Agueda Kahabagan was our first woman general. But do you know her?

It’s a great time for history buffs. Topics once deemed too nerdy now spill into the mainstream and into pop culture consciousness, through carefully-crafted and -researched movies like Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo (2014), Heneral Luna (2015) and Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral (2018).

Alongside Philippine folklore, history has been resurfacing here and there through articles, manga, or Twitter threads from professional researchers and passionate laypeople alike. Political awareness and once-forgotten issues from more than a hundred years (“Who killed Luna?”) add a dimension of urgency, too.

But there are stories still threatened by obscurity: a shelved book gathering dust is one thing. The lack of records another. Such is the case of many women who actively took part in the Philippines’ formative years. If their stories surface at all, it’s usually limited to the supporting roles they played for men.

Enter Agueda Kahabagan y Iniquinto, the only officially listed general during the Philippine Revolution of 1896-1898 and the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902.

“Good daughters and dutiful wives”

Records refer to a speech by a Mrs. C.F. Calderón before American socialite Alice Roosevelt in a 1905 Manila reception that contained interesting descriptions of Filipina women.

Calderón said Pre-Hispanic Filipinas were freer and had power equal to males in pre-colonial society but Spanish women “corrupted” in Mexico imported their “defects” to the Philippines. (Note that for most of the Spanish colonial period, our islands were governed from the “viceroyalty of New Spain.”)

The upbringing of the colonized Filipino woman rendered them “ignorant, frivolous, proud” and “gave little heed to her intellectual culture…confined to the external practices of Catholicism.”

Educational opportunities were scant as Calderón laments: “Such was the destiny of the woman of that social order—either mother or nun.” She also became aware, however, that business conducted through industrial capitalism changes how people relate with each other.

Calderón said it was under a social climate of thinly veiled ass-kissing where Henerala Agueda took a leap of faith and plunged into two wars that shaped the birth of the nation. So yes, she was a good daughter of the cause, and a dutiful mother of the nation.

Read also: These women-focused organizations could use your support

Who is she?

Little is known about the Henerala. A Google-up reveals well-meaning articles and a Wikipedia page, all with much conjecture, but little confirmation (The search entry photo is of Gregoria de Jesus, wife of Andres Bonifacio).

“Not so much is known about her but from snatches of information available,” the Wikipedia page reads. Scout approached a number of professional historians who gave either leads while acknowledging their relative unfamiliarity with Agueda Kahabagan, or who did not respond at all.

A treasure trove of data may be waiting in the National Library and Lopez Museum, but as of press time, both are under renovation.

What is known so far is that a woman named Agueda Kahabagan led troops in battle during the Revolutionary and Philippine-American wars. And yet her parentage, birthdate, and death—facts confirming personhood by today’s conventions—are presently unknown.

Photos of the Henerala have also yet to be discovered by the National Historical Commission (NHCP). One official illustration of her was in a four-peso postal stamp printed for the celebration of the Philippine Centennial in 1998.

One Lead points to Sta. Cruz, Laguna, her birthplace. There is a marker installed by the NHCP, with neither statue nor portrait. Would it be possible for pertinent documents and artifacts to suddeny show up in an auction from a private collection? If only a rich tito would step forward …

What is known so far is that a woman named Agueda Kahabagan led troops in battle during the Revolutionary and Philippine-American wars. And yet her parentage, birthdate, and death—facts confirming personhood by today’s conventions—are presently unknown. The information about her might not even be enough for a Tinder or Bumble profile.

Whatever scant evidence exists also gives conflicting accounts of a single event, leaving one foot in the door of fact, and the other in the realm of legend.

Women of war

Teresa Magbanua was a revolutionary from Iloilo. As a girl, she got into fights with the village boys. Her hobbies forced her parents to send her to women’s schools in Manila for grooming “into a fine lady.”

When the Revolution reached Visayas, her husband and uncle objected to her participation in battle. A conversation recalled by her sister Paz details Teresa’s willingness to fight:
“General, I have come to offer my services for our cause.”
“Ay woman, what can you do?”
“I can fight.”
“Fight? Why, you are a woman.”
“Now General, you know that I can ride and shoot better than you. Give me men to command and I will show you how a woman can fight for her country.” She led troops against the Spanish in Capiz then fought the Americans in Iloilo.

Movies such as Luna and Goyo don’t shy away from portraying the logistical, psychological, and organizational challenges of war: More than bullets, diseases like malaria killed more soldiers, and the Revolutionary army lost as much men to desertion as to death.

Forced manual labor, an attitude of prejudice towards indigenous people which may have led some to turn against the Revolutionaries, ballistic effects on human bodies, and equally bloody medical action were highighted. Lazy soldiers, negligent generals, and politicking harmed the cause as much as enemy technology and strategy.

Long before her official appointment, revolutionaries already referred to her as Henerala. Cavite General Santiago Alvarez recalls: “Astride a horse, she held a revolver in her right hand and the reins and dagger in the left.” She was charging against the enemy, many rallying to her despite mounting losses.

Agueda Kahabagan faced two battles: the realities of war waged by a fledgling nation, and the status of women during the day.

A member of the Katipunan long before its discovery in 1896, Kahabagan was appointed in May 1897 to lead a detachment of Laguna-based revolutionaries by either Severino Taiño or Miguel Malvar.

The Philippine-American War began in February 1899. A roster of generals lists a “Sr. Aguese Kahabagan” as a Brigadier General under the Reserve Corps, appointed in January 4, 1899.

But an April 6, 1899 letter signed by General Pio del Pilar and addressed to Secretary of War Baldomero Aguinaldo recommends an “Agueda Kahabagan y Iniquinto, a native of Santa Cruz … whose enthusiasm is worthy of praise … in view of services rendered since the first insurrection up to the present time” recognition as a general under the First Philippine Republic.

It is agreed that “her man-like fighting prowess became legendary” as witnesses of the Battle of San Pablo saw Kahabagan “jumping over wide trenches and high fences, outdoing even the men.”

Long before her official appointment, revolutionaries already referred to her as Henerala. Cavite General Santiago Alvarez recalls: “Astride a horse, she held a revolver in her right hand and the reins and dagger in the left.” She was charging against the enemy, many rallying to her despite mounting losses.

Another description changes her weapon of choice: “‘Henerala Agueda’ was found at the battlefront dressed in white, armed with a rifle, and brandishing a bolo.” It is agreed that “her man-like fighting prowess became legendary” as witnesses of the Battle of San Pablo saw Kahabagan “jumping over wide trenches and high fences, outdoing even the men.”

The battles of San Pablo, 1897

1897 was a disastrous year for the revolutionaries. Gains made in the previous year were lost as the Spaniards, under a new governor-general, mounted a counter-offensive. The provinces around Manila were hit hard. Cavite, then the hub of the victorious Katipunan, lost town after town. Commanders from there retreated to either Biak-na-Bato in Bulacan, or to Laguna.

The latter province, relatively quiet when war broke out in 1896, would soon see intense fighting. During the early days of the revolution, this “peace” allowed Laguna to serve as a “strategic corridor” for smuggling troops and supplies across battlefields in Tayabas and Cavite. Severino Taiño, then the provincial commander of the Katipunan, conducted guerilla warfare after a disastrous defeat in November 1896.

As revolutionaries retreated from Cavite towards Laguna, it was around this time that Caviteño Miguel Malvar made contact with Taiño, thus the differing accounts on who appointed Kahabagan to lead troops.

The first battle occurred in May. And here, Agueda’s forces bore the brunt of combat. Stationed between the Calauan and San Pablo, her troops surrounded the latter, where the enemy had fled to. By the time Filipino reinforcements arrived, most of the battle was already won.

A more detailed if sober account is the October battle, which occurred from the ninth to the 11th. Here, there were no major engagements between Filipino and Spanish forces in Laguna from 1896 until June 1897. Like in the first telling, Agueda’s forces were stationed between Kalawang (Calauan) and San Pablo while other commanders under Malvar besieged San Pablo from different directions. Agueda also bore the brunt of the battle but this time, the Spaniards attacked first, leaving their fortified positions in the town. Fighting lasted for a few hours, and the Spaniards retreated back to San Pablo, the Filipinos pursuing them.

Enroute, weapons were looted from many dead Spaniards. But the following day, overwhelmed by fresh enemy troops, the Filipinos were forced to retreat. A stalemate followed. By December, hostilities stopped as the Pact of Biak-na-Bato was signed.

Throughout 1898, no news of the Henerala surfaced.

Disaster

At the start of the American War, her force only had “10 rifles, the remainder sandatahanes (most likely bolos).” In March 1899, Malvar was promoted to commanding general, with Kahabagan under him. Together with Artemio Ricarte, she led the desperate defense of Laguna against the Americans from 1900 to 1901, when half of the Filipino forces under them was destroyed.

This war was more brutal, as the conduct of combat and stateside news coverage was influenced by racism and imperial ambition. Some US academics of the time claimed Filipinos were inferior, not only because of appearing, but because resorting to guerilla warfare was “unmanly.”

The overall American commander Elwell Otis was notorious for initiating combat even without orders from Washington. US gunboats on Laguna de Bay bombed coastal towns like Paete, killing numerous civilians. Wary of Filipinos entrenched in nearby mountains, the Americans instead fortified captured towns like San Pablo and Sta. Cruz, Kahabagan’s birthplace, forcing a stalemate until more troops arrived from the States, eventually routing the Filipinos.

Uncertain fate, unbroken heart

There are two takes on the end of Kahabagan’s military career. The first version, appearing in biographies of Ricarte and Malvar state that she was killed in 1901 in Laguna. Another said she was captured in 1902 by American forces.

Here’s a translation of a letter sent “weeks before June 24, 1901” from her to General Cailles, the new commander of Laguna:

“…..In the province of Morong, nobody supports the right path for the oppressed poor who are like us, because they do not follow people from other places …. but the poor should be attended to and guided by the right path of freedom in accordance with your expectations.
…..I am requesting for an authorization to gather the forces who were part of the earlier uprising.”

Cailles instead chose to surrender.

It must be remembered that women fought, that a woman rose above a field dominated by men, fighting a war to defend the now increasingly obsolete concept of nationhood, but also against an increasingly obsolete concept of a superior sex.

From when she first took up arms, to being recognized by generals from Laguna to Cavite, to her official appointment as Brigadier General, and all the way to her uncertain fate, we can glean that Henerala Agueda was a woman who entered the field, skillfully played the hand she was dealt with, and fought on when others had given up.

Kahabagan embodied that lost Filipina soul sought by Calderón: a warrior, while grounded, bolo in hand, still buoyed by the aspirations of a people long oppressed. Today, pages upon pages of history continue to be written as Filipinos face continual oppression—is there time to look back?

Read also: The government is retelling Philippine history, in a bad way

Definitely. While the allotted time isn’t a luxury, the urgency to remember in order to move forward remains. It must be remembered that women fought, that a woman rose above a field dominated by men, fighting a war to defend the now increasingly obsolete concept of nationhood, but also against an increasingly obsolete concept of a superior sex.

She may have won the bigger fight after all.

With additional reporting by Angela Cortero. Special thanks to the Serafin D. Quiason library and the Research and Heraldry Division of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.

Art by Tyra Monzones


References:

  • List of Generals of the Army of the Republic of the Philippines, by date of appointment and station.” Unsigned document. Translated by John R.M. Taylor in Philippine Insurgent Records.
  • “The Filipina Woman,” C.F. Calderón. Speech reprinted in The Philippine Review, March 1916 issue.
  • Women in the Philippine Revolution. 75-76. Rafaelita Hilario Soriano, ed. Quezon City. 1995.
  • <“Exhibit 855” inPhilippine Insurgent Records, translated from Spanish by John R.M. Taylor.
  • Memoirs of a General, by Santiago Alvarez p. 135. Translated from Tagalog by Paula Carolina S. Malay, 1992.
  • >Filipina Firsts: A Salute to One Hundred Women Pioneers 1898-1998. Maribel Ongpin, lead editor. Washington DC. June, 2002.
  • Filipinos in History, Volume 5. Published by the National Historical Commission, 1996.
  • Nineteenth Century Conditions and the Revolution in the Province of Laguna. 65-66. Rhina Alvero-Boncocan and Dwight David Diestro. Diliman, Quezon City. 2002.
  • Gen. Miguel C. Malvar: The Biography of a Consummate Filipino. 109-110. Amelita Reysio-Cruz. Makati. 1998.
  • General Artemio Ricarte & Japan. Grant K. Goodman. Reprinted inThe Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 7, No. 2. 48-60. Lawrence, Kansas. September 1966.

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