Rizal’s lost bio

Today is the birthday of Jose Rizal and one wonders what he’s thinking beneath his tomb on the Luneta. By coincidence I just happened to be thumbing through some forgotten, and now defunct, magazines on Philippine film and wondered what happened to Edward Gross’s biography of Rizal?

Edward Gross was one of the pioneers of film-making in the Philippines and made the first feature-length (for the day, it was 5,000 feet) movie on the national hero: “The Life of Jose Rizal”. A competitor, Charles Yearsley, actually beat him to the box-office, though, with a 500 foot quickie called “The Execution of Jose Rizal” and filched the same actors. Gross’s film premiered on August 12, 1912 on the 14th anniversary of the cessation of Spanish-American hostilities in 1898 and exactly a day short of the Spanish surrender to Dewey in Manila and a year and one month since another cinematographic entrepreneur (cum mercenary) LM Johnson allegedly signed the Philippine Declaration of Independence. Gross went on to put the Noli and the Fili on celluloid with his wife, the talented actress Titay Molina, as Maria Clara.

Gross was a Rizal fan and, before making the movie based on Rizal’s life, apparently wrote a biography on the Philippine national hero. There were still plenty of people around who had known Rizal, and maybe had even seen the execution and one wonders whether Gross actually researched his subject in any depth. Do any copies of the biography exist?

Be that as it may, one idea that has gone the rounds is that the famous photograph of the Rizal execution is just a still from Gross’s or Yearsley’s films in the 1912. At least two copies of the execution photograph by Manuel Arias Rodriguez exist, one in a museum in Madrid, another in a museum in Cavite, both are albumin prints, a technology not longer used in 1912, and anyone familiar with stills taken from films of the period would immediately dismiss the notion that they were frames from films.


So the diminutive man in the bowler hat in the famous picture is indeed, Jose Rizal.

Independence Day Mysteries


orgive me for borrowing your Independence Day. Being British I don’t have one of my own. Colonized by all and sundry over a thousand years, the Brits never won a war of independence so on June 12 I hang out the red, blue, white and yellow and glue myself to the television to watch the ceremonies along Roxas Boulevard to savor a nation’s pride and hear the eternal arguments about which is the ‘real’ independence day for the Philippines.

Of course, what’s important is not the date, but the meaning. After all, Jesus Christ wasn’t born on December 25, or January 6 according to some Christian church traditions, yet these are still celebrated as his birthday. January 1 was not always New Year’s Day, which was once celebrated in March. New Year’s Eve in 1844 vanished entirely in Manila with December 30 followed by January 1 after the Spanish discovered that their ‘Philippine Time’ was whole day out of whack thanks to sloppy navigation in the 16th century.

Nevertheless, this is the time of year when that hoary old argument between the June 12 supporters and the July 4 supporters gets re-aired like an old blanket in storage. July 4 is the ‘real’ independence day say the latter because it’s the day when the United States granted and recognized the Philippines formal, if not full, independence.

In fact, the United States itself does not celebrate the day of recognition of its independence, but the day in 1776 when it was merely declared, July 4. Its status was not formally recognised by Britain until September 3, 1786 at the end of peace talks in Paris, bring the American insurgency to an end.

So, to accept July 4 as the ‘real’ Philippine Independence Day, one should celebrate American independence on September 3. What’s good for the Philippine goose ought to be good for the American gander.

We have the father of former-President Ate Glo, President Diosdado Macapagal, to thank for the fact that today we honour Independence Day on June 12, or possibly John F. Kennedy, or Professor Gabriel Fabella. In the first place, of course, we have to thank Emilio Aguinaldo.

Inevitably, the Declaration of Independence carries it own baggage of myth and mystery. We often imagine Aguinaldo on June 12 proudly waving the Philippine flag as he declared independence from a balcony that didn’t actually exist until the 1930s. No wonder the carved carabao holding it up looks dazed.

Rear Admiral George Dewey, was invited to the affair but, under orders to avoid contact with the revolutionaries, he decided to read his mail instead.

The actual declaration was made not by Aguinaldo but by Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista, Auditor of War and Special Commissioner designated to make the proclamation.

The sole paleface in the assembly was the mysterious L. M. Johnson, Colonel of Artillery who signed the Philippine Declaration of Independence on its second to last page. The declaration itself says it was signed by Riazares “as well as by the only foreigner, a North American subject, Mr. L. M. Johnson, Colonel of Artillery, who attended the meeting…”

He is variously described in history textbooks as Dewey’s secretary and the commander of an American artillery unit. He was neither of these – a rear-admiral of the US Navy would hardly have a full US Army colonel as his secretary, and his name does not appear in the roster of the Olympia.

According to American journalist Trumbull White, who attended the celebrations, Johnson was “actually in charge of the ordinance of the insurgent forces”. According to White, Johnson was cheered and born on the shoulders of celebrating Filipinos with enthusiasm.

Who actually was L.M. Johnson? He was a former hotel-keeper from Shanghai who was trying his luck with the Xbox of the time, the cinematograph. He may be the same L. M. Johnson who was a private in the Army of Hawaii in 1894, led by expatriate American businessmen who all seem to be called Dole, which eventually managed to leverage the annexation of Hawaii. L. M. Johnson earned his artillery props at the Battle of Moilili firing a field gun. Apparently a soldier of fortune he also fought in the war between Chile and Peru and elsewhere in South America.

Eventually, Johnson seems to have become a junior partner in an American company that operated a bar called the Alhambra on the Escolta, which was sued for debt in August 1901.

Johnson became volunteer deputy fire chief of Manila and, according to his descendants, went to Japan to learn the pearl fishing industry and eventually died trying to rescue members of his Filipino workforce in a storm.

The next step was the ratification of independence at Malolos on September 29. The description of the fine banquet afterwards is best left to Ambeth Ocampo. There were, fact, two banquets that day, for lunch and dinner and both presenting a minor mystery – how did they freeze the frozen strawberry preserves and Mocha ice-cream and chill the Champagne without ice from an ice-plant? The answer is probably in a long-forgotten bit of simple technology known to the grandparents of our grandparents: The food to be chilled was placed in a wooden pail filled with a chemical that produced and endothermic reaction when mixed with water – it got cold enough to freeze water.

All of which became largely moot with the American occupation of the Philippines and Filipinos would have to wait until October 14, 1943 for its next Independence Day. Okay, so it was issued by the Japanese and wasn’t taken seriously, nevertheless, it was another date on the independence calendar.

Next, of course, came July 4, 1946, with appropriate ceremonies and 21-gun salutes from American, Portuguese and Thai warships in Manila Bay. A qualified independence, yes, but even worse, one to be forever overshadowed by that of the United States itself. Inevitably, that inequity rankled. Philippine embassy parties were rather sparsely attended. As a result, the Philippine ambassador to London decided to hold his shindig a few days earlier and scored a hit.

Historian Gabriel Fabella decided enough was enough and in 1956 first floated the idea of changing Philippine Independence Day to June 12 in the Sunday Times Magazine. Over the next few years he continued to push the idea, but few snapped at the bait. In 1959 the Philippine Historical Society adopted a resolution supporting the change but it remained an idea whose time had yet to come. Significantly, his biggest audience came in 1961 in a radio broadcast from Legaspi City.

Then came a little to-do in 1962 between the Philippines and the United States and Presidents Macapagal and Kennedy respectively. The Philippines refused to allow the importation of American Virginia tobacco and powerful tobacco interests in the US Congress blocked the $73 million War Damage Bill that would fulfill post war promises made to the country. President Kennedy was firmly behind the bill and criticized Congress for its “lack of appreciation of the moral obligation the United States owes to the people of the Philippines”.

At the time, Macapagal was scheduled to visit the US. The visit was cancelled and Macapagal coincidentally remembered that, as a Congressman, he’d thought that Independence Day should be changed to June 12, just like Fabella.

As it happened, there was no law designating July 4 as Independence Day, it was merely a national holiday. As businessmen have become increasingly aware in recent years, Presidents can grant a national holiday at the drop of a hat. Macapagal announced June 12 as a national holiday and sent a bill to the Philippine Congress marked urgent to make the day the statutory independence day.

Emilio Aguinaldo was overjoyed at the change to June 12 and fulsome in his praise for Macapagal. Eyeing the Rizal Monument he wondered aloud to Macapagal whether there would ever be a matching Aguinaldo monument.

Efforts to revive the War Damage Bill were eventually successful, and Macapagal expended a great deal of presidential ink to assure Americans that the whole thing was not done in a fit of pique.

While Filipinos rather enjoyed having their own Independence Day their legislators felt otherwise and wanted to find some celebration for July 4. So it was that July 4 became Republic Day and is today known as Fil-Am Friendship Day, not that many folk take notice. With that bit of horse-trading out of the way, Macapagal could sign Republic Act 4186 on August 4, 1964, a little more than two years after he’d first put the measure to Congress as ‘urgent’.

It was, however, too late for Aguinaldo, who died in February 1964 and let us with an intriguing question:

Why didn’t Aguinaldo sign the Declaration of Independence?

Titanic sa Filipinas

Well, there we were on a gruelling three day shoot making an educational mini-movie in the Subic Bay Freeport rainforest. The movie was about a merchant ship disaster. With that heart-dropping inevitability one becomes accustomed to, there was a karaoke bar nearby, that Japanese revenge for Hiroshima. As chance would have it, as we were shooting, the theme tune to Titanic was being sung the Welsh way – too loud, too often, and flat. Only in the Philippines!

Mi Ultimo Adios decoded

Verse 6


Si sobre mi sepulcro vieres brotar un día

Entre la espesa yerba sencilla, humilde flor,

Acércala a tus labios y besa al alma mía,

Y sienta yo en mi frente bajo la tumba fría,

De tu ternura el soplo, de tu hálito el calor.

If over my grave some day thou seest grow,

In the grassy sod, a humble flower,

Draw it to thy lips and kiss my soul so,

While I may feel on my brow in the cold tomb below

The touch of thy tenderness, thy breath’s warm power.

Here Rizal has transitioned into his afterlife, or lack of it. In Christian mythology the body remains in the grave until the day of resurrection and a physical, not metaphysical arising from the grave, these appear not to be referenced in Rizal’s verse here or elsewhere.

The qualifying ‘Si’ – ‘If’ on the first line is in one sense odd. Since nature is itself an element of the motherland, the spirit of the land, why should a flower not grow there when it is within the power for her to provide one? Yet here the flower seems almost accidental.

In days gone by, visitors noted a generosity among Filipinos. If one expressed admiration for, say, an ornament in a house it was likely to be given to you. Perhaps the small flower represents the recognition that Rizal undoubtedly sought for he was well aware that he was a historical figure.

Why the thick grass, among which the flower might grow? Outside large, formal cemeteries graves in the Philippines receive little attention except at All Souls/All Saints when graves are cleaned and tended and the family of the departed hold a gathering/vigil which, more often than not, includes direct or indirect conversations with the dead.

Rizal had a clear image of his grave. He asked his family for a simple plot, with the option of a fence around it, and a cross, that’s all. That is what he describes here. Today, of course, his grave is what is popularly called the Rizal Monument but should more properly be called the Rizal Tomb since that is where his remains are buried. Not only were his wishes ignored but even his essence has been removed from his grave by dubbing it a monument. His wishes, his words, his ‘Rizalness’ have been effaced and removed from consciousness.

In this verse, the image is of an untended grave, perhaps forgotten by his countrymen. At the same time, the packed grass may also represent the fertility of the motherland, the growth of liberty, those common tao – the grassroots – who also struggled for the Patria. With the redemption of the Patria his task is ended and becomes forgotten, as the real flesh and blood Rizal has largely been forgotten.

He asked little of his country. No monuments, no parades, no streets or schools in his name, just a fond kiss and a warm breathe, a recognition that he existed.

Verse 7

Deja a la luna verme con luz tranquila y suave,

Deja que el alba envíe su resplandor fugaz,

Deja gemir al viento con su murmullo grave,

Y si desciende y posa sobre mi cruz un ave,

Deja que el ave entone su cántico de paz.

Let the moon beam over me soft and serene,

Let the dawn shed over me its radiant flashes,

Let the wind with sad lament over me keen;

And if on my cross a bird should be seen,

Let it trill there its hymn of peace to my ashes.

The moon makes its first appearance here and perhaps with more reason than mere romantic imagery. The moon is associated with femininity and feminine deity, she shines by the light of the sun, a male element, yet it is a light that she transforms. Compare earlier verses and the reference to the ‘(friar’s) cowl of gloom’. No stars or moon can be seen through such a cowl, yet here the moon shines brightly, the cowl, ie. The friars have gone and the Patria is free to shine her light.

Here also is a repetition of the imagery of the dawn, the dawn of redemption, now shining its light over his grave. Although he refers to the night, ie., the moon, and the dawn, he does not refer to the day, perhaps because the day of liberation is already here.

Only the wind, impersonal, will lament over his grave. Again he uses a qualifying ‘si’ – ‘if’ when writing of the bird that may rest on the cross above him. It does not lament him but sings of peace, the peace that comes with liberation and the peace with which he rests below.

Verses 7-11>