Tuesday, January 09, 2007

José Rizal

Never heard of him? Neither had I.

José Rizal [1861-96] is credited with starting the Independence Movement in The Philippines. He wrote a book called "Noli Me Tangere" in which he criticised the Spanish imperial regime. It was banned but became a 'cult' underground success. Later he founded a civic movement called ' La Liga Filipina' which sought reform through legal and non-violent methods. The organisation was disbanded by the Governor.

Rizal kept writing [another novel, many essays and pamphlets] until he was imprisoned in 1892 and exiled to a distant province. Whilst in exile he continued to write, but he also built a school, a hospital and a water supply system; as well as working with local farmers to introduce new crops and teach new techniques. He was finally executed in 1896 for supposedly organising an armed rebellion in Northern Luzon.

The pieces of his writing that I have seen so far are intelligent, moderate and peaceful. His status as National Hero appears to be well deserved.


Recently a religious sect has appeared called The Rizalists, they believe that Rizal was the second son of God and will return at some point to lead his children into 'the promised land'.

Rizal's final walk [from Fort Santiago to the Square where he faced the firing squad - the area is now Rizal Park] has been marked with a path of golden footprints. I saw many people 'walking the steps' of Rizal with a fervour that I found quite unsettling.

At Fort Santiago [a place which is literally soaked in history] there was much to see. Below the splendid ornamental platform overlooking the river are some particularly nasty dungeons. In WW2, when the Japanese Army took the Fort, they had the ingenious idea of putting portals into the walls so that the cells would flood with each incoming tide. They were the execution chambers. Up to 10,000 Filipino and US POW's died in the Fort.

The Fort has been in existence since the 1500's and has many more gruesome stories. However, the main attraction by far is the remains of Rizal's cell. Pilgrims, many of whom have walked his footsteps all the way back from the park, stand motionless and gaze upon the space he once inhabited.

Across the courtyard is the Rizal Shrine which includes exerts from his writings along with many artifacts - his coat, books and desk - but the prize exhibit is a piece of his bone [complete with bullet hole] enclosed in an ornamental glass urn reminiscent of the Catholic Relics. The Chapel where he spent his last hours is next door. The pavement outside was awash with flowers and people queued to peer in the doorway where I could see even more flowers.

The upper floor of the Shrine is dedicated to his final work: the poem "Mi Último Adiós" [My Last Goodbye] which he wrote in Fort Santiago and smuggled out, in an oil lamp, to his sister. It has been translated into every language I could think of [smile] and carved into stone, painted as art, engraved into metal, etc, etc... although the Tagalog version is there purely for appearances - from the moving lips of the supplicants it seemed they knew all 16 verses by heart.

From reading the exerts I got an impression of someone principled, highly educated but humble, with a heart-felt desire to 'do the right thing' and expose the injustices as he saw them.

This man was quietly brave: stoic rather than daring.
"I have sought political liberty" he said "but never the freedom to rebel"

I can't help but wonder what he would think of the cult that has arisen around his memory.

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