José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda (June 19, 1861 – December 30, 1896), was a Filipino nationalist, novelist, poet, ophthalmologist, journalist, and revolutionary. He is widely considered the greatest national hero of the Philippines. He was the author of Noli Me Tángere, El Filibusterismo, and a number of poems and essays. He was executed on December 30, 1896 by a squad of Filipino soldiers of the Spanish Army.
Rizal first studied under Justiniano Aquino Cruz in Biñan, Laguna before he was sent to Manila. As to his father’s request, he took the entrance examination in Colegio de San Juan de Letran and studied there for almost three months. He then enrolled at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila and graduated as one of the nine students in his class declared sobresaliente or outstanding. He continued his education at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila to obtain a land surveyor and assessor’s degree, and at the same time at the University of Santo Tomas where he did take up a preparatory course in law. Upon learning that his mother was going blind, he decided to switch to medicine at the medical school of Santo Tomas specializing later in ophthalmology.
José Rizal as a student at the University of Santo Tomas
Without his parents’ knowledge and consent, but secretly supported by his brother Paciano, he traveled alone to Madrid, Spain in May 1882 and studied medicine at the Universidad Central de Madrid where he earned the degree, Licentiate in Medicine. Also, he also attended medical lectures at the University of Paris and the University of Heidelberg. In Berlin he was inducted as a member of the Berlin Ethnological Society and the Berlin Anthropological Society under the patronage of the famous pathologist Rudolf Virchow. Following custom, he delivered an address in German in April 1887 before the Anthropological Society on the orthography and structure of the Tagalog language. He left Heidelberg a poem, “A las flores del Heidelberg”, which was both an evocation and a prayer for the welfare of his native land and the unification of common values between East and West.
At Heidelberg, the 25-year-old Rizal, completed in 1887 his eye specialization under the renowned professor, Otto Becker. There he used the newly invented ophthalmoscope (invented by Hermann von Helmholtz) to later operate on his own mother’s eye. From Heidelberg, Rizal wrote 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.” He lived in a Karlstraße boarding house then moved to Ludwigsplatz. There, he met Reverend Karl Ullmer and stayed with them in Wilhelmsfeld, where he wrote the last few chapters of Noli Me Tángere.
Rizal was a polymath, skilled in both science and the arts. He painted, sketched, and made sculptures and woodcarving. He was a prolific poet, essayist, and novelist whose most famous works were his two novels, Noli Me Tángere and its sequel, El filibusterismo. These social commentaries during the Spanish colonization of the country formed the nucleus of literature that inspired peaceful reformists and armed revolutionaries alike. Rizal was also a polyglot, conversant in twenty-two languages.
Rizal’s multifacetedness was described by his German friend, Dr. Adolf Meyer, as “stupendous.” Documented studies show him to be a polymath with the ability to master various skills and subjects. He was an ophthalmologist, sculptor, painter, educator, farmer, historian, playwright and journalist. Besides poetry and creative writing, he dabbled, with varying degrees of expertise, in architecture, cartography, economics, ethnology, anthropology, sociology, dramatics, martial arts, fencing and pistol shooting. He was also a Freemason, joining Acacia Lodge No. 9 during his time in Spain and becoming a Master Mason in 1884.
1890-1892: In Brussels and Spain
In 1890, Rizal, 29, left Paris for Brussels as he was preparing for the publication of his annotations of Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas.” There, he lived in the boarding house of the two Jacoby sisters, Catherina and Suzanna who had a niece also named Suzanna (“Thil”), 16. Historian Gregorio F. Zaide states that Rizal had “his romance with Suzanne Jacoby, 45, the petite niece of his landladies.” Belgian Pros Slachmuylders, however, believed that Rizal had a romance with the niece, Suzanna Thil, in 1890. Belgian Jean Paul Verstraeten proved this. Jean Paul traced in the archives of Brussels that in the same house as Suzanne Jacoby, a little niece was living, Suzanne Till. Letters from Suzanne to Rizal were signed by “Petite Suzanne”.
Rizal’s Brussels stay was short-lived, as he moved to Madrid, leaving the young Suzanna a box of chocolates. Suzanna replied in French: “After your departure, I did not take the chocolate. The box is still intact as on the day of your parting. Don’t delay too long writing us because I wear out the soles of my for running to the mailbox to see if there is a letter from you. There will never be any home in which you are so loved as in that in Brussels, so, you little bad boy, hurry up and come back…” (Oct. 1, 1890 letter). The house were Rizal was staying, in Rue Philippe de Champagne 38 doesn’t exist anymore following some writers. (the house numbers jump from 36 to 42). Jean Paul Verstraeten proved during his research that this house still exists, on August 10, 1900, the number of the house was changed into 42. Jean Paul traced the owner of this house and convinced her to put a historical marker. Slachmuylders’ group in 2007 unveiled this historical marker commemorating Rizal’s stay in Brussels in 1890.
The content of Rizal’s writings changed considerably in his two most famous novels, Noli Me Tángere, published in Berlin in 1887, and El Filibusterismo, published in Ghent in 1891 with funds borrowed largely from Rizal’s friends. These writings angered both the Spanish colonial elite and many educated Filipinos due to their insulting symbolism. They are critical of Spanish friars and the power of the Church. Rizal’s friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, an Austria-Hungary born professor and historian wrote that the novel’s characters were drawn from real life and that every episode can be repeated on any day in the Philippines.
Blumentritt was the grandson of the Imperial Treasurer at Vienna in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and a staunch defender of the Catholic faith. This did not dissuade him however from writing the preface of El filibusterismo after he had translated Noli Me Tángere into German. As Blumentritt had warned, these led to Rizal’s prosecution as the inciter of revolution and eventually, to a military trial and execution. The intended consequence of teaching the natives where they stood brought about an adverse reaction, as the Philippine Revolution of 1896 took off virulently thereafter.
Leaders of the reform movement in Spain: Left to Right: Rizal, del Pilar, and Ponce (c.1890).
As leader of the reform movement of Filipino students in Spain, he contributed essays, allegories, poems, and editorials to the Spanish newspaper La Solidaridad in Barcelona (in this case Rizal used a pen name, Dimasalang). The core of his writings centers on liberal and progressive ideas of individual rights and freedom; specifically, rights for the Filipino people. He shared the same sentiments with members of the movement: that the Philippines is battling, in Rizal’s own words, “a double-faced Goliath”—corrupt friars and bad government. His commentaries reiterate the following agenda:
That the Philippines be a province of Spain (Philippines was a sub-colony of New Spain – now Mexico, administered from Mexico city)
Representation in the Cortes
Filipino priests instead of Spanish friars–Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans—in parishes and remote sitios
Freedom of assembly and speech
Equal rights before the law (for both Filipino and Spanish plaintiffs)
The colonial authorities in the Philippines did not favor these reforms even if they were more openly endorsed by Spanish intellectuals like Morayta, Unamuno, Pi y Margall, and others.
Wenceslao Retana, a political commentator in Spain, had slighted Rizal by writing an insulting article in “La Epoca”, a newspaper in Madrid, in which he insinuated that the family and friends of Rizal were ejected from their lands in Calamba for not having paid their due rents. The incident (when Rizal was ten) stemmed from an accusation that Rizal’s mother, Teodora, tried to poison the wife of a cousin when she claimed she only intervened to help. With the approval of the Church prelates, and without a hearing, she was ordered to prison in Santa Cruz in 1871. She was made to walk the ten miles (16 km) from Calamba. She was released after two-and-a-half years of appeals to the highest court. In 1887, Rizal wrote a petition on behalf of the tenants of Calamba, and later that year led them to speak out against the friars’ attempts to raise rent. They initiated a litigation which resulted in the Dominicans evicting them from their homes, including the Rizal family. General Valeriano Weyler had the buildings on the farm torn down.
Upon reading the article, Rizal sent immediately a representative to challenge Retana to a duel. The painful memories of his mother’s treatment at the hands of the civil authorities explain his reaction. Retana published a public apology and later became one of Rizal’s biggest admirers, writing Rizal’s most important biography – Vida y Escritos del José Rizal.
1892-1896: Return to Philippines
Exile in Dapitan
Upon his return to Manila in 1892, he formed a civic movement called La Liga Filipina. The league advocated these moderate social reforms through legal means, but was disbanded by the governor. At that time, he had already been declared an enemy of the state by the Spanish authorities because of the publication of his novel.
Rizal was implicated in the activities of the nascent rebellion and in July 1892, was deported to Dapitan in the province of Zamboanga, a peninsula of Mindanao. There he built a school, a hospital and a water supply system, and taught and engaged in farming and horticulture. Abaca, then the vital raw material for cordage and which Rizal and his students planted in the thousands, was a memorial.
The boys’ school, which taught in Spanish, and included English as a foreign language (considered a prescient if unusual option then) was conceived by Rizal and antedated Gordonstoun with its aims of inculcating resourcefulness and self-sufficiency in young men. They would later enjoy successful lives as farmers and honest government officials. One, a Muslim, became a datu, and another, José Aseniero, who was with Rizal throughout the life of the school, became Governor of Zamboanga.
In Dapitan, the Jesuits mounted a great effort to secure his return to the fold led by Fray Sánchez, his former professor, who failed in his mission. The task was resumed by Fray Pastells, a prominent member of the Order. In a letter to Pastells, Rizal sails close to the ecumenism familiar to us today.
– “We are entirely in accord in admitting the existence of God. How can I doubt his when I am convinced of mine. Who so recognizes the effect recognizes the cause. To doubt God is to doubt one’s own conscience, and in consequence, it would be to doubt everything; and then what is life for? Now then, my faith in God, if the result of a ratiocination may be called faith, is blind, blind in the sense of knowing nothing. I neither believe nor disbelieve the qualities which many attribute to him; before theologians’ and philosophers’ definitions and lucubrations of this ineffable and inscrutable being I find myself smiling. Faced with the conviction of seeing myself confronting the supreme Problem, which confused voices seek to explain to me, I cannot but reply: ‘It could be; but the God that I foreknow is far more grand, far more good: Plus Supra!…I believe in (revelation); but not in revelation or revelations which each religion or religions claim to possess. Examining them impartially, comparing them and scrutinizing them, one cannot avoid discerning the human ‘fingernail’ and the stamp of the time in which they were written… No, let us not make God in our image, poor inhabitants that we are of a distant planet lost in infinite space. However, brilliant and sublime our intelligence may be, it is scarcely more than a small spark which shines and in an instant is extinguished, and it alone can give us no idea of that blaze, that conflagration, that ocean of light. I believe in revelation, but in that living revelation which surrounds us on every side, in that voice, mighty, eternal, unceasing, incorruptible, clear, distinct, universal as is the being from whom it proceeds, in that revelation which speaks to us and penetrates us from the moment we are born until we die. What books can better reveal to us the goodness of God, his love, his providence, his eternity, his glory, his wisdom? ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork’.”
His best friend, professor Ferdinand Blumentritt, kept him in touch with European friends and fellow-scientists who wrote a stream of letters which arrived in Dutch, French, German and English and which baffled the censors, delaying their transmittal. Those four years of his exile coincided with the development of the Philippine Revolution from inception and to its final breakout, which, from the viewpoint of the court which was to try him, suggested his complicity in it. He condemned the uprising, although all the members of the Katipunan had made him their honorary president and had used his name as a cry for war, unity, and liberty.
In Dapitan, Rizal wrote “Haec Est Sibylla Cumana”, a parlor-game for his students, with questions and answers for which a wooden top was used. In 2004, Jean Paul Verstraeten traced this book and the wooden top, as well as Rizal’s personal watch, spoon and salter.
1894: Arrest and trial
By 1896, the rebellion fomented by the Katipunan, a militant secret society, had become a full-blown revolution, proving to be a nationwide uprising. Rizal had earlier volunteered his services as a doctor in Cuba and was given leave by Governor-General Ramón Blanco to serve in Cuba to minister to victims of yellow fever. Rizal and Josephine left Dapitan on August 1, 1896 with letter of recommendation from Blanco.
Rizal was arrested en route to Cuba via Spain and was imprisoned in Barcelona on October 6, 1896. He was sent back the same day to Manila to stand trial as he was implicated in the revolution through his association with members of the Katipunan. During the entire passage, he was unchained, no Spaniard laid a hand on him, and had many opportunities to escape but refused to do so.
While imprisoned in Fort Santiago, he issued a manifesto disavowing the current revolution in its present state and declaring that the education of Filipinos and their achievement of a national identity were prerequisites to freedom.
Rizal was tried before a court-martial for rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy, was convicted on all three charges, and sentenced to death. Blanco, who was sympathetic to Rizal, had been forced out of office. The friars, led by then Archbishop of Manila Bernardino Nozaleda, had ‘intercalated’ Camilo de Polavieja in his stead, as the new Spanish Governor-General of the Philippines after pressuring Queen-Regent Maria Cristina of Spain, thus sealing Rizal’s fate.
Moments before his execution on December 30, 1896 by a squad of Filipino soldiers of the Spanish Army, a backup force of regular Spanish Army troops stood ready to shoot the executioners should they fail to obey orders. The Spanish Army Surgeon General requested to take his pulse: it was normal. Aware of this the Sergeant commanding the backup force hushed his men to silence when they began raising “vivas” with the highly partisan crowd of Peninsular and Mestizo Spaniards. His last words were those of Jesus Christ: “consummatum est”,–it is finished.
He was secretly buried in Pacò Cemetery in Manila with no identification on his grave. His sister Narcisa toured 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 any ground burials, she made a gift to the caretaker to mark the site “RPJ”, Rizal’s initials in reverse.
His undated poem, Mi último adiós believed to be written a few days before his execution, was hidden in an alcohol stove, which was later handed to his family with his few remaining possessions, including the final letters and his last bequests. During their visit, Rizal reminded his sisters in English, “There is something inside it”, referring to the alcohol stove given by the Pardo de Taveras which was to be returned after his execution, thereby emphasizing the importance of the poem. This instruction was followed by another, “Look in my shoes”, in which another item was secreted. Exhumation of his remains in August 1898, under American rule, revealed he had been uncoffined, his burial not on sanctified ground granted the ‘confessed’ faithful, and whatever was in his shoes had disintegrated. In his letter to his family he wrote: “Treat our aged parents as you would wish to be treated…Love them greatly in memory of me…December 30, 1896.” He gave his family instructions for his burial: “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 Blumentritt – Tomorrow at 7, I shall be shot; but I am innocent of the crime of rebellion. I am going to die with a tranquil conscience. Rizal is believed to be the first Filipino revolutionary whose death is attributed entirely to his work as a writer; and through dissent and civil disobedience enabled him to successfully destroy Spain’s moral primacy to rule. He also bequeathed a book personally bound by him in Dapitan to his ‘best and dearest friend.’ When Blumentritt received it in his hometown Litoměřice (Leitmeritz) he broke down and wept.
Works and Writings
Jose Rizal wrote mostly in Spanish, the then lingua franca of scholars, though some of his letters (for example Sa Mga Kababaihang Taga Malolos) were written in Tagalog. His works have since been translated into a number of languages including Tagalog and English.
Novels and essays Noli Me Tángere, novel, 1887 (literally Latin for ‘touch me not’, from John 20:17)
El Filibusterismo, (novel, 1891), sequel to Noli Me Tángere
Mi Último Adiós, poem, 1896 (literally “My Last Farewell” )
Alin Mang Lahi” (“Whate’er the Race”), a Kundiman attributed to Dr. José Rizal
The Friars and the Filipinos (Unfinished)
Toast to Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo (Speech, 1884), given at Restaurante Ingles, Madrid
The Diaries of José Rizal
Rizal’s Letters is a compendium of Dr. Jose Rizal’s letters to his family members, Blumentritt, Fr. Pablo Pastells and other reformers
“Come se gobiernan las Filipinas” (Governing the Philippine islands)
Filipinas dentro de cien años essay, 1889-90 (The Philippines a Century Hence)
La Indolencia de los Filipinos, essay, 1890 (The indolence of Filipinos)
Makamisa unfinished novel
Sa Mga Kababaihang Taga Malolos, essay, 1889, To the Young Women of Malolos
Annotations to Antonio de Moragas, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (essay, 1889, Events in the Philippine Islands)
El filibusterismo (UP Diliman).
The Triumph of Science over Death, by Rizal.
Poetry A La Juventud Filipina
Awit ng Manlalakbay
Canto Del Viajero
Canto de María Clara
Dalit sa Paggawa
Me Piden Versos
Mi primera inspiracion
Mi Ultimo Adiós
Por La Educación (Recibe Lustre La Patria)
Sa Sanggol na si Jesus
To My Muse (A Mi Musa)
Un Recuerdo A Mi Pueblo
Plays El Consejo de los Dioses (The council of Gods)
Junto Al Pasig (Along the Pasig)
San Euistaquio, Mártyr (Saint Eustache, the martyr)
Rizal also tried his hand at painting and sculpture. His most famous sculptural work was “The Triumph of Science over Death”, a clay sculpture of a naked young woman with overflowing hair, standing on a skull while bearing a torch held high. The woman symbolized the ignorance of humankind during the Dark Ages, while the torch she bore symbolized the enlightenment science brings over the whole world. He sent the sculpture as a gift to his dear friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, together with another one named “The Triumph of Death over Life”.
The woman is shown trampling the skull, a symbol of death, to signify the victory the humankind achieved by conquering the bane of death through their scientific advancements. The original sculpture is now displayed at the Rizal Shrine Museum at Fort Santiago in Intramuros, Manila. A large replica, made of concrete, stands in front of Fernando Calderón Hall, the building which houses the College of Medicine of the University of the Philippines Manila along Pedro Gil Street in Ermita, Manila.