December 30 is Rizal Day (Araw ng Kabayanihan ni Dr. Jose Rizal in Tagalog) in the Philippines, for the execution that date in 1896 of the great martyr of Philippine independence.
At Jose Rizal’s birth in 1861, it had been 340 years since Magellan had reached (and died at) the Philippines under the Spanish flag.
In Rizal’s century of romantic nationalism, independence movements stirred abroad in the Spanish Empire … too weak yet in the Philippines and elsewhere during the mid-1800s, but unmistakably prefiguring those national destinies that this day’s victim would come to embody.
Oddly, Jose Rizal was not even the most “revolutionary” of his farming family’s 11 children. That distinction went to older brother Paciano, who was under an official cloud before Jose hit adolescence for his relationship with the Gomburza priests, and would later serve as a brigadier general in the revolutionary army of Emilio Aguinaldo.
Jose was less strident — and more brilliant.
Though reputedly an adept fencer and crack shot with a pistol, the renaissance man’s gifts ran more to the life of the mind.
At the Universidad Central de Madrid, the University of Paris, and the University of Heidelberg, Jose Rizal studied ophthalmology and anthropology, and pursued the variegated artistic interests of his youth.
His two novels published from Europe, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo*, both criticized colonial authorities and their Vatican adjutants and struck nationalist chords that put him on the Spanish government’s watch list.
“I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land! You, who have it to see, welcome it — and forget not those who have fallen during the night!” -From Noli Me Tangere
Rizal also penned essays and editorials in a less symbolic vein, like this one skewering the stereotype of the lazy native by turning the mirror upon colonial agents who were waiting to prey on the fruit of native labor:
How is it strange, then, that discouragement may have been infused into the spirit of the inhabitants of the Philippines, when … they did not know whether they would see sprout the seed they were planting, whether their field was going to be their grave or their crop would go to feed their executioner? What is there strange in it, when we see the pious but impotent friars of that time trying to free their poor parishioners from the tyranny of the encomenderos by advising them to stop work in the mines, to abandon their commerce, to break up their looms, pointing out to them heaven for their whole hope, preparing them for death as their only consolation?
Man works for an object. Remove the object and you reduce him to inaction The most active man in the world will fold his arms from the instant he understands that it is madness to bestir himself, that this work will be the cause of his trouble, that for him it will be the cause of vexations at home and of the pirate’s greed abroad. It seems that these thoughts have never entered the minds of those who cry out against the indolence of the Filipinos.
(This essay and both novels are available in the original Spanish and in English at gutenberg.org, along with various translations of Rizal’s various fiction and non-fiction work.)
Fire-eating stuff in the eyes of the Spanish crown, but Rizal wasn’t the bomb-throwing type himself.
As the Philippine Revolution that would break the Spanish yoke on the islands took shape in the summer of 1896, Rizal applied to go to Spanish Cuba to treat victims of the yellow fever, and even explicitly disavowed the revolution.
Countrymen: I have given proofs, as well as the best of you, of desiring liberty for our country, and I continue to desire it. But I place as a premise the education of the people, so that by means of instruction and work they may have a personality of their own and that they may make themselves worthy of that same liberty. In my writings I have recommended the study of the civic virtues, without which there can be no redemption. I have also written (and my words have been repeated) that reforms, to be fruitful, must come from _above_, that those which spring from _below_ are uncertain and insecure movements. Imbued with these ideas, I cannot do less than condemn, and I do condemn, this absurd, savage rebellion, planned behind my back, which dishonors the Filipinos and discredits those who can speak for us. I abominate all criminal actions and refuse any kind of participation in them, pitying with all my heart the dupes who have allowed themselves to be deceived. Go back, then, to your homes, and may God forgive those who have acted in bad faith.
This stance on the revolution — the fact that he thought and wrote but never struck a blow — has engendered some controversy over the rightfulness of Rizal’s place in the national pantheon, as has his anti-clericalism and a disputed Vatican claim that Rizal retracted his criticisms of the Church before his death. One Spanish contemporary called Rizal “the Tagalog Hamlet.”
But mostly he is seen as the Spanish government at the time saw him, and as many revolutionaries did as well: as the lodestar of the Philippines’ national aspirations.
Rizal was arrested en route to his humanitarian assignment in Cuba and returned to Manila to face trial for sedition, rebellion and conspiracy, by which point, of course, the verdict was quite preordained. He was shot in the back by a firing squad, uttering the Christ-like last words “consummatum est” — “it is finished.”
Rizal’s execution, and the events preceding it, are depicted in this long excerpt of a 1998 film:
Jose Rizal’s execution.
* A filibuster is a private military expedition, and more typically associated with Anglo American campaigns against the Spanish-speaking lands to the south, like those of William Walker.