During the early years of the Katipunan, Rizal remained in exile at Dapitan. He had promised the Spanish governor that he would not attempt an escape, which, in that remote part of the country, would have been relatively easy. Such a course of action, however, would have both compromised the moderate reform policy that he still advocated and confirmed the suspicions of the reactionary Spanish. Whether he came to support Philippine independence during his period of exile is difficult to determine.
He retained, to the very end, a faith in the decency of Spanish “men of honor,” which made it difficult for him to accept the revolutionary course of the Katipunan. Revolution had broken out in Cuba in February 1895, and Rizal applied to the governor to be sent to that yellow fever-infested island as an army doctor, believing that it was the only way he could keep his word to the governor and yet get out of his exile. His request was granted, and he was preparing to leave for Cuba when the Katipunan revolt broke out in August 1896. An informer had tipped off a Spanish friar about the society’s existence, and Bonifacio, his hand forced, proclaimed the revolution, attacking Spanish military installations on August 29, 1896. Rizal was allowed to leave Manila on a Spanish steamship. The governor, however, apparently forced by reactionary elements, ordered Rizal’s arrest en route, and he was sent back to Manila to be tried by a military court as an accomplice of the insurrection.
The rebels were poorly led and had few successes against colonial troops. Only in Cavite Province did they make any headway. Commanded by Emilio Aguinaldo, the twenty-seven-year-old mayor of the town of Cavite who had been a member of the Katipunan since 1895, the rebels defeated Civil Guard and regular colonial troops between August and November 1896 and made the province the center of the revolution.
Under a new governor, who apparently had been sponsored as a hard-line candidate by the religious orders, Rizal was brought before a military court on fabricated charges of involvement with the Katipunan. The events of 1872 repeated themselves. A brief trial was held on December 26 and–with little chance to defend himself–Rizal was found guilty and sentenced to death. On December 30, 1896, he was brought out to the Luneta and executed by a firing squad.
Rizal’s death filled the rebels with new determination, but the Katipunan was becoming divided between supporters of Bonifacio, who revealed himself to be an increasingly ineffective leader, and its rising star, Aguinaldo. At a convention held at Tejeros, the Katipunan’s headquarters in March 1897, delegates elected Aguinaldo president and demoted Bonifacio to the post of director of the interior. Bonifacio withdrew with his supporters and formed his own government. After fighting broke out between Bonifacio’s and Aguinaldo’s troops, Bonifacio was arrested, tried, and on May 10, 1897, executed by order of Aguinaldo.
As 1897 wore on, Aguinaldo himself suffered reverses at the hands of Spanish troops, being forced from Cavite in June and retreating to Biak-na-Bato in Bulacan Province. The futility of the struggle was becoming apparent, however, on both sides. Although Spanish troops were able to defeat insurgents on the battlefield, they could not suppress guerrilla activity. In August armistice negotiations were opened between Aguinaldo and a new Spanish governor. By mid-December, an agreement was reached in which the governor would pay Aguinaldo the equivalent of US$800,000, and the rebel leader and his government would go into exile. Aguinaldo established himself in Hong Kong, and the Spanish bought themselves time. Within the year, however, their more than three centuries of rule in the islands would come to an abrupt and unexpected end.