Remembering the GOMBURZA:  In Anticipation of the 150th Anniversary of their Martyrdom in 2022
Francis Kristoffer L. Pasion

The 1872 public execution of the three secular priests —Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomes de los Angeles, and Jacinto Zamora, collectively known in their portmanteau “GOMBURZA”— was a pivotal moment in Philippine history, one that was acknowledged by numerous figures of the time. It was a major catalyst that pushed the events forward leading to the failed reformist agenda among Filipino liberals in Spain,  pivoting to the Philippine Revolution against Spain which broke out in 1896.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 unlocked the floodgates of liberal ideas of equality, fairness, and civil rights from Spain to its farthest colony, the Philippines. At the time, it shortened the travel time between Spain and the Philippines from approximately twenty months to thirty days. It effectively lowered the travel cost, and facilitated the faster exchange of news and information. At the time, Spain was embroiled in numerous revolutions and civil wars, with the tug of war between liberals and absolutists (monarchists). Hence the ideas that rocked Spanish politics and the royal court were understandably transmitted to its colonies, shaping the political terrain and laying down the foundation for the aspiration of equality and modernity.

The appointment of Lt. Gen. Rafael de Izquierdo, replacing the liberal-leaning Carlos de la Torre as Spanish governor general of the Philippines in 1871, pushed back the liberal reforms that were already being implemented in the Philippines. Izquierdo rescinded many of the policies of de la Torre. For example, he suspended the opening of a new school of arts and trade. Furthermore, he laid off high-ranking officials in the civil force who were found to be half-Spanish or full-Filipinos.

In 1872, with Izquierdo abrogating the exemption of tribute and forced labor long enjoyed by the workers of the Cavite Navy Yard, among whom were artillery support and corps of engineers, all of them entitled of the benefits, rose up in arms and mutinied against the colonial government. On 20 January 1872, approximately 200 workers from the marine battalion of the arsenal, which included sailors and artillerymen, all led by Fernando La Madrid,  seized Fort San Felipe, and subdued seven Spanish officers.

While the mutiny lasted only two days due to the swift reaction of the colonial administration, massive arrests soon followed, including those who had no connections to the mutiny—half Spaniards, Creoles, secular priests, lawyers, merchants/businessmen, local officials. All they had in common was that they openly campaigned and supported liberal ideas.

Among those arrested were the three secular priests who have long voiced out the unequal treatment towards secular (Filipino) clergy in favor of the Spanish friars. They were Mariano Gomes de los Angeles, priest of Bacoor, Jose Burgos, priest from the Manila Cathedral, and Jacinto Zamora, a parish priest of Marikina.

The Jesuit order’s expulsion from the Philippines and all the Spanish colonies in 1768 and the royal decree to fill vacant clergy posts in parishes with native priests (“seculares”) in 1774 began the secularization movement. Opposed to this were the “regulares,” Spanish friars who saw such a move as an erosion of their political authority and influence in the colony. Upon the Jesuits’ return to the Philippines in 1859, many secular priests were displaced. Jose Burgos pursued the secularization cause and earned the ire of many among the Regulars. It was upon this context, according to Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, that all the forces converged against the three secular priests who were accused, tried, and sentenced to death by garrote for allegedly instigating the mutiny in Cavite, even with doubtful evidence. A man named Saldua was said to have been bribed to implicate Burgos and the two other priests.

On 17 February 1872, the date of the execution, a huge crowd of around forty thousand assembled at the execution site in Bagumbayan. The first to be executed was Saldua. Stripped of their robes, and chained, the first of the GOMBURZA to be executed was Gomes, who told his confessor, “Father, I know that not a leaf falls to the ground but by the will of God. Since He wills that I should die here, His holy will be done.” The next one, Zamora, seemed to have lost his sanity, stood silent until the screwed turned and he was strangulated. The last one was Burgos, who, overcome with terror upon seeing his colleagues die, exclaimed, “What crime have I committed? Is it possible that I should die like this? My God, is there no justice on earth? …. I am innocent!” But when told that Jesus suffered the same fate, Burgos stood resigned, and forgave his executioner.

The unjust fate that befell the three secular priests were well known at the time, not only for the trumped up charges made against them but for the swiftness of the ruling of the Spanish court-martial. Even the Archbishop of Manila refused to defrock them even amidst political pressure. At the moment of their execution, he ordered every church to toll their bells to make known his acknowledgment of the martyrs’ innocence. 

It awakened a new realization among Filipinos, that liberal notions of equality, meritocracy, and human dignity could no longer thrive under a colonial regime. A prospect of independence was waiting in the wings.

Jose Rizal would dedicate his second novel, El filibusterismo, to the three tragic figures:

“The Government, by enshrouding your trial in mystery and pardoning your co-accused, has suggested that some mistake was committed when your fate was decided; and the whole of the Philippines, in paying homage to your memory and calling you martyrs, totally rejects your guilt. The Church, by refusing to degrade you, has put in doubt the crime charged against you.”

Marcelo H. del Pilar, from his “Frailocracy in the Philippines,” said:

“The [Cavite] insurrection spreads over an unprecedented number of pages in our history. It has become the topic of discussion everywhere because it implicated and condemned to the gallows three illustrious secular clergymen who distinguished themselves in defending the rights of the secular priests against the regular clergy relative to administering the care of souls[,] and it imprisoned illustrious jurists, respectable citizens and other secular clergymen in Ceuta and the Marianas.”

Andres Bonifacio, in his speech in the Katipunan commemorating the three martyrs’ deaths in February 1895:

“Twenty-three years have passed from today, when a tragedy struck the fields of this new country; Three illustrious Tagalogs who sparked light and destroyed the veil that hid the darkness from the eyes of the Katagalugan, were executed…  One day, the sun of Righteousness will rise, and those who have debts will pay.”

Apolinario Mabini recounted GOMBURZA’s significance in his La revolucion filipina:

“The friars wanted to make an example of Burgos and his companions so that the Filipinos should be afraid to go against them from then on. But that patent injustice, that official crime, aroused not fear but hatred of the friars and of the regime that supported them, and a profound sympathy and sorrow for the victims. This sorrow worked a miracle: it made the Filipinos realize their condition for the first time.”

Now that we look back upon the martyrdom of these three figures from 149 years ago beyond the limits of memory and time, we acknowledge the immense impact that they had that shaped the course of the Nation, refashioning a distinct identity, the Filipino. We bring these lessons of the past into the GOMBURZA’s 150th anniversary next year, on 17 February 2022.

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