On “Under Three Flags” of Benedict Anderson


THIS is a colorful, sparkling, and rich narratives of how an imagination of a particular nationality, society, and polity has been assembled, shaped, campaigned and delivered by the radicals and avant-garde persons, scholars and political activists among the colonized people during the second half of the nineteenth century in an archipelago that later become the Philippines. The story line in this book is full of dramatic intrigues and conflicts, agreements and schisms, comradeship and resistances, treason, and sacrifices as well. The author, Benedict Anderson, once again shows his talent and capability to provide vivid and detail accounts about the making process of nationalism and external factor that influenced its trajectory.

Anarchism and Anti-colonial Imagination
Benedict Anderson
London and New York, Verso, 2007
225+xi pp.

Nationalism is an outstanding topic that will always exist; indeed it is an ongoing process. Hans Kohn in The Idea of Nationalism (1960) describes nationality as a “product of the historical development of society… Even if nationality arises, it may disappear again, absorbed into a larger or a new nationality. Nationalities are product of the living forces of history, and therefore always fluctuating, never rigid.” Thus nationalism is a route and, at the same time, result of many things happens and melanges in a distinct space and time, involving internal and external components. While Anderson in his previous work, Imagined Community (2006) defines nationalism as pathology of modern developmental history and therefore it is “an imagined political community.”

In Under Three Flags Anderson tries to answer several basic questions such as how the imagination of the Philippines nationalism emerged at the second half of the nineteenth century? How the agent of nationalism constructed the idea of the Philippines nationalism, and how they delivered this imagination throughout the imagined country to the imagined folks. Thus, how they dealt with the Spanish colonizer? Was there any external factor involving in the Philippines nationalism? And, what was the advantage or the disadvantages during the making process of the Philippines nationalism.

Anderson argues that the Philippines nationalism, like all nationalism movements, was not a one-lane trajectory. On the contrary, for the Philippines, it was tied to at least three fundamental external factors. The first basic factor was the rise of Prussian Bismarck and the creation of the first inter-state world-system from 1860 to 1890 in which Germany became a new empire and the French monarchy ended. The new geopolitical map in European continent influenced the stability of the domestic politics in the colonizers, and this new political circumstances resonated to the occupied lands in another part of the world. When there was unstable situation in European political arena, the Spain, for instance, had to strengthen its policies in its colonies, from Caribbean, Pacific, Saharan-Morocco, to the Philippines.

The second significant external factor was the birth of Leftist movements, especially the nihilist and anarchist wing, throughout Europe, North and Latin America. This movement was benefited from the invention of Noble’s first-ever weapon of mass-destruction: dynamites. This invention made them able to magnify their insurgency toward who ever they considered as the oppressor class. In that particular era the world witnessed, for the first time after the European Dark Age, many of political leaders and royals in many countries throughout the globe were assassinated by the Leftists and radicals. Some were stabbed, some were shot, and others were exploited by Noble’s dynamite.

Following each insurgency, many of Leftist, radicals, nihilist or anarchist were executed. The existing power in each country tried so hard to suppress the Leftists. But, as it is said by Emile Henry, one of the most famous Spanish anarchists in his trial in 1894, the anarchist’s roots “are too deep. It is born in the corrupt society which is falling to pieces; it is a violence reaction against the establish order. It represents egalitarian and libertarian aspiration, which are battering down existing authority; it is everywhere, which make it impossible to capture. It will end by killing you (pp. 116-7).”

The last important factor influenced the Philippines nationalism was the fact that even though the Spain tried to keep its domination in its colonies, still it experienced difficulties in dealing with many insurgencies not only in the Spanish land in Europe, but also in its colonies, especially in Cuba. In his own words, Anderson explains the unstable situation as follow: “The metropole itself was wrecked by dynastic civil war, fierce competition between ethno-regions, class conflicts, and ideological struggles in many kinds (p. 54).”

Anderson projects the Philippines nationalism through the live of three prominent young Filipinos, the anthropologist and polemical journalist Isabelo de los Reyes, the novelist and genius Jose Rizal, and the coordinating organizer Mariano Ponce. Reyes’ work, El Folk-lore Filipino, published in 1887 was a stepping-stone for Filipinos, not only to develop the oneness among them, but also to differentiate themselves with the others, especially the Spaniards. It was the first layer used by the Filipinos to openly and publicly declared them as a Filipinos, the native of the archipelago.


Meanwhile Rizal’ Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me), written when he was in Europe mainly in Spain, and published in 1891, was a realist in style and flat; brushes a story of a broken hearted young mestizo who spent many years in abroad and wanted to marry his friar sweetheart. The young mestizo at the end of story had been gunned down and disappeared. Only in his later novel, El Filibusterismo (The Filibustering), written after his first coming home for two years and published in Spain in 1891, Rizal put his effort to teach his people to turn their cry for independent into reality.

Nevertheless, like in the first novel, many of events in Rizal’s second novel were not exist in the real Philippines. Anderson notes this as “the prole-psis (that) is mostly engineered by a massive, ingenious transfer of real events, experiences, and sentiments from Spain to the Philippines (p. 130).”


The second novel was published after his relationship with Ponce and another Filipino compatriot, Marcelo del Pilar, tore apart. Three of them were journalists and writers for La Solidaridad, the Philippines journal in the Spain. Pilar believed in assimilation as a tactical step in working for the Philippines independent. On the otherhand, like Indonesian Tan Malaka who believed in 100 percent independent, realized with reality in his own lands Rizal rejected the assimilation idea and go for his separatism plan. In 1892, one year after his second novel had been published, Rizal went home for the second time, and soon captured by the colonial authority. Later on he realized that his second novel had been used as a holy book and inspired a small group led by Andreas Bonifacio in the La Liga Filipina.

Believing that the global situation was old enough to be harvested for the revolution, even without Rizal agreement of any kind of insurgency based on his doubt to the maturity of the global situation, Bonifacio and his Kataastaasan, Kagalanggalang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan launched a revolt in August 29, 1896.

The Spain blamed Rizal for the insurgency and denied his strong disagreement as he wrote in Manifesto a Algunos Filipinos: “Nurtured on these ideas, I can do no less than condemn, and I condemn, this absurd, savage insurrection, plotted behind my back, which dishonor the Filipinos and discredits those who could be our advocates. I abominate its criminal procedures, and reject every type of participation, deploring, with all the pain in my heart, those unwary people who have allowed themselves to be deceived. So, return to you home, and may God pardon those who have acted in bad faith (pp. 162-3).”

As in many insurgencies, from Anderson description we can smell something fishy and suspect that there might be agent provocateurs in Katipunan leaderships, working in disguised to diminish the Philippines nationalism movement. But Rizal’s writing itself rises another striking doubtful about his possible hidden agendas. Seems like, somehow, he tried to save himself, and clean his hand, if not it was his cowardly.

Rizal had been executed at December 30, 1896 in Bagumbayan, Manila. His story also tells us that, as Indonesian Sukarno ever mentioned, revolution devours its own children. At this point, it was Rizal, the child of his own idea of the revolution for the independent Philippines.

The Philippines nationalism movement did not stop at the Rizal’s execution.

After his death, his other two friends, Ponce and Reyes, continued to play their magnificent role to keep the idea of the Philippines nationalism alive and to fertile the ground for the next movements. Reyes in particular, was the one who then brought the first copies of works of Piotr Kropotkin, Karl Marx. He was one of the famous Philippines anarchists during that time. He and his compatriots had never stopped their struggle even when the Spain finally defeated by the United States. As suggested by the title of this book, it was Reyes who had completed the three flags that once become the symbol of the cry for the independent Philippines.

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Born in Medan, lives in Jakarta, loves Indonesia.

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