The origin of the word filibuster is almost as interesting as how it was used during the 19th century; most famously (at least for us) as the title of Jose Rizal’s polemic El Filibusterismo.
Filibuster’s linguistic ancestor is the Dutch term vrijbuiter, or in English freebooter. In other words, a pirate, a buccaneer, a scalawag, the scourge of the high seas. And then the word evolved, as words their meanings are wont to do. In this case, leave it to the French to do so. The first known usage of filibuster in a positive political sense was found in a political and philosophical history of Europe, the phrase was "Les filibustiers desolent les mere d’Amerique Origine, moeurs, expeditions, decadence de cease corsairs." And yes, it does sound better in the original French. Essentially, the writers admired the filibuster, the freebooters, love of liberty and code of honor. Our story takes us then to Louisiana, where filibuster was used to describe liberals and fighters who joined with Narciso Lopez in his attempts to invade Cuba and throw off the chains of Spanish imperial rule. Ah, and as we know (well at least I hope we know) the Philippine revolutionaries drew inspiration from the successive and successful revolutions in Latin America. Rizal, in turn, planned on going to Cuba to study how the revolutionaries there were successfully prosecuting and preparing their country for self-governance. The word then arrived in the Philippines carried by a succession of high-ranking Spanish officials who served in the Caribbean and Latin America. The evolution of filibuster stayed true to its roots. At the heart was a dream, a demand, to fight for and remain at liberty.
As a political brand, the idea of a filibuster was referred to differently in various areas of the collapsing Spanish empire. Fernando Terrida wrote: "The moths of these modern Inquisitors are always the same: torture, executions, slanders. If the wretched person whom they mean to destroy lives in Cuba, he is called a filibuster; if he lives in the Peninsula, an anarchist; if in the Philippines, a freemason." Within the language of Rizal and the various revolutionaries a filibuster was a brand of honor, a call to arms, and a desire for self-determination. How strange we have even glossed over his revolutionary wishes in the words that he employed; even as he criticized the methods that would typically be employed. What we have consistently failed is in understanding the political context of the words and descriptions employed by Rizal et al.
There is little doubt, politically speaking, that some of our revolutionaries (especially those based in Europe) drew some inspiration from the anarchy movement of the 19th century. When we consider that, at the time, filibuster and anarchist (especially with Simoun presciently deploying well known anarchist techniques) the scope of El Filibusterismo broadens. While filibusterismo has lived on popular consciousness with positive connotations, one of its synonyms has not faired as well: ilustrado. In truth, the self description of ilustrado by Rizal and other reformists connected them to a wide and deep philosophical movement in Europe. Much like filibuster connected them to revolutionary agitations on-going in Latin American and the Peninsula, so to did ilustrado connect them to modern schools of philosophy and their social and political vehicles in Europe. Ilustrado, in its original sense, was derived from the Enlightenment; that Europe spanning intellectual awakening. At the time, ilustrado was less about class, less about material wealth, and more about the ideas that were espoused and believed in. In a sort of down and dirty comparison, ilustrado and the Enlightenment was the light, the Luz, that beat back and counteracted the ‘darkness’ of obscurantism and ignorance. At the time, social constructs like wealth, class, and even ‘formal education’ were far less important in creating an 'ilustrado' than we have been led to believe. The term had deep political connotations connected to criticisms of existing power structures. The desire to criticize and envision a new, hopefully better, society was at the heart of the European Enlightenment and ilustrado movement. Ilustrado existed in the same sense as a librepensador, in other words a “freethinker.” While existing in the same political strata, the idea of a filibuster was both more violent and radically subversive. An ilustrado could be an anarchist, he could become a filibuster.
The connection between the use of ilustrado and filibuster found best expression with Rizal. In his essay, Filipinos dentro de cien anos, he described a clase ilustrada as “Filipino writers, free thinkers, historiographers, philosophers, chemists, physicians, artists jurists etc.” Basically, the ilustrados were to be the revolutionary backbone of a free and independence Filipinas. There are other connotations that ilustrado took on; including the idea of an ‘exile’, a person who has to leave home to learn more, to gain the tools necessary to free their countrymen. The wholly obscured historical idea is the need for Filipinos to become free-thinkers (ilustrados) and revolutionary anarchists (filibusters) to gain their freedom. And once they have attained that freedom, to maintain the ilustrado frame of mind through education.
Ferdinand Blumentritt wrote: “…it is clear that the ilustrados who suffer so much suspicion and vengeful humiliation in the hands of the alliance of friar-scoundrels and Castilian illusocracy will in the end prefer to risk their life and liberty in a war of independence.” While certain elements in our historiography love to excise the ilustrado from the revolution, the fact is the ilustrado were positive integral parts of the prosecution of the revolution and the creation of the Philippine Republic; not to mention the creation of the awareness necessary for independence. That events and circumstances may have changed with the advent of American rule should not obscure the key role that ilustrados played in creating the Philippine identity, and the hope they carried for a free Filipinas.
The meanings that words carry evolve; they shift and change with prevailing political and social circumstances. That is how a pirate becomes an anarchist; an ilustrado a free-thinking revolutionary. What we need to realize, to understand, is that the deployment of terms in the 19th century carried their connotations, completely at odds (at times) to modern meanings. In reconstructing those meanings we gain additional insights into the motivations of our ancestors, and hopefully new perspectives on what it means to be Filipino.
And of course, who doesn’t like the image of Rizal et al as swashbuckling anarchist philosophy-quoting rum-swilling pirates trying to take down an empire? It almost demands a movie.
Ilustrado by Caroline Sy Hau (essay in Philippine Studies March 2011)
Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination by Benedict Anderson