Column: ‘A Filipino Tolstoi’

Published on December 9, 2014.

I wish to pay tribute to the great F. Sionil Jose, who celebrated his 90th birthday in ceremonies at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last week, by offering this early American glimpse of the writer “Manong Frankie” reminds me of the most: Rizal himself.

It is an outline of Rizal’s life, published in the Boston Evening Transcript of March 25, 1899 (some six weeks after the Philippine-American War broke out). We can see that the Rizal narrative is already in recognizable shape, though some details are distorted by distance and lack of knowledge (the “Island of Dapitan,” Rizal banished twice, and so on). The account, written by Erving Winslow and published under the headline “A Filipino Tolstoi” (the Russian novelist-turned-crusader was still alive at the time), reads as follows:

A biography of a patriotic Filipino, which has recently been published by a member of the faculty of the [Austrian] University of Leitmeritz, may throw some light on the native character. The pamphlet is a life of Jose Rizal, Filipino patriot, and is dedicated to General Emilio Aguinaldo, who is characterized as “the liberator of his country, a chivalrous and brave warrior.”

Jose Rizal was a native of the Island of Luzon. He graduated from the University of Madrid as doctor of medicine and philosophy. He pursued his graduate studies in Paris, Heidelberg, Leipzig and Berlin. Returning to his home in Manila, he wrote and published a novel which excited the wrath of the Government by its anti-Spanish sympathies, and by its exposure of the corruptions of the Church on the islands. For the crime of telling what he believed to be the truth he was banished. He came to the United States, and afterwards went to London, where he devoted himself to further study.

About this time he produced another political novel. He then settled as a practicing physician in Hong Kong. From here he went to Borneo, where it was his intention to found a colony of Filipinos. In 1892, he returned to Manila, presumably for the purpose of recruiting his colony. He went at once to the home of his family, leaving his baggage in the custom house. This baggage was opened, and in it there were found certain pamphlets of an anti-Spanish character. It has been charged that these pamphlets were smuggled into the baggage by some fanatical monks, and that the type from which they had been printed was found, still set up, in the possession of these monks.

However, Rizal was banished a second time. This time he was sent to the Island of Dapitan, where he was held a political prisoner under the close watch of Spanish guards. While he was on this island and under the eye of his guards, another insurrection in the Philippines broke out. Though for the last four years he had been a prisoner on a distant island and under the constant surveillance of the authorities, still, when the insurrection broke out, he was taken to Manila on the charge of having incited the uprising; and, after the forms of the law had been complied with, he was condemned to death, and shot on the 30th of December, 1896. Such is the brief outline of the story of his life.

Rizal was a profound student of anthropology and ethnology. He was incited to master these studies by the behavior of the Spaniards, who always treated the natives as though they were by nature inferior. As a schoolboy he was often cut to the quick by their arrogance toward his people. He could not see why he should be despised because his skin was brown and his hair straight. He took delight in his standing at the head of his class, because it demonstrated that the Spaniards were no better than his own people. He observed that when Europeans came to the islands they seemed to regard the natives as a species of animal, fit only for menial service. What moral right, he asked, has the white man to look down on the men who have similar abilities, because their color is different? ….

These reflections of Rizal require no comment. Race pride and rapacity are the charges which Rizal brings against the Spaniards. Yet the pride of the Spanish is not to be compared with that of our people in contact with the dark races, as the Filipinos have already learned ….

In spite of the protest of many humane Spaniards, Rizal was shot. One hour before his execution he married his betrothed, a beautiful Irish girl. His own countrymen were compelled to do the shooting. Back of this row of Filipinos stood Spanish soldiers, ready to cut them down if they shrink from their cruel business. “Never,” says an eye-witness, “never shall I forget that awful morning, nor the horror-thrill that came with the report of crackling rifles as his mangled body fell on the public promenade, amid the jeers of Spaniards and monks, who had consummated thus one of the most cold-blooded crimes registered in history since the tragedy of Golgotha. My blood boiled, and from that hour I espoused the Filipino cause.”

On the day following Rizal’s death, his widow passed the Spanish line at Manila and made her way on foot to the camp of the patriots. There Aguinaldo gave her command of a company, at the head of which the Irish bride-widow gained more than one victory. She has perhaps fallen ere this, a victim to American bullets.

The report ends with excerpts from Rizal’s famous last poem:

“For broken hearts of mothers who weep in bitterness,

For widows, tortured captives, orphans in deep distress,

And pray for thy dear self, that thou may’st finally be free.”

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

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