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Mining the past




Gemma Cruz Araneta

Gemma Cruz Araneta

Don’t you wonder why the history of many of our towns starts during Spanish colonial times and not earlier? Undeniably, the majority did originate from the “reducciones” where lowland Christianized natives were obliged to live, the tolling of church bells within their hearing and under the protection of Catholic deities. Things were vastly different in highland areas and territories of sultanates where the Spanish colonial government met fierce resistance.  Names of some pre-colonial communities have persisted as attachments to Catholic nomenclature, but today these are nothing more than waning echoes of the past.  San Pedro Tunasan and Santa Ana de Sapa come to mind; sadly, Tunasan is fading and there is no memory of Sapa.

Opening the book of the past is a delightfully easy task these days, but not so during the time of Jose Rizal. Pre-colonial material was scarce and could be gleaned only from “time of contact” information gathered and compiled by 16thcentury missionaries who were busy Christianizing natives to save their souls and transform them into subjects of the King of Spain. At 18, Rizal wrote a short play where the Devil was tempting a young lad with descriptions of how dazzling life was before the Spaniards came to conquer. Rizal put those subversive words in Satan’s mouth for obvious reasons. So, I think it is not fair to say that Jose Rizal and his batch of ilustrados were interested only in things European and Spanish because they wanted to be little brown Spaniards.

That was not the case, especially not with Jose Rizal. He would not have written to Ferdinand Blumentritt, in German, on 31 July 1886, if he were not searching for the past of his native land.  Apparently, he came across Blumentritt’s paper on the Tiruray so he sent the latter Rufino Baltazar Hernandez’s book, Aritmetica, a bi-lingual publication (Tagalog and Spanish) of the Colegio de Santo Tomas, in 1868. “Having heard that Your Lordship is studying our language and that you have already published some works on the subject, I take the liberty of sending you this valuable book…” His first letter to Blumentritt was very formal and only two sentences long.  They finally met on 13 May 1887, it was a Friday. The Austrian scholar from Leitmeritz introduced Rizal to eminent European scholars like Meyer, Jagor, Kern, Rost, and Virchow, specialists on Asia, Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. They shed light on an almost obscure Philippine past. A voracious reader, Rizal studied Meyer’s work on the Igorrotes, Virchow and Jagor’s works on Malays and Malayan languages and Jagor and Blumentritt’s articles on Mindanao.

I think it was Blumentritt who first told Rizal about Antonio de Morga in a letter dated 17 November 1886: “You will like Berlin, it is a city that offers an infinity of things to a man avid for pleasure as well as to the scholar… in the Royal Library (not in the University Library), there is found a large number of old books about the Philippines that the German poet A. von Chamisso bought in Manila and brought to Germany 60 years ago. Among them is a copy of Morga which is very rare…” However, Rizal found Morga in the British Museum and in a letter from London written on 18 August 1881, Rizal told Blumentritt: “ I am now very busy with Morga. I am planning to copy the entire work and present a new edition to the public, especially the Filipino public.”

He copied it my hand, annotating it conscientiously.  Blumentritt had encouraged him to write a history of the Philippines but Rizal felt he did not have the bibliographical resources to do so, or the energy to embark on such a monumental project. The next best thing was to annotate a layman and public official’s work like Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1604); Jose Rizal was mining the past.


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