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Philippine Navy History

Origins: 1892-1897

The connection between the Philippines and maritime issues being what is has historically been, it is not surprising then that the first Filipino was also student of seapower. Jose Rizal, considered to be one of the father's of the modern Philippine identity, grew up in the lakeshore town of Calamba in Laguna de Bay, the country's largest lake. True to his beginnings, Rizal opened his second novel El Filibusterismo with a scene in a steamship navigating its way in the Pasig River toward Laguna.

Jos Rizal, was not only an author by also a physician, scientist, scholar, and one of the early nationalist leaders. His writings as a member of the Propaganda Movement (a term for intellectually active, upper-class Filipino reformers) had a considerable impact on the awakening of the Filipino national consciousness. His books were banned, and he lived in self-imposed exile. Rizal returned from overseas in 1892 to find the Liga Filipina (Philippine League), a national, nonviolent political organization. He was soon arrested and exiled and the league dissolved. One result was the split of the nationalist movement between the reform-minded ilustrados and a more revolutionary and independence-minded plebeian constituency.

Rizal seems also the first Filipino to have recognized the crucial part a naval force played in uniting the islands. He established the short-lived La Liga Filipina exactly to unite Filipinos scattered over the archipelago into one, homogenous body. Apparently taking heed from the admonition of his European friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, that an insurrection without a navy would not succeed considering the Philippines's insular character, Rizal rejected an armed rising as contemplated by the Katipunan, calling it premature.

Another organization, the Katipunan, was a secret society founded by Andres Bonifacio in 1892, was committed to winning national independence. In 1896, the Katipunan rose in revolt against Spain. At the time it was said to have 30,000 members. Although Rizal, who had again returned to the Philippines, was not a member of the Katipunan, he was arrested and executed on 30 December 1896, for his alleged role in the rebellion. With Rizal's martyrdom, the rebels, led by Emilio Aguinaldo as president, were filled with new determination.

He probably had never personally met Rizal, but Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964) of Cavite shared Rizal's view on the need to unify the islands though a working navy. Like Rizal, Aguinaldo was a Tagalog,the abbreviated from of taga-ilog, meaning river denizen. This term was subsequently used to refer to the Philippines largest indigenous ethnic group and their language. His appreciation of seapower had also evolved because he had been born in province that hosted a large Spanish naval base.

It is unknown if Aguinaldo agreed with Rizal that a revolution was premature during the final years of the 18th century, but it is known that Aguinaldo joined the Katipunan. When the secret society was discovered by authorities, he took to the battlefront despite the movement's poor arms and general unpreparedness. Although Aguinaldo won most of his battles on land, he came around early to the conclusion that the Filipino nation could not be properly called so without a navy to bridge the wide divide of cultures owing to the island's unique to topography.

Aguinaldo's recognition of the naval factor was illustrated in the Biak-na-Bato Constitution (framed in 1897 in San Miguel, Bulacan) that called for Philippine separation from Spain and envisioned the creation of a government consisting of the President, vice-president, secretary of foreign affairs, secretary of war, secretary of interior, and secretary of finance. Among others duties, the council was authorized to organize "privateering and issue letters of marque and reprisals." This meant that the government could license privately owned and operated vessel to prey upon enemy vessels, in this case, Spanish ships, for the prosecution of the war.

The English version of the Biak-na-Bato Constitution, apparently created during Aguinaldo's exile in Hong Kong after the signing of the truce with the Spaniards, clearly showed his intent of forming a navy. Mention was made specifically of a navy to be created "(w)hen the necessary army is organized...for the protection of the coasts of the Philippine archipelago and its seas; then a secretary of the navy shall be appointed and the duties of his office added to this Constitution."

In appears then that his Hong Kong exile afforded Aguinaldo a keener appreciation of the marine factor. In fact, Aguinaldo used the reprieve to buy arms and equipment for the revolution. One of the orders he made was for a "motor launch to be used as a nucleus of an interisland transport system" in order to hasten the movement of his troops and to expand the Revolution beyond the Tagalog Region.

The recognition also came about because of more immediate realities. The United States had declared war on Spain over the controversial USS Maine episode in Cuba. In fact, upon reaching Hong Kong, where the US naval force was passing en route to Manila, Aguinaldo was requested for a conference by US officials and asked to return to the Philippine to resume the war of independence against Spain.

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