Philippines HiStory this Week: The truce of Biak-na-Bato
We’ve gone through a lot of wars in the history of the Philippines for the past few hiStory-telling sessions. This time, why don’t we concentrate on a period of relative peace? Anyway, we’re more than two weeks away from Christmas day… I think we should also look on the bright sides of life to get the feel of the season.
I am by no means saying that this day we’re about to talk about occurred in a period of long peace. We’re still going to tackle the revolutionary period of Spanish colonisation. But any window of peace was also a welcome moment for our exhausted revolutionary heroes who needed a time to restart their cause against Spain. This was a time when fire power, both literally and figuratively, was running out on the revolutionary’s side. It was time to regroup.
The date is 14 December 1897: Biak-na-Bato, the day Spain and the Philippines signed a truce.
After Andres Bonifacio, Supremo of the underground revolutionary group Katipunan, passed away, the leadership of the group was taken by another prominent Katipunan leader Emilio Aguinaldo. At this point, with the Katipunan itself in tatters because of an internal conflict among chapters, Emilio Aguinaldo and the revolutionary troops were being routed by the Spanish soldiers.
The Katipunan’s headquarters in Talisay, Batangas has been surrounded. Luckily, Emilio was able to escape with 500 men to a place called Biak-na-Bato in Bulacan. Biak-na-Bato was a very ideal hideout for Emilio and his troops because the area had cave network and river systems. In other words, it was very ideal for its natural defensive properties, something the Katipunan itself cannot create with such few men and materials in their hands.
In Biak-na-Bato, Emilio declared a republic complete with a constitution… the first ever republic of the Philippines. The republic had been successful in that it helped rally the scattered Katipunan chapters and renewed Katipunan’s pact to fight off the Spanish colonisers.
The republic also allowed the Katipunan to pinpoint new goals to make their fight more organised. Some of these goals include:
- The removal of friars and the return of their lands to the rightful Filipinos
- Representation in the Spanish court
- Freedom of the press and of religious expression
- Equal treatment for peninsulares (those born in Spain) and insulares (those born in the Philippines) civil servants
- Abolition of the banishment system
- Equality for all people in legal terms
The success of this ‘second’ Katipunan made the Spanish government realise that breaking Biak-na-Bato will not necessarily break the revolutionary cause. Governor-general Primo de Rivera then planned to forge a peace pact with Emilio.
However, the governor-general was really biding his time for another offensive against the Emilio and his troops.
15 December 1897
With the help of lawyer Pedro Paterno, Spain and the Philippines nevertheless made the peace through the Pact of Biak-na-Bato. This was accomplished by shuttle diplomacy: Paterno had to go back and forth between Manila and Bulacan to negotiate for the two sides.
The first two documents of the Pact were signed on 14 December and the third was signed on 15 December. The agreement included the following provisions:
- That Spain should pay 800,000 Mexican dollars to be paid in installments in exchange of exile for Emilio and his associates
- Payment should be made personally to Emilio, and its use will be totally in the discretion of the group
- That Spain should give two hostages as collateral until Emilio and his group have arrived in Hong Kong and until they are paid the first installment
- That the friars should be expelled
- That a time of peace shall be declared until February
Although both sides signed the truce, no one really believed the other would follow the agreement to the letter. Sure, Emilio was able to reach Hong Kong in good hands and he received the first installment of the payment worth 400,000 Mexican dollars. But he used this money to purchase more weapons needed by the revolutionary movement.
The rest of the payment was not received. In addition, Spanish and Filipino troops did not honour the peace pact as provided by the truce. Many fights between the two groups still sparked all over the country, with most of these the result of lack of communication between the parties involved in the truce and the men on the front lines.
Bigger things were in motion on the other side of the world, however, as America was moving to take over Spanish colonies from Spain.
The story of Biak-na-Bato may be one of the shortest chapters in the period of the Philippine-Spanish wars. But it was an important precursor to the country’s freedom, because it was the first time a truce was attempted between Spain and the Philippines since the revolution erupted. The truce provided a small window of opportunity that helped the revolutionary leaders strategise their movements against the colonisers. It was a risky move, yes, because peace meant Spain was also afforded time to regroup. But decisions like these have to be made to push the struggle forward.
It is true that at this point Emilio’s goals for the country were… well, a bit doubtful. Can you imagine yourself, a leader of the biggest group in the Philippines (by proxy the president of the biggest Filipino group that had the power to change the system at that point) turn your back on your countrymen and leave? I wouldn’t want to be caught up in that kind of decision! But men like Emilio were needed to forge a new direction for what seemed like a tug-of-war between two factions.
A new road had to be paved to finally win the revolution. It just so happened that at this point in history, America came in and forged that road for us. Not exactly to our liking, if you can recall from our last hiStory piece.
We can call this intrusion by the Americans fate. Do you think we could have won the revolution alone, without the help of the Americans? If you were Aguinaldo, would you have also accepted exile for a chance to restock weapons, or stay in the Philippines where you were most needed? Would you have also called for this truce at this moment in the revolution? Share your ideas by commenting below!