Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

by
Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

 
Consoler of the Banished Rizal

The news of the arrest and banishment of his friend must have affected the Blumentritt family very much. "My whole household is despondent. We received the news of your banishment or deportation to the south of the archipelago. The news shocked us very much; my wife, Loleng, Fritz and Conradino turned pale because they imagined how the police tormented you." Thus writes Blumentritt on July 12,1892. After the first shock subsided, however, the professor immediately thinks of how to help and of words of consolation: "And do not forget, if you have embittered enemies, then you have true friends as well, who will do everything, which law and honor will make possible, in order to give your freedom back to you ... may the Holy Virgin take you under her protection ... "

In this tragic situation for his friend, Blumentritt comes to the fore again: He sets to work with the talent of an organizer. At this time, Rizal needs not only friendship, contact and goodwill. He also needs activity for his multifarious talents; he must get the feeling that his existence has not been senseless and useless, above all, that he has not been forgotten by the world.

Blumentritt mobilizes the Orientalists, the Asian researchers, the philologists and linguists of entire Europe and even of the United States; later, ethnologists, botanists, zoologists join the group because soon Rizal busies himself with the world of Mindanao, which was unfamiliar to him, and its natural resources and tribes. Thus soon and in continuous succession, letters and books go from Talisay, the farm on which Rizal is living, not only to Leitmeritz but also to Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Stuttgart, to Madrid and Vienna, to Paris and Leiden, to London and Washington and from there back to Dapitan. Rizal is not forgotten, not lost, the international sympathy which Blumentritt furnishes him makes Rizal bear the banishment easier.

Again and again, Blumentritt complains that many of his letters remain unanswered. He remarks, not without humor, that the "anays" (white ants) probably eat the letters. And already, Blumentritt doubts that his friend receives his letters at all. "I am hoping, because even the Turks allow their exiles to receive mail, and since the Spaniards are not Turks and are always talking about their generosity and noblesse and other qualities, I cannot imagine that they have confiscated my letters ..." In the same letter, Blumentritt requests his friend to write a Tagalog Grammar, since up to then, all relevant works had been written by friars who were not natives and moreover were not as versed linguistically as Rizal.

On account of the censor, Blumentritt did not risk hinting on subjects, which could be construed as political. After some time, the friends correspond in Spanish and give up German so that the correspondence will not be delayed by lengthy censorship. In the end, they avoid the usual salutation of "brother" in order to avoid the suspicion of free masonry. For all that, the friends, who for years have been accustomed to exchanging a letter almost weekly, succeeded in having merely 28 letters and greeting cards go in both directions in the more than 4 years of exile of Rizal and up to his death.

Rizal gives a vivid account of his life in exile: "I want to tell you how I live here. I have a square house, a hexagonal house and an octagonal house - all made of bamboo, wood and palm leaves. My mother, my sister Trinidad, my nephew and I live in the quadratic house. In the octagonal house live my "boys", the lads whom I teach Mathematics, Spanish and English - and sometimes a patient, on whom I have just operated. The chickens are lodged in the hexagonal house; I hear the murmuring of the crystal-clear waterfall which plunges down from the boulder. I can see the seashore, the sea, in which I have two small boats, barotos, as these canoes are called here. I have many fruit trees, I have rabbits, dogs, cats. I wake up early - at 5 o'clock, I take a look at my fields, feed the chickens, then I wake up my people and we start working. At 7:30, there is breakfast - tea, cookies, cheese, sweets, etc. Then I treat my poor patients. I get dressed and go to the city in my little cart. I treat the people there and return at 2:00 for lunch. In the afternoon, I give the boys lessons up to 4:00 and spend the rest of the day in the fields. The evenings I spend reading and studying ... " [See Rizals letter to Blumentritt]

The versatile Rizal familiarizes himself quickly with life in exile. He says, he was one fourth farmer, one fourth merchant, one fourth physician and one fourth teacher. He collects shellfish, insects, butterflies, reptiles and plants and thereby discovers a lot of new species. Soon several specimens carry the designation "Rizali" after their discoverer in the technical catalogue. Rizal begins a shell collection which soon reaches 200 pieces provided with names and detailed descriptions. He expands his economic activity through coffee plantations, cacao trees, a coconut plantation of 4,000 trees. He helps the hemp farmers of his village establish a union so that they can avoid exploitation by the Chinese middle man. Rizal starts work, as promised Blumentritt, on his Tagalog grammar and learns alongside the dialects of the Mindanao tribes in his near environs. He organizes the construction of a dam, constructs a simple machine for the manufacture of sun-dried bricks and, on his initiative, builds roads.

From his accounts, one can gather that Rizal had a peaceful and contented life in exile. Yet unrest does not leave him. He misses his friends, the political activity, the books of which he had only a few with him. Later, he shall find his happiness, though late, in the Irish Josephine Bracken, who shall stay faithful to him up to his death. But Blumentritt remains his best mainstay, the strongest hinge that binds him to the outside world and with the past. "Tu solus fidelis reminisceris mei!" ("You alone, true friend remember me.") Rizal writes thanking him for the New Year s greetings from the Blumentritt family - "They came to me like the fragrant breeze from the pine forest. I saw the circular plaza (in Leitmeritz) again, where we a ate supper, the senior grammar school ... I see the sun, the old cabinet, the old porcelain and the beautiful crockery and I ask myself: Was everything not just a dream?"

There was often no mail for months. The friends do not know if the other one was still alive. Should something arrive, however, then Rizal goes into raptures: "Yesterday was a holiday for us poor residents of Talisay. Your letter and postcard were read, read aloud, shown and admired. My pupils cannot understand at all how a German who has never been in Spain can write Spanish so well ... Your letter, like a distant voice of friendship inspired us with courage, for a time we forgot our troubles, just thinking of all of you, my good unforgettable friends."

Soon, however, the brief happiness is once again replaced by despondency: "My exile has already lasted so long that I am beginning to give up hope of seeing myself free again. Everyone agrees with me that my lot is undeserved, yet I am held here!"

The death of Dr. Rost, the librarian of the British Museum and the London Foreign Office who belonged to the close circle of friends of the Philippines and Blumentritt, is a new blow to Rizal: "Now I have only you who will never leave me, perhaps the only one who has the courage to call himself my friend," Rizal writes to Leitmeritz. And how great his joy is v.hen a reply comes from there: "You cannot imagine our joy when we received the lines which our esteemed Rizal wrote. The whole family stood around me, we discussed every word that you wrote and emptied a glass to your health ... "

But soon Blumentritt must complain again that he has heard nothing from his friend for months: "I do not know if you are still alive and how they are treating you. I prefer to ascribe your silence again to the termites which eat up our own letters ..."

[Austrian-Philippine WebSite] [Culture and History]
[Rizal-Blumentritt Friendship] [Up]
created: March 28, 1998
updated: March 28, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger