Embracing the sĕlĕsîlah: José Rizal and the Moro

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First of two parts
Writing on Dr. José Rizal is always fraught with complications (and danger). A hundred-million strong souls are riding the coattails of his cult, never mind the billion more lives he had touched all over the globe. Dare to veer off the bromidic path, and you find your face splattered with egg for every perceived miscue. Most of these later adulations (and worship) are for form’s sake though, after all how many among the Ragnarok-addled youth of today could endure a chapter or two of the Noli or the Fili? Yet in 1999 while castrated in his prison cell, Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim read the twin tome twice over. Given the short fuse of today’s youth, let us bleed out an as yet unexplored dimension of Rizal’s brief but productive life, if only to sidestep the monotony of the narratives proffered like recycled Christmas décor unrolled from last year’s hoard whenever his death anniversary comes along.

So what had the good doctor said on anything, anything at all—about the Moro? Right, google all you can till you drop, and what do you get? Nada? If you dug one, you won’t be the first. Chances are, Rizal aficionados, the likes of Ambeth Ocampo, would already have jumped on the opportunity mining it 24/7 without let for what it’s worth.

The trouble with Rizal was that he was trying to accomplish so many things at the same time that he was so spread thin all over the place. Such was the bane and boon of his genius. After some soul-searching, when he finally realized that he was about to be executed, in a last ditch to save his skin, in a defense addressed to the Court Martial on the charges of sedition foisted on him, he stated: “…If I still had had intentions of political activity, I might have gotten away even in the vintas of the Moros whom I knew in the settlements…”

RIZAL IN LANAO José Rizal has the distinction of having a monument erected in his honor in Lanao del Sur (1925) as the only one allowed by the ultraconservative Muslim society of the province. This picture was taken by the author barely a month before the Mauté-Isis siege on Marawi. The fate of the monument from ground-zero is still unknown as of this writing.

If this isn’t an eye-opener, we can’t know what a can-opener is. Yet, to this very day, it remained uncommented upon, a footnote hibernating the last hundred and twenty years or so. This is outrageous because an image to promote the national hero to the Moro population was rolled out on December 28, 1907 in the front cover of the satirical weekly Lipang Kalabaw, where it was depicted that Rizal was ministering to the health needs of Moro boys while he was in exile in Dapitan. Whether these children were Christianized Moros was not clear. But it doth not matter. The point is, attempts were made to make Rizal palatable to the intractable Moro.


Despite the close monitoring of Rizal’s movement by the agents of the dreaded Cuerpo de Vigilancia, his clientele base was seemingly broad. Among Rizal’s notable patients was Josefa “Inday” Roa, “who had a congenital disease that made her blind later in childhood.” Josefa who came all the way from Cagayan de Misamis was one of four children of the couple Pedro Roa [circa 1874-]and Luciana Chavez.

Another patient of Rizal was Paz Corrales, who was brought to Dapitan for eye treatment. Paz’s sister was a wife of Antonio Montalvan, Sr., whose son, Montalvan, Jr., was married to Mercedes Roa.

These persons were not just clients: they were family. Not all Rizal’s patients were random strangers. The first member of Rizal’s clan to ever marry into the Sampurnas was Filomeno Mercado when he was wedded to Consolacion Neri. Filomeno was a son of Gregorio Fernando Mercado [circa 1820-]and Remegia Abarientos. Since Gregorio was a full-blood sibling to Francisco Mercado [1818-], Filomeno was José Rizal’s first cousin. On the other hand, Consolacion Neri was a daughter of Juan Tapa (Mustapa) Neri and Anastacia Chavez, a granddaughter of Putrí Apao (Baì Princesa) a downline of Têngku Bésar sa Oatu or Tun Bésar Rajâ di Laut. Then a cross-clan marriage happened when a sister of Filomeno, Cresencia Mercado [circa 1843], married Pedro Neri [circa 1841-]. This Pedro Neri was a son of Graciano Neri [1821-] and Dominga San José. Graciano, in turn, was a son of Salvador Neri, the Gobernadorcillo [1831-1832], hence a Sampurna by way of Putrí sa Talakag (Baì Felipa). (For the full-blown genealogy, wait for the publication of the first volume of the Monsoon Riders series by the author)

We know that the Neris and the Roas of Cagayan de Misamis (and in extension the Chavez and Corrales) were descended from the Rajânate of Tagoloan—the Sampurnas that hark back to an Indic royalty, and later converted to a sultanate. Even though they had been baptized into Catholicism, they had not broken ties with their kin, a network which extended west of the northern coastal regions of Mindanao, rounding the cul-de-sac of Pangil Bay and all the way to the open waters of Sindangan of the Subanŭn. In fact, even as late as World War II, a few of the Neris and the Roas took refuge in the highlands of Balo-i, Talakag, and the fastness of Lanao, some of them hosted by the Alonto clan.

So, when Rizal alluded to the Moro he “knew,” was it because all the while he had been slipped in some surreptitious messages by his clients, offering him an avenue for escape? To the Spanish authorities, Rizal’s last plea at argument were nothing but the drowning gasps of a man clutching at straws.

Perhaps, on another turn, Rizal’s eventual meeting with Hadji Ali Butu Abdul Baqui of Sulu was the more plausible one. Hadji Butu was born in 1865. Yet despite his youth, he was already a veteran at the negotiating table to the jealousy of the more mature would-be candidates in the court of the Sulu Sultanate. Bhutu was only sixteen when Sultan Badar ud-Din II, after succeeding Sultan Jamal ul- Alam, took him in his wing as his prime minister. Bhutu’s command of Arabic and Islamic jurisprudence gave him a decidedly overwhelming advantage over his peers.

When Rizal was exiled in Dapitan in 1892, that very year, Hadji Butu was sent by the then current Sulu Sultan Harun Al-Raschid to troubleshoot some land disputes in Sandakan with the British government. Upon learning that Rizal was negotiating with the British his establishing of a Filipino colony in Sabah, Butu, fully aware of the plight of the people of Calamba (who, of a sudden, found themselves dispossessed of their lands by the Dominicans), had no second thoughts in offering his services. Rizal’s mission was deemed a success: he was granted to settle on Sungai Ben Koka in Marudu. The British was willing to give the Filipino colonist a hundred-thousand acres of land free of tithe for the next 999 years. Little did Rizal know that he would actually be living among the Iranūn from Mindanao and Sulu.

Sharief is an Asian genealogist, whose forthcoming book, Vol. 1 of 7 of his Monsoon Riders Series, is due for publication in 2018, from which some material in this article was taken. He had been a contributor of feature articles in the Moro Times (published by The Manila Times) in 2007-2008, and wrote fiction for the Sunday issues of The Manila Times. Read his blog: onmaranao.blogspot.com, a celebration and pilgrimage into the culture and arts of the Ranaū-Iranūn of Southeast Asia.

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