Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

Manila: National Mourning for an Austrian

On October 1, 1913 the periodical "The Philippine Republic" which comes out in Hongkong publishes a letter of Ferdinand Blumentritt dated September 1, 1913, under the title Sus Ultimas Palabras (His Last Words). At the time of the publication Ferdinand Blumentritt was dead. It was the last publication of the professor. Ferdinand Blumentritt died on September 20 in Leitmeritz.

On October 15, Blumentritt's son Fritz, Director of the Royal Imperial Lyceum and of the Girls' Commercial College in Budweis reports to his German friend, Professor Otto Scheerer, in Manila:
"My good father devoted the last hours exclusively to the Philippines. After a repeated attack of apoplexy, he spoke only in Spanish of our islands. He died peacefully, a few hours after he lost consdousness . . . in an undefeated mental vitality, he wrote to me in the last days that he wanted to start working again . . ."

The Leitmeritzer Zeitung (Leitmeritz Newspaper), prints on a whole page on September 24, 1913, the news of his death and an obituary notice which tells how Blumentritt's name was known and loved beyond the local and national borders, that is, even on the other side of our part of the earth, of a man "who has never set foot in far places, (but) knew his way about the Philippines in the Far East so well, yes, even better than in his very cramped native country, that he drew maps of the far away islands in his study in Leitmeritz which are used as teaching aids in the schools there."

For the very first time, it is reported that during the American-Philippine war, Blumentritt issued a type of pass to merchants making it possible for them to bring merchandise from the interior of the islands to the coast. Blumentritt, therefore, must have acted as de facto consul of the revolutionary government. The following is said in the obituary about the personality of Blumentritt: "He distinguished himself as a good orator, as a quick-witted debater, quick at repartee, and through his satire was specially effective in polemics. As a narrative writer he could captivate the readers by his witty and charming descriptions . . . Not only the appeal of his charming personality but also his vivid art of description won him the hearts of his pupils . . his vigor for work aroused amazement and admiration . . . a man with outstanding character traits . . . known everywhere for his amiable willingness to oblige everyone and the sincerity of his conviction ..."

The funeral service on September 23 is described as a grand social event participated in by generals, soldiers, the church, government officials and numerous native and foreign scholars and friends.

Yet, while his native city Leitmeritz was affected by the mourning and funeral services for Blumentritt, the news of the death of Blumentritt comes to the knowledge of the Filipinos through adventurous means. On September 23 at l0:10, at forenoon, Blumentritt's family posted a telegram in Leitmeritz worded in the French language to a Mr. Rivera in Manila with the note "Via Suez-Triest". The cable was received on the same day at 11:12 at night in the telegraph station of the Central Station of Manila, but nobody knew who the addressee was, because no other more specific address was indicated and there was more than one Rivera in Manila.

The hunt for the addressee of the telegram began the next morning, that was Wednesday, the 24th of September 1913. This lasted the whole day but to no avail. The addressee was nowhere to be found. Then, the bookseller Garcia, who was also an employee of a telegraph company got, by chance, knowledge of the telegram. He was a friend of Blumentritt and on his part sent an inquiry to Leitmeritz in order to get more precise information. Then late in the night the answer of the Blumentritt family arrived. It brought the certainty. The following day, Remigio Garcia published a death notice with the picture of Blumentritt. That was the signal for the beginning of a national mourning in a manner otherwise bestowed only upon statesmen and eminent artists and scholars in their own country.

Numerous personalities and organizations sent their telegrams of sympathies to Leitmeritz. There was hardly any newspaper which did not devote its editorial to the demise of the friend of the Philippines. Here is an assortment from such articles from the newspapers of that time printed ordinarily in Spanish or Tagalog:

EL IDEAL: The hearts of the Filipinos are mourning a man of unusual abilities and of generous heart, a man who knew how to share all our sufferings as well as our joys, a man who always found words of consolation and comfort for us . . . perhaps there has never been any other Occidental whose love for our fatherland . . . has been so great, sincere and spontaneous.

EL MERCANTIL: He devoted a great portion of his intellectual power to the Philippines, to whose people he has always been a just, noble and reliable friend . . .

CONSOLIDACION NACIONAL: There is no Fillpino, who, even if he knows so little of the history of his fatherland, has not heard of this admirable man . . . he was very popular with the intellectual youth of the country; the learned professor always found words of admonition and encouragement ...

LA DEMOCRACIA: . . . the eminent champion of the Philippines, this is the highest title which we can bestow upon him . . . he who earns the title of adopted son of the Philippines . . . the only man, who, without being born in our land and seeing the political state of our country only in the corner of a prism, nevertheless, understood us.

ANG DEMOCRACIA (Tagalog): The loss is immense for us, he was more than a brother, he who fought for us for a long time till the light of right and freedom shines for us . ..

In the days after the publication of the news of the death of Blumentritt, the newspapers printed, day to day, decrees of provincial and municipal governments appointing Blumentritt as honorary citizen and naming streets and places after him. On November 16, 1913, the Philippine Academy organized an obsequies for its deceased honorary member. It became a social event in the capital city. According to contemporary reports, on the stage of the Zorilla Theater, a mound was symbolically constructed between two chandeliers, draped with the Austrian flag in front of which the picture of Blumentritt, done after the manner of the sketch of Rizal, stood, surrounded with flowers and wreaths. The hall was crowded, there was not enough room for all the politicians, scholars, artists as well as students, workers, merchants, who had all come to bid farewell to their friend. With typical Spanish effusiveness, the newspaper El Ideal reports about the celebration: " ... tribute for the illustrious Filipino from Leitmeritz, who has assumed a prominent place among the immortals . . they came, prompted by the desire to attest to the undying gratitude, the brotherly love and greatest admiration of a nation for a man of another race and nationality, who in life was our real brother, our wise and faithful adviser, who wept with us in our grief and celebrated our occasional triumphs with us ..."

The program of addresses and speeches of about a dozen prominent personalities, who spoke on the following subject matters:
Blumentritt as ethnographer, as Philippinist, as poet, pedagogue, bibliographer, Hispanist, as Tagalog researcher, as inspirator of the youth, as journalist, as politician, gives an idea of the esteem for Blumentritt and his versatility.

It was certainly not by chance that the two most significant speakers of the obsequies were politicians, who three decades later, in the most difficult times of the Philippine nation - during the defensive war against the Japanese occupation - were at the head of their country: Manuel Luis Quezon (1935-1944) and Sergio Osmeña (1944-1946), both of whom became presidents later. Osmena whose speech was read out because he could not attend, described the life of Blumentritt, his fight for freedom and his love for his fellow-men as the essence of the actual story of the en~ancipation of the Philippines. It was of no consequence that Blumentritt was a foreigner and did not live in the Philippines. "His ideas of justice were those of ours, his aspiration for freedom was dedicated to us, he was an honorable friend and brother of the Philippines." Osmena was at that time speaker of the Philippine Assembly.

Quezon, who was a congressman, described him as a great politician; who, like no other foreigner and like few Filipinos, understood the objectives and aspirations of the nation. He said that if one studied his works from more than 30 years, then one could marvel at the inconceivable; that a man, who has never set foot in the Philippines and knew the country only from the study of books and from contacts with people from that country, could understand so deeply and vividly what moved the Philippines: "He spoke and wrote about our country, as if, after a long sojourn in it, he had travelled across the country from one end to the other; as though, he, the psychologist, pressed forward into the remotest nook of the Philippine soul ..." It was a great misfortune for Spain that she did not follow Blumentritt's sincere advice for the initiation of reforms, Quezon said. He also said that Blumentritt was neither anti-Spanish nor anti-American, but of course he always gave priority to the search for the best solution for the most difficult problems of the Philippines. For this reason, he had a right to the honorary title of first politician of the Philippines.

Blumentritt was bestowed the highest compliment even by Spain. Dr. Miguel Morayta, former Minister, Professor at the Central University of Madrid, author of several standard works about the history and constitutions of Spain, president of the Spanish-Philippine Society was one among the few Spaniards who helped the Philippines. He, too, expresses his admiration for Blumentritt's knowledge of the Philippines, defends the professor against the defamations to which he was exposed during his lifetime and, in conclusion, proposes the erection of a national monument for Blumentritt in order to honor his memory visibly.

The engagement of the Philippines with Blumentritt does not end with the obsequies. The Blumentritt Society is established on February 20, 1914 headed by prominent personalities in Manila. And a few days later, on February 23, the members of the House of Representatives approved unanimously resolution number 75 which decreed the publication of a memorial volume devoted to the life and work "of Professor Blumentritt, the supporter of the freedom and progress of the Philippines."

Just in the year 1956, to be exact, on June 12 (the anniversary of the declaration of independence) the parliament in Manila passes a law (Republic Act Number 1425) which decreed the entire works of Rizal as teaching material in all private and public schools and universities. Since the correspondence with Blumentritt represents the biggest portion of Rizal's exchange of letters it can be said with full justification that Blumentritt is known to practically every schoolchild in the Philippines.

Kurt, a grandson of Blumentritt, was presented an honorary plaque posthumously on December 30, 1978, on the death anniversary of Rizal, for his grandfather's exceptional interest in the history and culture of the Philippine people . . for his voluntary alliance, his cooperation and his identification with the Philippine reformist politicians . . . for the publication of many valuable works about the Philippines . . and for the inspiration and active support, which he lent the propaganda actions . above all, to his best friend, Dr. Jose Rizal . . ."

A year later, Blumentritt was admitted posthumously to the order of the Knights of Rizal in the rank of "Knight Commander". Here too, in the substantiation for his admission, Blumentritt was cited as inspirer-advisor and friend of Rizal for life and appreciation was paid him for introducing Rizal to the prominent men of letters and science in Europe and for being a constant source of courage to his friend and the inspiration for Rizal's vision of an independent Philippine nation.

In one of the numerous future visions which were exchanged between Rizal and Blumentritt, Rizal writes in the possibly most touching letter of this long correspondence: "Yes, I believe the time is already near when I may return to the Philippines. When I am already there, then you must come with your whole family and live with me; I am provided with a big library, I shall have a little house built on a hill for myself; then I shall devote myself to the sciences, read history and write, establish a school and if you can bear the climate, then you shall be the director. I am sure all the young ones, the best in the country shall come to us: Blumentritt-Rizal will stay in the memory of the Filipino people like Goethe and Schiller, like Horatius and Virgil, like the Humboldts ..."

The inexorability of history destroyed the dream of Rizal but his vision for the Filipino people came true - the memory of the two friends is alive. May these lines contribute to making a breach in the wall of ignorance and forgetfulness so that on his side of the globe, Ferdinand Blumentritt will finally be honored.

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created: March 28, 1998
updated: March 28, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger