Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

The Scene of Action

Actually, it all began with a stroll. In the capital city of the Philippines, which we shall call Manila and which in Tagalog - the main dialect in the Philippines - is called "Maynilad". The word maynilad is composed of the words niay which means "there is" or "there are", and nilad, a name of flowering shrub which, in the olden days, grew in abundance on the banks of the bay of Manila.

In former times, it was really just a village on the banks of the Pasig river, ruled by the two rajahs Sulaiman and Matanda. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the Spanish conqueror of the Philippines, concluded a pact of peace and friendship with the rajahs, as it was customary then, and even much later. It brought, however, neither peace nor friendship to the native partners in the pact. On May 19, 1571, Manila was officially declared a Spanish city. It remained such for 327 years. Then it became an American city for almost half a century, and subsequently a Japanese city for another five years. Today, Republican Metro Manila numbers four cities with thirteen municipalities and has a total of more than five million inhabitants.

If one wandered through the city, which is bursting at the seams, one would find it difficult to imagine that some hundred years ago the Englishman, John Foreman, complained about how dull and boring it was in the narrow streets here, the monotony of which was broken only by the religious processions which took place almost every day. Except for a bullfight arena, there were no amusement arcades, no street cafes, no theaters, no opera house, no interesting books. There were only five newspapers under strict censorship, which, under the supervision of the Catholic orders, were allowed primarily to bring news from the Spanish and French court records, official proclamations and musty anecdotes.

Today, the city Iooks like a little New York, with its mad traffic, thousands of bars, restaurants, department stores, cinemas, sport fields; with the difference that the people living here are brown and somewhat smaller. And that the noise and scents of a civilization inimical to the environment mingle with the noise and scents produced by the Orient. And the way it is everywhere in the Metropolis, two social worlds meet: Tondo, the slums of bamboo and corrugated iron-sheet huts, accessible through marshy mudpaths, and Makati, the Wall Street of Manila, with its palaces of banks, insurance companies, and luxury hotels, with the foreign legations and residential villages of millionaires watched over by security guards.

But our route leads further on to Rizal Park, the heart of the city. The former site of the execution of the national hero, Jose Rizal, is found here, now marked by his bronze monument whose statue juts. out from the deep blue waters of the bay, surrounded by the grounds of the old fort and endless rows of palm-trees.

To the left are the remaining structures of lntramuros, the old city: the Cathedral, Fort Santiago, the San Agustin Church. These are all that the Second World War left of a city with eight gates, eleven churches, three monasteries, 88 public buildings, and 363 residential houses. A little behind all that, was Santo Tomas, the oldest university in Asia, which was founded by the Dominicans in 1611.

We move farther out, over the Ayala Boulevard at some distance from the Malacañang Palace along the riverbank, once the residence of Spanish and American governors general; today, the official residence and office building of the President of the republic. And finally, in the suburbs of San Juan (sic) the noisiest and most colorful commercial and business quarter of the city, we reach the destination of this stroll. There, at every point where the wide Rizal Avenue is intersected by a street, is the sign bearing the fateful name, which truly, does not fit at all in this picture: the name which the Filipinos can hardly pronounce correctly, but which everybody knows: Avenida Blumentritt. And a few steps away, the pharmacy, Farmacia Blumentritt. A restaurant carries the same name. Even the jeepneys, those small buses put together originally from army jeeps, ornamented with chrome, and decorated in the most garish colors, and without which the traffic confusion in the capital city would even be more chaotic, show on their signboards that they are going to "Blumentritt".

Our curiosity is aroused. Curiosity? No, astonishment. How did this name come about here? Who or what was or is "Blumentritt"? A plant, an animal, an apparatus, a work of art or a person? We do not know that this street has borne this name for 70 years; that there a dozen plazas, streets, bridges, buildings in this country of islands, which carry this name; that the bearer of this name is honorary citizen of numerous Philippine cities; we do not even know that Blumentritt was Austrian. We only have a feeling of how Filipinos must admire him.

All of this will come of later, after years of research, investigations, inquiries, verifications; after reading many books, after studying many documents and letters, after looking at many photographs and maps. And so, piece by piece, a step at a time, a chapter of history is being created, full of adventures and fascinations, full of absurdities and improbabilities, which cannot be made up, which only life and reality can write down. And in which one must no longer keep for one's self. Hence, this book.

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