Jose Rizal, The Social Historian
By Dr. Serafin D. Quiason
(Dr. Serafin D. Quiason is the former director of the National Library and chairman of the National Historical Institute in the Philippines. The foregoing article was originally published in “Solidarity,” a Manila-based publication edited and published by F. Sionil Jose.)
One of the great questions which has bewildered men for centuries is whether history makes men, men make history, or whether the forces of both are inextricably linked in their interactions. In the case of Dr. Jose Rizal, our national hero, it was the combination of both forces which shaped and determined his fate as a cultured “indio.”
No Filipino belonging to the last quarter of the 19th century had studied Philippine history with more meticulous care and genuine devotion than Dr. Rizal. In his historical essay, Filipinas Dentro de Cien Años (The Philippines a Century Hence), published in series in La Solidaridad from September 30,1889 to February 1,1890, Dr. Rizal impressed scholars with his comprehensive and precise knowledge, not only of Philippine history, but also of the history of Europe. He was at home in Spanish history and was equally knowledgeable in the expansion of Europe in Asia and Africa and the growth and development of the American Republic. Endowed with great industry, encyclopedic knowledge, and an elegant Spanish style, he wrote, aside from his immortal novels, several popular and scholarly essays. A sampling of his publications which includes poetry, drama and folklore reflects his historical views and nationalistic sentiments. These are The Indolence of the Filipinos, The Specimen of Tagal Folklore, The Eastern Fables, The Truth for All, Sa Aking Mga Kabataan, Mi Ultimo Adios, and Junto al Pasig.
What is perhaps more remarkable is that Dr. Rizal managed to turn his cascading energies to scholarship by not confining himself to any singular specialty or area of Philippine history. He was equally at home in poetry, drama, cultural anthropology, and lingusitics. He exemplified expertise in these multidisciplinary areas of learning.
Rizal was an earnest seeker of truth for truth’s sake and this marked him as a historian. It is known how intently he sought the truth. His research took him to the British Museum, The India Office Library (which was housed then at the Foreign Office Building in London), the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and other similar institutions in Germany, reading and thoroughly studying the sources on Philippine history and culture.
A great mission lay just ahead. He then decided to undertake the annotation of Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas published in Mexico in 1609, sufficient to occupy many months of full time work for most scholars. His personal friendship with Ferdinand Blumentritt provided the inspiration for doing a new edition of Morga’s Sucesos. He did it without handsome scholarship from foundations. Devoting four months to research and writing and almost a year to get his manuscript published in Paris in 1890, his extensive annotations of Morga’s work number “no less than 639 items or almost two annotations for every page.” In the Prologue, Blumentritt had this to say:
"With this reprinting you have erected a monumentum aere perenius (a perennial monument) to the name of Rizal."
In this particular work, he left behind him a historical monument -- a monument that has for years cast its long shadow across our historical landscape which he surveyed well, explored, and embellished with such devotion and passion. In Dr. Rizal’s dedication of this work, he explained, among other things, the purpose in the new edition of Morga’s Sucesos:
If the book succeeds in awakening in you the consciousness of our past which has been obliterated from memory and in rectifying what has been falsified and calumniated, I shall not have labored in vain, and on such basis, little though it may be, we can all devote ourselves to studying the future.
Like other professional historians, Rizal also subscribed to the old dictum: the past shapes the present and the present, the future. To be able to foretell the future, one must have a correct perceptive reading of the past and a proper understanding of the present.
As essential sources for reconstructing the history of our people, he made full use of rare printed materials. Hence, his impressive readings in Philippine history, to mention but a few, include the following” B.L. Argensola’s Conquista de las Islas Molucas; Gaspar San Agustin’s Conquistas...(1609); Antonio de Pigafetta’s Primo Viaggo in Torno Al Globo Terraqueo (Milano, 1800); Pedro Chirino’s Relacion de las Islas Filipinas; Francisco Colin’s Labor Evangelica (Madrid, 1663); Francisco de Placencia’s Los Cstumbres de los Tagalogs; Diego de Aduarte’s Historia de la Provincia del Santo Rosario de la Orden de Predicadores (Zaragoza, 1693); Hernando de Rios’ Memoria y Relacion para S.M. Madrid (1621); Martin de Rada’s report to the Spanish King on the Abuses of the Encomenderos; Sinibaldo de Mas, Informe Sobre de Estado de las Islas Filipinas en 1842 (Madrid,1842); Francis Drakes’s Voyage Around the World; Thomas Cavendish’s Voyage...; and Navarette’s Coleccion de los Viejos y Descubrimientos. He also consulted the works of other authors like T.H. Pardo de Tavera, I. de los Reyes, Lord Stanley, and P.A. Paterno. Very few Filipinos of Dr. Rizal’s generation tapped these sources and demonstrated their crucial value for an authoritative picture of the Filipinos’ past history.
Dr. Rizal’s historical essays and his copious annotations of Morga reveal his personal debt to history. In his school days, he acquired this enthusiasm for the discipline. This was particularly demonstrated when he persuaded his father to gift him with a a set of Cantu’s Universal History. As he grew to manhood, he developed an unusual sense of history. He believed that the discipline could not only illumine the mind, but could also edify the human spirit. Thus, in the second paragraph of his historical essay on Filipinas Dentro de Cien Años, he aptly stated:
“To foretell the destiny of a nation, it is necessary to open the book that tells the past.”
Whether it was a matter of the poet’s craft, the scientific man’s thought or the historian’s task, he had a firm grasp of the relevant analytical tools and a wealth of knowledge.
In Europe, Dr. Rizal came in contact with Rainhold Rost of the India Office Library, Alfred Meyer, Feodor Jagor, Rudolph Virchow, Ferdinand Blumentritt, Otto Becker, and Louis de Wecker. These great men shared his interest in the study of Philippine culture and history. In his contacts, he invariably displayed remarkable breadth and depth of learning as well as human warmth and understanding.
In his historical essay, which includes the narration of Philippine colonial history, punctuated as it was with incidences of agony, tensions, tragedies and prolonged periods of suffering that many of the people had been subjected to, reflects a thorough grasp of the sources and a scholarly balance in his judgments. He correctly observed that as a colony of Spain, “the Philippines was depopulated, impoverished, and retarded, astounded by the metamorphosis, with no confidence in her past, still without faith in her present and without any faltering hope in the future.”
He went on to say:
“...little by little, they (Filipinos) lost their old traditions, the mementoes of their past; they gave up their writing, their songs, their poems, their laws, in order to learn by rote other doctrines which they did not understand, another morality, another aesthetics, different from those inspired by their climate and their manner of thinking. They declined, degrading themselves in their own eyes. They became ashamed of what was their own; they began to admire and praise whatever was foreign and incomprehensible; their spirit was damaged and it surrendered.”
In another passage, he said:
“The country is poor, it is going through a great financial crisis, and everybody points with their fingers to the persons who are causing the evil and yet no one dares to lay their hands on them.”
These points of Dr. Rizal are worth pondering now.
His fluency and ease at classical history reveal an early training as well as a literary talent of high order. Under Spain, there was practically no solid program for education and social development. The Spaniards gave the Philippine colony little affection and understanding. Dr. Rizal spoke with vigor against the subjugation of one nation by another. He hated imperialism and heartily disliked censorship of the press. His formula for change was either violent if it should be led by the masses or peaceful, if by the elite in society.
There were, however, a few historical slips.
According to Dr. Rizal, “Every one, friend or foe alike, admits that every Filipino, even before the arrival of the Spaniards knew how to read or write.” In saying this, it seems like he was a victim of his heavy reliance on the early Spanish sources. He seemed to be under the impression that the Philippine colony did not take advantage of the disintegration of the Spanish Empire. Therefore, the colony remained loyal to Spain during the War of Independence in Spanish America. In reality, there were several attempts to topple the Spanish colonial order in the 1810s and 1820s, as evidenced by the Novales uprising and the Bayot and Palmero conspiracies.
As a student of history, he asked questions as well as answered them in his essay on Filipinas Dentro de Cien Años. He succeeded in maintaining a high level of factual accuracy which can be relied on. But in a historical essay that moves so rapidly over time and space, it is also easy to find certain blunders. Is it not always easy to find mistakes or historical slips?
To cite another instance, he calls attention to the fact that the English penetrated Spain’s private presence in the Pacific and launched a successful invasion of the Philippines during the Seven years’ War in Europe. Profit, of course, was one of the many motives. Actually, England, through the East India Company, took possession of the Philippines for some years, only to relinquish it by virtue of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. At the same time, Manila capitulated to the combined forces of the East India Company and the British navy and army. The Preliminaries of Peace was already being negotiated by the diplomatic agents of France and England. The British diplomats were not aware of the capture of Manila by William Draper and Admiral Samuel Cornish.
In so far as Germany’s lack of imperial design on any part of Asia in the 1880s was concerned, Dr. Rizal’s observation was correct in the sense that Bismarck generally counseled patience. He told his close associates he knew how to wait. He was still very much occupied then with the strengthening of the newly unified German state because the “will to democracy, like the will to federate” was not strong enough. But in time, in the words of William Gladstone, Bismark had made “Germany larger and the German smaller.” Had Dr. Rizal lived just a little longer, he would have witnessed the “mock” Battle of Manila Bay with Admiral Von Diedrich and his fleet waiting in the wings.
With all its limitations and slips, Dr. Rizal’s essay has a genuine astuteness of historical analysis. Those concerned with the history of the Filipino people up to the 1880s will find this quite useful. One may also find Dr. Rizal’s speculation on “Mai and Tawalisi” particularly illuminating. He puts into sharp relief his knowledge about our pre-history that was based upon the use of historiographic techniques.
He touched on many familiar landmarks in the complex topography of our past ranging from the galleon trade -- the lifeblood of the colony, the decline of Philippine population due to periodic wars and forced labor incident to ship construction, the external threats coming from the Dutch and the English, the assassination of Gomez Dasmariñas, the institution of the residencia, the censorship of the press, the “liberal” regime of De la Torre in contrast with that of Izquierdo, the Muslim problem, Gaspar de San Agustin. O.S.A. and the Jesuit Velarde -- the arch critics of the Filipinos and the Spanish Cortez, to mention but a few.
One may also find worthwhile nuggets of information in his historical essay. For instance, not every student of Philippine history is familiar with many heroic figures in their past, such as the Magalats of Cagayan, and the descendants of Gat Pulintang and Gat Salakab of Batangas. He had a good eye for an interesting aspect of Chinese attitude of superiority vis-a-vis the Westerners. The Chinese called the Europeans Fan Kuei or foreign red devils, a detail which can easily escape the undiscerning eye of a non-student of Asian history.
One particular interesting observation of Dr. Rizal runs as follows:
Today, we see that the most humble families make enormous sacrifices so that their children can obtain a little education, even going to the extent of letting them become servants in order to learn Spanish at least.
Again he declares:
The Filipinos accept comfort and maintain contacts with all people and can live in all climes.
Nothing can be farther from the truth than the applicability of these statements in our contemporary Philippine society.
Lastly, he forecast things to come. He read accurately Japan’s natural path for expansion, that is, toward Korea. He added that “it is easy (for Japan) to take her.” We know for a fact that by 1912, Japanese seizure of Korea became a reality. They withdrew from the peninsula in 1945. He had a good inkling of what would happen to China vis-a-vis the Western powers. He even anticipated “the slicing of the Chinese melon” into European spheres of influence by a decade. But the “scramble for concessions” as we all know was halted by the Secretary of State Hay’s “Open Door Policy.”
His reading of American “Manifest Destiny” was a perceptive one. “The great American Republic,” he said, “with interest in the pacific and without share in the partition of Africa may one day think of acquiring possessions beyond the seas.” His words were quite prophetic. The Philippine Revolution broke out. The Americans came and nipped the newly independent Republic in the bud. The Filipinos fought the Yankees “at the cost of so much blood and sacrifice.”
His historical essays draw their power not only from his diverse readings and research, but from his ability to identify issues, and his skillful perception of atmosphere and motive. Their final distinction came, perhaps, from the manner that these qualities were ordered in his eloquent literary style and evident craftsmanship. It is hard, sometimes, to know how a man trained as an eye specialist could have developed a characteristic style which was at once incisive, evocative and definitely arresting.
By the time Dr. Rizal moved from one city to another in Western Europe, he had produced all types of literary works and articles which were published occasionally. His stay in Europe gave him time for further research. This culminated in the writing and publication of his two immortal works -- Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. His years were cut unreasonably short, but in them were compressed many lifetimes of creativity, hard work and dedication.
Had his death by musketry not prevented it, Dr. Rizal would have contributed greatly to the field of Philippine history and culture. Dr. Rizal was certainly the finest and most distinguished social historian our race has ever produced. That Dr. Rizal well-deserved the honor is evident from his scholarly thoroughness and his monumental literary and historical works.