Column: The most important book of our time

Published on December 3, 2013.

Last Friday, among several other titles, the Ateneo de Manila University Press launched “The Light of Liberty: Documents and Studies on the Katipunan, 1892-1897,” by the historian Jim Richardson. It is, in my view, the most important book of this generation.

I base my conclusion on three premises. First, and in the words of the Inquirer’s Bonifacio Day editorial last Saturday: “The Philippine Revolution of 1896 is the primary and formative experience of Philippine nationhood, and that revolution was principally [Andres] Bonifacio’s doing.” A work that allows us to reclaim this truth with all the innocence of rediscovery, while at the same time connecting other nation-forming experiences of our history in one integrated narrative, is important by definition.

Second, the true character of the Katipunan, the revolutionary organization Bonifacio founded, has been obscured by what Richardson describes as “a paucity of sources,” into which abyss ideologues and popularizers have willingly entered. This “crying shortage of reliable sources,” he writes in his preface, “has tempted historians to write history as they wish it had been, and has allowed every species of fallacy to flourish, from wild conjecture and fanciful exegesis to hagiography and myth-making; from simple error to outright fabrication.” A work that succeeds in offering “a corrective to the worst excesses,” then, to use Richardson’s own modest phrasing, is not only welcome but necessary to the national project.

Third, Philippine society continues to be divided according to ideological constructs that would have made no sense to the Katipuneros and revolutionaries themselves: reform versus revolution, Rizal versus Bonifacio, ilustrado versus plebeian, rich versus poor. A work that shows convincingly just how much Bonifacio, Emilio Jacinto and other organizers of the Katipunan saw themselves as continuing the work of Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar and other propagandists, one that demonstrates beyond any doubt that those who joined the Katipunan were not only the “unlettered” but also the learned, that its membership came from all classes, a study above all that proves that the Katipuneros knew what they needed to do not only to fight for liberty but to conduct themselves according to liberty’s highest standards, is consciousness-altering.

“The Light of Liberty” is all of the above, and then some. It is so primarily because it presents 73 Katipunan documents—56 of which have not yet been published in book form, 52 of which come from the Archivo General Militar de Madrid (AGMM). In other words, documents that the Spanish colonial regime confiscated from the revolutionaries and then managed to keep. The AGMM documents are particularly important for one more reason: None of them were used in the writing of the main books on the Katipunan that generations of Filipinos have grown up on, such as Teodoro Agoncillo’s “Revolt of the Masses.”

(As Richardson notes more than once, and as I have had occasion to mention in this space, much of the book’s content can be read off two websites, “Bonifacio Papers” and “Katipunan: Documents and Studies.” That the most important book of our time is largely available online raises the inevitable question: What makes a book? But let’s leave that for another time.)

Richardson is modest about his book’s worth: “The documents do not spring any huge surprises, but they do revise or clarify several points of detail.” Well, perhaps for the academic historian. But for the ordinary Filipino, the information in this book—logically organized, carefully cited, superbly translated (or paraphrased, as the case may be) from the original Tagalog—will be a revelation.

Just one example. In my view, Agoncillo and Isabelo de los Reyes (his “La sensacional memoria de Isabelo de los Reyes sobre la revolucion Filipina de 1896-97” was the first history of the Katipunan) erred egregiously when  they propagated the view of the Katipunan which they found congenial: that it was an organization of illiterate peasants. Richardson’s documentation, especially the Table from page 416 to 448, disproves this simplistic thesis.

To my mind, “The Light of Liberty” allows the modern Filipino reader to begin to see the Katipunan for what it truly was. I will not quote from the last paragraph of Richardson’s preface, which makes the case emphatically. (This is not available online.) But let me quote a good chunk of the paragraph before that, which offers a good summing-up.

“The Katipunan … was at its core a modern, forward-looking organization, rationalist and secular. It was not the first association to launch a revolt against Spanish rule, for outbreaks of resistance had begun with the conquest, and it did not initiate the discourse on liberalism, modernity, and Philippine nationhood, which is customarily said to have begun in the 1860s. The originality of the Katipunan, the singular, momentous achievement of the Katipuneros, lay in connecting the anticolonial impulse with the contemporary discourse, and in launching a revolution that was ’nationalist’ in the full, inclusive, nationwide sense of the word. The KKK called upon all the people of the archipelago to unite, to fight for freedom, and to found a new nation.

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