José Rizal and his connection with the Netherlands

On December 30, 1896, José Rizal, author of the famous novel Noli me tángere, was shot by the Spaniards, the colonial rulers in the Philippines, because of the sarcastic social criticism in his books and articles. December 30 is a national holiday in the Philippines: Rizal Day.

What were the connections between this well-known resident of the Philippines with the Netherlands? What did the Dutch know about Rizal, and what did he know about the Netherlands?

His childhood and student years

José Rizal was born on June 19, 1861 in Calamba, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. As the 7th of the 11 children in the family, he was given the full name José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonzo Realonda.

Rizal had a happy childhood, topic of a number of short autobiographical stories. But in 1872, when José was 11 years old, everything changed, not only his life in the province, but also the world around him.

After an rebellion in the port of Cavite, three innocent Filipino priests were sentenced to death. In the same year his mother, also innocent, was sentenced to two years in prison. These events made a great impression on the boy and influenced his later work.

In the same year, 11-year old José went to Manila to study at the Ateneo Municipal of the Jesuits. At the University of Santo Tomas he completed his medical studies in 1882, but he would not continue his studies there. His uncle suggested that José should go abroad, because the authorities kept an eye on him and it was too dangerous to stay in Manila. Rizal went to Spain: he wanted to continue his studies and see the world.

First contacts with the Dutch (1882)

On May 3, 1882, José Rizal, only 20 years old, left for Spain. First to Singapore and from there with the French mail-boat ‘Jemnah’ to Marseille. Rizal’s first contacts with the Dutch took place on this ship. Rizal wrote about his encounters with foreigners:

“Everything that is happening here is amusing. I’m with a German, an Englishman and a Dutchman. I realize that this is a small Babel.”

Rizal easily made friends. Like the four young Dutch girls, sisters, who were on their way from the Dutch East Indies to The Hague. Saying goodbye in Marseille was difficult. He wrote:

“… there is one thing for which nothing can be substituted, which is one’s feeling upon separating. … I have already lost my friend Zorab and now Wilhelmine, Hermine, Geretze, Celiene and Mulder are leaving, and where are they going? The girls to The Hague and Mulder to Brussels. Probably we shall not meet again. Farewell then, merry companions and friends. Go to the bosom of your families, and I, who am beginning my pilgrimage, will still go roaming at the mercy of fortune. I realize that if friendships are forged in travel, I have not been born to travel.”

These girls probably taught him his first Dutch words. They were on their way from the Dutch East Indies to the Netherlands.

The Netherlands, so far away from the Philippines … But in the days of Rizal the Dutch were some of the Philippines’ closest neighbors, in the archipelago of the Dutch East Indies – nowadays Indonesia.

First travels in Europe (1882 – 1887)

During his travels and studies, Rizal was financially supported by his brother Paciano and by his uncle. From Marseille and Barcelona he went to Madrid, where he completed his study of medicine. Through his circle of friends he joined the reformist Propaganda movement, wrote startling articles for the newspaper and also thought about a book as a means of awakening his compatriots. In Paris, where he was an apprentice to a famous ophthalmologist, he wrote the first chapters of the Noli me tángere – the book that would become one of the most important works of Philippine literature.

Rizal traveled all over Europe, but it is not clear whether he ever visited the Netherlands. There is no record of this, but comments in his letters suggest that he did.

About his first travels in Europe, Rizal wrote to his sister Maria:

“In some houses in Germany, particularly in Holland, what I see with regard to paintings is that they hang on the walls very old plates, with more or less colors, with more or less designs. In some houses they would show you the grandfather’s and the grandmother’s plates.” [1]

In Berlin, Rizal finished his first novel Noli me tángere, which he had printed there in 1887. Of course he also wanted to distribute the book in the Philippines, but it was banned by the censor. Each copy had to be burned, owners of the book could be imprisoned or exiled, with the loss of all their possessions. But in fact this was free publicity for the book that mercilessly mocked the greedy priests and the tyrannical Spanish soldiers and officials.

After traveling through Europe, Rizal felt it was time to return to his family in the Philippines.

The second voyage to Europe (1887 – 1888)

In August 1887, Rizal arrived in Manila and went straight to his mother in Calamba to operate on her eyes. It was the first cataract surgery in the Philippines, making him a famous ophthalmologist. But in 1888, Rizal was summoned by the ‘enlightened’ governor-general in Manila, who warned him of the hatred his book had aroused. He was no longer safe in the Philippines.

Rizal returned to Europe via Hong Kong, Japan and the United States. In London he discovered in the British Museum a copy of Antonio de Morga’s book Sucesos de las islas Filipinas [2] of 1609. The same De Morga of the famous naval battle with the Dutch captain Olivier van Noort in the Bay of Manila on 14 December 1600.

In the Sucesos, Rizal read about the history of the Philippines, the people and the rich culture and products. To make this work public to the world, Rizal edited the book for a new, annotated edition, which he had printed in Paris in 1890.

In London, Rizal probably also read the English translation of the book by the Dutch author Multatuli, titled Max Havelaar. Rizal wrote to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt:

“The book by Multatuli that I will send you as soon as I get it, is very interesting. Without a doubt it is superior to my book. But since the author is a Dutchman, his attacks are not as violent as mine. It is more refined and more artistic, but it only shows one side of the life of the Dutch in Java.” (6-12-1888)

The first Dutch articles about Rizal

What did the Dutch know about Rizal? During his lifetime, Rizal was not known in the Netherlands, because his novels had not been translated in Dutch. The first Dutch article about Rizal and his novel appeared in 1889 in the Soerabaijasch Handelsblad:

“Last year, in Berlin, he published the socially committed novel Noli me Tangere, in Spanish,  in which he, like Multatuli did for the Dutch East Indies, painted the current conditions in the Philippines and especially flogged the tyranny  of the priests. He had hardly returned to Manila from Berlin, when the storm broke out against him. The press (…) everything was turned against him and his book and his life was made so difficult that he was forced to leave his homeland as soon as possible, for the sake of his relatives.

“He was called a Protestant (…) someone who wanted to light the blood-red torch of revolution in Manila, etc. (…) Even after his banishment, the priests took revenge on his relatives, drove his brothers from their land and deported his brother-in-law to the island of Cebu. Libels in Spanish and Tagalog presented the apostate patriot Dr. Rizal as a veritable servidor del demonio (servant of the devil), and in order to promote the income of those writings the Archbishop of Manila granted whoever bought and read them eighty days of indulgence.” [3]

In 1889 and 1890, Rizal was very productive in Paris. He published, among others, an article about the folktale ‘The monkey and the turtle’ in an international magazine. [4] A few years later, the Dutch professor Hendrik Kern in Leiden responded to this article, in which he compared the fable with similar stories from Southeast Asia. [5]

Rizal also wrote many political articles for the newspaper La Solidaridad, including ‘The Philippines A Century Hence’, [6] in which he wrote about Dutch colonialism:

“Now, statecraft has various means at its disposal for checking a people on the road to progress: the brutalization of the masses through a caste addicted to the government, aristocratic, as in the Dutch colonies, or theocratic, as in the Philippines …”

Rizal continued:

“If the Philippines secure their independence after heroic and stubborn conflicts, they can rest assured that neither England, nor Germany, nor France, and still less Holland, will dare to take up what Spain has been unable to hold. …

“Holland is sensible and will be content to keep the Moluccas and Java. Sumatra offers her a greater future than the Philippines, whose seas and coasts have a sinister omen for Dutch expeditions.”

Rizal was referring to the continuous attacks of the Dutch in Manila Bay during the 17th century, including the aforementioned naval battle with De Morga. The Netherlands was then still in the 80-year war with Spain. But the Dutch sailors who were prisoners in Manila were not treated as prisoners of war. They were executed as pirates, which in a way they were. Freebooters, from the Dutch word Vrijbuiters, looking for profitable trade or loot.

In the same article, Rizal predicted that the Americans would take over the Philippine archipelago:

“Perhaps the great American Republic … may some day dream of foreign possession.”

Indeed, the Philippines would later become the first American ‘colony’.

Did Rizal ever visit the Netherlands?

During his second trip to Europe, in 1890, Rizal wrote to his German friend professor Blumentritt:

“I am leaving Paris but I do not know where I am going; maybe to Holland to visit the libraries there. There must be some books on the Philippines of the XVIII-th century there.” [7]

Blumentritt replied a few days later:

“When you go to Holland, the libraries of Leyden and Utrecht will offer you rich material for your studies.” [8]

Rizal was interested in the culture and languages of the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Professor Kern of Leiden University was a specialist in this field.

Rizal had meanwhile settled in Brussels, and wrote to Blumentritt in April 1890:

“I am studying Dutch and I am searching the bookstores to complete my collection. I already wrote to Holland ordering Kern’s new book.”

According to one of his biographers, Rizal studied Dutch because the Dutch were neighbors and had written a lot about the Philippines. A classmate of Rizal was to have said that Rizal had made a very short trip to the Netherlands to meet Professor Kern and buy books.

That same month, an article by Rizal was published in the Spanish newspaper La Solidaridad. This article ‘Sobre la Nueva Ortografia de la Lengua Tagalog’ proposed a new spelling of Tagalog, the main language in the Philippines. It was later translated into German by Blumentritt and published in a Dutch magazine. [9]

Because of the persecution of his family, and because it was dangerous for Rizal to go back to Manila, he thought about living abroad with his relatives. When Rizal was working on his new novel in Ghent, close to Holland, Blumentritt suggested moving there because he could work there:

“Don’t go to the Philippines yet; it is better for you to go to Leyden and see professor Kern and you study the scientific basis of the Malayan language.” [10]

Apparently, Rizal has considered bringing his family to Europe. Retana, author of the first biography of Rizal, states:

“He had already proposed to bring them to Europe, and, attentive to the advice of Professor Blumentritt, to establish himself in Leiden, or in Delft, or in Utrecht, to devote himself fully to Malay-Polynesian linguistics; but his family, composed almost entirely of simple Filipinos, had refused to satisfy this desire; his parents, and mainly his old father, did not like the idea of leaving the burning sun of the tropics, under which they had always lived, for the cold Dutch mists.” [11]

Early in 1891 Rizal had moved to Ghent to continue writing his second great novel: El filibusterismo. This sequel to Noli me tàngere had a different form, because he had a different goal in mind: he wanted to give the Spaniards a final warning with this book. While the book could be read in Spain, in a more liberal climate, Rizal made even more enemies in the Philippines with this novel.

El filibusterismo – the title is derived from the Dutch word ‘vrijbuiter’, a bandit, privateer or adventurer.

Did Rizal speak Dutch? Rizal mastered many languages and was undoubtedly able to read Dutch. In Ghent he must have heard and perhaps also spoken a lot of Dutch, or Flemish.

Later, during his exile in the Philippines, he wrote letters to his friends and to scientists. He wrote those letters in a mixture of German, Dutch, French and English, to make them incomprehensible to the censors.

This is like Tasio “the sage” in his novel Noli me tangere, who wrote in hieroglyphs to prevent his contemporaries from understanding his writings …

Back to Asia – Rizal’s exile and death

In October 1891, Rizal left Europe to return to Asia, although he knew he could not return to the Philippines. From December 1891 to June 1892 he lived in Hong Kong, where he practiced as an ophthalmologist. But he could not see any future for his family there.

In June 1892 Rizal received permission from the somewhat more liberal Philippine governor Despujol to come to Manila. When his talks with the governor about reform were not successful, Rizal and a number of supporters founded La Liga Filipina: this group openly aimed at pushing for reform by legal means. A few days later, the secret organization Katipunan was founded, preparing an armed uprising.

But La Liga Filipina was banned by the governor and Rizal was accused of being involved in an uprising, and exiled to Dapitan in Mindanao for blasphemy and treason. Rizal remained in Dapitan until 1896, engaged in all kinds of studies and activities. He built a school and a hospital, advised on agriculture and waterworks, and as an ophthalmologist treated native and foreign patients.

About the last years of Rizal’s life, Leiden professor Hendrik Kern wrote in an article entitled ‘The rebellions in the Philippines’:

“He lived there as an ophthalmologist until the uprising started in 1896. Although the sword of Damocles was over his head, being a suspect, he felt comfortable because he knew he was innocent. So he did not think of fleeing. Even though he was not involved in the rebellion, he was imprisoned, accused of high treason, and although no charge could be brought against him, except that he had once written two obnoxious novels and that the insurgents honored his portrait, he was sentenced to death and executed on December 30, 1896.” [12]

Rizal’s conviction and execution was also news for the Dutch newspapers. Although this news was colored by the Spanish sources, according to which Rizal had been involved in the uprising:

“In the Philippines. The leader and instigator of the uprising, Dr. Rizal, has been seized by the Spanish troops and taken to court in Manila. The court has pronounced the death penalty against him. At 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Rizal was shot outside Manila.” [13]

Little was said about Rizal’s work.

Comments on Rizal’s books in the Netherlands

A few years later, the newspaper De Telegraaf wrote about his book Noli me Tangere, which had been translated into French as Au pays des Moines, ‘in the land of the monks’:

“In 1886 he published his great social novel Noli me tangere, a true masterpiece of fine and at the same time precise analysis. … The Philippine society was exposed with such force and so ruthlessly, that it should be clear to every reader that the writer, by making public the monstrous conditions he described, had to attract the hatred of many influential and powerful persons. It was mainly the monks whom he pointed out as the cause of all the miseries that weighed down the Philippines, and they did not leave the allegations unanswered.” [14]

Other reviews have been equally praising:

“This is a book that must be read. It is a book of truth and is very topical. It cost the writer his life. … Everybody reading this book can understand the actions of an Aguinaldo and the rebellion against the authority of the demoralized Spanish government! Oh, do read this book! In his style of glowing bitterness one feels Rizal to be the honest patriot, who has such good intentions for his fatherland, but could not stand against the odds. It turns all the stories of telegraph agencies, American generals and Spanish colonial officials about the purpose and nature of the Filipinos into lies. If this book can find readers, Rizal would not find his life, which he has lost for it, was sold too dear. ‘Au pays des moines’ is a book of blood and tears of a noble and talented patriot.” [15]

No connection was made with colonialism in the Dutch East Indies.

Long after Rizal’s death, in 1912, the first Dutch translation of his novel Noli me tángere appeared as a series in the Soerabajasch Handelsblad, in the Dutch East Indies. This translation can be found online. It seems a bit truncated and censored, as some jokes or sarcastic remarks about religion were left out.

The editors of the Catholic weekly Java-Post did not like it:

“The Filipino novel ‘Noli me tangere’, by the notorious Rizal, is being continued without batting an eye, in the Soerabajasch Handelsblad. We are already at episode 91. How long will this go on? It is so childishly bland and at the same time so grossly insulting to our Sacred Religion.” [16]

This Dutch translation and the story of Rizal’s life and death probably inspired the young Dutch writer Theun de Vries. In 1933 he published his novel Doctor José droomt vergeefs (Dr. José dreams in vain). It is about a man who returns to his home island, about a school and the betrayal by a priest, and ends with the execution of the main character. But this novel lacks the style, character and hidden humor of Rizal’s work.

Theun de Vries became a famous author. This book has not been translated into English.

Unfortunately, the work of Dr. José Rizal, and its significance for the end of colonial rule in the Philippines, got little attention in the Netherlands.

Both novels by José Rizal have recently been published in Dutch translation. ‘Noli me tángere’ was published as Raak me niet aan! and ‘El Filibusterismo’ as De revolutie. [17]


[1] One hundred letters of Jose Rizal to his Parents, Brothers, Sisters, Relatives; letter from Heidelberg, 7-2-1886.

[2] Dr. Antonio de Morga, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, 1609; English translation in The Philippine Islands, Vol. 1, no. 15., p. 205 etc.

[3] Soerabaijasch Handelsblad, 14 januari 1889.

[4] Dr. J. Rizal, article in Trübner’s American and Oriental Literary Record, 1889.

[5] Prof. H. Kern, The Tale of the Tortoise and the Monkey, article published in 1893.

[6] Source: Jose Rizal, The Philippines A Century Hence (The Philippines a Century Hence (gutenberg.org)); originally published in Spanish in La Solidaridad from Sept. 1889 to Jan. 1890).

[7] The Rizal-Blumentritt Correspondence (Vol. II – part 2); Paris, 20-1-1890.

[8] Ibid; 24-1-1890.

[9] Die Transcription des Tagalog, in: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde van Nederlandsch-Indie, 1893.

[10] The Rizal-Blumentritt Correspondence (Vol. II – part 2); 26-4-1891.

[11] W.A. Retana, Vida y escritos del dr. José Rizal, 1907, p. 229.

[12] ‘De onlusten op de Filipijnen’, Tijdschrift voor Nederlands-Indië, 1897, 1e deel, p. 591 – 612. Prof. Kern based his article on an obituary written by Blumentritt.

[13] De Maasbode, 1 januari 1897.

[14] De Telegraaf, 4 maart 1898.

[15] De Hollandsche Revue, jrg. 4, 1899 nr. 8.

[16] Java-Post, jrg. 10, 1912.

[17] Raak me niet aan! (arpenco.nl)






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