In the early morning of December 30, 1896, 35 year old Jose' Rizal, an indio with strong oriental features but the bearing of a western intellectual, wearing a black suit and hat, stood erect and calm in an open field by Manila Bay. Ministering to him were two Jesuit priests. Wanting to be master of his own execution, he refused to kneel and be blindfolded. He asked to face the firing squad but was forced by the officer in charge to turn his back. A military doctor took his pulse. It was, strangely, normal. At 7:03 the bark of bullets rent the air. Rizal fell, and so, virtually, did Spanish colonial rule.
Born on the island of Luzon on June 19, 1861, Rizal studied under the Jesuits and then at the Dominican University of Santo Tomas, also in Manila. In 1882 he left the Philippines ostensibly for further medical studies abroad, but principally in pursuit of some vague political objective.
Something of a genius, Rizal was an unlikely political activist. He had been trained as an ophthalmic surgeon by leading specialists in Paris, Heidelberg, and Berlin. At heart, however, he was an artist and a poet, and by conscious choice a scholar, historian, researcher, and prolific writer. He wrote in Spanish, Tagalog, German, French, Englisg, and Italian and spoke a few other modern languages. In addition, he knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The references in his writings to Cervantes, Schiller, Shakespeare, and Dante are evidence of his broad humanistic interests and worldwide perspectives. Through Ferdinand Blumentritt, an Austrian scholar and personal friend, Rizal came in contact with leading European intellectuals and was admitted into two learned societies in Berlin.
The Enlightenment and Liberalism
No sooner had Rizal arrived in Madrid for studies in medicine than he was recognized as a leader by the Philippino students at the University of Madrid who were determined to work for reforms in their country. Enthusiastically reading Voltaire and the Enlightenment thinkers, Rizal took to the "Rights of Man" proclaimed by the French Revolution and to the new liberalism sweeping Spain, which had long been sheltered from the intellectual currents of the rest of Europe.
His first political advocacy was for the assimilation of the Philippines as a province of Spain. In a landmark speech, Rizal called Spain and the Philippines "dos Pueblos", two peoples, of equal standing and equal rights---a radical idea in 1884. This position angered the Spanish community in Manila and marked Rizal as a filibustero, a subversive. He also advocated a program liberal reforms that included two proposals for immediate implementation: freedom of the press and representation in the Spanish parlament.
The frequent objects of Rizal's caustic attacks were the "friars", namely, the Augustinians, the Recollects, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans. They opposed the advancement of the native secular clergy, whose leaders, Fathers Burgos, Gomez, and Zamorra were garrotted in 1872 for alleged complicity in a mutiny at the Cavite shipyards. Rizal accused these religious of encouraging superstition and of turning mercantile in their ministry. They had, he thought, prevented the teaching of Spanish (by which the indios could have learned new ideas), had exercised control on government officials, and had stopped progress and the intrusion of every liberal idea.
In the end, however, Rizal became convinced that the only viable solution for the Philippines was independence form Spain. He did not forsee this happening soon, but thought the Philippinos should loose no time in preparing for it with determination. These ideas were to find stark and vivid expression in his two novels. What Victor Hugo did for les miserables of France and Charles Dickens did for the wretched of London, Rizal wanted to do for the poor and oppressed of his own country. In 1887 his first novel, Noli Me Tangere, was published by a small...