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He Dreamt To Break Free

If stated in a dramatic manner, panic had gripped the 400-year-old Spanish colonial rulers of the Philippines because of an author, named José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda (June 19, 1861 – December 30, 1896), in the 19th Century. José, who penned only two novels – ‘Noli Me Tángere‘ (‘Touch me not‘) and ‘El filibusterismo‘ (‘The Subversive‘) – was sentenced to death for his reformist thoughts. The Spanish imperialist rulers did not even arrange a coffin to bury his bullet-riddled body. The Philippines is marking the 160th Birth Anniversary of José.

José, an ophthalmologist by profession, was calm and cool as a person. He became quiet on the final day of his life when some of his family members visited him in the jail. On that day, he wrote a few letters, including one to his elder brother Paciano Rizal Mercado, who could not come to the prison. He had a petroleum study lamp in his cell… there was no need for that anymore. José’s sister Trinidad, with her face down, was sitting in front of him, as she was trying hard not to break down. While turning his hand on her head, he gave the study lamp to her, saying in a low voice: “Take care of this. There is something in this lamp.” There was a folded paper inside the lamp on which José penned his last poem, titled ‘Mi último adiós‘ (‘Last Farewell‘). The very first line of the poem is: “Farewell, my adored Land, region of the sun caressed…” He had composed the poem on the eve of his execution on December 30, 1896.

José Protasio Rizal

José came out from Fort Santiago on foot just before 6am on that day. The young man of 35, with his hands tied and head held high, walked towards Bagumbayan Ground, accompanied by his pleader, Lieutenant Andrade. Two missionary pastors were also there at the ground. A squad of eight Filipino soldiers of the Spanish Army was ready for action, as a backup force of eight regular Spanish Army personnel stood ready to shoot the executioners should they fail to obey orders. José, turning his back on the Filipino troops, stood at the centre of the ground. A man came with a piece of black cloth; however, he did not allow him to close his eyes. Two pastors, holding crosses, came forward; but José turned his face away from them. His final words were those of Jesus Christ: “Consummatum est” (“It is finished.“) He was executed immediately after a Spanish Army General ordered the soldiers to fire at him. José fell down, facing the sky. The Spanish ladies, who had gathered to witness his execution, raised their hands to the sky and waved perfumed handkerchiefs; while the men shouted ‘Goodbye’. Hundreds of angry Filipinos were forced to watch the scene silently.

A photographic record of José’s execution in what was then Bagumbayan

José was secretly buried in Pacò Cemetery in Manila with no identification on his grave. His sister, Narcisa, visited all possible gravesites and found freshly turned earth at the cemetery with guards posted at the gate. Assuming this could be the most likely spot, there never having been any ground burials, she made a gift to the caretaker to mark the site “RPJ“, José’s initials in reverse. As it turned out later, the Spanish colonial masters had not arranged a single coffin for the Filipino nationalist, writer and polymath.

José Rizal’s original grave at Paco Park, Manila. Slightly renovated and date repainted in English.

Well, José was not a leader or activist of any rebel group. He did not take part in the freedom struggle or in protest marches against the colonial Spanish rulers of the Philippines. He only penned two novels, which had shaken the foundations of the colonial masters.

José’s ancestors had arrived in the Philippines from China. They converted to Catholicism to survive the 1697 riots, which broke out in the Philippines against people of Chinese descent. From an early age, José started writing essays and poems. The Spaniards had written a partisan history of the Philippines, and it was in the school syllabus. At a young age, he used to write essays, criticising that particular version of history. Fort Santiago, built in 1593 near Manila, was the power centre of the Spanish masters… later, the Rizal Memorial was established in a part of Fort Santiago. One could find an image of young José at the Memorial, as well discover the ethereal lights of the world in the eyes of the seven-year-old boy.

The 11-year-old José

After completing his schooling, José came to know that his mother’s eyesight was getting weak. He immediately decided to become an ophthalmologist in order to save her eyesight. As the Philippines did not have the proper facility to study medical science at that period of time, he planned to move to Madrid. He boarded a Madrid-bound ship on May 3, 1882 without informing his father, who was against his decision. His elder brother and friends raised money to bear the expenditure. Later, his father came to know everything, and also took responsibility for his education. José’s decision to leave the Philippines hurt 16-year-old Leonor Rivera, as the two fell in love with one another. Leonor Rivera is thought to be the inspiration for the character of María Clara in Noli Me Tángere and El filibusterismo.

Leonor Rivera

José studied in Madrid, Heidelberg and Paris before becoming an ophthalmologist at the age of 25. At Heidelberg, he completed his eye specialisation under renowned Professor Otto Becker in 1887. In Germany, he got an opportunity to use the newly invented Ophthalmoscope (invented by Hermann von Helmholtz), which he used later to operate his mother’s eye. From Heidelberg, José wrote to his parents: “I spend half of the day in the study of German and the other half, in the diseases of the eye. Twice a week, I go to the bierbrauerie, or beerhall, to speak German with my student friends.” José used to live at a Karlstraße boarding house before moving to Ludwigsplatz, where he met Reverend Karl Ullmer. Later, he stayed with Ullmer in Wilhelmsfeld, where he penned down the last few chapters of Noli Me Tángere. Besides writing and practicing medicine, José also concentrated on painting, sculpture and woodcut work. He used to write a diary, too. However, it became difficult for researchers to gather information about him from his diaries after his demise, as he wrote in Filipino, German, and French. It is heard that he was fluent in 22 languages!

After his return to Manila in 1887, José set up a clinic at his residence. His first patient was his mother, who, at that time, had almost become blind. José came to know that Rivera was not in Manila, as she, along with her parents, settled in Pangasinan. He decided to visit Pangasinan; however, his father Francisco Rizal Mercado asked José not to meet Rivera! As Noli Me Tángere had already been published, the imperialist Spanish Government started monitoring José’s movements. Hence, his meeting with Rivera might have invited troubles for her family. José accepted his father’s argument, and changed his mind. He wrote to Rivera… but received no response. In 1888, José came to know that Rivera had tied the nuptial knot with a railway engineer. Thereafter, he never tried to contact Rivera.

Rivera left José; however, she remained immortal through the character of María Clara in Noli Me Tángere. The central character of the novel is Juan Crisostomo Ibarra y Magsalin, who returned to his hometown from San Diego following his father’s death, and sought to establish a proper school there, only to face numerous obstacles from the local figures. Needless to say, Ibarra is an autobiographical character. Once, José admitted that Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘ and Eugene Sue‘s ‘The Wandering Jew’ had inspired him to write his first novel. The two publications aroused his sympathy for the oppressed and unfortunate people. Meanwhile, Noli Me Tángere was banned for treason and opposition to the Church. Some requested the court to deport José. As there was no such law in the Southeast Asian country, the court rejected such a request. Then, a rumour was spread that José was a spy of Germany and Otto von Bismarck (April 1, 1815 – July 30, 1898). Gradually, it became dangerous for the Rizal family to live in the Philippines.

José arrived in Hong Kong in 1888. However, the Spanish spies followed him even in Hong Kong. Then, he left Hong Kong for the US, from where he reached England. He concentrated on reading, writing, and research works at the library of the British Museum. José, gradually, became the spokesperson of the Filipino people living in Europe. At the same time, each and every household in the Philippines got a copy of the banned Noli Me Tángere.

In 1891, José had El filibusterismo, a sequel to Noli Me Tángere, published in the northwestern Belgian port city of Ghent. This time, the target was not only the colonial Spanish rulers, but also their Filipino officers. The colonial masters and their close aides considered the publication of El filibusterismo as a direct incitement to rebellion! José returned to Manila in 1892, ignoring the advice of his friends in Europe. He decided not to run away.

The court deported José to Dapitan, a third class component city in the Province of Zamboanga del Norte, the Philippines. Meanwhile, an important event had taken place in José’s life, as he met Josephine Bracken in Manila. José could not get married to Josephine as per Catholic Sacrament, as the father of the church refused to perform the ritual. However, Josephine accompanied him to Dapitan, and they started living as a couple. With the help of locals and his European friends, José set up a school, a hospital, and established a drinking water supply system in Dapitan. He also taught the locals about farming, using modern technology. It may be noted that English was taught as a foreign language in that school, a first in the Philippines.

Josephine Bracken

Shortly after José’s deportation, a secret organisation, called Katipunan, was formed in Manila. The Katipunan, officially known as the Kataastaasan or Kagalanggalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Supreme and Venerable Association of the Children of the Nation), was a Philippine revolutionary society founded by anti-Spanish colonialism Filipinos in Manila in 1892. Its primary goal was to gain Independence from Spain through a revolution. Pío Valenzuela, a doctor, arrived in Dapitan to meet José. He informed José that the Katipunan was ready to trigger a revolution. However, José made it clear to Dr Valenzuela that people would die unnecessarily, if they would do this without adequate preparation. In El filibusterismo, José wrote: “Freedom is won not through the sword, but through the people making themselves worthy of it… We must win our Freedom by deserving it, by improving the mind and enhancing the dignity of the individual, loving what is just, what is good, what is great, to the point of dying for it. When people reach these heights, God provides the weapon, and the idols and the tyrants fall like a house of cards, and Freedom shines in the first dawn.

Meanwhile, Katipunan started its rebellious activities, and José was arrested on October 3, 1896 on charges of brewing incitement through his novel. Governor-General Ramón Blanco reportedly issued the arrest warrant. José was imprisoned in Fort Santiago. He was detained for masterminding a revolution that he thought should not be triggered at that period of time. He was awaiting a trial, whose verdict had already been delivered. The colonial Spanish rulers took just a single day to complete the investigation, and to file the charge-sheet against José, while the trial lasted only five days. No advocate was allowed to represent him. As expected, he was awarded the death sentence.

Fort Santiago, Manila

In a letter to his family, he wrote: “Treat our aged parents as you would wish to be treated… Love them greatly in memory of me… Bury me in the ground. Place a stone and a cross over it. My name, the date of my birth and of my death. Nothing more. If later you wish to surround my grave with a fence, you can do it. No anniversaries.” In his final letter (to his best friend Professor Blumentritt), José wrote: “Tomorrow at 7am, I shall be shot; but I am innocent of the crime of rebellion. I am going to die with a tranquil conscience.” At 5am on the fateful day, he wrote a document, giving Josephine Bracken the official status of his wife. It was the last time when he scratched on a paper with his pen.

Watch: Dr José Protacio Rizal’s 160th Birthday

The first Filipino Republic was established a couple of years after the execution of Nationalist hero José Protasio Rizal. On January 1, 1899, Emilio Aguinaldo was proclaimed President of the Philippine Republic, following the meetings of a constitutional convention, and the first Democratic Constitution of Asia was adopted.

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