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Antonio Luna: Infamous General, All-Around Badass, Hero


General Antonio Luna (not Juan Luna, he’s his brother, and Juan’s the painter) is undoubtedly one of the most admired Philippine heroes (probably due to the popular biofilm “Heneral Luna” released in 2015). He is a soldier, a chemist, a war strategist, a journalist, a pharmacists, and a hot-headed General.

Unfortunately for Luna, the Philippines’ first president – the ruthless Emilio Aguinaldo – perceived him as a threat.  As a result, Antonio Luna died not on the battlefields of the Philippine/American War, but on the streets of Cabanatuan.

But if there’s one thing that General Antonio Luna is most famous for other than his assassination, that would be his temper.

Antonio Luna’s Early Life

Antonio Luna de San Pedro y Novicio-Ancheta was born on October 29, 1866 in the Binondo district of Manila.  He was the seventh child of Laureana Novicio-Ancheta, a Spanish mestiza, and Joaquin Luna de San Pedro, a traveling salesman.

Antonio was a gifted student, who studied with a teacher called Maestro Intong from the age of six.  He received a Bachelor of Arts from the Ateneo Municipal de Manila in 1881, and continued his studies in chemistry, music, and literature at the University of Santo Tomas, also in Manila.  In addition to his academic subjects, Antonio Luna studied fencing, sharpshooting, and military tactics at the university.

Antonio and Juan in Madrid

In 1890, Antonio traveled to Spain to join his brother Juan, who was studying painting in Madrid.  There, Antonio earned a licentiate in pharmacy at the Universidad de Barcelona, followed by a doctorate from the Universidad Central de Madrid.  He went on to study bacteriology and histology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, continuing on to Belgium. While in Spain, Luna had published a well-received paper on malaria, so in 1894 the Spanish government appointed him to a post as a specialist in communicable and tropical diseases.

The Revolution that Brought Antonio Home

Later in 1894, Antonio Luna returned to the Philippines, where he became the chief chemist of the Municipal Laboratory in Manila.  He and his brother Juan established a fencing society called the Sala de Armas in the capital.

Antonio and Juan Luna were approached about joining the Katipunan, a revolutionary organization founded by Andres Bonifacio in response to the 1892 banishment of Jose Rizal, but both Luna brothers refused to participate.  At that stage, they believed in gradual reform of the system, rather than violent revolution against Spanish colonial rule.

Although they were not members of Katipunan, Antonio, Juan, and their brother Jose were all arrested and imprisoned in August 1896, when the Spanish learned that the organization existed.  His brothers were interrogated and released, but Antonio was sentenced to exile, sent to Spain, and imprisoned in the Carcel Modelo de Madrid. Juan, by this time a famed painter, used his connections with the Spanish royal family to secure Antonio’s release in 1897.

After his exile and imprisonment, understandably, Antonio Luna’s attitude toward Spanish colonial rule had shifted.  Due to the arbitrary treatment of himself and his brothers, and the execution of his friend Jose Rizal the previous December, Luna was ready to take up arms against Spain.  In his typically academic fashion, Luna decided to study guerrilla warfare tactics, military organization, and field fortification under the famous Belgian military educator, Gerard Leman.  Next, Antonio Luna sailed to Hong Kong, where he met with the revolutionary leader-in-exile, Emilio Aguinaldo. In July of 1898, Luna returned to the Philippines to take up the fight.

Rise of the General Antonio Luna

As the Spanish-American War came to a close, and the defeated Spanish prepared to withdraw from the Philippines, Filipino revolutionary troops surrounded the capital city of Manila.  The newly-arrived officer Antonio Luna urged the other commanders to send troops into the city to ensure a joint occupation when the Americans arrived, but Emilio Aguinaldo refused, believing US naval officers stationed in Manila Bay who assured him that the Americans would hand over power to the Filipinos in due course.  Luna complained bitterly about this strategic blunder, as well as the disorderly conduct of American troops once they landed in Manila in mid-August of 1898.

To placate Luna, Aguinaldo promoted him to the rank of Brigadier General on September 26, 1898, and named him Chief of War Operations.  General Luna continued to campaign for better military discipline and organization, and for a more aggressive approach to the Americans, who were now setting themselves up as the new colonial rulers, rather than granting the Philippines its independence.  Along with Apolinario Mabini, Antonio Luna warned Aguinaldo that the Americans did not seem inclined to free the Philippines. Aguinaldo still hoped that the US would honor its earlier pledges, however.

General Luna felt the need for a military academy to properly train the Filipino troops, who were eager and in many cases experienced in guerrilla warfare, but had little formal military training. In October of 1898, Luna founded what is now the Philippine Military Academy.  The Academy operated for less than half a year, however, before the Philippine/American War broke out in February of 1899, and classes were suspended so that staff and students could join the war effort.

The General in the Philippine-American War

General Luna led three companies of soldiers to attack the Americans at La Loma, who responded with ground forces and with naval artillery fire from the fleet in Manila Bay.  The Filipinos suffered heavy casualties. A Filipino counterattack on February 23 gained some ground, but collapsed when troops from Cavite refused to take orders from General Luna, stating that they would obey only Aguinaldo himself.  Furious, Luna disarmed the recalcitrant soldiers, but was forced to fall back.

After several additional bad experiences with the undisciplined and clannish Filipino forces, and after Aguinaldo had rearmed the disobedient Cavite troops as his personal Presidential Guard, a thoroughly frustrated General Luna submitted his resignation to Aguinaldo.  Aguinaldo reluctantly accepted. With the war going very badly for the Philippines over the next three weeks, however, Aguinaldo persuaded Luna to return and made him Commander-in-Chief.

Luna developed and implemented a plan to contain the Americans long enough to construct a guerrilla base in the mountains.  The plan consisted of a network of bamboo trenches, complete with spiked man-traps and pits full of poisonous snakes, that spanned the jungle from village to village.  Filipino troops could fire on the Americans from this Luna Defense Line, and then melt away into the jungle without exposing themselves to American fire.

Late in May, Antonio Luna’s brother Joaquin (a colonel in the revolutionary army) warned him that a number of the other officers were conspiring to kill him.  General Luna had disciplined, arrested, or disarmed many of these officers, who bitterly resented his rigid, authoritarian style. Antonio made light of his brother’s warning, and reassured him that President Aguinaldo would not allow anyone to assassinate the army’s Commander-in-Chief.

General Luna received two telegrams on June 2, 1899.  One telegram asked him to join a counterattack against the Americans at San Fernando, Pampanga.  The second was from Aguinaldo, ordering Luna to the new capital, Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, about 120 kilometers due north of Manila, where the Philippines’ revolutionary government was forming a new cabinet.  Ever ambitious, and hopeful of being named Prime Minister, Luna decided to go to Nueva Ecija with a cavalry escort of 25 men. However, due to transportation difficulties, Luna arrived in Nueva Ecija accompanied only by two other officers,  Colonel Roman and Captain Rusca – the troops had been left behind.

On June 5, Luna went alone to the government headquarters to speak with President Aguinaldo.  He met one of his old enemies there, a man he had once disarmed for cowardice, who informed him that the meeting was cancelled and Aguinaldo was out of town.  Furious, Luna had started to walk back down the stairs when a rifle shot went off outside. Luna ran down the stairs, where he met one of the Cavite officers he had dismissed for insubordination.  The officer struck Luna on the head with his bolo; soon Cavite troops swarmed the injured general, stabbing him. Luna drew his revolver and fired, but missed his attackers. He fought his way out to the plaza, where Roman and Rusca ran to help him, but Roman was shot to death and Rusca was severely injured.  Luna sank, bleeding, to the cobblestones of the plaza. His last words were, “Cowards! Assassins!” He was 32 years old.

As Aguinaldo’s guards assassinated his most able general, the president himself was laying siege to the headquarters of General Venancio Concepcion, an ally of the murdered general.  Aguinaldo dismissed Luna’s officers and men from the Filipino Army. For the Americans, this internecine fighting was a gift. General James F. Bell noted that Luna “was the only general the Filipino army had,” and Aguinaldo’s forces suffered disastrous defeat after disastrous defeat in the wake of Antonio Luna’s murder.  Aguinaldo spent most of the next 18 months in retreat, before being captured by the Americans on March 23, 1901.

Did you know that Antonio Luna also denounced the Katipunan?

A two-paragraph section in Jose Alejandrino’s memoir (published in 1933 and translated into English in 1949,) “The Price of Freedom” and titled “Antonio Luna in the year 1896” makes for an interesting reading:

“It appears in official documents that in this period Luna committed the greatest error of his life in denouncing the existence of the Katipunan and in revealing, during his imprisonment after the first outbreak of the rebellion, the names of some of his friends affiliated with the Society. Later, he explained however to me his aforesaid acts by saying that with the physical and moral tortures which he suffered during his imprisonment, and upon being assured by the Spaniards that he had been squealed upon by his own friends, denouncing him as an accomplice in the rebellion, his violent character made him lose his better judgment. And having fallen for the scheme woven by the Spaniards, he declared that those who had denounced him were more guilty than he.

“The events of 1896 separated us from each other, he having been prosecuted and later on sentenced to suffer imprisonment in Spain, while I left the country for China and Japan [on official missions for Emilio Aguinaldo to procure arms for the revolution]. We were able to see each [other] again in Kabite toward the month of July, 1898. He was returning home after having served his sentence in the Model Prison of Madrid, and he brought with him in his baggage books on military strategy and tactics and treatises on field fortifications. Above all, he brought with him a desire to atone for his past mistakes.”

Like Jose Rizal and Apolinario Mabini, Luna did not support the first phase of the Philippine Revolution (from the Cry of Balintawak until the Pact of Biak-na-Bato). Like Katipunan member Pio Valenzuela, Luna was subjected to Spanish torture, and cracked under severe pressure. But like Mabini, he joined the second phase of the revolution (from Aguinaldo’s return from exile in Hong Kong in May 1898 until the outbreak of hostilities with the Americans in February 1899). And like Mabini, he served with distinction in the third phase, the war against the Americans—until his death in June 1899 at the hands of Aguinaldo’s presidential guards.

But there is more to General Luna than mere blood and gut:

“Antonio became also a member of [the Malolos] Congress …. Eloquent speeches from each group were pronounced but there never was a voting because both groups were afraid of the result of the balloting. Luna broke the situation with one of those tricks peculiar to his character and which made him famous later. He assembled all those delegates of the radical faction who had confidence in him advising them to keep away from the sessions of the Congress but requesting them to remain within call at a moment’s notice. With the radicals absent, the Conservatives constituted a majority during the sessions. Having made a careful counting and thinking themselves sure of victory, the Conservatives asked for a vote while the few radicals present registered a token opposition. The motion to call a vote was carried. Then at the precise moment of balloting, Luna immediately called all his advisers to enter the session hall en masse to the surprise of the confident Conservatives. The voting was taken and we won, if I remember right, by one or two votes. [In fact, they won by one vote.] In this manner [the] provision in our Constitution for the separation of the Church and State was secured.”