The Revolutionary Apolinario Mabini

The Phillippines' First Prime Minister from 1899 to 1903

Apolinario Mabini, c. 1900. via Wikipedia

Like fellow Philippine revolutionaries Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, lawyer Apolinario Mabini, the first prime minister of the Philippines, did not live to see his 40th birthday but became known as the brains and conscience of the revolution that would permanently alter the Philippines' government.

During his short life, Mabini suffered from paraplegia — paralysis of the legs — but had a powerful intellect and was known for his political savvy and eloquence. Before his untimely death in 1903, Mabini's revolution and thoughts on the government shaped the Philippines' fight for independence over the next century. 

Early Life

Apolinario Mabini y Maranan was born the second of eight children on July 22 or 23, 1864 in Talaga, Tanauwan, Batangas, about 43.5 miles south of Manila. His parents were very poor because his father Inocencio Mabini was a peasant farmer and mother Dionisia Maranan supplemented their farm income as a vendor at the local market.

As a child, Apolinario was remarkably clever and studious — despite his family's poverty — and studied at a school in Tanawan under the tutelage of Simplicio Avelino, working as a houseboy and tailor's assistant to earn his room and board. He then transferred to a school run by the famed educator Fray Valerio Malabanan.

In 1881, at the age of 17, Mabini won a partial scholarship to Manila's Colegio de San Juan de Letran, once again working through school by teaching younger students Latin at three different local institutions.

Continued Education

Apolinario earned his Bachelors degree and official recognition as a Professor of Latin in 1887 and went on to study law at the University of Santo Tomas.

From there, Mabini entered the legal profession in order to defend poor people, having himself facing discrimination from fellow students and professors, who picked on him for his shabby clothing before they realized how brilliant he was.

It took him six years to complete his law degree since he worked long hours as a law clerk and a court transcriptionist in addition to his studies, but he ultimately earned his law degree in 1894 at the age of 30.

Political Activities

While at school, Mabini supported the Reform Movement, which was a conservative group mainly made up of middle and upper-class Filipinos calling for changes to Spanish colonial rule, rather than outright Philippine independence, which included the intellectual, author, and physician Jose Rizal. 

In September of 1894, Mabini helped establish the reformist Cuerpo de Comprimisarios — the "Body of Compromisers" — which sought to negotiate better treatment from Spanish officials. However, pro-independence activists, mostly from the lower classes, joined the more radical Andres Bonifacio-established Katipunan Movement instead, which advocated armed revolution against Spain.

In 1895, Mabini was admitted to the lawyer's bar and worked as a newly-minted lawyer in the Adriano law offices in Manila while he also served as the secretary of the Cuerpo de Comprimisarios. However, early in 1896, Apolinario Mabini contracted polio, which left his legs paralyzed.

Ironically, this disability saved his life that autumn — the colonial police arrested Mabini in October of 1896 for his work with the reform movement. He was still under house arrest at the San Juan de Dios Hospital on December 30 of that year, when the colonial government summarily executed Jose Rizal, and it's believed that Mabini's polio likely kept him from the same fate.

The Philippine Revolution

Between his medical condition and his imprisonment, Apolinario Mabini was not able to participate in the opening days of the Philippine Revolution, but his experiences and the execution of Rizal radicalized Mabini and he turned his keen intellect to the issues of revolution and independence. 

In April of 1898, he penned a manifesto on the Spanish-American War, presciently warning other Philippine revolutionary leaders that Spain would likely cede the Philippines to the United States if it lost the war, urging them to continue to fight for independence. This paper brought him to the attention of General Emilio Aguinaldo, who had ordered the execution of Andres Bonifacio the previous year and had been driven into exile in Hong Kong by the Spanish. 

The Americans hoped to use Aguinaldo against the Spanish in the Philippines, so brought him back from his exile on May 19, 1898. Once ashore, Aguinaldo ordered his men to bring the author of the war manifesto to him, and they had to carry the disabled Mabini over the mountains on a stretcher to Cavite.

Mabini reached Aguinaldo's camp on June 12, 1898, and soon became one of the general's primary advisers. That same day, Aguinaldo declared the Philippines' independence, with himself as the dictator. 

Establishing the New Government

On July 23, 1898, Mabini was able to talk Aguinaldo out of ruling the Philippines as an autocrat by convincing the new president to modify his plans and establish a revolutionary government with an assembly rather than a dictatorship. In fact, Apolinario Mabini's power of persuasion over Aguinaldo was so strong that his detractors called him the "Dark Chamber of the President" while his admirers named him "the Sublime Paralytic."

Because his personal life and morality were difficult to attack, Mabini's enemies in the new government resorted to a whispering campaign to slander him. Jealous of his immense power, they started a rumor that his paralysis was due to syphilis, rather than polio — despite the fact that syphilis does not cause paraplegia.

Even as these rumors spread around, though, Mabini continued to work toward fashioning a better country. Mabini wrote most of Aguinaldo's presidential decrees. He also molded policy on the organization of the provinces, the judicial system, and the police, as well as property registration and military regulations.

Aguinaldo appointed him to the Cabinet as Secretary of Foreign Affairs and President of the Council of Secretaries where Mabini exercised significant influence over the drafting of the first constitution for the Philippine Republic.

At War Again

Mabini continued moving up the ranks in the new government with his appointment as both the prime minister and foreign minister on January 2, 1899, right when the Philippines were on the brink of yet another war.

On March 6 of that year, Mabini began negotiations with the United States over the Philippines' fate now that the U.S. had defeated Spain, with both sides already engaged in hostilities but not in a declarative war.

Mabini sought to negotiate autonomy for the Philippines and a ceasefire from foreign troops, but the U.S. refused the armistice. In frustration, Mabini threw his support behind the war effort, and on May 7 he resigned from Aguinaldo's government, with Aguinaldo declaring war less than a month later on June 2.

As a result, the revolutionary government at Cavite had to flee and once again Mabini was carried in a hammock, this time to the north 119 miles to Nueva Ecija. On December 10, 1899, he was captured there by Americans and made a prisoner of war in Manila until the following September. 

Upon his release on January 5, 1901, Mabini published a scathing newspaper article titled "El Simil de Alejandro," or "The Resemblance of Alejandro," which stated that "Man, whether or not he wishes, will work and strive for those rights with which Nature has endowed him, because these rights are the only ones which can satisfy the demands of his own being. To tell a man to be quiet when a necessity not fulfilled is shaking all the fibers of his being is tantamount to asking a hungry man to be filled while taking the food which he needs."

The Americans immediately re-arrested him and sent him into exile in Guam when he refused to swear fealty to the United States. During his long exile, Apolinario Mabini wrote "La Revolucion Filipina, " a memoir. Worn down and sickly and fearing that he would die in exile, Mabini finally agreed to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. 

Final Days

On February 26, 1903, Mabini returned to the Philippines where American officials offered him a plush government position as a reward for agreeing to take the fealty oath, but Mabini refused, releasing the following statement: "After two long years I am returning, so to speak, completely disoriented and, what is worse, almost overcome by disease and sufferings. Nevertheless, I hope, after some time of rest and study, still to be of some use, unless I have returned to the Islands for the sole purpose of dying."

Sadly, his words were prophetic. Mabini continued to speak and write in support of Philippine independence over the next several months. He fell ill with cholera, which was rampant in the country after years of war, and died on May 13, 1903, at only 38 years old.