Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Bonifacio's letters to Emilio Jacinto


Among the documents posted on the Katipunan website ( are three letters from Bonifacio to Jacinto, dated March 8, April 16 and April 24, 1897. The original Tagalog text of a fourth, undated, letter is not presently available, and that particular letter will be discussed in a separate posting in due course.

This piece recounts the history of the letters, and sets out the grounds for dismissing any doubts about the authenticity of the three that bear dates.

Translations and retranslations

The four letters were acquired in 1904 by the historian and collector Epifanio de los Santos, and in 1917 he included a Spanish translation of the texts in a biographical sketch of Bonifacio he wrote for the magazine Philippine Review (Revista Filipina).[1] His article, including the letters, was then translated into English by Gregorio Nieva for publication in a subsequent issue of the same magazine.[2]

Epifanio de los Santos died in 1928, and his collection was inherited by his eldest son, Jose P. Santos, who was also a historian. Two decades later, Santos included Tagalog versions of the letters in the manuscript he submitted in the Government-sponsored Bonifacio biography contest of 1948.[3] Very similar Tagalog versions were published in 1956 by Teodoro Agoncillo in his classic work The Revolt of the Masses, and in 1963 he published the same versions (together with slightly amended versions of Nieva’s English translations) in a compilation entitled The Writings and Trial of Andres Bonifacio.[4]

In the 1980s one of the daughters of Jose P. Santos sold the letters to a dealer, who subsequently sold them to their present owner, the well-known collector Emmanuel Encarnacion.

In 1989 Ambeth Ocampo was able to examine photocopies of the letters, and was surprised to find discrepancies between the originals and the Tagalog versions published by Agoncillo.[5] The meaning was much the same, but the language differed all the way through. The reason for the discrepancies, Ocampo realized, was that the versions published by Agoncillo were not transcriptions of the original texts. They were retranslations into Tagalog from the Spanish of Epifanio de los Santos or the English of Gregorio Nieva.

Imputations of knavery and fakery

The disparities between the different Tagalog texts are discussed at length by Glenn May in his iconoclastic book Inventing a Hero, and they lead him to conclude that the letters are “patently untrustworthy” and “probably bogus”. That damning verdict, in turn, is a crucial part of his overall thesis that Bonifacio is an “invented hero”. [6]

May establishes that the versions published in The Revolt of the Masses and The Writings and Trial of Andres Bonifacio had initially been created not (as Ocampo had assumed) by Agoncillo, but by Jose P. Santos. Agoncillo had subsequently made some minor stylistic amendments, but had basically reproduced the Santos versions.

This raised an obvious question. Why on earth should Jose P. Santos, who had inherited the original Bonifacio letters from his father, wish to produce new Tagalog versions that in each case differed from the originals from the first sentence to the last?

The answer to this question, May suggests, is that Santos detected “major defects” in the letters published by his father and realized that they might be fakes. Santos, he observes, was himself an accomplished writer in Tagalog who would have been able “to spot stylistic hints in the Bonifacio letters that they were not the bona fide literary creations” of the hero. Not willing to admit his suspicions, Santos decided “to disguise, as best he could, all traces of the documents’ deficiencies” by transcribing them in a deliberately inaccurate, significantly distorted form. In order to “cover up the fact” that they “appeared to be forgeries”, he set about producing versions that would appear more authentic. The versions produced by Santos, May alleges, were not (as Ocampo had maintained) straightforward retranslations, but calculated, dishonest rewritings.

May admits that this accusation of gross historiographical malpractice is “somewhat speculative”, but it is nevertheless the cornerstone of his whole case that the Bonifacio letters are “probably bogus”. He does have other worries: the “dubious provenance” of the letters; the credibility of stories told about their survival; and the markedly different penmanship he saw on the undated letter. He accepts, however, that none of these subsidiary concerns proves the letters to be forgeries. The difference in handwriting, for example, could simply be due to the fact that Bonifacio dictated the undated letter to a secretary, whereas he penned the others himself. Nor does May find any problems in the content of the letters. They contain nothing that is manifestly false or anachronistic, and Bonifacio’s signatures do not look to be forged.

May’s case therefore stands or falls solely on whether Jose P. Santos, then the owner of the letters, so doubted their authenticity that he rewrote them.

Determining the truth

What then, is the precise nature of the “major defects” that May believes Santos detected in the original letters and sought to rectify? In reworking the texts, May contends, Santos repeatedly made two types of change. First, he “consistently made an effort to personalize the letters more” by inserting possessive pronouns, thereby altering phrases like “sa mga kapatid dito” to “sa mga kapatid natin dito”, and “ang mga kalaban dito” to “ang ating mga kalaban”. These are the only examples May gives, and they do not serve his case well. On the contrary, they strengthen the case for concluding that the Santos versions are retranslations, because both appear in Nieva’s English translation of 1918 – “our brethren here” and “our enemies here” - and the latter also appears in the Spanish translation of Epifanio de los Santos – “nuestros enemigos de aqui”.

The second, larger batch of alterations May deems to be significant is the transformation of verb forms so that the “goal-focus” constructions that predominate in the original texts are largely replaced by “actor-focus” constructions. This pattern of changes, as May remarks, can be found “time and time again” in Santos’s versions. Santos switched the verb forms, May surmises, because he realized that the “Bonifacio letters used far more goal-focused verbs than a man of Bonifacio’s era would be expected to use”.

It is not clear what weight May attaches to this thread of his argument. Although most late 19th century writers of Tagalog favoured “actor-focus” constructions, he acknowledges, there were “exceptions”, among them the illustrious propagandista Marcelo H. del Pilar. It might be pertinent that the four writers whom May cites as employing predominantly “actor-focus” constructions – Jose Rizal, Carlos Ronquillo, Santiago Alvarez and Emilio Aguinaldo – all had their early schooling in the southern Tagalog provinces, whereas Bonifacio and del Pilar came respectively from Manila and Bulacan. In any event, Santos would have known that styles varied. He would not have been surprised that Bonifacio favoured “goal-focus” constructions in his letters, and contrary to May’s conjectures it would not even have occurred to him that painstakingly switching the verb forms would somehow enhance the letters’ authenticity.

May illustrates his point with three examples, again taken from the undated letter. The clause “tinangap ko ang isang sulat” (“a letter was received by me”), he notes, is re-rendered by Santos as “tumanggap ako ng sulat ” (“I received a letter”). The goal-focus form “tatangapin”, similarly, is replaced by the actor-focus “tatanggap”; and the clause “Tinangap kong lahat ang mga sulat na inyong ipinadala sa akin…” is refashioned as “Sumakamay kong lahat ang ipinadala mong sulat…” Once again, it is the Spanish and English translations published in 1917-8 that exonerate Santos and deliver the decisive rebuttal to May. In all three cases, both the Spanish and English versions construct the relevant clauses in an active, actor-focused form, the English renditions of Gregorio Nieva respectively being “I…received a letter”; “you will receive”; and “I have received all your letters”. When working on their translations, Epifanio de los Santos and Gregorio Nieva presumably felt that strictly accurate renditions in the passive form - “a letter was received by me” etc. – would appear awkward in the Spanish and English, and hence they decided to render the passages more freely, employing active constructions.

Each and every one of the five specific examples chosen by May to support his argument – two possessive pronouns and three altered verb forms – can thus be traced back to the Spanish or English translations. Jose P. Santos was not the originator of these changes, merely their inheritor.

Supposing just for a moment, though, that May was right, that Santos, a skilled and knowledgeable Tagalista, did rework the original texts to make them look more authentic. Supposing he had inserted a few possessive pronouns. Supposing he had altered the verb forms. Why should he also want to change a host of the verb roots – for instance from “tangap” to “kamay” in one of the specific examples cited above? Why should he want to change the spelling of “tangap” in its diverse forms to “tanggap”, when he would have known that a single “g” was still the norm in the late 19th century? (Agoncillo, incidentally, recognized this anachronism, and when revising the Santos versions took the decision to delete all the second “g”s.) And why, above all, should Santos make innumerable changes that are entirely unrelated either to the addition of possessive pronouns or the alteration of the verb forms? How might he think he was making the text more “authentic” by changing the phrase “tarrong polvora” (jars of gunpowder) to “latang pulbura”? Or altering the word “kaligaligan” (disorder) to “kaguluhan”, or the word “panghihimagsik” (revolution) in one instance to “Revolucion” and in another to “himagsikan”? Or altering the close embrace of the valediction from “ang aking mahigpit na yakap” to “ang aking magiliw na yakap”?

Anyone who really “rewrote” texts in the manner May alleges would surely confine his attention to the passages he thought were problematic; he would not rework practically every last phrase and clause. The great majority of the changes in Santos’s versions have no pattern, and nor do they fundamentally change the meaning of the text. The words used, in most instances, are more or less synonyms for the words used in the originals. May calls the Santos versions “selective rewritings”, but closes his eyes to the hundreds of changes that are palpably not selective. He imputes a crime, identifies a culprit and posits a motive, but in the end his case collapses because the Santos versions simply do not fit his theory of how the crime was perpetrated.

Retranslations, not rewritings

The real reason for the disparity between the original Tagalog texts of the Bonifacio letters and the versions created by Jose P. Santos, therefore, is simply that the Santos versions are indeed complete retranslations, either from the Spanish of Epifanio de los Santos or the English of Gregorio Nieva.[7] Ambeth Ocampo got it right in 1989 after all, though he erred in attributing the retranslations to Agoncillo.

The basic question posed by Glenn May, of course, remains legitimate. Why should Jose P. Santos want to produce new Tagalog versions of the letters when he owned the originals? Issues of historical accuracy and probity aside, reproducing the authentic texts would have been a much easier option. The only plausible explanation is that for some reason Santos did not have the original letters to hand in 1948 when he wrote his Bonifacio biography (which was entirely in Tagalog), and that he therefore decided to make (or asked someone else to make) Tagalog translations from his father’s Spanish or Nieva’s English.


Although the fact that the Santos versions are retranslations does not in itself prove that the original letters are genuine, the case put forward by May in Inventing a Hero is the only serious challenge to their authenticity that has ever been mounted. If his allegations and misgivings can now be laid to rest, then so can the whole debate.

In 1996, probably when May’s book had already gone to press, Isagani R. Medina published (woefully inaccurate) extracts from the original text of Bonifacio’s letter to Jacinto dated April 24, 1897 in his expansively annotated edition of the memoirs of Carlos Ronquillo, together with a photograph of parts of the letter.[8] This was the first time, so far as is known, that any portion of the original letters had been placed in the public domain. The following year, far more crucially, Adrian E. Cristobal included complete, legible facsimiles of the three dated letters in the first, coffee-table edition of his book The Tragedy of the Revolution, gratefully acknowledging their present owner, Emmanuel Encarnacion.[9] Since that time, neither May nor any other historian has raised any fresh questions about the authenticity of those three particular letters. It seems likely that the fourth, undated letter is also authentic, despite the apparent difference in penmanship, but it would be rash to make any firm judgment until it too has been placed in the public domain.

Further compelling evidence that the three dated letters are genuine is provided by a number of Katipunan documents now accessible in the Spanish military archives, most notably the letter Bonifacio wrote to Julio Nakpil that bears exactly the same address and date – Limbon, April 24, 1897 – as one of his letters to Jacinto. The discussion of that letter to Nakpil on this website compares the two documents and notes similarities in the stationery, seal, handwriting, signature and content that are cumulatively so striking that they put the authenticity of the dated letters to Jacinto beyond any reasonable doubt.


In his edition of Ronquillo’memoirs, Isagani Medina published transcriptions and illustrations of two other documents whose authenticity Glenn May questions in Inventing a Hero: the declaration known as the Acta de Tejeros, dated March 23, 1897; and a statement written by Artemio Ricarte, dated March 24, 1897. Like the four letters from Bonifacio to Jacinto, these two documents, and another known as the Naik Military Agreement, were for many years in the possession of the Santos family. Exactly as in the case of the letters, Epifanio de los Santos incorporated Spanish translations in the brief biography of Bonifacio he published in 1917; English translations by Gregorio Nieva were published in 1918 and Jose P. Santos included retranslations into Tagalog in the manuscript he submitted in the 1948 Bonifacio biography competition.[10] Again as in the case of the letters, nobody has expressed any fresh doubts about the authenticity of the documents in the ten or more years since the original Tagalog texts were placed in the public domain.

Glenn May does not discuss these documents in any detail in Inventing a Hero, but, as with the letters, he does cast serious aspersions upon their authenticity. Not, in this instance, because Jose P. Santos had produced Tagalog versions that differed from the original texts (which May perhaps did not realize); not because the documents looked like fabrications in any photographs May might have seen; and not because he thought their content looked suspect. In this instance, he stigmatizes the documents solely on the basis of their ownership and publication by the Santos family.

Epifanio de los Santos, he writes, “added little of consequence to our knowledge of Bonifacio and, far more significantly, placed into circulation a number of documents of dubious historical value.” In reality, the brief article on Bonifacio that Epifanio de los Santos published in 1917 remained a key source throughout the twentieth century, and most if not all of the ten associated documents that he and Nieva translated and placed in the public domain will always remain key sources – four letters from Bonifacio to Jacinto; the “decalogue” Bonifacio wrote for Katipunan members; the essay “Ang Dapat Mabatid ang mga Tagalog”; the poem “Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Bayan”; the Acta de Tejeros; the Ricarte letter; and the Naik Military Agreement. Not a single one of these ten documents has been proven to be bogus, and most if not all have immense historical value.

Jose P. Santos, says May, “probably” tried to make dubious documents look more authentic. He did not; he simply published retranslations from the Spanish or English. His work, says May, “does not deserve the respect” that historians have given it over the years. It does; a case could be made, in fact, that Jose P. Santos got closer to the Katipunan and the Katipuneros than any other historian before or since, Agoncillo not excepted.

And both father and son, alleges May specifically, “helped to foster the notion that the Bonifacio-Jacinto correspondence was authentic”. Yes, they did, because at least three of the four letters are authentic. And by fostering the notion that the letters are genuine, May continues, they contributed to the image of “Bonifacio the patriotic, Bonifacio the honorable, Bonifacio the misunderstood.” Why this image should cause May disquiet is a good question. In responding to the furore that greeted Inventing a Hero, he assured his critics that he had neither questioned Bonifacio’s “indisputable heroism” nor even asserted that “Bonifacio is any bit less heroic than he has appeared to be in the accounts of earlier historians.” But in truth he had. At the conclusion of his chapter on Bonifacio’s letters to Jacinto, he reiterates his verdict that they are “probably bogus” and adds that with two possible exceptions

“not a single document or text heretofore thought to be composed by Bonifacio can be shown conclusively, or even convincingly, to have been actually written by him. Without the Bonifacio letters, the picture of the national hero that emerges is very different and much less heroic…. in the end, I believe that all of us are better off without the Bonifacio-Jacinto correspondence.”

May is wrong. We still have the letters, and in Bonifacio, undiminished, we still have a true patriotic hero.


[1] Epifanio de los Santos, “Andrés Bonifacio”, Philippine Review (Revista Filipina), II:11 (November 1917), pp.67-70.
[2] Epifanio de los Santos, “Andrés Bonifacio”, translated into English by Gregorio Nieva, Philippine Review (Revista Filipina), III:1-2 (January-February 1918), pp.42-5.
[3] Tenepe [Jose P. Santos, Teresita Santos and Nena Santos], “Si Andres Bonifacio at ang Katipunan”, unpublished manuscript, 1948, pp.126-33.
[4] Teodoro A. Agoncillo, The Revolt of the Masses: the story of Andres Bonifacio and the Katipunan (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1956), pp.408-19; The Writings and Trial of Andrés Bonifacio, translated by Teodoro A. Agoncillo with the collaboration of S.V. Epistola (Manila: Antonio J. Villegas; Manila Bonifacio Centennial Commission; University of the Philippines, 1963), pp.13-22.
[5] Ambeth R. Ocampo, “Andres Bonifacio: myth and reality” in his Bonifacio’s Bolo (Pasig City: Anvil, 1995), p.8.
[6] Glenn A. May, Inventing a Hero: the posthumous re-creation of Andres Bonifacio (Madison: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1996), pp.53-81.
[7] So complete was the process of retranslation, in fact, that it even swept away a few authentic fragments of Bonifacio’s original Tagalog that had survived in the Spanish and English translations. Although the Katipunan leader wrote the letters almost entirely in normal Tagalog, he inscribed a scattering of words in cipher. Epifanio de los Santos deciphered these words and inserted them in parentheses, in normal Tagalog, at the appropriate points in his Spanish renditions. Gregorio Nieva followed the same practice when rendering the texts in English. When he retranslated the texts back into Tagalog, strange to say, Jose P. Santos chose not to incorporate these authentic fragments in his versions but to retranslate the corresponding words from the Spanish or English.
[8] Carlos Ronquillo, Ilang talata tungkol sa paghihimagsik nang 1896-1897, edited by Isagani R. Medina, (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1996), p.43.
[9] Adrian E. Cristobal, The Tragedy of the Revolution (Makati City: Studio 5 Publishing Inc., 1997) pp.146-7.
[10] For all three documents, Medina provides transcriptions of three different Tagalog versions: (i) the original texts, which at the time of his writing were in the collection of Jorge de los Santos; (ii) the retranslations included by Jose P. Santos in his “Si Andres Bonifacio at ang Himagsikan”; and (iii) different retranslations, from the collection of the late Antonio K. Abad. Ronquillo, Ilang talata, pp.84-112.