Jose Rizal’s finances as a student in Europe

CROSSROADS TOWARD PHILIPPINE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL PROGRESS - Gerardo P. Sicat (The Philippine Star) - December 30, 2020 - 12:00am

Rizal Day Essay, 2020

It is often thought that Jose Rizal’s studies and sojourn in Europe was one of relative comfort and ease.

On family support abroad. In 1882, as a young man of 21 years, he went to Madrid, Spain to study. His family put up the finances to support his studies.

He would need roughly P50 a month, plus cost of tuition, to live on. He was an exceptionally gifted student and his family believed that such intellectual qualities could be transformed into a stronger future potential.

Rizal’s family was well-to-do and lived comfortably, but was not extremely wealthy. To send one child to study abroad was a manageable financial risk. Jose was the seventh of nine children. His only older brother, Paciano, was 10 years older and already helping in the family enterprise.

Rizal’s distractions become the focus. Jose Rizal’s educational plan was to study medicine in Madrid’s Central University. His educational mission for the first three years went well with speed. Along with his medical studies, Rizal decided to study arts and philosophy.

His love for arts and philosophy was part of his youthful interests. His inclination toward the muses – the arts, literature, philosophy – was innate in his experience, and he indulged in it. He took subjects in the university and earned a degree ahead of his medical studies which still needed more time.

Further, his contacts with other countrymen, among them also students like him, often brought him to think more about how Spain’s colonial policies and practices could be improved for the benefit of his countrymen. His exposure to a wide range of literature and historical and philosophical writings instilled greater consciousness on his part about the problems of social and economic backwardness of his country. He began to suspect that existing colonial practices in his home country often were at the root of iniquities and tragic circumstances that he was beginning to observe and ponder about.

Somewhere along the way, he thought that he could write a novel that would expose his country’s problems. He would weave true stories within a fictional setting to better understand the need for reforms and for correcting iniquities and cruelties.

There was another pressure that began to create distractions to his work as a medical student. By the fourth year, financial problems began to seriously threaten the continuity of his studies.

Financial uncertainties hit Rizal’s family. The family agricultural enterprise was tied up with the fortunes of the sugar export industry, and sugar prices had collapsed in the world market.

Along with these misfortunes was the unstable arrival of support for Rizal’s schooling. His bank drafts for support became sporadic.

In 1884, for instance, the price of sugar was so bad that the family loss was heavy, leaving them cash-strapped. The ripple effect on Jose Rizal’s schooling was therefore serious. Throughout the period, the sugar industry was having trouble. Income from sugar was wedged by the unsteady, but low price of sugar and the high land rentals the cultivators continuously faced.

Rizal’s biographies – almost all of them – do not fully reconcile the financial problems that Rizal faced. Certainly, these problems were so real that he had to adjust to the consequences. There were times when some close friends helped him to tide over his problems when he encountered extreme financial difficulties.

Also, there are gaps in Rizal’s correspondence that are hard to reconstruct. At other times, as this discussion indicates, it is possible to detect the actual outcome.

It is instructive to follow some of the correspondence to indicate the difficulties he encountered.

For instance, on Oct. 1, 1885, he wrote from Madrid to his parents:  “If I receive P200, I leave immediately for Germany; if I receive P600, I shall finish the doctorate, and if not, happen what may happen. I already owe three and a half months board. Since 1st July, when I should receive money, I have been without any and without letters.”

Actually, he missed getting his doctorate in Madrid. According to Leon Ma. Guerrero, one of his biographers, he would negotiate with the university administration to secure his licentiate, not his doctorate, which was mailed to him, but was lost (intentionally?) in the shuffle at the Philippine mail.

Next, he was already located in Paris, in the clinic of Louis de Wecker, a notable ophthalmologist (eye doctor). This was apparently a good place to learn the practice to become an an eye doctor. He stayed in Paris for some months.

On Jan. 1, 1886, he wrote his parents from Paris, “If I receive enough money, then I shall pay P12 a month and I shall have the right to attend everything, all the treatments, and to operate from time to time, which is very advantageous. You can’t imagine what can be learned at this clinic.”

But on Feb. 2, 1886, he was in Heidelberg, Germany, to attend the eye clinic of Otto Becker, another well-known eye doctor. Apparently, this move was partly motivated by a need to economize. The cost of living in Paris was higher than in Heidelberg. Although he preferred to stay in Paris, economic necessity forced him to move.

Yet, when he initially arrived in Heidelberg, he found that there was little to celebrate in terms of cost of living difference. He had to move to a much farther and cheaper dwelling to realize further cost savings.

His money problems continued while in Heidelberg. On March 20, 1886, Rizal wrote home again: “I shall have money to live on for 27 days and to pay the house rent. If by chance I don’t receive money until May, (Juan) Luna has spontaneously offered to send me money any time I may need it as he has some, for being a good painter; half the year he is poor and the other half he seems like a millionaire. Were it not for the fact that I have to order underwear – what I have was the one I brought from Manila mended and re-mended – my allowance could be further reduced….”

Happy and kinder New Year to my readers!



For archives of previous Crossroads essays, go to: https://www.philstar.com/authors/1336383/gerardo-p-sicat. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/

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