AS the nation marks today the 121st anniversary of the execution of Dr. Jose Rizal, I shall address this and my next column to certain aspects of Rizal’s story that are dimly seen by our public because of the curtain of reverence and repression that shadows our memory of him.
We commemorate him frequently and extol his many achievements, yet the net result of all the remembering is that Filipinos know so little of him. I have been jolted into this realization after reading and rereading several volumes on Rizal’s life and work, notably:
1. Austin Coates’ biography of Rizal,Rizal: Filipino Nationalist and Patriot (Solidaridad Publishing House, Manila, 1968)
2. The multi-volume series on Rizal published by the National Historical Commission, which I acquired in one swoop last year to fill a hole in my library.
3. Leon Maria Guerrero’s biography of Rizal, The First Filipino (National Heroes Commission, Manila, 1963).
Reading and leafing through these volumes over the year, I was astonished by how much they had to tell me about our national hero, and how the man vividly comes to life as you read them.
I can think of no better New Year’s wish for our countrymen than that they may also have the chance to read these volumes.
Vivid account of Rizal’s execution
A reading of Coates’ biography seems to me timely for this year’s commemoration of Rizal’s death anniversary. It jibes with the closing days of the year now ending.
In my estimate, the English writer, a former diplomat and British colonial official in Hong Kong, produced with his book the most informative and vivid narration of Rizal’s execution at Bagumbayan on December 30, 1896. He brings so much detail and information about that fateful day, it is like watching a documentary or cinematic reenactment of the execution.
So the reader can get the flavor of the writing, I will quote freely some paragraphs and passages from the introduction and closing chapters of thebook:
“For four months the country had been gripped by revolution. It had not yet succeeded in penetrating the capital, but in the countryside, there were widespread disturbances which theEuropeans had hitherto been unable to suppress. Today might well prove to be a turning point. Thus, the exhilarated atmosphere. The date was December 30,1896. The place was the Luneta, the extensive public park in the heart of Manila, capital of Spanish Philippines….
“The crowd was dense, and there was much jockeying for position, that police arrangements broke down and the prisoner’s military escort, which should have been behind him had to form file on either side of him, forcing its way through to the execution ground… First came the drummer. After him, flanked by two tall Spanish Jesuits inblack soutanes and shovel hats, came the lesser figure of the traitor.
“Aged thirty-five, short and slender, pale after two months in prison, he was impeccably dressed in European style, black suit, spotlessly white shirt and tie, and wearing a black derby hat…But it was not this that drew the people’s attention. It was his features and expression, and the calm dignity of his bearing…The impression the pale young man conveyed was inescapable.
* * *
“Theplace selected for the execution was some distance from the walls of Intramuros, nearly in the center of the Luneta. There,the escort having to force their way to enter it, an open square had been formed. On three sides soldiers held back the crowd. Thefourth side,the direction in which the shot would be fired,wasempty, facing the blueof Manila Bay.
“The firing squad, their back against to the sun, consisted of Filipino soldiers. Behind them stood a row of armed Spanish solders, prepared to take over and shoot the squad itself should anything go amiss.”
“Therefollowed a discussion which the crowd couldn’t hear. The Spanish captain in charge had directed Rizal where to stand, facing the sea, his back to the firing squad…He said he wished to die facing the firing squad. The captain said his orders were to shoot him in the back.Rizal replied that it was thus that traitors were shot,and he was not a traitor to Spain. The captain expressed regrets; he had his orders, and must obey them.
“Rizal was asked if he wished to kneel. He elected to die standing. He declined to be blindfolded.”
* * *
“The preparatory commands were barked out, and in the second of silence before the final order to fire, while people excitedly craned over the shoulders of others for a glimpse of the scene, Rizal,fully audible,said in a clear,steady voice,”Consummatum est.”
“A roar of fire.
“Rizal’s body jerked. For a split second, it seemed to remain upright. Then it swung round dead as it fell, and landed on its back, the sightless eyes staring at the sun.
“…A curious silence. The organized cheer of the troops. The lead given to the release of emotion. And following this, the public cheers, thecheers…The living soul of the insurrection was dead.
”As so often happens in the case of public cheering, the cheers were ill-timed. The shot which that crowd had just heard was the shot which brought the Spanish empire to an end.”
Rizal’s body goes missing
Narcisa Rizal ordered that coffin and hearse be ready on the morning of December 30 as soon as word was received that the execution had been carried out. When word came that it was over, the hearse was dispatched at once; but by the time it reached Luneta and got through the dispersing crowds, the body was gone.
The rest of the afternoon of that day, Narcisa spent her time going from cemetery to cemetery, trying without result to find her brother’s burial place. Late that afternoon when she had tried every cemetery,she happened to pass the gate of thedisused old Paco Cemetery, where she saw a group of civil guards.
There were never ground burials in this cemetery, the coffins being inserted into niches on the inner sides of the two surrounding walls. As Narcisa lookedinto the garden she saw no sign of any recent insertion.
She came upon another group of guards. Beside them, dug in one of the lawns, was freshly turned earth the length of a man. It could only be her brother’s grave.
Wisely foreseeing that it could be many years before the family could have the body exhumed and fittingly reburied, Narcisa had a plaque made with the letters RPJ on it, her brothers’ initials in reverse.
Making a gift to the cemetery guardian, Narcisa prevailed upon him to mark the site.
Mi Último Adiós
Later on that day of the execution, Rizal’s last letter, books and alcohol burner were deliveredto Narcisa’s home.
That night, someone in the family remembered Rizal’s words concerning the burner— that something would be hidden in it.
Inside, the family found a folded slip of paper. It was a copy of his last poem: Mi Último Adiós.
The importance of the poem was recognized instantly. Then and there, and far into the night,each person present made a copy. The copies were dispatched to their brother’s friends abroad, to close friends in Manila, and to the rebels in Cavite province.
Flashback to chapters of Rizal’s life
Austin Coates’ biography flashed back to all the major chapters of Rizal’s life. The biographer was thorough and unsparingin hisresearch.Some chapters and episodes were:
1.Birth and childhood in Calamba, Laguna
2.The Rizal family and the frailocracy
3. Studies at the Ateneo and UST
4. Journey to Spain and Europe
5. Life in Madrid and Berlin
6. Noli Me Tangere
7. Thepropaganda movement
8. El Filibusterismo, journey home
9. Hero’s return, arrest and deportation
10. Exile in Dapitan and Josephine Bracken
12. Trial and Execution
13. Mi Último Adiós
In two of his final chapters, Coates turned his focus on the controversy about Rizal’s retraction of freemasonry and his return to the Catholic faith. The debate rages to this day.
I shall devote my next column to the Rizal retraction controversy.