Why did Dr. Jose Rizal return to the Philippines?
Among my fondest childhood memories were the times I spent with my grandfather, Lope Elepano, in his home in Calamba, Laguna, where my mother and her siblings were born. On summer vacations and special holidays, I would often visit Calamba and stay with my Lolo.
Even at the age of eight, I could walk all over the town by myself, visiting various places of interest. My favorite place was the childhood home of Dr. Jose Rizal, our national hero, which was located just a block from my Lolo Lope’s residence. (This was before a larger green building beside the church was later designated as Rizal’s “home” to accommodate more tourists.) Those visits inspired me to read every book about Rizal I could get my hands on, a practice I still follow to this day.
Dr. Rizal is the most honored Filipino of all time. Even in the United States, there is a Rizal Park and a Rizal Bridge in Seattle and statues of him are found in shopping malls and parks throughout the US from San Diego to Philadelphia. We celebrate Rizal Day (June 19) in Philippine consulates and embassies worldwide often, unfortunately, with a dramatic oration of Rizal’s most famous poem, “My Last Farewell” (Mi Ultimo Adios), in Spanish, no less.
But we know very little about our national hero other than that he was an eye surgeon, a linguist, a great lover (we were even taught the names of all of Rizal’s loves) and a writer of exquisite poems and revolutionary novels. We learned that Rizal’s execution by the Spaniards on December 30, 1896 ignited the revolution that led to the declaration of Philippine independence on June 12, 1898.
But do we know the central role Calamba played in Rizal’s life other than just being the town where he was born?
Let us review the chronology of Rizal’s brief life.
He was born José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda in Calamba on June 19, 1861. When he studied in Manila at the Jesuit Ateneo Municipal school, he changed his name to “Jose Rizal” because his brother, Paciano Mercado, was wanted by the colonial authorities for being an associate of the martyred priest, Fr. Jose Burgos, and Paciano feared that Rizal would not be accepted under his real name. [After Rizal’s martyrdom in 1896, the entire Mercado family legally changed their surname to Rizal.]
Rizal graduated from the Ateneo with a Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of 16. He then enrolled in the College of Medicine at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in 1878. Before completing his medical studies at the UST, he went abroad to Barcelona, Spain in 1882, and studied at the Central University of Madrid, where he completed a double major in medical and humanistic studies, graduating with a doctorate in medicine and a licentiate degree in philosophy in June of 1885.
To pursue a specialty in ophthalmology, Dr. Rizal went to Paris to study under the surgeon who introduced ophthalmoscopy and advanced ocular surgery in France, Dr. Louise de Wecker. Under him, Rizal specialized in the operation of the cataract. Rizal then went to Heidelberg, Germany, to pursue a further specialty in ophthalmology under Dr. Otto Becker of the famed Augen-Klinik.
While in Germany, Dr. Rizal wrote his first novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), about the brutal conditions in the Philippines under Spanish rule. He published the book himself in Berlin (2,000 copies for 300 pesos). From its original in Spanish, the book was later translated into German and Tagalog (and 10 other languages since then).
Rizal was the acknowledged leader of the Ilustrado Movement of Filipinos in Europe who were lobbying for reforms in the Philippines. In 1885, he decided to return to the Philippines though his friends and supporters were unanimous in urging him not to go, as he would surely be arrested.
Despite their warnings, Dr. Rizal left Marseilles, France, on July 3, 1887 to return to Manila. He could not explain to them that he studied medicine and especially, ophthalmology, to cure his mother’s cataract problem, which threatened to make her completely blind. He just had to go back.
When Dr. Rizal arrived in Manila, there was no one there to greet him, not even the Spanish police. After a few days, he left for Calamba to see his family. When he arrived in his hometown, he was given a hero’s welcome, the local boy who made good.
Dr. Rizal successfully removed the cataract of his mother, his first surgical operation. Word quickly spread that a “German doctor” had arrived who could make the blind see. Everyone in the whole country with an eye problem trooped to Calamba to be treated by Rizal, who charged according to the financial means of the patient.
Meanwhile, the Spanish friars, who were the objects of ridicule in Rizal’s first novel, agitated for his arrest. The Dominicans at UST submitted a report to the governor-general on August 30, 1887 declaring: “The work Noli Me Tangere has been found heretical, impious and scandalous from the religious perspective, anti-patriotic and subversive from the political point of view, injurious to the Spanish government and its proceedings in the islands.”
The Dominicans had developed a fierce hatred for Rizal that went beyond his novel. It had to do with the politics of Calamba.
As part of the colonization of the Philippines, which began in 1565, Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi distributed 96 encomiendas (feudal estates) to various colonists, forcing the local natives to pay tributes or rents to their new landlords. Among the new encomenderos were the Spanish religious orders that were assigned estates in different provinces around the Philippines.
On the outskirts of Calamba was an encomienda operated by the Jesuits who collected rents from the tenant farmers for growing crops on their lands. The Jesuits had been operating in the Philippines since 1581 until Spanish King Carlos III ordered their expulsion from all the Spanish colonies in 1767. The Jesuit-owned encomiendas were then gobbled up by the other religious orders including the one outside Calamba, which fell into the hands of the Dominicans in 1833. Unlike the Jesuits, however, the Dominicans collected rents from lands beyond the former Jesuit encomienda and did not pay taxes for those rents.
Spanish Governor General Emilio Terrero, a liberal who had resisted pressure from the Spanish friars to arrest Rizal, dispatched an investigator to Calamba to inquire about reports that the Dominicans were not paying taxes on lands where they were collecting rents. While the Dominican landlords ordered the tenant farmers to lie, Rizal encouraged them to cooperate with the investigator and tell the truth. They did.
With Rizal’s assistance and prodding, the Calamba tenant farmers even filed a “Memorial” with the local court on January 8, 1888, listing their grievances against their Dominican overlords. After a prolonged litigation, the “Memorial” was subsequently rejected by the local Philippine court, a decision which Rizal later appealed to the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid.
After the Calamba tenants lost their case before the Spanish Supreme Court, the new conservative Governor General, Valeriano Weyler (the “butcher of Cuba”), dispatched 50 soldiers from the peninsular regiment of artillery to Calamba to expel the protesting tenants from their ancestral farms at gunpoint and to even burn their houses. In total, about 300 Calamba families, including Rizal’s own family, were forcibly evicted by the Dominicans. Many were forced to encamp in the fields and streets because it was prohibited to give lodging to the evicted.
By then, Rizal had long left the Philippines, partly on the advice of Terrero, who warned that he could no longer hold off the friars. With sufficient funds from his ophthalmology practice, Rizal departed on February 3, 1888 for Hongkong, then Yokohama and then San Francisco, where he then boarded a train to New York and from there, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to London.
While in Europe, Rizal continued to keep track of developments in the Philippines and especially in Calamba. He wrote his second novel, El Filibusterismo (The Subversive), published in 1891, “to answer the calumnies which for centuries had been heaped on us and our country; I have described the social condition, the life, our beliefs, our hopes, our desires, our grievances, our griefs; I have unmasked hypocrisy which, under the guise of religion, came to impoverish and to brutalize us.”
There was not much that Rizal could do from Europe so he decided to set up his medical practice in Hongkong and to reunite with his parents and siblings there. Following his plan, Rizal boarded a ship in Marseilles for Hongkong arriving there on November 20, 1891. Within a month, Rizal’s parents, his brother Paciano and sisters Josefa, Lucia and Trinidad joined him in the Crown Colony.
Spending Christmas in Hongkong with his family was the happiest time of Rizal’s life. He wrote his friend in Vienna, Ferdinand Blumentritt, a letter describing his feelings: “Here we are all living together, my parents, sisters, and brother, in peace and far from the persecutions they suffered in the Philippines. They are very much pleased with the English government.”
Despite the bright prospects of setting up a lucrative medical practice in Hongkong and being with his family, Rizal could not get the plight of the tenant farmers of Calamba out of his mind. On December 3, 1891, Rizal published an article in the Hongkong Telegraph describing the unjust eviction and the destruction of the homes of the tenant farmers of Calamba and their persecution.
On his voyage to Hongkong from Marseilles, Rizal met William Pryer, the manager of the British North Borneo Company, the company that had obtained a long-term lease from the Sultan of Sulo in 1878 to manage the entire island of North Borneo. After learning of what Pryer planned to grow the British colony, Rizal proposed to set up a Filipino colony in North Borneo with the evicted Calamba tenants.
Pryer and his wife, Ada, enthusiastically welcomed Rizal’s proposal, which Rizal later memorialized in an agreement he prepared that was composed of 14 specific points; he mailed it to the Pryers from Hongkong. On her husband’s behalf, Ada Pryer wrote back: “it will be a great advantage for B. N. Borneo if you are able to bring us a large Philippine contingent and we shall hail your advent with great pleasure.”
Rizal then made plans to visit the Pryers in Sandakan, North Borneo. Two months later, Rizal traveled to the place he hoped to call “Nueva Calamba,”,rich fertile land up the Bengkoka River in Maradu Bay. Together with Pryer, he met with the governor of North Borneo and discussed his proposal to lease at least 5,000 acres of land with an option to purchase thousands more for a lease of 950 years.
But there was just one problem. The Calamba tenants could not leave the Philippines without the permission of the Spanish Governor-General, Eulogio Despujol. Rizal was aware of this so even before traveling to North Borneo, he wrote Despujol on March 21, 1892:
“I request Your Excellency to grant us the necessary permission to change our nationality, to sell our little property that has been left to us by the many disturbances that we have had, and to guarantee the emigration of all those who for some reason or other have incurred the unfavorable criticism of more or less powerful persons who will remain in the Philippines even after Your Excellency’s administration.”
Despujol was incensed by Rizal’s letter and feared that Rizal would use his Philippine colony in North Borneo to launch a revolution against Spain. But he did not respond to Rizal’s letter. Instead he asked the Spanish Consul in Hongkong to invite Rizal to return to Manila to discuss the matter personally with him.
Rizal’s family and friends implored Rizal to reject Despujol’s invitation. It’s a trap, they warned him. But Rizal was determined to provide a better life for the evicted tenants of Calamba and if personally meeting Despujol in Manila was needed to make it happen, then he would do it.
On June 20, 1892, Rizal wrote a letter to his countrymen explaining his decision to return to Manila: “The step which I have taken or which I am about to take is very hazardous, no doubt, and I need not say that I have thought much about it. I know that almost everybody is against it; but I know also that almost nobody knows what is going on in my heart. I cannot live knowing that many are suffering unjust persecutions on my account; I cannot live seeing my brother, sisters, and their numerous families pursued like criminals; I prefer to face death, and I gladly give my life to free so many innocents from such unjust persecution.”
Philippine historians have generally interpreted this letter as generally referring to the suffering of Filipino people as a whole, but he likely was thinking specifically of the Calamba tenant farmers. Because they believed in his assurance that justice would prevail, they defied their Dominican landlords and signed the “Memorial,” and they suffered greatly as a consequence. Rizal was likely wracked with guilt at what happened to the tenant farmers of Calamba, at their “unjust persecutions on my account.”
Rizal arrived in Manila on June 26, 1892 and proceeded to Malacanang Palace to meet Despujol. After several days of meetings, Rizal was arrested and incarcerated in Fort Santiago after anti-friar leaflets, planted by the friars, were found in his luggage. Despujol ordered Rizal incarcerated in Fort Santiago for the crime of “attempting to decatholicize this ever Spanish Philippine islands.” He was later deported to Dapitan in Zamboanga.
When the Philippine Revolution broke out in 1896, Rizal was accused by the friars of fomenting and instigating it even though he was confined to the island of Dapitan. After a “friarcical” trial, Rizal was sentenced to death and executed on December 30, 1896.
As he faced the firing squad in Luneta, Rizal’s thoughts must have drifted to images of the thriving, progressive colony of Calamba tenant farmers flourishing in British North Borneo. If only…
(Modified version of speech delivered at the opening session of the First National Conference of Calambenos in America held at the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel in Norwalk, California on November 14, 2014. Send comments to [email protected] or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).
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