Column: Mabini in America

Published on November 18, 2014.

Late in December 1899, an advertisement appeared in the pages of at least two New York newspapers. It was a notice that the January 1900 issue of the North American Review, a journal of letters and opinion pieces, was already on sale.

The format of the advertisement included a package of six essays on the Second Boer War, which had just broken out in South Africa. There was a “character study” by the influential critic Edmund Gosse, an account of the Anglican crisis by the controversial Protestant theologian Charles Augustus Briggs, and a book review of the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, by the eminent novelist Henry James.

Between the essays on the Boer War, packaged under the rubric “The War for an Empire,” and the review by Henry James was “A Filipino Appeal to the American People,” by Apolinario Mabini. Of the 14 authors listed in the advertisement, only three were new or under-known enough to warrant an identifying label. Mabini’s is “Formerly Prime Minister in Aguinaldo’s Cabinet.”

It might be a useful exercise to speculate on the editorial decision-making that led to the inclusion of Mabini’s appeal in the journal’s first issue of the year. At that time, the North American Review was very much a Boston publication (today it is published by the University of Northern Iowa), and Boston was a capital of anti-imperialist sentiment. By January 1900, US military forces had occupied parts of the Philippines for some 18 months. The Philippine-American War—a mere insurrection in the American view—was a month short of its first anniversary. Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo was on the defensive but remained at large. (As the leader of Philippine forces, he was possibly the best-known Asian of the time; note how Mabini’s label assumes general knowledge about Aguinaldo.) Not least, the appeal was a pained, patient presentation of American perfidy, beginning with Admiral George Dewey’s effusive promises to Aguinaldo. And it was written by Mabini—a man gaining a reputation as the Philippines’ leading intellectual and America’s “chief irreconcilable,” and who had just been arrested by US cavalry in the Philippines.

I would like to explore “the idea of Mabini” from the American perspective. Since my research is only in its preliminary stages, I wish to trace the reception of this idea, this image of Mabini as that rare thing, a revolutionary intellectual, through three moments: his incarceration in Guam, his death from cholera, and his funeral—the first recorded instance of a massively attended political funeral in the Philippines.

[Key excerpts from American “readings” of Mabini follow, beginning with a warrior-writer who looked on him with disdain.]

Theodore Roosevelt to Sen. George Frisbie Hoar, Jan. 12, 1903: “I have not wished to discuss my view of Mabini’s character and intellect, but perhaps I ought to say, my dear Senator, that it does not agree with yours. Mabini seems to me to belong to a very ordinary type common among those South American revolutionists who have worked such mischief to their fellow-countrymen.”

The historian James LeRoy took a more nuanced view: “But … he was the real power, first at Bakoor, then at Malolos, in framing a scheme of independent government, and then in resisting every step toward peaceful conciliation with the United States… Aguinaldo was plainly not averse to accommodation, on several occasions; but Mabini was, from first to last, inflexible in opposition to the efforts of the party of older and more conservative Filipinos to establish a modus vivendi with the Americans. Whoever may be said to have carried on the war, he chiefly made war inevitable …”

The news of Mabini’s death on May 13, 1903, was duly noted in American newspapers…. In the July 5, 1903 issue of the Springfield Republican, we read the “sympathetic standpoint” of anti-imperialist Canning Eyot, in praise of “the eminent Filipino patriot.” The prose is purple, but instructively so:

“… there is some alleviation in the thought that at last Mabini has found freedom—that his serene soul is beyond the reach of tyranny, beyond the power of every one and everything that is sordid and selfish and time-serving …. Crucify the reformer and the good in his cause is assured of success; kill or imprison the patriot and the true in his ideal may become real.”

The day Mabini was buried saw an unprecedented outpouring of support and sympathy [I have written on this before]. Thousands of people joined the funeral procession. A visiting American woman, whose name I [still] have not yet been able to determine, wrote a vivid account for a Boston newspaper [which included this extraordinary passage]: “It seemed as though the whole city of Manila had gathered, and I could not help noticing the large proportion of strong and finely intelligent faces, especially among Mabini’s more intimate friends. Most noticeable, also, and with a certain suggestiveness for the futrue (sic), was the extraordinary number of young men, many of them evidently students, keen, thoughtful and intelligent looking.” [She saw Mabini in his mourners.]

Mabini was never in America, of course. At the turn of the 20th century, Guam [his place of exile] was a new possession of the United States, American soil-in-the-making. So the man whom LeRoy called the “chief irreconcilable,” whom Gen. Elwell Otis labelled the “masterful spirit” behind Philippine resistance to American occupation, was only present in the United States in the sense that he represented a new idea—an intellectual at the head of a revolution, an ideologue.

In Mabini’s America, he was the un-Aguinaldo.

Excerpts from a paper read on Nov. 13 at the 2014 national conference of the Philippine Studies Association, convened by the indispensable Dr. Bernardita Churchill.

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