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The Story Behind Llanera's Skull and Crossbones Flag

The flags of the Philippine revolution all have stories to tell.

The flags of the Philippine revolution all have stories to tell.

The flags of the Philippine revolution all have stories to tell. Behind their colors and markings were symbolisms and beliefs of its bearers.

It started when Andres Bonifacio requested the creation of a flag to represent the revolutionary society Katipunan, and Gregoria de Jesus made a red war banner bearing its initials. Red was the color of choice, as a representation of the blood of its members being used to sign their names. The later designs of the flags that followed all adopted the same color, despite the changes in the markings. In fact, for some people, red became associated with the Katipunan and its banners—although one flag stood out among its peers for being different.

In a sea of red, the Katipunan flag is a banner of different design. Well, Pio Del Pillar’s colors had the likeness of the Cuban flag, but there was another one that catches the eye of modern observers. For one thing, it sported a more subdued color, which was black. And contrasting the black background are white crossbones under a human skull, together with the initials of the Katipunan.

Mariano Llanera was associated with the flag design, and at first glance, one will be reminded of a pirate banner (the Jolly Roger). But why did he choose such a subdued and somewhat imposing color in contrast with the louder banners of the Katipunan?

Mariano Llanera, a revolutionary leader of Nueva Ecija.

Mariano Llanera, a revolutionary leader of Nueva Ecija.

Who Is Mariano Llanera?

In Nueva Ecija, there were three main instigators and commanders of the revolution. One of them was Mariano Nunez Llanera, together with Pantaleon Valmonte and Manuel Tino.

Llanera was born on November 9, 1855. Before he fought in the revolution, he served as a Cabeza de barangay before becoming a Governadorcillo in the town of Cabiao. His membership in the Freemasonry earned the ire of the local friar, with his properties being confiscated (according to the National Commission of Culture and Arts). He eventually joined the Katipunan and became one of the leaders of the Cry of Nueva Ecija, a siege said to be flamboyant in the way it was executed.

3,000 men was the strength of the force Llanera assembled for the siege, but again the movement was plagued with the same problem as the rest of the revolutionaries during the revolution: lack of firepower. Spears and bolos were all his men got and, in the end, only 500 of his men were mobilized for the initial attack due to a shortage of firearms.

And this is where it got interesting.

The march to San Isidro was led by a brass band of Cabiao, the Banda Makabayan de Cabiao. This was done to disguise the siege as a peaceful march to gain the release of those detained by the Spanish. The battle then broke upon reaching San Isidro, and the fierce fight lasted for three days until the Spanish were driven off. The Spanish Commander of the Guardia Civil, Joaquin Machorro, was among those who were killed. Spanish reinforcements then arrived, driving Llanera and his insurgents away from the town, and he resorted to guerilla tactics.

Llanera survived the encounters to fight in the Philippine-American War. He was deported to Guam but returned to the Philippines in February 1903.

Going back to his battle in Nueva Ecija, one might wonder why his flag looked the way it was. And like all the flags of the revolution, it has its own unique story to tell.

Llanera's first flag.

Llanera's first flag.

Llanera's Skull

If one is a pirate fan, one will surely find Llanera’s flag interesting. Against the black background, the white markings of the Katipunan (the letter “K”) and the skull and crossbones stand out.

There are two variations of Llanera’s flag in existence, and the most well-known is the large white skull and crossbones, with a capital K on the left. But the first flag he carried during the beginning of the 1896 revolution had a different placement of the markings. The skull and crossbones were set slightly higher and below were the initials of the Katipunan. This time, it was not a single K, but three of them, thus completing the whole Katipunan acronyms.

Carrying something bearing a skull might induce fear in the enemy, or even in some common observers. The skull, being a deathly symbol, could mean death to the enemies and might invoke savagery and ferocity. And when he and his men fought the Spanish during the Cry of Nueva Ecija, the banner was a fitting symbol.

But it was common knowledge that Andres Bonifacio was never a fan of Llanera’s flag.

In fact, he ridiculed it and gave it a nickname: Bungo ni Llanera, or Llanera’s skull. But the reasons behind Llanera’s adopting the skull as his banner had more to do with the masonic or Katipunan symbolisms.

The Katipon hood.

The Katipon hood.

The Black Hood of the Katipunan

Much of the Katipunan was inspired by Masonic traditions, including the symbolism and the rituals. Santiago Alvarez of the Magdiwang council once detailed in his book The Katipunan of the Revolution the initiation rites of the new members:

"We were led into a room in the inner part of the house. On a table covered with black cloth were a skull and crossbones from a human skeleton. Lying beside the skull and crossbones were the following paraphernalia: a new long-bladed weapon, an old revolver, a small knife with a sharp edge, a new pen, a copy of the Katipunan "Primer", a sheet of paper on which were written blood-colored characters. On both sides of the table were Katipuneros blindfolded with black cloth. On the wall behind the skull was a rectangular banner of black cloth on which was the same motif of human skull and crossbones. Above the banner were three letters K's arranged as a tripod; all were in white paint."

Members were also known to wear hoods during meetings, with colors and markings corresponding to their ranks. Black hoods bearing the initials Z. LI. B inside a triangle—corresponding to the Roman alphabet A.N.B. (Anak ng Bayan)—were worn by lower first-degree members Katipon. Green hoods with the same markings, but with the initials arranged in a different setting (the Z. LL. B is in the corners of the triangle) were worn by the second-degree member Kawal. The third and highest degree “Bayani” wore a red mask with other triangular markings. This time the initials KKK was arranged in a triangular pattern inside the triangle, with the Z. LL. B. below the initials.

It’s worth noting these facts when Llanera’s flag was mentioned because this was the basis for his war banner.

A detail of Carlos Francisco's painting of the Katipunan initiation. Note the human skull on the table.

A detail of Carlos Francisco's painting of the Katipunan initiation. Note the human skull on the table.

The Symbolism of Llanera’s Flag

Overall, Llanera’s flag never had any connections with piracy. The black color was based on the black hood worn by the Katipons.

The human skull and bones might be linked to the deaths of the enemy, but it carries a strong Masonic symbolism. Death was an inevitable part of life, and Masonic members viewed it as a motivating factor in accomplishing one’s duty. And as a reminder of death’s ever-looming presence—the masonic Chamber of Reflection used by candidates for initiation features a skull symbol.

The Katipunan adopted the masonic rites, together with the symbolism, with their own version of the Chamber of Reflection (in this case, a darkened room where the candidates were led blindfolded). And as Santiago Alvarez described it, a human skull sits on a black-draped table, another masonic influence on the ritual.

The banner adorning the wall during the Katipunan initiation rites.

The banner adorning the wall during the Katipunan initiation rites.


  1. Llanera, Mariano. (2015). In V. Almario (Ed.), Sagisag Kultura (Vol 1). Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts.
  2. Quirino, Carlos (1995). “Who's who in Philippine History.”
  3. Roque, Anselmo (9 June 2016). "Sacrifice of elite in Ecija revolution offers history lesson."
  4. Flags and Symbols of the Katipunan (n.d.).
  5. "Andres Bonifacio and the Katipunan". National Historical Commission of the Philippines. September 4, 2012. Archived from the original on April 17, 2014.
  6. The Katipunan and the Masonry (n.d.).
  7. AFP Coat of Arms: A Hero's Identity (n.d.).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 21, 2021:

This was very interesting to read, thankyou. I've seen this flag before, but never knew the origins of it!