The river that lost two battles: Remembering the bravery that led PH to independence

  • The story behind the Zapote Bridge, a National Historical Landmark
  • Two battles were fought there by brave Filipino soldiers against the Spanish forces in 1897 and against the Americans in 1899
  • Despite the odds against them, the Filipino soldiers fought to defend the border of Cavite
A 2013 photo of the Zapote Bridge placed with a historical marker by the National Historical Committee in 1952. In this battlefield, Filipino revolutionary forces fought two decisive battles to defend the border against the Spanish forces in 1897 that led to the death of General Edilberto Evangelista and a second one against the American forces in 1899. (Photo from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines)

Battles fought and lost are not popular stories to tell, but the two battles along the Zapote River are important to remember because those tell of the bravery of the Filipino soldiers who fought to win our independence despite the odds against them.

Dr. Emmanuel Calairo, commissioner of the National Historical Commission (NHA) and also director of the Cavite Studies Center, stressed the importance of looking back and knowing the history of some of the landmarks such as the Zapote Bridge that has since been designated as a  National Historical Landmark, which was part of the long campaign towards independence.

(Photo from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines)

The beginning of the first phase of the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish forces in 1897, and the battle between Filipino and American forces in 1899 was fought along the Zapote River.

There, the Filipino patriots found themselves battling the well-armed Spanish forces, but that did not dampen their fighting spirit after being under the Spanish colonizers for more than 300 years.

In the film "Heneral Luna" which depicted the life of the gallant General Antonio Luna, there is a scene of a Cabinet meeting where he is told that fighting a war at that time was economically disadvantageous, and not only were the Filipinos outnumbered, but they were also outgunned.

Set during the second phase of the Philippine Revolution, Luna made a sarcastic remark that told of their disadvantaged position when the American forces began their invasion and he was forced to engage them in order to secure the country's liberation:  "Paano ako lalaban kakagatin ko sila? (What do you want me to do? Bite them?)" he said.

This situation was also the same in the Battle of Zapote Bridge in 1897 where Filipino revolutionary forces led by General Emilio Aguinaldo fought head on against the Spanish troops under the command of Governor-General Camilo García de Polavieja. The battle saw ill-equipped and untrained Filipino revolutionary forces hold off a better-armed Spanish force barring their entry into Cavite through the bridge.

The NHA commissioner, in an interview with Manila Bulletin, said that the encounter that took place at the Zapote River was like a seesaw battle. One lost, then one gained an advantage, like an alternating cycle between the Spanish troops and Filipino forces that lasted months.

During this campaign, the Spanish sought to reclaim territories and Polavieja, according to the book "True Version of Philippine Revolution '' written by Aguinaldo himself, advanced against the revolutionary forces with 16,000 men armed with Mausers or rifles, and one field battery or a cannon.

Calairo said that although the Filipino soldiers were untrained since "pami-pamilya (families)" joined in the revolt with no actual military background, they were able to salvage weapons from the Spaniards but their force was just too vast for Filipinos to hold off.

In the same battlefield in 1899, Filipinos once again bled, this time against the American forces who claimed their right to rule the Philippines through the Treaty of Paris signed on December 10, 1898 (Official Gazette of the Philippines). That was deemed as the second largest battle in the Philippine–American War after the Battle of Manila.

Albeit having huge numbers to fight against the emerging superpower which is America, the numbers, according to the United States War Department files, did not become a decisive advantage for the Filipinos.

Ultimately, Calairo said, the country lost both bloody battles at Zapote river. The first one, saw the death of General Edilberto Evangelista who was responsible for digging up trenches in their defense.

However, the Filipino soldiers still fought on despite the odds being against them. They proved that they were prepared to lay down their lives and fight to the death for their beloved country. The freedom we enjoy to this day is a result of that indomitable will to attain sovereignty, Calairo said.

"They could have left the post but they didn't. It's basically a manifestation of nationalism," Calairo said.

"Dahil naniniwala sila na kinakailangan nilang tanggulan ang border ng Cavite, tinanggulan nila yan  (They believed that they needed to defend the border of Cavite, and they did)," he added.

Their duty to defend Cavite at all costs persisted and they held firm the belief that freedom was just beyond the struggle.

Calairo said that we may have been beaten in those battles, but we sure gave both the Spanish and Americans a hard time and in the end we still managed to find a way to win.

Today, the country's independence should not only be cherished but should be guarded from those who present a threat to take away that freedom.