co-opted by historians, journalists, various political groups and governments for one reason or the other. None of this is bad– it is “correct” in every respect and constant re-interpretation is what keeps the study of history relevant and vibrant. It is also hardly unique to Philippine historiography, as a quick stroll through the “history” section of a popular bookstore here in America will show how figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are subject to all manner of historical interpretation by writers of every stripe.
Contending interpretations inevitably lead to controversy, however, and the study of Philippine history has (ahem) been subject to this sort of controversy in spades. The Katipunan is integral to Philippine history and many writers, historians or whatnot have used the Katipunan in their effort to help shape the Philippine identity or influence public debate. Again, debate and contention (if civil) are healthy and an important part of historiography. In fact, having everybody bow uncritically to one interpretation, or one person’s ideas is the worst thing that can happen to any academic discipline as subjective and open to interpretation as the study of history.
So, all well and good, but one problem with the debates surrounding the Katipunan is that they have been based on surprisingly slim evidence. In brief, all this talk about what the Katipunan wanted, who they were, or what they did has been based on surprisingly slender evidence, some of which has even been fraudulent, or close to it. For instance, most people only use the Katipunan’s Kartilya and the newspaper Kalayaan. Both are important to be sure, but the Kalayaan, for instance was only issued once and really, they are just two documents. Then there are the “Minutes of the Katipunan,” which are a completely fraudulent source and should never really be used. It would be like using The Code of Kalantiaw. Or there is Isabelo de los Reyes’s The Religion of the Katipunan, which has been so distorted by author bias as to be practically worthless as a source on the Katipunan (although it does have value when studying de los Reyes).
Enter Jim Richardson who has brought to light (but did not discover, as I previously claimed) a cache of Katipunan documents in the Spanish military archives. Finally, we can read about the Katipunan and learn about them– from their own words. Jim Richardson, for instance, has identified Bonifacio’s handwriting so finally– what with all the debates of the authorship of the Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog– we can read his own words and thoughts. I don’t think it is exaggerating to say this is the single most important find in Philippine history in recent decades. Richardson’s cache of documents is basically the 1896 equivalent of the Philippine Insurgent Records.
And does it ever reveal things. Take for instance its foundational document– probably more important in determining the original goals and message of the Katipunan than the Kartilya– the Casaysayan; Pinagcasunduan; Manga daquilang cautosan. Note its first four points:
1.o Ang cataasan at ualang auang pag singil ng buis namin, maguing sa aming catauan, maguing sa mga are o cayamanan namin.
2. o Ang pag caltas sa caunting quiquitain namin cung cami ay gumamit nang anomang industria; yaon ay isang paraang cami ay mang jina at juag maca bangon.
3. o Ang mataas na pag singil sa Aduana tungcol sa ano mang calacal na mag daan sa caniya.
4. o Ang di ilajoc itong aming Capuloan sa mga pinagcasundoan ng Ynang E……..at ibang Cajarian gaya ng America sa pag jajatid at pag tangap ng isa at isa ng canicanilang manga calacal. Pagpapabayang yaon ay quinusa upanding cami ay manatili sa caralitaan.
1. The pitiless imposition of high taxes upon us, even on our bodies, even upon our produce or wealth.
2. The expropriation of our meager profit if we practice any industry, so that we are kept weak and prevented from bettering ourselves.
3. The imposition of a high tariff on any goods that pass through the Customs.
4. The refusal to permit our Archipelago to enter into treaties with Mother Sp…. and other powers like America in relation to the export and import of any and every item of commerce. As a consequence, initiative is stifled and we remain in poverty.
These are remarkably mercantile, professional concerns. Taxes on wages, tariffs on imports, the refusal of outside trade, of profits… These sound like the complaints of people who are wage earners and small business owners. And yet the Katipunan has long been described as a “plebeian organization” (the words are by Isabelo de los Reyes, who had a very specific political agenda, but was not a Katipunero himself).
I remark upon this document in my dissertation and will therefore simply quote myself:
“The other complaints in this manifesto further reflect the remarkably business-oriented tone of the four points above: the Katipuneros lamented the unfair competition in trade from the Chinese, they complained that high-paying salaried positions in government were barred to native Filipinos, and they protested the lack of economic development or progress in the Philippines.
The other issues that the Katipunan raised highlight the influence of the Propagandists: complaints regarding a lack of representation in the Spanish government, a lack of freedom of the press, of unequal priviliges between natives and Spanish and reflect a general discontent with second class status. Either way, the Katipuneros’ discontent tended to revolve around the fact that they were unable to benfit from the existing system more fully.”
One can therefore argue that the Katipuneros were not “plebeian” or “proletarian.” Take, for instance, Bonifacio himself: he was a warehouse clerk and Agoncillo has turned him into a kind of poor revolutionary. The problem was that he was literate in an age when most people were not, worked in what amounted to a white collar job where he used his intellectual powers–he was a clerk, after all– and his livelihood was not dependent on manual labor. He was also closely affiliated by marriage to the locally powerful Alvarez clan of Cavite (the great rivals of Aguinaldo), something which could not have happened if he had been a poor nobody. I will quote myself further:
“The other leading Katipuneros were similarly situated. One Katipunero, Restituto Javier, had studied at private schools before working at a customs house and then for the German construction supply company that also employed Bonifacio. Two other leading Katipuneros, Teodoro Plata and Roman Basa, were also office workers and therefore literate and employed in white collar professions. There were also Katipunero leaders with post-tertiary educations: Emilio Jacinto, a law student, Ladislaw Diwa, a lawyer and Pio Valenzuela, a doctor. Then there was the famous Melchora Aquino or “Tandang Sora,” who was wealthy enough to have large stores of rice and a herd of carabaos. Another Katipunero, Valentin Cruz, had a large house that had a reception hall. Finally, there was at least one Katipunero who was gobernadorcillo of a precinct of Manila. To characterize the Katipunan as a “plebeian society,” which one contemporary did, is therefore not strictly accurate—these were people of some education and some means, and they were often employed in white collar jobs.“
The problems regarding the social station of the Katipunan is related to definitions of “elite” or “middle class” of course, but Jim Richardson’s find adds all sorts of new wrinkles to the debate. My interpretation is likely not going to be unchallenged if people ever bothered to read it (doubtful proposition) and Jim Richardson’s documents will likely by no means end all debates but will start new ones. The point, however, is that we have the Filipino voice at last. We have the writings of Bonifacio himself– verified– and have Katipuneros’s documents.
Jim Richardson wrote a book that compiled all of the documents in his site, and added a few more not in his site. In the words of John Nery, it is “The Most Important Book of Our Time
.” I intend to buy it when I next stop by the Philippines and I encourage everybody who is interested in Philippine history to do the same.
 Glenn A. May, A Past Recovered, (Philippines: New Day Publishers, 1987), 12-13.
 Soledad Borromeo-Buehler, The Cry of Balintawak: A Contrived Controversy, (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1998), 37.
 Mariano Alvarez, Recalling the Revolution: Memoirs of a Filipino General, Paula Carolina S. Malay, trans., (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 25.
 Borromeo-Buehler, The Cry of Balintawak, 31.
 Isabello de los Reyes, quoted in Corpuz, Roots of the Filipino Nation, 2: 212; Also Fast and Richardson, Roots of Dependency, 67-70. See also Richardson’s analysis http://kasaysayan-kkk.info/studies.kkk.mla.htm, retrieved on 5 July 2012. The Kasaysayan series describes the Katipunero leadership as “lower to middle-middle class.” Kasayayan 5:151.