Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

Blumentritt's Prophecy and Defense

Blumentritt is certainly enthusiastic in his first response. "A thousand thanks for your excellent book ... to begin with, accept my heartfelt congratulation for your beautiful moral novel, which appeals to me in an extraordinary manner. As we German's say, you put all your heart into the writing of your book and for this reason, your book speaks to the heart ..." Blumentritt writes that he knew that Rizal was a man of exceptional talent ... that the work has, nevertheless, surpassed his expectations. Yet, the former thinks that not Rizal alone should be congratulated, rather the entire nation for having such a faithful son and patriot. Then Blumentritt writes that sentence, which is so significant that up to now in the Philippines, it is still considered as a prophetic guiding principle in the depiction of Rizal's character: "If you continue in this manner, then for your people, you can become one of the great men, who will exert a decisive influence upon the development of their spiritual life."

Blumentritt, who, as agent of the Berlin Printing Press, has already contributed to the publication of the Noli, asks his friend for permission to translate the book into German. He reckons that the work will take a year, yet he would like to translate two to three chapters immediately. In fact, in the correspondence and documents, time and again, mention is made of a German translation of the Noli by Blumentritt. Unfortunately, up to now, no copy of the translation has been found.

With the genuine Blumentritt thoroughness, he prepares his campaign for the defence of the Noli. He has Rizal send him Multatulis book (Multatulis is the pseudonym of the Dutch official Douwes-Dekker, whose novel Max Havelaar of 1860 had a similar effect against the colonial rule in the Dutch Indies as the Noli.) with the remark: "Itwill make me very happy to get to know it, since I want to be rid of the attackers of the Noli. Maybe the book can help me." Shortly after this, Blumentritt receives from Rizal the news that through the intervention of the friars, the Noli has been officially banned in the Philippines.

All the same, as far as their adversaries are concerned, neither Rizal nor Blumentritt has lost their common sense. Blumentritt recalls the story of Archimedes, who sacrifices a hecatomb of oxen to the gods out of gratitude to them upon his discovery of a law, which was later on named after him. The story goes that since that time, all the oxen tremble whenever a discovery or invention is made. "The peninsular oxen are now trembling too because they discovered in the Noli me tangere and the Solidaridad (the newspaper of the Filipinos in exile in Madrid), that the Indios are not only their equals, but that the latters' sons are noble, more intelligent, more educated, more learned than their academicians ..."

It was the prelude for Blumentritt's all-out attack on the critics and calumniators of the Noli. A strong polemic of almost 30 pages is published in the Iberica printing press of Francisco Fossas in Barcelona under the title Noli me tangere of Rizal - as judged by Professor F. Blumentritt. Rizal wrote a foreword in which he introduces Blumentritt as the learned and respected Philippinist who takes sides in the fight of the Filipinos for education and against those classes which perpetuate ignorance. But immediately afterwards, Rizal stresses that it may not be necessary to introduce the Austrian Professor stating that whoever is interested in geography, theology, philology, oriental studies and the studies of the Philippines knows the name of Blumentritt, a name recognized and respected in the entire civilized world of Europe.

For this very reason, Rizal writes, the opinion of the professor about the Noli me tangere will perhaps evoke protests among those who are convinced that they are infallible, as well as those who brand anyone who thinks differently as a filibuster (rebel, subversive element) and any different opinion as heretic or protestant.

"They, nevertheless, have no grounds for that. Professor Blumentritt is a fervent Catholic, a dutiful son of the Roman Church, which he considers as the only true one, the only one which can save mankind. He cannot be accused wrongfully as a filibuster either ... because he does not only have Spanish blood, but is also a defender of the Spanish law. He defends Spanish law in newspapers, books, speeches, with such zeal that he was deemed worthy of receiving a decoration of the Madrid government as well as a prize of the Philippine exhibition (organized in Madrid in 1887)." Rizal emphasizes that Blumentritt has read all the books of the friars and Peninsulares about the Philippines. "And if in his judgment, he has, nevertheless, not become the victim of their prejudices and calumnies, then it is exclusively because of the sound human judgement of the learned professor and his enthusiasm for studying matters carefully."

"In this distant corner of the world, known by the name Philippines, the conditions prevailing are such that they remind us of past centuries. The administration of the country, military and bureaucratic through and through, is subordinate to the interests of the all-powerful friars. With no representation in the Cortés and no freedom of the press, abuse is the order of the day. And, as in the provinces of old Rome, prosperity and affluence do not depend upon the laws, rather upon the personal capabilities of every single official."

Blumentritt begins his indictment with these words and thereafter depicts with dispassionate objectivity the gradual opening of the Philippines and the entry of so-called progress by this daring alien who has broken into a country, "in which not only the birds do sing, or the women love, but so are the flowers fragrant." Manila is opened to world trade and other ports follow. With the completion of the Suez Canal, the sea-route is shortened to half the distance. The opening and modernization of japan during the Meiji-Restoration (since 1868) has consequences for the Philippines too. The change from sailing to steamship makes the Philippines the cross-point of the sea-routes from and to Europe and America.

The "Indios" began to awaken from their spiritual lethargy. The clergy could have made use of this new desire for knowledge for its purposes. It preferred to seek refuge behind the shield of ignorance of the natives. There remained no other path to education for the best and most capable sons of the country but the schools of foreign countries, above all, of Spain, as well as other university cities, with the inevitable result: "From there, they return with new ideas and suddenly look upon the conditions in their native land with different eyes. In the Philippines: censorship and court litigation, in Spain:
freedom and liberalism. In Spain, they were free citizens, in their own country, they were hoodlums, who had to submit to humiliation and oppression. It was only a natural consequence that the educated Filipinos demanded their share of privileges which their sons enjoyed in the mother country. Of course, the censor prevented any free discussion about the numerous shortcomings and abuses of the government. They were not only forced to keep quiet but were also accused of high treason for their patriotic desire for radical changes. Because of the secession of her colonies in Latin America, the Spaniards immediately saw a separatist conspiracy in every liberal movement."

Rizal gave expression to this dissatisfaction and unrest in his book Noli. He wrote the Noli very strongly and "with his life blood." The friars persecuted it with the zeal with which the inquisitors would have persecuted books about sorcery. What is more, they wrote a polemic against the book for which eighty days of indulgence was promised anyone who reads it.

After a sketch of the person of Rizal and his motivation, Blumentritt endeavors to explain Rizal's intentions: to denounce the abuse of the power of the state, the miserable treatment of political prisoners, the inhuman harshness and the severity of the ambitious friars. It was necessary to personify the dark side of the regime, to portray them as they really were in the Philippines at that time. These would be pictures, Blumentritt judges, photographs of persons whose originals would be alive then and recognizable even without names.

One could imagine the storm it unleashed in the circles who felt they were the ones affected; that was the stone thrown into the wasps' nest. It was impossible for it to escape the attention of the censor because the director of the office of censor was the Augustinian priest, Salvador Font, already mentioned. This means that censorship of the novel was assigned to those who precisely had been attacked most severely in the Noli. It was therefore easy to foretell the destiny of the book: the plaintiff was at the same time the judge of the defendant - hence, the book was damned.

Blumentritt recalls the attacks on the Noli, which were already known, the rebuke of Protestantism, of socialism, of Pro-Germanism, of the representative of Bismarck, of anti-Spanish propaganda, of which the book is full, in order to go then into the racial problem at length, without which the relation between Spaniards and Filipinos would be difficult to grasp. With unrelenting sharpness, he proves against which prejudices and from which unfair position a Filipino who dares to criticize the colonial rule of the Spaniards, has to fight: "The Spaniards have, all along, looked down with scorn on their colonial subjects; and not only on the colored, but also on the half-breeds and even on those Spaniards who were born in the colonies."

Here Blumentritt explains the different strata of the colonial Spaniards: the "Peninsulares" are those Spaniards who come directly from the mother country and render service as officials in the Philippines; the "Matandas" are the Spaniards who settle down in the colony and the "Bagos" are the Spaniards who, most of the time, for reasons of business, stay for a short period in the Philippines.

And so it comes to pass that the Spaniards regarded the Filipinos, at best, as younger brothers, more often as an "irresponsible child", most of the time, however, as a kind of animal which comes close Darwin's missing link between human beings and monkeys. "And now one would imagine what impression is evoked among the majority of the Peninsulares, when an educated Indio suddenly comes along and courageously criticizes the Spanish institutions! What? An Indio such as this one, a hoodlum, an insect, a monkey dares to question the institution in his own country, to reproach the friars and officials and to question their professional and moral conduct? ... And thus, the friars and the Peninsulares roar, not only out of Spanish arrogance, but also with the vanity of the European who still believes in the old - wives tale, which says that the white man is suppossed be made of a better clan than the yellow, brown or black man ... For this reason, I explained from the beginning that Rizal as an Indio, to surmise that his book would encounter an army of mortal enemies, even if he had not touched on a theological problem."

Thus, Rizal's book is anti-Spanish, because the rulers, the monks and officials who committed the loathsome deeds criticized in the book, are Spaniards; a matter which cannot be prevented when this subject matter is treated. Is it possible to criticize the political conditions in the Philippines without accusing the Spaniards? Or rather should the criticism altogether cease for the reason of the principle which states that the silence of the dead is a virtue? Blumentritt demonstrates that not only he but also all the prominent scholars of Europe valued Rizal as a man, to whom racial prejudice is alien, who never regards skin, color or language of a man as criteria, rather only his character, his human qualities. Had Rizal been a Spaniard, then his Noli would have fared better. Rizal's most grievous crime was having born an Indio in a Spanish colony and disseminating his views publicly.

After his defence of his friend and his work, Blumentritt has to switch over to his own defence, because he, too, is exposed to serious attacks: "Hardly was my intention to translate the Noli me tangere in German known when I received letters from Filipinos and Spanish friends imploring me to desist from my plan. And why? The Filipinos feared that I, who have always fought for the integrity of Spain with the passion of a patriot would get the reputation of a filibuster (agitator). That would endanger my Philippine friends because in the Philippines, as it is generally known, not only the filibuster but also his friend is persecuted and punished. I had to laugh loudly! I, the most loyal deiender of the Lady Regent, of the late king and of the young and innocent monarch (meant here are the Lady Regent Maria Cristina of Austria and her dead husband Alphonse XII and their son, King Alphonse XIII), a filibuster? That was certainly stupid! Nonetheless ... I shall proceed with my course, because I have never in my life paid heed to the advantage nor to the hatred of the blind and stupid ones, and I shall keep it that way in the future."

What the Spaniards really feared was that the Noli would become known in Europe through the German translation and Spain would lose sympathy in Germany and Austria. Yet in this matter, Blumentritt was able to appease the apprehensive ones with the remark that there is a whole library of works of Spanish, French, English and Dutch researchers and historians whose indictments against the colonial regime in the Philippines made the book of Rizal appear like a defence of the friars and the crown in comparison to them.

The fear of the Spaniards, is for Blumentritt "the tacit admission that the situation in the Philippines, in fact, corresponds to what the author of the Noli describes. Or else what for are all these efforts to bring the novel to silence? In all the writings of Rizal, I have not found any single refutation of the theme which runs through the entire novel like a bloody track; of the fact that the native, who incurs the hatred of the friars, is, without protection and rights and is at the mercy of the friars, since the government is just an extension of the friars' orders which sets the interest of the religious orders above those of the state."

Blumentritt answers the Spaniards who complain to him that every Filipino student owns a copy of the Noli, that the book is sought and bought by educated people everywhere, in spite of the stiff penalty, temporal as well as spiritual, which threatens the owner. Blumentritt does not understand these complaints. Why was the book confiscated when by doing so, the general interest for it was just aroused? There is no doubt that no other book in the Philippines has ever been as persecuted. Nocturnal house searches are not a rarity. All of this increases the importance of the book and brings new readers to it. His enemies are stricken blind; the friars themselves become the best advertisers of the book, for which Rizal should be grateful.

Blumentritt, the friend, the humanist, no doubt draws his political conclusions from the hatred for Rizal and the Noli: "The financial interests of certain Spanish circles are threatened by the novel," Blumentritt discretely states. He says, the mother country took these long neglected islands under her care very recently. As a first step towards reform, the odious tobacco monopoly was terminated. (The farmers were forced to cultivate tobacco and to surrender a definite amount at prices set by the government yearly. Smuggling and bribery flourished; the cheating of the tobacco growers led periodically to revolts of the tobacco growers.) The penal code was also reformed. The government in Madrid seemed more receptive to the complaints of the Filipinos. Accordingly, the fear of those whose privileges and profits were threatened by the reforms grew. A circulation of the Noli, however, had to lead automatically to the invigoration of the party of the pro-reform Spaniards, who could then refer to conditions depicted in the book. Thereupon, Blumentritt explains the hatred and rage of the group which moved to put an end not only to the book but to the author as well (which they would later successfully do, in a tragic manner.)

To conclude his indictment, Blumentritt states: "If I should express my opinion about the Noli me tangere, then I would frankly admit that I consider it the greatest literary work ever written by a Filipino, or about the Philippines at all. And I am happy to know that I am not the only one who is of this view. Furthermore, I am stating that there is no book in Philippine literature in which love of country has been expressed as fervently. It is written with the life blood of a patriot, who harbors no hatred whatsoever for Spain, rather, just a justified repugnance for anyone who abuses, egoistically and scandalously, the power granted him by the state or the church. That majority of those whom Rizal judged in his book are Spaniards must be ascribed to the condition that all government offices, the best parishes and the majority of the church positions are occupied by Spaniards. No one with a common sense can insist that Rizal conceals this fact, thus making himself an accomplice to the crime."

Never before did Blumentritt choose his position with such passion and persuasive power publicly. Without considering the difficulties and dangers which would arise for him, the royal and imperial civil servant, has by his appearance, plunged himself unhesitatingly into the fight, on the side of Rizal and the Filipinos, working against the Spanish colonial rule.

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created: January 20, 1997
updated: March 28, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger