Remembering Rizal
LONDON EYE - Stephen Lillie (The Philippine Star) - June 13, 2013 - 12:00am

Yesterday was Independence Day. It falls the week before the birth anniversary of Jose Rizal, one of the most important figures in the Philippines’ journey towards independence. As we approach that anniversary it seems appropriate to pay tribute to the national hero.  Like all foreign ambassadors to the Philippines I began my office here by laying a wreath at his memorial in Luneta, almost four years ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, accounts of Rizal’s life tend to start with his death, rather than his birth.  That goes with the status of national martyr.  I, however, start somewhere in between, remembering Rizal’s connections with the United Kingdom.  

Rizal lived in London from 1888 to 1889, becoming part of a small community of young Filipinos studying in Britain.  His time in Britain was part of his longer period of European exile from the Philippines. It was spent mainly at the British Museum, researching historical documents about pre-colonial life and civilisation in the Philippine islands, and writing articles. This work was an important element in Rizal’s wider efforts to develop a Filipino national consciousness, which helped catalyse the Philippine revolution. Today a blue plaque marks the home where Rizal lived, at number 37, Chalcot Crescent in Primrose Hill, within walking distance of the British Museum.  This was the home of the Beckett family, and Rizal is said to have had a romance with one of his landlord’s three daughters, Gertrude.

Rizal can also be said to have been a guest of the British when he lived in Hong Kong during 1891-2. The then British colony was something of a haven for Filipino nationalists. Emilio Aguinaldo would later go into voluntary exile and organize his revolutionary government there. Rizal ran a successful ophthalmological practice in Hong Kong, living with his parents and sisters at number two Rednaxela Terrace. While he was there he conceived his plan to establish a colony for Filipino patriots and free-thinkers at Sandakan, although the project came to nothing in the end.  

By the time Rizal was in London, he had already written and published his classic novel “Noli me Tangere,” while the sequel, “El Filibusterismo,” was published shortly before he went to Hong Kong.  Controversial in their own day, these two novels are now essential reading, not only for Filipino school students, but for anybody who wants to understand the Philippines — including foreign diplomats. I believe they can be seen as Filipino equivalents of the novels of Charles Dickens. They are firmly set in their own day, and as such offer excellent insights into the cruelty and injustice of that time; injustices which would fuel the eventual revolution.

Like all great literature, Rizal’s novels and characters still manage to resonate today, speaking to present day concerns and interests, without necessarily offering all the answers. A rich (but not always admirable) range of characters bring colour to Rizal’s pages: alongside his selfless heroes there are self-serving politicians, brutal officials, charlatans, egotists, abusers of authority beyond the reach of the law, and clerics who fell well short of their vows.

Ultimately, though, Rizal’s achievements were not just as a novelist. Rizal was above all a great humanist, who spoke up for values of human dignity, freedom and equality. Those shared values are in my view a more powerful link to Britain and the other European countries he travelled in, than the homes where he lived in or the buildings where he studied and worked. His life, beginning on 19 June 1861 was all too short, but his contribution to Philippine nationhood and the wider cause of global democracy endures. My successor will rightly be paying his own respects when he assumes office in August.

(Stephen Lillie is the British Ambassador to the Philippines)

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