Many well-meaning organizations and media outlets often commit the mistake of calling this annual commemoration as “122nd anniversary of Philippine Independence” or “122nd Independence Day.”
Saying it that way is not only wrong historically, but blatantly missing out on the nuances of our checkered but shared history as a nation. The more accurate phrasing would be, “122nd anniversary of the Proclamation of Independence,” which is what we are actually commemorating today.
Why must we point out this seemingly unimportant play-in-semantics correction?
The answer is History. It has always been complicated.
On June 12, 1898 at 4:20 pm, at a window in Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s house in Kawit, Cavite, Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista, in the presence of Aguinaldo and other revolutionary leaders and people, read the lengthy Proclamation of Independence document solemnly, after which the marching band of San Francisco de Malabon loudly played the Marcha Nacional Filipina, which did not have any lyrics yet.
At least four American soldiers were there in the ceremony, with a certain Mr. L. M. Johnson, a US army officer (Colonel of Artillery), who was among the 98 signatories of the proclamation.
A lengthy controversial paragraph in the said proclamation mentioned the elements of the Philippine flag design:
“… y conmemorando los colores azul, rojo, y blanco lo del la bandera de los Estados Unidos de la America del Norte, como manifestacion de nuestro profundo agradecimiento hacia esta Gran Nación por la desinteresada protección que nos presta y seguirá prestando.”
[… the colors of Blue, Red, and White, commemorating the flag of the United States of North America, as a manifestation of our profound gratitude towards this Great Nation for its disinterested protection which it lent us and continues lending us.]
Apolinario Mabini, called upon by Aguinaldo to be his adviser, having been maimed by polio, had been carried via a hammock from Los Baños, all the way to Cavite. As such, Mabini arrived late in the commemoration.
His coming however, presented the first of the challenges of this proclaimed independence. A lawyer with such clarity of mind, Mabini carried with him questions to Aguinaldo that were almost prescient:
- Was there a formal agreement or treaty between the American authorities and Aguinaldo regarding the final disposition of the Islands? No?
- Might not the promises remain merely verbal and ambiguous? If so, was not the declaration of independence premature and imprudent, for while it disclosed to the Americans the intentions of the Filipinos, they, on the contrary, were keeping theirs a secret?
Indeed, as history would prove, Mabini was justified in his suspicions. The Americans kept their intentions hidden.
By August to December 1898, they negotiated with Spain through backchanneling, and later at the end of that year, signed a treaty with Spain and paying it $20 million dollars for the Philippines. This was, despite the proddings of the Philippine republic representative Felipe Agoncillo, who was not given space in the negotiations.
Tensions brewed and on February 4, 1899 the Philippine-American War broke out.
After the retreat and guerrilla warfare, Aguinaldo was finally captured by the Americans in March 1901, and the Philippines became a U.S. territory, until such time, as the Americans declared, when we are “ready for independence.”
It was only on July 4, 1946, after a short occupation by the Japanese and after the destruction brought about by the Second World War, that the United States “recognized” our independence.
From then on until 1962, we have celebrated July 4 as our Independence Day. Calling July 4 “Independence Day” was therefore historically correct at the time.
It was in 1962, however, that a group of historians from the Philippine Historical Association led by Gabriel Fabella campaigned for a date change on Independence Day. Fabella argued that July 4 identified too much with the American Independence Day and that the date was not of our own choice, which was true.
It was also around May 28 of the same year when the United States rejected the remaining $73 million war reparation to be paid to the Philippines as promised in 1946.
On this context did President Diosdado Macapagal issue Proclamation No. 28, moving the Philippine Independence Day from July 4 to June 12, explicitly saying that it was only on June 12, 1898 that the nation declared independence “not dependent upon the will and discretion of another.” This move was confirmed by Congress with the passage of Republic Act No. 4166 in 1964.
With all these things considered, saying that we commemorate the “122nd anniversary of Philippine independence” today implies that we have had our national sovereignty and independence for the past 122 years, which is, as we see now, not historically accurate.
Moreover, it also disregards the aggregate efforts of Filipino leaders during the American colonial years who campaigned tirelessly for independence.
Of course we know, as with any historical event that involves humanity with conflicting (and sometimes self-serving) motivations, that the event on June 12, 1898 was not bereft of controversies.
But if one really goes down to it, what we are actually commemorating was the act, and self-determination of our own People, imperfect that may be, to declare with our own voice that we are free.
That very act is revolutionary.
Isn’t that the very essence of freedom?
Editor’s note: Cover photo by Krisia Vinzon from Pexels
Kristoffer Pasion the resident historian of Team SubSelfie.com. He is a public historian working for the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. He has been serving in government for almost a decade, having worked as cultural officer for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2011-2013), and as history researcher for the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines (2013-2016).
He runs the blog Indiohistorian, and does active history writing on social media. He is finishing his masteral studies in History at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, pursuing research on the history of government institutions.
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