Johnny Guarin

The Old Bilibid Prison and the Legacy of Macario Sakay

In the heart of Manila, on Oroquita Street in Sta. Cruz, stands a somber monument to a turbulent era of Philippine history: the Old Bilibid Prison, originally named Carcel y Presidio Correccional. Erected on June 25, 1865, under a Spanish royal decree, this formidable edifice served as the country’s first national penitentiary. It witnessed the incarceration of a diverse array of individuals, from common criminals to political dissidents, during the Spanish colonial period and the subsequent Philippine-American War. 

Old Bilibid Prison housed numerous notable political prisoners who played significant roles in the fight for Philippine independence. Among them was Benigno Aguinaldo, a school teacher admitted in October 1883, whose crime remains undocumented. Another prominent figure, Antonio Luna, a 19-year-old pharmacy student, was briefly incarcerated in November 1885 along with Mariano Vivencio del Rosario and Justo Martin. Their offenses were unrecorded, and they were released the following day.


In October 1896, Apolinario Mabini, the “Brains of the Revolution,” was admitted to Bilibid due to his disability and was later transferred to San Juan de Dios hospital. Mabini’s eight-month confinement ended on June 17, 1897, and he went on to become a key adviser to Emilio Aguinaldo.


Among the notable figures confined within its walls was Macario Sakay, a staunch patriot and leader of the Republika ng Katagalugan. Sakay’s journey from the mountains of Rizal to the corridors of Bilibid Prison embodies the spirit of resistance against foreign domination that coursed through the veins of many Filipinos during these tumultuous years.

Sakay was apprehended in January 1902 and sent to Bilibid Prison. Sakay was released later that year under President Theodore Roosevelt’s amnesty. However, the subsequent passage of the “Bandolerism Act” in November 1902 branded remaining Filipino fighters as outlaws, compelling Sakay to resume his resistance efforts. On June 14, 1906, he and his generals came down from the mountains of Rizal and officially surrendered in Manila. Surprisingly, after Sakay surrendered, he was free to go unmolested and still armed. For the next few weeks, Sakay and his men were ‘honored guests’ at several venues around Manila, hailed as “true patriots” by the local populace. However, the U.S. media covered the entire ordeal and began an outcry over the perceived injustice. American papers reported on Sakay as a murderer of U.S. law officers and military troops, criticizing the U.S. colonial government for allowing him to be paraded around town as a hero.


In July 1906, Acting Governor of Cavite, Louis J. Van Schaick, invited Sakay and his men to a banquet. During the festivities, Sakay and his men were deceived into signing documents that led to their arrest under the 1902 Bandolerismo Act for ‘brigandage.’ The trial of Sakay, Julian Montalan, Lucio de Vega, and Leon Villafuerte took place shortly after their arrest, with Judge Ignacio Villamor presiding. Despite acknowledging Sakay’s patriotism and fight for independence, the court still viewed his actions as criminal under the Bandolerismo Act.


Sakay’s defense was significantly weakened when a letter granting him amnesty mysteriously vanished, and Dr. Gomez, who could have supported his case, was nowhere to be found. In a dramatic turn of events, Sakay and his men changed their plea to ‘Guilty,’ explaining that their acts were motivated by patriotism and defense of their country’s rights. Consequently, they were sentenced to death. While Montalan and Villafuerte’s sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment, Sakay and de Vega were not spared.


On the morning of Friday, September 13, 1907, Macario Sakay and Lucio de Vega were led to the gallows in the courtyard of the Old Bilibid Prison. As he faced his imminent death, Sakay’s final words echoed with the unwavering conviction of a man who remained steadfast in his cause until the very end. He declared,


“Death comes to all of us sooner or later, so I will face the Lord Almighty calmly. But I want to tell you that we were not bandits and robbers, as the Americans have accused us, but members of the revolutionary force that defended our mother country, Filipinas! Farewell! Long live the republic and may our independence be born in the future! Farewell! Long live Filipinas!”


These powerful last words reverberated through the walls of the prison, a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made in the name of freedom. Sakay’s execution marked the end of an era, but his legacy continued to inspire future generations of Filipinos in their struggle for independence. The Old Bilibid Prison, with its silent corridors and imposing facade, stands as a testament to the resilience and enduring spirit of those who fought for the nation’s liberty.


Artwork by Johnny Guarin


Sintang Lakbay is a historical walk and bike ride to promote inclusive mobility by facilitating active interaction with urban landscapes, restoring working-class memory in national history, and mobilizing public contributions to remembering through art and research. It is a collaborative project by The Polytechnic University of the Philippines, 350 Pilipinas, and the Constantino Foundation