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Jose Rizal (1861-1896)

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Rizal was born on June 19, 1861, in Calamba, Laguna, the seventh child and the second son of the 11 children of Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso. Rizal’s parents were not only well-to-do, but also well educated, a rarity among Filipino families then. His father, a sugar planter and landholder, attended a Latin school in his native Binan town, also in Laguna, and a college in Manila. His mother, who had a good business sense managed some small enterprise, also studies at a Manila college. Rizal was a precocious child. At the age of two, he could already recite the alphabet and, at four write sentences in Tagalog as well as Spanish. Rizal had his first formal education, which consisted of Latin and arithmetic, with a private tutor. He was about seven when his parents enrolled him at a school in town. But after only a few weeks, he told his parents that his teacher had nothing more to teach than that he already knew. He was thereupon allowed to study by himself at home. Virtually the same home-study arrangements was made after his father sent him to a Latin school in Binan, where he stayed with his relatives, except that the reason he did not last there was tow-fold: the schoolmaster was unimaginative and sadistic, and his relatives kept sloppy household. Rizal was at that age, or a little younger, when he started writing poems in Tagalog.

He also wrote a short Tagalog comedy which was well received when it was staged in Calamba. His fascination for Tagalog poetry inspired him to write a poem on Tagalog itself, extolling it as an equal Spanish and other advanced languages. Sensitive and quite observant, Rizal, while still young, was already aware of the arrogant and condescending attitude of the frailocracy towards Filipinos, whom it often humiliated and maltreated. In June 1872, aged 11, Rizal started attending the Jesuit-run Ateneo Municipal in Intramuros, Manila. It was the best school in the country. At the Ateneo, his varied intellectual and artistic gifts began to develop and mature all at once. His command of Spanish also vastly improved, no doubt aided by his wide readings and his conscious effort to improve his already retentive memory. With new-found confidence, and encouraged by one of his teacher, he started writing in that language. Bemedalled and with a record of scholastic achievements that was unprecedented and, since then, unsurpassed, he finished his bachelor’s degree at the Ateneo when he was 15. Shortly after Rizal graduated from Ateneo, his father decided to send him to the University of Santo Thomas (UST), a Dominican institution, for further studies.

He initially enrolled in metaphysics to humor his father, but as a practical alternative, took up land surveying at the Ateneo at the same time. Only on finding out, upon returning to Calamba for the Christmas vacation, that his mother was getting blind from a cataract-a condition her imprisonment could have brought on, did he make up his mind to study medicine, along with philosophy and letters. He did so starting in 1878, when he was 17. He did not excel in his medical studies, but in philosophy and letters, particularly poetry, he distinguished himself even outside campus. In 1879, his poem, “A La Juventud Filipino” (“To Philippine Youth”) won first prize in a contest sponsored by Manila’s Liceo Artistico-Literario. In 1880, in another Liceo-sponsored literary contest, held in observance of the Spain’s most famous writer, Miguel de Cervantes, Rizal again won top prize-and national prominence, beating even peninsular Spaniard, writing in their own language. Even while he was at the Ateneo, the idea had occurred to Rizal that, to fulfil his mission, he would have to go abroad.

Toward the latter part of his stay at UST, this idea-in confidential consultations with his brother Paciano, who shared and encouraged his emerging political attitudes and convictions – had firmed up. It is said that around 1876, the brothers had entered a secret pact whereby Paciano would be the one to take care of the family, specially their ageing parents, and he, the Filipino reformist cause, which necessarily meant going to Europe to better prepare himself for the task. Part of it was their understanding that only one of them would marry. Rizal left on May 3, 1882, saying goodbye to his parents through a letter delivered to them when he was already seaborne. A decrepit Spanish ship first took him to Singapore. From there, he boarded a modern French liner for Marseilles, France, which he reached on June 13. Two days later, he was in his way to Spain on a night train. In September he left for Spanish capital, to enrol at its Universidad Central de Madrid (UCM). Even in just his first year in Spain, particularly Madrid, Rizal quickly realised that the enemy reform in the Philippines was not Spain or religion but the friars.

He saw that by distinguishing himself in the realm of ideas and the arts, and conducting himself all the times with dignity, he could make the Spaniards look at Filipino as their equal, not as the subservient indio. By his example, he, too, could inspire his fellow students-who made up the bulk of the Filipino community, to abandon their dissipating ways and take a more active role in enlightening the Spanish public about the evils of frailoracy in the Philippines. He initiated this attack by writing letters to the editors of Madrid newspapers. By the time he obtained his licentiate in medicine , in 1884, with creditable performance in his medical subjects, he had become one of the premier students at UCM, rated ‘outstanding’ in general, Greek, Latin and Spanish literature, as well as in history and advanced Greek, and Hebrew. Initially, Rizal also wrote for the magazine put out by the Circulo Hispano-Filipino, an association of Filipino students and some Spaniards who had stayed in Philippines. When, with the association’s dissolution, it folded up for lack of financial support, he thought of coming up with a book, with Filipino expatriates in Europe-not just in Spain, each contributing an article on Philippines concerns. Quietly, he began actual work on the Noli me Tangere later in 1884.

To improve himself, Rizal travelled in Europe and he was exposed to a vast range of idea, meeting with people from all walks of life, political persuasions, and religious beliefs. His novel was ready for publication in February 1887. Noli me Tangere came off the press the following month. He sent his first copies to his friends., Curiously, he also sent individual copies to the governor-general of the Philippines and the archbishop of Manila, a gesture which could only underline his guilelessness, convinced he was of utter justness of the novel’s intent-to expose a festering social cancer and seek enlightened political remedy for it. The rest of the edition was for distribution in Spain and the Philippines. The Noli was an instant success. The friars considered the Noli as an attack on the religion and Spanish colonial rule. Despite the explosive nature of his novel, he made up his mind to come home after its publication. After five years in Europe, Rizal was returning to Philippines as a well trained ophthalmic surgeon and a linguist: aside from Spanish, he was fluent in German and French, and could converse in English, Italian and Dutch.

In the eyes of friars, though, he was returning as a filibustero (“subversive”) and disrupter of the public order, a reputation first gains in his speech extolling Luna and Hildago, and bolstered by the Noli me Tangere, which had been enjoying brisk sales in Manila even before he arrived there. Instead of banning it outright, as the archbishop of Manila had urged, governor-general, Terrero asked for a copy of the novel so that he could read it himself. He then referred Noli me Tangere to the Permanent Commission on Censorship, composed of lay and clerical members and, to keep an eye on Rizal in Calamba. In late December 1887 and early January 1888, two developments, occurring almost simultaneously, were to make his departure imperative, for his own safety. One of them concerned the controversy over his novel in manila, and the other, the matter of friar corruption in the Dominican-held Calamba state. First published in February 1889, La Solidaridad was the mouth-piece of a Masonary-oriented association, also called La Solidaridad, which was founded in Barcelona in December 1888 with Rizal as honorary president.

A long piece Rizal wrote for it in 1889 was “Filipinas Dentro de Cien Anos” (‘The Philippines A Century Hence’) where, among other things, he uncannily predicted the imperialist incursion in Asia of the United States. While he was in Paris, 1889, Rizal who had become a Freemason- organised its Filipino colony into the Indios Bravos, which had a secret core group dedicated to the liberation from colonial rule of people of the Malay race, starting with Filipinos. In January 1890, at his own expense- he decided to publish the annotated Sucesos delas Islas Filipinas, with a preface by Blumentritt. To Rizal, patriotic Filipinos staying abroad, except students or scholars, should go home where they could better serve their country, even at the risk of their lives. The idea of death had often assailed him at this time. While in Biarritz, 1891, he continued correcting El Filibusterismo. Rizal had dedicated El Filibusterismo to the memory of the three Filipino priests garrotted in 1878. On December 23, 1891, he wrote his successor, Eulogio Despujol, offering his services in pointing out to him the country’s ills and aiding him to cauterise the wound of recent injustices.

On March 21, 1891, prior to his visit to Sandakan, he wrote again, explaining to Despujol his Borneo project and asking him among other things to allow Filipinos who wished to resettle in Sandakan. This time, Despujol reacted swiftly. Rejecting the Borneo project, he instructed the Spanish consul in Hong Kong to persuade Rizal to return to the Philippines. Even without Despujol’s guarantee for his personal safety, Rizal decided to do so. Despujol effected his arrest on July 6, when Rizal saw him in Malacanang. The reason given was the presence of anti-clerical handbills- obviously planted by friars agents, in his luggage at the hotel in Binondo where he was staying. To preclude any attempt by the friars to snatch him or have him assassinated, Despujol had him conveyed in utmost secrecy to Dapitan past midnight of July 14. In February 1895, the Cuban revolution had broke out. In December, on Blumentritt’s suggestion, he wrote to Blanko to apply as a volunteer medical officer with the Spanish army in Cuba, in answer to the government’s appeal. He did not hear from Blanco until July 30, 1896, when summoned back to Dapitan, he was told by Carnicero that Blanco had approved his application. Almost a month earlier, however, he was to learn with certainty that, in the Philippines itself, revolution was imminent.

On September21, the captain of the ship that would sail to Europe, told Rizal that he was under custody, adding that he would be placed under arrest, on orders from Blanco, when the ship arrived in Barcelona. Blanco had given him personal letters of introduction to the Spanish minister of war and of overseas territories, vouching for his non-involvement in the revolution. He had another custodian when the ship arrived in Barcelona on October 3, no less than Despujol, now the local captain-general October 6, he was jailed for part of the day in fortress of Monjuich. In the afternoon of the same day, Despujol told him that he was going back to Manila as a prisoner, on the very ship was going to transport reinforcement troops to the Philippines. It reached Manila on November 3 and, forthwith, he was taken to his cell in Fort Santiago, there to wait for his trial for treason against Spain.

The prosecution had nothing substantial to go by to indict Rizal for complicity, much less for plotting the revolution that had been raging for several months. In early November, the prosecution caused the arrest of his brother Paciano, who was taken to Fort Santiago, where he was subjected by his interrogators to the most brutal forms of torture that left him physically incapacitated for several days after his release. On November 20, the judge advocate-general, colonel Francisco Olive, the officer who led the military operation in Calamba in 1890, submitted his findings to Blanco. Blanco then appointed a special judge who, after reading the findings, sent them back to Blanco with a note referring to Rizal as the “principal organiser and living soul of the insurrection”. By December 10, it had been decided that Rizal, who had provided with a military officer as his counsel, Luis Taviel de Andrada, the younger brother of his Calamba escort, would be tried by court martial.

Added to the original charge was that of Rizal promoting separation from Spain through his writings. The well attended court martial, which was covered by two Madrid newspapers, took place in a soldiers’ dormitory in Intramuros on December 26. That very afternoon the verdict was out: guilty as charged. Rizal was prepared for death. He was ever conscious of it-in dream as well as in his waking hours, from his youth onwards. Among those who visited him on December 29 were a number of Jesuits. In the afternoon, it was the turn of his grieving mother and sisters to see him, and bid him a final farewell. It was to one of his sisters that he said, in secret, that something would be inside the alcohol burner he had used in his cell, and which would be sent to them, along with a few other personal items, after his execution. That something would be the scrap of paper on which would be written the “Ultimo Adios”. The following morning, around 6:15. He was taken out of his cell and led to Luneta. He was shot in less than an hour after that at 7:03. “Consummatum est!” he exclaimed, his mission fulfilled.


Jose Rizal And The Asian Renaissance, M. Rajaretnam (Editor), Institut Kajian Dasar and Solidaridad Publishing Home, August 1996

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