Years ago, while I was disturbing the dust in the DFA library, I chanced upon a rather unassuming hardbound book–the type that you would expect to find in the bookbinding stalls of Recto–with a not so unassuming title: the First Filipino Diplomat. I was instantly intrigued, but mainly because, to my embarrassment, I had no idea who it could be. Of course I knew that Mabini was the first foreign affairs secretary, or that Carlos P. Romulo was the first Filipino to be elected as the President of the UN General Assembly. But the first Filipino diplomat? I was stumped.
As I dived into the contents of the book, I was at once regaled by the fascinating life of a certain Felipe Agoncillo–a great man whose great deeds continue to hover, unfortunately, along the outskirts of Philippine history. According to his biographers (Esteban De Ocampo and Alfredo Saulo), Don Felipe carries the distinction of being the first Filipino diplomat, by virtue of his diplomatic undertakings in Hong Kong, America and Europe, first in his capacity as the president of the Revolutionary Committee/Hong Kong Junta, then later as “minister plenipotentiary” of the Philippine Revolutionary Government. Now, the term diplomatic undertakings here is used loosely, since Agoncillo’s appointment as minister plenipotentiary was never recognized by any foreign government. But viewed from a philosophical, rather than technical perspective, it can be argued that Don Felipe’s activities during those trying times were, at its core, acts of diplomacy.
The diplomacy of the Philippine Revolution, while unsuccessful, was replete with high drama and excitement worthy of a movie. Around August of 1898, President Aguinaldo, alarmed by news that the future of the Philippines would be decided in the coming Spanish-American peace commission to be held in Paris, urged Don Felipe (who at the time was in Hong Kong) to travel to Washington to try to convince the US government of the validity and morality of Philippine independence and sovereignty. Don Felipe, with his secretary Sixto Lopez, arrived in San Francisco on 22 September 1898, amid much fanfare. Of this, De Ocampo and Saulo have more to say:
In San Francisco a large crowd of curious Americans had turned out to see for the first time how a representative of an unknown and ‘uncivilized’ country like the Philippines looked. They had learned earlier of Agoncillo’s arrival from the press. Stories of Filipino natives with tails, people who had just come down from the trees, were then current reading fare in American apartheid newspapers and magazines. They got the biggest surprise of their lives when Agoncillo, a progressive ilustrado, walked down the gangplank in elegant, high-quality European suit complete with top-hat.
While Don Felipe was able to secure talks with key American officials (including President McKinley), it was all done so in an unofficial manner. Sensing the futility of his mission in Washington, Don Felipe crossed the Atlantic to seek Philippine representation in the Paris Peace Conference. But all Philippine efforts were rebuffed, and Agoncillo and the rest of his compatriots were reduced to mere bystanders as Spain ceded the Philippine Islands to the US government for $20million.
Agoncillo’s resolve, however, never weakened. He rushed back to Washington (he arrived on December 24), hoping to stop the US Senate’s ratification of the Treaty of Paris. Capitalizing on strong anti-imperialist sentiments in America, Don Felipe engaged prominent members of the Anti-Imperialist League and Senate members sympathetic to the Philippine cause. On 25 January 1899, Don Felipe wrote to Apacible that he was “gaining [US] Senators to support independence. Party opposed has not yet succeeded in having the treaty ratified.” But despite all this, on 6 February 1899, the Treaty of Paris was ratified by the slimmest of margins: by one vote!
By that time, hostilities between the Philippine and American troops had broken out, and Don Felipe and his companions found themselves in the most dire of circumstances since they were representatives of a nation at war with the United States of America. Fearing for their safety, they traveled to Montreal, Canada, all the while being pursued by would-be assassins on the “imperialist payroll.” From Novia Scotia, Don Felipe boarded a ship bound for Europe. He knew that the cause was lost in America and that the Philippine Republic’s only hope was to gain support from the traditional powers of the Old World. But before he reached Europe, our hero was once again overtaken by adversity, as his ship was caught in a storm and capsized off the coast of Scotland. Don Felipe was able to swim to a lifeboat, but all his possessions, save for the clothes on his back and a satchel containing priceless documents of the Philippine Revolution, were lost.
Don Felipe eventually found his way into Paris where he once again spearheaded the diplomatic activities of the Philippine Republic. Together with other notable Filipinos staying in Europe (e.g., Juan Luna, Apacible, Regidor, etc.), Don Felipe sought to present Philippine aspirations (and capability) for self-rule. In the end, however, all diplomatic efforts by the Philippine Republic proved ineffective, and the Philippine Republic eventually floundered under the weight of American expansionist policies, as well as indifference to the principle of self-determination by the imperial powers of the Old World.
While Don Felipe wore many hats (he was a lawyer, propagandist, legislator, among others), he will always be associated with the diplomatic activities of the Philippine Revolution. Upon his death in 1941, the Philippine Herald had this to say about the man:
When General Emilio Aguinaldo needed a cultured and tactful man to represent the Philippines in Europe and the United States, he chose Don Felipe Agoncillo who bore the title of minister plenipotentiary of the Philippine Republic to foreign capitals.
Though he was thus withdrawn from the ranks of actual combat, the job that was assigned to him was no less delicate if not hopeless. For his task was none other than to represent a country that had no official standing in the international affairs of the time, a government that neither the United States nor Spain cared to recognize during the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris.
Yet Don Felipe, convinced of the justice of the cause of the country for which he served as international spokesman, persevered in the performance of his duties. As a result he was able to establish for the Philippine Republic a prestige in the eyes of the United States government which may be said to have formed the basis for subsequent Philippine-American relations. Little of positive importance immediately resulted from the labors of Don Felipe as minister plenipotentiary; yet by his cultured, intelligent and diplomatic demeanour he had given the Filipino people a position of respect and dignity that they would otherwise not have been able to secure.
Yet, for all his brilliance, for all his great deeds, Don Felipe remains largely unknown, then as now. On October 11, 1941, barely a month after his death, the Philippine Free Press bemoaned that:
most of the youth of the land had never heard of him, for contemporary history and politics had relegated him to the background. He belonged definitely to the past, although his record of service forms an inspiring, stirring act in the epic of his people’s struggle for freedom. Agoncillo served his country unstintedly–with the spirit of a hero who expected no returns. The Philippines was his first and last thought and for it he spent gladly all his and his wife’s fortune. A far cry he was from many a self-anointed patriot of today
Indeed, all Filipinos could learn a thing or two from this great man, particularly those who serve as the country’s diplomats. Don Felipe may never be officially recognized as the First Filipino Diplomat (too many constipated people insist on technicalities), but it doesn’t matter. For those who believe that a diplomat is the embodiment of a nation’s honor, for those who look for integrity, intelligence, and patriotism in the people chosen to represent us, then certainly, Don Felipe Agoncillo will always have a special place in the annals of our country’s diplomatic history.
Nevermind if Don Felipe is the first Filipino diplomat or not. He has achieved the greater honor.
Don Felipe is the standard for all Filipino diplomats.