Wednesday, September 26, 2018
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Looking Back

More historical PH-Czech links

Blumentritt is the name of an old street in Manila. It is named in honor of Jose Rizal’s friend, Ferdinand Blumentritt, a schoolmaster in an obscure Bohemian town called Litomerice that was once part of Austria, then Czechoslovakia. It is understood that the 19th-century friendship between Blumentritt and Rizal is the foundation that warms and animates the 21st-century diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Czech Republic.

What a revelation it was to discover more historical links during a two-week tour of Czeskia. Arranged by Jaroslav Olsa, the ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Philippines, the tour showed traces of historical and cultural relations between the two countries—that is, if one takes the time to see and to notice.


A day after my arrival in Prague, I walked aimlessly around town to adjust to a new time zone and climate, and saw the grand National Museum building near St. Wenceslas Square that was unfortunately under renovation. Nevertheless, I made my way to the “new” National Museum building next door that had exhibits on Czech lifestyle and “Noah’s Ark.”

The latter was filled with stuffed animals, birds and reptiles that would normally put me to sleep. Except that while reading the panels that introduced the exhibit, I noticed a glass case with a display of an oversized book of botanical plates from the collection of Thaddaus Haenke, a Czech scientist who was part of an ambitious five-year (1789-1794) maritime scientific expedition funded by the Spanish Royal Philippine Company.

This expedition spent several months in the Philippines, mostly in Manila, where the scientists went about collecting data. Haenke collected plant specimens and made drawings of Philippine flora and fauna that eventually ended up, not in Spain, but in the Czech National Museum.

I was informed that the Haenke herbarium of pressed plants and drawings number over 15,000 specimens of which around 700 were collected from the Philippines. His handwritten provenance lists the site of collection as “Luzon.” Surely, a book of reproductions of these 18th-century Philippine plants can be published someday with annotations by a team of Filipino and Czech botanists.

After reading about Haenke and his Philippine plants, I took a closer look at the stuffed animals and was pleased to find a tarsier from Bohol, a flying squirrel from Palawan, and a bird collected from “Luzon.” While I am not into natural history, I wonder how and when these things got to the Czech National Museum. Who collected them and why? Surely, there is more Philippine material waiting in the bodega for Filipino researchers to discover.

Aside from natural science, perhaps there are ethnographic materials like those I have seen over the years in museum bodegas in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Madrid and the United States.

Speaking of botanicals, another little-known Czech in the Philippines was the Jesuit lay brother Georg Joseph Kamel (1661-1706), whose name is on the flowers we all know as camellias. Kamel arrived in the Philippines in 1688 and established one of the earliest pharmacies in the islands. He also published, from 1697-1698, a three volume botanical work “Herbarum Aliarumrque stirpium in insula Luzon e Philippinarum,” on which his reputation rests.

To put me on the trail of Kamel, I was driven two hours from Prague to Cesky Krumlov, a postcard pretty castle town in South Bohemia which is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Here I was shown the Jesuit pharmacy where Kamel trained before he was sent to the Philippines.

The apothecary is a small room dominated by an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, flanked by shelves filled with bottles and jars of herbs, powders, pastes, etc. On the table were weighing scales, brass mortar and pestle, copper implements for mixing potions, and metal presses for making communion wafers with the trademark “IHS” of the Jesuits. One of the jars contained “Sanguinis draconis” (Dragon blood) in powder form, which made me feel like Harry Potter in the spells and potions class. Surely Kamel’s pharmacy in Manila was based on that room in Cesky Krumlov. (More on Friday)


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TAGS: Blumentritt, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, diplomatic relations, Ferdinand Blumentritt, Jose Rizal, Litomerice
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