Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

by
Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

 
Church Tax for Locusts

How the farmers experienced the rule of the clergy in practice is shown in a letter of Rizal's brother-in-law, Manuel Hidalgo,which Rizal transmitted to Blumentritt. It is reported how, on the occasion of a locusts plague, the clergy condemned the insects and blessed the sugar cane fields for a fee of four pesos per family. Of course, the locusts were not eliminated, but instead multiplied in such a manner that the farmers resorted to the old "impious" methods of striking the plague-spirits dead.

When there is a "fiesta", the statue of the Holy Virgin is carried through the village under the direction of the priest, the police chief, and the army commander. The priest collects all the money that he can manage to get hold of, with the remark that this or that saint would transfer to the next village. Should the farmers complain that they needed the money for the tax collector, then the friars would explain that he who has done his obligation to God would not fear anything from the side of the state. But when the time comes for paying taxes, the farmers often have to give up what is left of their harvest and go hungry.

The flower festival is celebrated every year in May in the province of Batangas. The young girls have to pay the priest five to six pesos daily for every floral offering to the statue of the Virgin Mary. Each member of the parish has to pay a fixed amount for the holy mass, for the ringing of the church bells, for the blessings, for the preaching and so forth. "By this means, the curate collects some two thousand pesos in the month of May alone. The fee for a wedding has been raised from four to seven pesos, the charges for a funeral from one to four pesos, for baptism, from three to ten pesos. The school teachers donate amply to the priest in order to retain their positions; the parents, on the other hand, donate to the teachers so their children will get good grades. Thus the vicious circle of corruption and bribery is perpetrated." Thus writes Rizal's brother-in-law.

In his sharpest attack by then against the clergy, Rizal attempts to explain to his friend the reasons for his fight against the friars by admitting the possibility of having cast the stone with such energy that it hit religion as it went past the heads of the friars. Of course the priests use religion not only as shield but also as weapon, fort, citadel, and armor. And in order to attack those who are hiding behind religion, it was necessary to attack the false religion as well: "They misuse the name of religion for some pesos. They cry 'religion' to carry off innocent girls, "religion" in order to secure an interest, "religion" in order to ruin the tranquility of the maniage and of the family, if not perhaps the respectability of the women. How should I not oppose this religion with all my might, when it is the first cause of our sufferings and sorrows ... Christ did the same with the religion of His land, when the Pharises misused it."

No doubt Blumentritt has to concede a few days later: "My brother, unfortunately your remarks about the misuse of religion are well-aimed and correct. In the same way are men lead astray by precious gold and exquisite diamonds to deviate from the path of virtue: the greatest crimes have been committed in the name of religion." Blumentritt asks indignantly whether the Spanish world is made solely of fanatics, lunatics, ignoramuses, braggarts, and corrupt men. And in anticipation of new attacks from one of the friars: "Perhaps he will choose as subject "Apage satanas" (Yield, Satan!) But they will not get off without an answer.

Blumentritt's disillusionment rises to indignation and bitterness, when he learns of the harassment and persecution of the Rizal family by the friars. Rizal's piece of land was on an hacienda of the Dominicans in Calamba. A dispute lasting for years about the lease taxes led to the Rizals being ejected from their house. They were driven out, the furniture put out on to the street. Rizal's old mother was arrested on petty grounds, and while under arrest had to march for hours in the heat with a police escort; and with police and military assistance, the house of a friend of the Rizals was set on fire by order of the Dominicans. Families passed the night out in the open; the Dominicans forbade the neighbors to take them in.

Blumentritt is disconcerted; he takes the destiny of his friend to heart. But he does not acquiesce, on the contrary, he immediately thinks of an international enlightenment campaign in the newspapers. "One must tell the whole world, how inhumanly, how barbarously, the most sacred human rights are being trampled down upon, under the banner of religion and of Spain." He quotes the Italian Caducci: "How long, Lord, would the brazen pack make fun of the sacred; theology in spirit and meanness in the heart! ' However it may be, one must not lose heart.

Once again he speaks about the sufferings of his friend's family: "They cry out to heaven above for vengeance. This occasion must be used to show the European and American world the injustice and harshness of the Philippine government." He leaves no doubt about his not being broken and his pursuing the fight: "I am now working on a second article which the friars will like even less. And there too, I am pulling down the masks from their faces."

The friars know no other way of helping themselves than by defamation and false reports. They spread, as Rizal tells his friend, the rumor that Blumentritt has realized his "mistake" and has gone over to the side of the friars; that he will discontinue his polemics.

Blumentritt is amused and at the same time furious. The friars are either very stupid or they presume the stupidity of the Filipinos when they give themselves the pleasure of portraying me as a deserter. It is actually very sad for us to have to fight against such stupid enemies. On the other hand, it is fortunate for the Philippine cause that the friars have only intriguers and not men of talent, Blumentritt says. Almost all of the libelous reports which the friars have written so far are rubbish. Instead of helping their own cause, publications of that kind would only be detrimental to them. "I have not failed to devote eve free moment of my time to the Philippines . . . We must not lose ourage, because God only helps him, who helps himself ..."

Rizal cannot forget the Calamba incidents. "Every time I hear the wretched stories of the poor peasants from whom the Dominican friars took everything - homes, rice, household effects; mother and children left behind weeping, I think of the poor Estanislava, who, sick as she was, and with four little children, took up the fight against the priest, the soldiers and Spaniards during the absence of her husband. After that she lay seriously injured in bed for many days, but she kept her house and rice for her children.

Rizal, however, tells about other friars, like one of his former teachers, a Dominican too, who condemned the incidents in Calamba and even defended Rizal's books. That is raw barbarism, Rizal quotes the priest, the deed in Calamba is that of a mad man. In the end, the Archbishop also expressed his disapproval publicly, and swore that he had nothing to do with it; that the order to drive away the peasants came from the Monastery. Of course the matter does not end there. Rizal says in his letter, quoting Shakespeare's Macbeth: "Here is still the smell of blood; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand!"

With difficult inner conflicts, the good Catholic Blumentritt - who remained that up to the end of his life - arrives at a new view of the role of the church and the friars in the Philippines. For Rizal, the venture to enlighten his friend was the longest, most difficult but also most successful process of persuasion in his life, in the judgement of the British biographer of Rizal, Austin Coates. The greatest and only serious barrier between them was thereby removed. Misgivings were cleared away; henceforth, they would truly become one heart and one spirit; a pair of brothers. The development of Blumentritt from a purely academic researcher and ethnologist to an indefatigable, extremely well-informed and most eminent champion of the Philippine cause began.

If anything at all, Blumentritt gave himself nothing but troubles. Again and again he complained about his state of health to his friend: "Got up from the sick bed just today, caught quite a cold and suffered a hoarse throat: This ailment was terrible for me, because, on account of it I was prevented from indulging in my vice, smoking ... I am altogether a complete wreck, half blind and nervous, and more than anything else, prone to colds. With fervent longing I am already looking forward to summer. That is the only season during which I feel very well. Unfortunately, our summer is quite short."

After the weather has improved, he immediately says cheerfully that he could now take up his vice again: "I am now frequently taking walks again, because, fortunately for me, we have sun and warmth. I feel very well and I am smoking again, one cigar a day. The first cigar which I smoked was a Philippine cigar. The Compañ ía General de Tabacos de Filipinas has an agreement with the Austrian government about Philippine tobacco being sold in some cities under certain conditions. Luckily, Leitmeritz is one of these cities."

Yet sooner, he complains once again: "On Tuesday, I developed such congestions around the head that I thought it was the end of me. I am all tired and sluggish because for weeks I have not gone anywhere else but to lectures. My head is aching too, and I can sleep only very little."

Another time, Blumentritt tells his friend that his wife and children are sick with colds and, more than it, his youngest son has swallowed an apricot stone. His inability to work must have been the worst trial for a restless spirit. "I am still not in a condition to work with my head," he complains after a rather long illness. "I look out of the window like an idler, an intelligent activity. Your invalid friend." Blumentritt fears 'hat his lungs are not as healthy as they have been before. Of course their family doctor laughs at him about this, but he is not deceiving himself.

Thus, for the same reason, it becomes clear why Blumentritt never travelled far. Once he cancelled a possible meeting with Rizal, because "my nerves would not be able to stand the flurries of a long train ride." And a former female student of his says that the professor "suffered very much from seasickness and had become seasick even on a steamer on the Elbe."

However, in his good days, Blumentritt seemed, along with his passion for smoking, not averse at all to drinking a full glass of wine. "This morning, when I woke up with a terrible hangover (I went drinking yesterday), the mailman brought me your dear letter ..." he writes. And if it was a question of corresponding with his friend, Blumentritt was even willing to set aside his professional duties, as for instance, when he hoped for bad weather when they had a school excursion: "I hope it will rain tomorrow, then I shall write you a long letter. Therefore, rain, rain, rain ..."

Blumentritt is active as a chronicler too. We learn about a big flood in Bohemia, "of a terrible inundation", which made the Elbe rise to 6.72 meters above the normal level. "The environs of Leitmeritz are like a lake; several villages under water, the misfortune is great," the letter says, "and the Karlsbrücke (Karls bridge) in Prague is partially destroyed, including its exquisite statues that resisted successfully for 500 years the impact of the waves of the Moldau river."

In a correspondence about the different national cuisines, Rizal is glad that the Bohemian cuisine is quite like the Philippine cuisine, in contrast to the cuisines of the neighboring countries in the north: "We are really up to our ears with their food and are tired of the Northern German cuisine, which spoils our stomachs . . ." Instead of wine, he prefers drinking water and beer in the restaurants in order to adapt himself to the local taste and not to attract attention.

When Rizal plans to bring more Philippine students to Europe, he gets Blumentritt's advice regarding expenses and accommodation. 'Students who have a private residence, but take their meals in a restaurant live more expensively than the ones who take their meals with their landlords. And if some live, as they did in Manila, that is, vive en republica, then, naturally, the expenses will become cheaper. Among the Filipinos, as among our Italians, who are not tavern people, life is anyway cheaper; they live more frugally ..." And it would just be very like the precise and thorough Blumentritt to promise to draw up complete lists of such expenses.

The friends exchange little presents. Blumentritt sends Rizal a photograph of the children. He had Loleng photographed while wearing the Philippine lace collar. Rizal reciprocates with a packet of cigarettes and dried Philippine flowers as well as with an unusual hand-made lighter, to which he attaches the directions for use in a drawing. Blumentritt is pleased with the flowers from the land which he loves. He immediately learns their Tagalog names and shows the lighter as a curiosity to the Physics professor in the school.

The friends tell each other even about their dreams, which naturally, revolved around their subsequent meeting or Blumentritt's visit to the Philippines. "Day before yesterday, I dreamt that I was in Calamba and living in your house." Blumentritt writes. "Your mother brought me a cup of coffee and then I chatted with Paciano. The dream was very vivid. Our farmers used to say that the souls of sleeping people visit each other."

Rizal dreams likewise, about the visit of his friend to the Philippines. But the dream was not as beautiful as yours ... I was furious, because the wine, the bread and other European food were forgotten and you could not eat anything. I told the servants: What will the Professor say about our hospitality when he returns to Europe one day ... ?"

Of course, Blumentritt knew that he would have felt happy in Rizal's house. For him, the dreams were an expression of a melancholic certainty that his wish would never come true.

"It would perhaps be my greatest luck if I could see the Philippines, but I doubt very much whether it would ever come true ... I am a fatalist in many matters. And thus I think that we shall not see each other again on this earth." As a consolation for Blumentritt, this prophecy of his does come true:" And if it should not happen, then I still know that my heart and my name shall live in the Philippines!"

"Students who have a private residence, but take their meals in; restaurant live more expensively than the ones who take their meal with their landlords. And if some live, as they did in Manila, that is vive en republica, then, naturally, the expenses will become cheaper Among the Filipinos, as among our Italians, who are not tavern people, life is anyway cheaper; they live more frugally ..." And it would just be very like the precise and thorough Blumentritt to promise to draw up complete lists of such expenses.

The friends exchange little presents. Blumentritt sends Rizal a photograph of the children. He had Loleng photographed while wearing the Philippine lace collar. Rizal reciprocates with a packet of cigarettes and dried Philippine flowers as well as with an unusual hand-made lighter, to which he attaches the directions for use in a drawing. Blumentritt is pleased with the flowers from the land which he loves. He immediately learns their Tagalog names and shows the lighter as a curiosity to the Physics professor in the school.

The friends tell each other even about their dreams, which naturally, revolved around their subsequent meeting or Blumentritt's visit to the Philippines. "Day before yesterday, I dreamt that I was in Calamba and living in your house." Blumentritt writes. "Your mother brought me a cup of coffee and then I chatted with Paciano. The dream was very vivid. Our farmers used to say that the souls of sleeping people visit each other."

Rizal dreams likewise, about the visit of his friend to the Philippines. But the dream was not as beautiful as yours ... I was furious, because the wine, the bread and other European food were forgotten and you could not eat anything. I told the servants: What will the Professor say about our hospitality when he returns to Europe one day ...?"

Of course, Blumentritt knew that he would have felt happy in Rizal s house. For him, the dreams were an expression of a melancholic certainty that his wish would never come true.

"It would perhaps be my greatest luck if I could see the Philippines, but I doubt very much whether it would ever come true ... I am a fatalist in many matters. And thus I think that we shall not see each other again onthis earth." As a consolation for Blumentritt, this prophecy of his does come true:" And if it should not happen, then I still know that my heart and my name shall live in the Philippines!"

Seldom does Rizal breathe a word about his amorous adventures even to his close friend. Blumentritt, nevertheless, knows his friend well enough to guess between the lines the state of his friend's heart; thus, when Rizal has a broken heart: "I surmised something like that from your letter on New Year s day and told it immediately to my wife: Something is wrong with Rizal, and a woman is behind it." Blumentritt's words of consolation to his friend were: " ... But if she could afford to abandon a Rizal, then she did not come up to the level of his intellect. She is like a child who threw away a diamond in exchange for a pebble. In short that was not a woman for Rizal. La donna e mobile - so sing the Italians."

The greatest happiness for both is, to be sure, when mail comes from the friend. "When I came home from teaching at 12:00, my wife came to meet me with a ringing call: 'There's a letter from Rizal!' I hastily tore the envelope and read your dear lines. I have not had such a pure joy for a long time ..." Blumentritt writes of the fear which he felt when he has not heard from his friend for a long time. That just showed to him how very much he loved him.

The joy over mail from Leitmeritz is not less either. During one of his sojourns in his native country, Rizal gives an account of how Blumentritt's letters are received. The entire family gathers to hear, first of all, how the letter sounds in the strange German original, which Rizal reads aloud. Then the translation, and afterwards, the numerous questions: How old is the professor? How old is his wife? How do they both look like? The same questions are asked about the children and often the question asked is whether the little ones could already speak that difficult German.

Rizal describes how popular the professor is in Calamba, even if the people cannot pronounce his name. Bulmentritt, Bumentritt, Blumentirit, Bulmentirt, Bumentir, Bulumentir, Bulumentirit and a dozen more version of the Professor's name circulated among the people as names denoting affection.

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created: February 15, 1997
updated: March 28, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger