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The stolen ‘Noli,’ ‘Fili’ and ‘Ultimo Adios’

opinion / Columnists
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Looking Back

The stolen ‘Noli,’ ‘Fili’ and ‘Ultimo Adios’

It is not well known that the original manuscripts of Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere,” “El Filibusterismo,” and “Ultimo Adios” were stolen from the National Library in December 1961 and held for ransom. Or that all three priceless relics were recovered by then Education Secretary Alejandro R. Roces, who to his dying day would neither confirm nor deny whether ransom was paid, whether wholly or partly, for the safe return of these manuscripts that have since been kept in a presumably fireproof vault in the National Library.

Here is the path of ownership of each from the time it left Rizal’s hand: The “Noli” was acquired from Soledad Rizal in 1911 for P25,000; the “Fili” was acquired from the heirs of Valentin Venture in 1925 for P10,000; and the “Ultimo Adios” was acquired from Hong Kong, presumably from Josephine Bracken, for US$500. At the time of the theft, the entire Rizal collection was insured for P2 million, and since the three manuscripts were only part of the collection, one wonders how much insurance was receivable after evaluation.

The story of how these survived the Battle for Manila in 1945 has three versions. One source says the prewar National Library had 70,000 items in 19 steel vaults that were left in the old Legislative Building (today the National Museum). Another source claims the Rizal manuscripts were separated from the rest of the Library collection and deposited in January 1945 in one of the Manila City Hall vaults, which was discovered at the close of the war to have been forcibly opened using an acetylene torch and emptied of its contents. Yet another source claims the Rizal manuscripts survived because the box that contained these was forgotten or intentionally left behind by a janitor who ran to safety. The box and its contents were recovered intact after the war.

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These manuscripts evaded capture or destruction by the repressive Spanish colonial or Church authorities, and survived the Philippine Revolution, the Philippine-American War and the Battle for Manila in 1945—only to disappear from a National Library display case during the 100th anniversary of Rizal’s birth in 1961.

The only clue was a physician’s rubber glove (right hand), found by investigators near the open window that the thief used for his or her escape. The glass case containing the manuscripts was forced open, and yet one wonders why the thief didn’t cart off the rest of the equally valuable items on display. “Ultimo Adios” is so small it can be folded and slipped into a pocket, but the “Noli” and “Fili” are oversized and rather heavy. It must have taken some effort to carry these out of the building without being seen.

After grilling the night guard, the police pronounced the theft an “inside job” and proposed three angles or motives for the crime: that the culprit was hired by an avid Rizalist and collector; that the culprit was “psycotic” (sic) and a fanatic Rizalist who was afflicted by an intense desire for the priceless articles; and that the culprit was a “prankster out to embarrass the authorities.”

Another lead followed by the police was a possible connection between the National Library theft and the break-in at the Santa Mesa home of the historian Gregorio Zaide, who had just returned from a study trip on Rizal’s travels abroad, including new research on the hero’s stay in Japan.

After a preliminary police inquiry, the National Bureau of Investigation stepped in. But all were stumped because all but one set of fingerprints lifted from the display cases were identified as belonging to officials of the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission and delegates to the then ongoing International Congress on Rizal.

More motives were added to the list. The culprit: was an insider familiar with the National Library; was deranged and wanted to become famous; stole the manuscripts for resale or ransom; wanted to outdo the thefts of famous paintings in Europe; was doing a publicity stunt to add zest to the closing of the International Congress on Rizal; worshipped Rizal as God and wanted a relic; and was bent on destroying all of Rizal’s original works.

Aside from the money angle, not all is clear in this 56-year-old story.
Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: “Noli Me Tangere, El Filibusterismo, Jose Rizal, National Library, Ultimo Adios
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