- Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal, translated by Soledad Lacson-Locsin
Hawaii, 451 pp, $47.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 8248 1917 9
Few countries give the observer a deeper feeling of historical vertigo than the Philippines. Seen from Asia, the armed uprising against Spanish rule of 1896, which triumphed temporarily with the establishment of an independent republic in 1898, makes it the visionary forerunner of all the other anti-colonial movements in the region. Seen from Latin America, it is, with Cuba, the last of the Spanish imperial possessions to have thrown off the yoke, seventy-five years after the rest. Profoundly marked, after three and a half centuries of Spanish rule, by Counter-Reformation Catholicism, it was the only colony in the Empire where the Spanish language never became widely understood. But it was also the only colony in Asia to have had a university in the 19th century. In the 1890s barely 3 per cent of the population knew ‘Castilian’, but it was Spanish-readers and writers who managed to turn movements of resistance to colonial rule from hopeless peasant uprisings into a revolution. Today, thanks to American imperialism, and the Philippines’ new self-identification as ‘Asian’, almost no one other than a few scholars understands the language in which the revolutionary heroes communicated among themselves and with the outside world – to say nothing of the written archive of pre-20th-century Philippine history. A virtual lobotomy has taken place.
The central figure in the revolutionary generation was José Rizal, poet, novelist, ophthalmologist, historian, doctor, polemical essayist, moralist and political dreamer. He was born in 1861 into a well-to-do family of mixed Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Tagalog descent: five years after Freud, four years after Conrad, one year after Chekhov; the same year as Tagore; five years before Sun Yat-sen, three years before Max Weber, eight years before Gandhi, and nine before Lenin. Thirty-five years later he was arrested on false charges of inciting Andrés Bonifacio’s uprising of August 1896, and executed by a firing squad composed of native soldiers led by Spanish officers. The execution was carried out in what is now the beautiful Luneta Park, which fronts the shoreline of Manila Bay. (On the other side of the Spanish world, José Martí, the hero of Cuban nationalism, had died in action the previous year.) At the time of Rizal’s death, Lenin had just been sentenced to exile in Siberia, Sun Yat-sen had begun organising for Chinese nationalism outside China, and Gandhi was conducting his early experiments in anti-colonial resistance in South Africa.
Rizal had the best education then available in the colony, provided exclusively by the religious Orders, notably the Dominicans and Jesuits. It was an education that he later satirised mercilessly, but it gave him a command of Latin (and some Hebrew), a solid knowledge of classical antiquity, and an introduction to Western philosophy and even to medical science. It is again vertiginous to compare what benighted Spain offered with what the enlightened, advanced imperial powers provided in the same South-East Asian region: no real universities in French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, or British Malaya and Singapore till after World War Two. From very early on, Rizal exhibited remarkable literary abilities. At the age of 19 he entered an open literary competition, and won first prize, defeating Spanish rivals writing in their native tongue.
He was growing up at a time when modern politics had begun to arrive in the colony. More than any other imperial power, 19th-century Spain was wracked by deep internal conflicts, not merely the endless Carlist wars over the succession, but also between secular liberalism and the old aristocratic-clerical order. The brief liberal triumph in the Glorious Revolution of 1868, which drove the licentious Isabella II from Madrid, had immediate repercussions for the remote Pacific colony. The revolutionaries promptly announced that the benefits of their victory would be extended to the colonies. The renewed ban on the Jesuits and the closure of monastic institutions seemed to promise the end of the reactionary power of the Orders overseas. In 1869, the first ‘liberal’ Captain-General, Carlos María de la Torre, arrived in Manila, it is said to popular cries of ‘Viva la Libertad!’ (How unimaginable is a scene of this kind in British India or French Algeria.) During his two-year rule, de la Torre enraged the old-guard colonial élite, not merely by instituting moves to give equal legal rights to natives, mestizos and peninsulars, but also by going walkabout in Manila in everyday clothes and without armed guards. The collapse of the Glorious Revolution brought about a ferocious reaction in Manila, however, culminating in 1872 in the public garrotting of three secular (i.e. non-Order) priests (one creole, two mestizo), framed for masterminding a brief mutiny in the arsenal of Cavite.