The Execution of José Rizal



Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr

By Austin Coates

(Oxford University Press, 1968)



There was to be public execution, and consequently the streets and buildings were hung with flags.  A day of execution was a fiesta.

Since first light a crowd of many thousands had been gathering on the broad greensward facing the sea – gentlemen in boater hats and smart drill suits, with their ladies clad in their best, the hems of their long skirts dampened a little here and there by the dew which still lay on the grass.

It was the tropics’ apology for winter, the start of another warm blue day, cloudless and still with at morning and evening a very slight chill in the air, such as there was now.  The sun had already risen on the landward se, and as the minutes drew towards 7 a.m. the multitudinous voices of the crowd were hushed.  The bat of an approaching drum announced the arrival of the condemned man.

The Europeans had the best vantage places, and being in general taller than the local people they tended to monopolize the view.  Despite this disadvantage, however, a fairly large number of local people had come as well – men and women, the well-to-do, the fashionably europeanized, the prudent – to join their European masters in uttering patriotic cheers. For the death to be witnessed on this fine morning was the death of a traitor, and not merely of a traitor but of the arch-traitor, described by the military judge who had tried him, as ‘the principal organizer and ling soul of the insurrection’.

For four months the country had been gripped by revolution.  It had not yet succeeded in penetrating the capital, but in the countryside there were widespread disturbances which the Europeans ad hitherto been unable to suppress.  With the rebel ringleader out of the way things would surely take a turn for the better – or so said the well-informed Europeans; -- and the condemned man being unquestionably the most influential native in the country, his execution afforded a salutary opportunity of showing the natives where they stood.  Today might well prove to be a turning point.  Thus t exhilarated atmosphere.  Te date was 30 December 1896.  The place was the Luneta, the extensive public park in the heart of Manila, capital of the Spanish Philippines.

The crowd was so dense, and here was so much jockeying for position, that police arrangements broke down and the prisoner’s military escort, which should have been behind him, had to form file on either side of him, forcing its way through to the execution ground.  Within the fairly wide corridor of space thus created, what remained of the procession was able to move through the mss of people with reasonable dignity.  First came the drummer.  After him, flanked by two tall Spanish Jesuits in black soutanes and shovel-hats, came the lesser figure of the traitor.

Aged thirty-five, short and slender, pale after two moths in prison, he was impeccably dressed in European style, back suit, spotlessly white shirt a tie, and wearing a black derby hat, much in vogue at that time in Europe.  His appearance was almost English in its formality and taste.  But it was not this that drew people’s attention.  It was his features and expression, and the calm dignity of his bearing.  As could be seen at a glance, this was no ordinary traitor to be jeered and howled at.  As he passed there was silence, while people stared, some in surprise, others with concern, and all with the uneasy sense of being confronted by something they did not understand.

Most people have a preconceived idea of what a traitor looks like.  It is natural o expect to detract features of malevolence, or duplicity, or defiance, the wild stare of a misplaced visionary, or the grimace of a swashbuckler who has lost out.  About this traitor there was noting that could be preconceived.  To begin with, his was arrestingly interesting face.  Apart from knowing that he was a man of the Far East, it would have been difficult to define him racially.  All that could have been said – and then only by an astute observer – was that he was from one of the countries of South-East Asia, and bore indications of a partly Malay, partly Chinese  ancestry.  Yet there was nothing about him of the withdrawn Oriental, that character beloved of the European imagination.  His eyes, wide-spaced, thoughtful, and compelling in their truthfulness, came out to meet whomever they looked at, as European eyes do.  He had very little European blood, yet in the broad forehead, the high straight nose, the firm chin and perceptive lips, could be sensed at once a mental affinity to Europe, expressed through an Asian physique.  This was a man who had passed far beyond differences of race and nation.  Despite being a member of a subject race, it was the face of a person the equal of any, expressive of intellectual honesty and insight, both in unusual measure.  As the Madrid newspaper reports of the occasion show, there were few Spaniards present that day who, once they had seen him, remained unaware of these qualities, disconcerting as they found them. 

The escort forced a way through to he cleared rectangle of grass, lined by troops, which was to be the place of execution.  When the traitor had been conducted to the seaward end, in which direction the shot was to be fired, there was some discussion inaudible to bystanders.  Then those nearest to the traitor drew back, the preparatory commands were barked out, and in he second of silence before the final order to fire, while people excitedly craned over their shoulders of other for a glimpse of the scene, the traitor, fully audible, said n a clear, steady voice, ‘Consummatum est!’

The command.  The shot.  People pushing forward upon others in the surge to the body.  A curious silence.  The organized cheer of the troops.  The lead given to the release of emotion.  And following this, the public cheers, the cheers, the cheers . . . . The living soul of the insurrection was dead.

As so often happens in the case of public cheering, they were cheers ill-timed.  The shot which that crowd had just heard was the shot which brought the Spanish empire in the Philippines to an end.

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