Column: Aquino and the “evangelist”

A continuation. Published on September 21, 2010.

President Aquino’s once-postponed state visit to Indonesia, tentatively rescheduled for October, may profit from a detour through the steppes of Siberia. A side trip only in the imagination, I must add, but one that helps place the influence of both Jose Rizal and the Philippine Revolution on Indonesia’s nationalist awakening in a new, perhaps brighter, light.

It involves the memory of a controversial Indonesian mestizo (an “Indo”) whom biographer Paul van der Veur calls “the evangelist for Indonesian political nationalism”—the very first, in fact, to demand independence for Indonesia, and who spread the good news through his work in journalism and political organizing. “The Eurasian E. F. E. Douwes Dekker, through agitation and the establishment of a real independence party, the Indische Partij (Party of the Indies), was the first to make a major contribution in the field of political nationalism.” DD, as he was more familiarly known, was a grand-nephew of Eduard Douwes Dekker, who as Multatuli wrote “Max Havelaar,” the searing anti-colonial novel which preceded “Noli me tangere.”

In 1949, when DD turned 70, President Sukarno paid him high tribute: “In the name of our people I also want to express the people’s gratitude for your services to land and nation. I consider you one of the Fathers of political nationalism in Indonesia.” (This quote, and the first two above, are from van der Veur’s 1958 article in the “Journal of Asian Studies.” The next three below are from his massive 2006 biography, “The Lion and the Gadfly: Dutch Colonialism and the Spirit of E. F. E. Douwes Dekker.”)

“In the early days of April 1913, the decision had been reached that DD was to go to the Philippines to study the fast-developing political situation in the American colony.” But the resolve of the Dutch parliament to discuss the future of the Indische Party upset his plans; a telegram he received in Hong Kong, where he was preparing to embark for Manila, told him to proceed to the Netherlands. He characteristically chose the longer, cheaper route—which is why in May 1913, Douwes Dekker found himself travelling from Harbin in northeastern China to St. Petersburg, Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, a journey that lasted eight days. On those eight days, the Philippines was very much on his mind.

“… [L]ittle could have been reported during the days that the train chugged through the Siberian steppes. But DD was bent over his Corona typewriter. What was he doing? At the start of his trip from the harbour of Tanjung Priok [in present-day Jakarta], thinking that he would proceed to the Philippines, DD had surrounded himself with manuals on that country. While reading this material he claimed to have been struck by the similarities between ‘the, fortunately terminated, Spanish colonial rule’ and the rule in his own fatherland ‘by another people’ …. Now, moving through the plains of Siberia, DD in his train compartment began a series of fourteen articles on the Philippine Revolution of 1896-1898 …. DD’s contribution, although hardly an original one, was important in that it presented material in Dutch concerning what had happened in the neighboring colony to an audience which had been kept in the dark as to events which had taken place. There was, moreover, the usual DD addition: the repeated drawing of parallels with conditions in the Netherlands Indies … [For instance:] The Philippine mestizo had led the revolution that had resulted in Spain’s losing its colony. This was a lesson which should fill one ‘with profound satisfaction’.”

The articles saw print in De Expres, the newspaper he founded, between June 30 and July 26, 1913. “DD was pleased with his description of the Philippine Revolution. Dutch colonial officials, annoyed by the frequent and to them dangerous comparisons with the Netherlands Indies, were far less appreciative.”

The last paragraph of the last article was a resounding summing-up: It reminded his influential readers that recent Philippine history was “a lesson of enormous importance for other colonies and other motherlands.”

There was yet another article inspired by the Philippines. In April 1913, while in Singapore en route to Manila, he wrote a seven-page appreciation of Rizal, “den moedigen, prachtigen patriot, dezen halfbloed, die met opgeheven hoofde en fieren blik zijn leven gaf als lief offer aan de vrijheid van zijn vaderland.” (In van der Veur’s translation: “a courageous, magnificent patriot, this half-blood, who with uplifted head and proud look gave his life as a costly sacrifice to the freedom of his fatherland.”)

[DD’s fixation with “dezen halfbloed,” this “Philippine mestizo,” betrayed his own, initial understanding of Indonesian independence as a movement to be led by Indos like him.]

The piece, “Rizal,” appeared in the May 15, 1913 issue of Het Tijdschrift, a scholarly magazine he had also founded and where he served as publisher. In it, he spoke of Aristotle and Nietszsche, placed Rizal in the heroic line of Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno (that is to say, as a warrior against church or clerical obscurantism); honored Rizal’s martyrdom (“a hero in the blood-soaked annals of the Archipelago”). He made mistakes, of course (for instance, he declares Rizal’s time of death as six in the morning, an error he absorbed from John Foreman’s “Philippine Islands”). But DD got Rizal’s measure right: he had achieved “the fulfilment of his exalted ideals; the expulsion of the suppressors from his fatherland and the certainty of its eventual freedom.”

The evangelist had found a provocative prophet for his kind of good news.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Notes on Readings, Readings in Rizal

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