Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

The Disparate Brothers

Blumentritt's commitment to the Philippines was, therefore, a matter of family tradition, passion and immense interest. In any case, he would certainly hav become a specialist in this field, worthy of mention. That he became much more than just that, is traced back to a harmless letter written as if accidentally, and which arrived in the beginning of August in the year 1886 in Leitmeritz. The sender of this letter was completely unknown to the professor.

                 Heidelberg, the 31st of July 1886
                 Honorable Mr. Professor
                 Ferdinand von Blumentritt
 Dear Sir,

  Since I heard that you are studying our language 
  and have already written some books about it, 
  therefore allow me to send you a valuable book 
  which a countryman of mine wrote. The Spanish 
  portion is just mediocre, because the author was 
  only a simple writer, but the Tagalog portion is 
  good and is in the dialect as it is spoken in 
  our province. 

  Please accept the assurance of my esteem. 

                        J. Rizal 
                        Upper Neckar Street II
Enclosed with the letter was a book, which, no doubt, served merely as a reason for making contact. With this letter began a friendship, indeed, a fighting partnership lasting for life. But who was the sender of that letter?

José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda was 8 years younger than Blumentritt. He was born on June 19, l861, in Calamba, in the province of Laguna, north of Manila, which is at a beautiful inland lake and which, until today, is a favorite excursion and holiday spot of the Filipinos. Rizal had Malayan, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish ancestors. The Rizals were a family of wealthy merchants and landowners, as well as middle-class intellectual and cosmopolitan thinkers. Rizal's maternal grandfather was representative to the Cortés, the Madrid Parliament. His relatives were lawyers, mayors, teachers; some were educated in Europe and had a command of several languages. Jose had 9 brothers and sisters, his oldest sister Trinidad died only in 1951. In such a background, therefore, it hardly attracted attention that at three years of age, Rizal could already read and write and that he recited his first poem in Latin before the class when he went to school at the age of eight. He studied in the Santo Tomas University and went to Madrid when he was 21 years old where, after only three years, he finished medicine and a year after that, philosophy and literature. He graduated with honors in both courses of study. Rizal specialized in eye-surgery and continued his studies in Heidelberg, Paris, London, and Berlin.

His brilliant mind reached into almost all of the fields of art - his works as sculptor and woodcarver, in painting and in the graphic arts testify to this fact, even more than those as a poet and writer. All the same, like Blumentritt, Rizal was, first and foremost, a genius in languages. He is said to have had a command of 22 languages. In any case, he corresponded regularly in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, English, German, and Dutch. Evidence of this are the facsimiles of the letters to Blumentritt written in perfect German. Those letters are still preserved. Rizal did translations from Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit and, of course, from several dialects of his native country. And just like Blumentritt, different successful careers in all parts of the world, in Spain and in his native country, were available to him, be it as physician, as writer, as politician, perhaps even as artist. He preferred to give up everything in order to sacrifice his life in the end for the freedom of his people.

His short life was like an odyssey. There was hardly any big city in Europe which he would not get to know through a short visit, or a long sojourn. In addition to his professional work, he found time to write two novels which would have a decisive influence on the events in his native land: in 1887, the Nòli me tangere and in 1891, the El Filibusterismo. Indeed, with all his active work for the liberation of the Philippines, ignoring all danger, he was, time and again, drawn homewards. For instance, in the summer of 1887, he immediately plunged into the fight for the rights of the tenant farmers in his native town of Calamba, and thereby ran into the fiercest confrontation with the Dominican monks, the landlords. Soon Rizal posed such a danger to his own family and friends that he had to leave the country once again.

He sets out for Hongkong at the beginning of 1888 and returns to Europe, first, to London via Japan and the U.S.A. He continues his world trip to Madrid passing through Paris and Brussels. Three years later, however, he returns to Paris and Brussels. Three years later, however, he turns eastwards once again, in defiance of all the warnings of his friends, believing that he has found in Hongkong a residence near his country, where he could stay for a longer period of time. He is able to banish from his mind the proximity of his country for half a year. In the summer of 1892, Rizal returns to the Philippines, again casting aside all misgivings, is arrested after a few days and spends more than 4 years as an exile in the southern part of the archipelago. Just barely after his release, he is arrested again under fantastic circumstances. At Christmas in the year 1896, he is sentenced to death for high treason and executed.

He would find in Blumentritt his truest comrade, teacher, adviser, comforter - yes, even father and brother, as he frequently said, in one person. Yet, they were a disparate pair, considering their social backgrounds, origin and lifestyles, actually, hardly imaginable: Blumentritt, the headmaster and civil servant, loyal to the emperor, duly appointed head of the family and patriarch, mainstay of the established society, symbol of stability and conservatism - Rizal, the Asian revolutionary, the restless spirit, who stalked from country to country, the rebel and conspirator, whose aim was to overthrow the established order in his native country; who was never able to raise is own family, was rather the center of interest in numerous love-affairs in the countries of his odyssey. And finally, Blumentritt, the loyal Catholic subject alongside Rizal, the enemy of the friars, fighting the all-encompassing secular power of the church.

And yet all this would not hinder the emergence of a center of the Philippine revolution in the sleepy town of Leitmeritz. There, in the little official residence of the professor, which became the meeting place of the Filipinos in exile, plans were devised, campaigns preared, and heated debates were conducted. And at least, some of the things which came out of the study of Blumentritt later had their efect on the destiny and history of the Philippines, yes, even changed the political face of Asia.

The first months of the correspondence can be likened to an exploration. Each one tries to probe into the other's character, to know his views on this and that question, to determine how far the knowledge of the pen-friend goes, perhaps, above all, how much sympathy and understanding will be called for by the problems of the other. This process of getting acquainted through letters was apparently successful, because soon the time seemed ripe for the two to meet in person, which, to be sure, both must have looked forward to more with curiosity than with certainty, and thereby to make firm a 10-year friendship, or a correspondence lasting just as long, and which at the end would comprise 200 letters.

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