Philippine HiStory Today: The Three Martyr Priests
Have you ever been accused of something you did not do? I have always… by my wife! That was when we were younger and I was always working overtime in school. I have since learned how to deal with a jealous wife. But how about you? Have you ever been falsely accused? If you have, don’t worry because even history’s greatest figures have been in your shoes. The only difference is that their lives had been the price. Thank goodness for modernity, justice and human rights!
But what I’m talking about is the date 17 February 1872: the day of the three priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora or Gomburza were killed.
This was not a pretty day in history, but it was a necessary evil to fuel the revolution.
Grab a comfy chair and listen…
Secularisation of the church
Before we talk about the events that finally led to the killing of the three priests, let’s talk first about why they were so important.
The fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora were very active when it came to pushing for changes in the way the church was run in colonial Philippines. At that time, the church was still heavily led by Spanish friars and religious orders despite the declaration of secularisation in 1774. The priests were also aware of the unfair treatment of Spain toward ordinary Filipinos and did not hesitate to voice out their concerns through demonstrations and publications.
The three martyr priests were members of the Committee of Reformers that campaigned for changes in the way the country was run. Because of their consistent clash with Spain’s ideals, they were considered filibusteros or agitators. However, they were popular figures and priests to boot — it was not so easy for Spain to just put them in front of a firing squad.
Enter this very timely opportunity to frame them.
The Cavite Mutiny
In January 1872 a group of unhappy Filipino workers and soldiers staged a mutiny in Fort San Felipe, Cavite. The fort was a Spanish armory where weapons and ammunitions were made, repaired and stored.
The mutiny started when previously un-taxed labourers and soldiers were suddenly bereft of a portion of their wages to cover for personal taxes and a tax that exempted them from rendering forced labour or polo y servicio. The order came from Governor-General Rafael de Izquierdo, known as the ‘Iron Fist’ statesman.
The angry labourers and soldiers (around 40, says history books) took control of the fort and killed 11 Spanish officers. The mutineers were so drunk with victory that they thought Manila would join in a simultaneous uprising. But no one joined their ranks.
Once news of the mutiny reached the city, it was the Spanish forces, which acted immediately on it. To prevent a massive uprising, they rushed and laid siege to the fort. The mutineers surrendered, some were killed while others were sent on a ship bound for Mindanao.
But Spain’s efforts to put out the fire did not end there. They used what power they had over the shocked Filipino public to implicate those they believed supported the mutiny, including the priests Gomez, Burgos and Zamora.
All the accused were tried at a special military court. The principal witness was a certain Francisco Salduo who said that the mutiny was a conspiracy to overthrow the government. He even said he personally sent messages to fathers Zamora and Burgos. Other witnesses stepped to the pulpit, but all they offered were hearsay. However, the Council of War under the governor-general still declared the priests guilty and sentenced them to garrote.
17 February 1872
It was said that Burgos cried like a boy on the day of their execution. Zamora meanwhile was said to have gone mad after suffering a nervous breakdown. He only stared blankly ahead. Gomez, who was 73 at the time, held his head high and even blessed Filipinos who were there to watch his execution.
Salduo was garroted first. He expected a pardon for serving as witness against the priests. But since he implicated himself as messenger, he still faced the deadly chair. Gomez came next, followed by Zamora and then Burgos. Eyewitness accounts said Burgos blessed his executioner before being strangled to death, saying ‘I forgive you, my son. Perform your duty.’
Many Filipinos who came to watch the execution of the beloved priests crossed themselves or knelt to pray after the priests perished.
Jose Rizal himself recognised the importance of the martyrdom of the three priests in 1872 in the eventual realisation of the revolution:
‘Without 1872, there would have been no Plaridel, Jaena or Sanciongco; nor would the brave and generous Filipino colonies in Europe have existed. Without 1872, Rizal would now have been a Jesuit and instead of writing ‘Noli Me Tangere,’ would have written the opposite. Observing those injustices and cruelties fired my young imagination and I pledge to dedicate myself and to avenge some day those victims. With this idea, I have studied and this can be discerned in all my works and writings. God will give me the opportunity someday to keep my vow’ (Rizal’s letter to La Solidaridad, Paris).
The death of the progressive priests Gomez, Burgos and Zamora was necessary in the build-up towards the revolution. The death of innocents is also a consistent theme in the history of the world that helped empower people and fuel the greatest minds to think and pursue changes in the way we do things. To put it in a context closer to home, the issue with the death of comedian and activist Tado Jimenez and other bus accident victims holds the same idea: now officials and even commuters are moving to set stricter policies on buses.
The innocence of the priests decided whether they were to live or die. But sometimes innocence is not a matter of truth. Then, as in now, it was a matter for the law to decide. During the time of Gomburza, the priests were virtually powerless after being accused and convicted of a crime they did not commit because they were under the whims of the all-powerful Spanish Empire. Suppose it happened today, would the Gomburza have withstood trial and remain innocent in the eyes of the law? If they had lived, what things in our history would have changed?
In any case, in the Philippines today, we the public are now more vigilant of high-profile court cases like the PDAF scandal. Innocence may be a matter for the court to decide, but public opinion nowadays also has the power to tarnish the credibility and reputation of people in high places. Just look at how the public is reacting to Ruby Tuason’s testimony against senator Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile. But my wish is that we will not lose sight of the real victims in the PDAF scandal: the Filipino people. This is something we must continue to fight for.
Anyway, I have to run! I promised my wife I would take her out on a post-Valentine’s date… yes, dates. That’s how you appease a jealous wife! See you in another date in history!