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Looking Back

Rizal & butterflies

/ 08:51 PM January 24, 2013

Once we had to endure a long-winded academic who held forth with an impassioned monologue on Rizal. With lunch waiting in the next room, I decided to cut him short with a suggestion: “Perhaps your conclusion would be different if you had consulted Rizal’s correspondence with Dr. Czepelak.” The silence that followed was the cue to proceed to lunch. Over coffee, someone asked: “Who was Dr. Czepelak?”

I replied: “Dr. Carlos Czepelak was a guy who collected butterflies.”

“What did he have to do with the discussion?”


“Oh, nothing really, I just wanted to defer the debate to the afternoon session. I was hungry and lunch was getting cold.”

That night I looked up Czepelak in the volumes of Rizal’s correspondence and realized my mistake. It wasn’t Czepelak who collected butterflies. It was Napoleon M. Kiehl of Prague, no relation to the Kiehl of New York who invented the high-end facial products I use. Kiehl had published an obscure work in German on the butterflies of Nias and decided that with Rizal’s assistance, he could also publish a monograph on Mindanao.

Kiehl and Rizal were introduced to each other by their common friend, Dr. A. B. Meyer of Dresden. In October 1894 Rizal sent 165 butterflies to Dresden from Dapitan along with other specimens in exchange for a treatise on mathematics in French, and a small case of measuring instruments that he could use on the birds, fish, and small animals he caught on his seaside estate. From Rizal’s correspondence with Meyer, it is clear that Rizal sent specimens to the natural history museum in Dresden in exchange for books from Europe. Not a bad deal, really, no money was exchanged between friends, no cash exchanged between scholars.

Rizal’s Dapitan correspondence displays his seemingly boundless curiosity and the wish to write on all topics, even anthropology. Once he wrote Meyer: “I anxiously await my liberty so that I can live for a few weeks among the Subanons, the mountaineers, and the Moros of this island [Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte]. I am convinced that there is still much to be studied [here. You can] count on a good remittance of heads for anthropology.” Did Rizal mean human heads? Plaster casts of human heads? Or did he mean cranial measurements?

It is said that when Rizal was inducted to the Berlin Anthropological Society, the eminent anthropologist Dr. Rudolf Carl Virchow (1821-1902) was so curious about the Filipino that he asked to measure Rizal’s cranium. Rizal escaped with a pun that made everyone laugh. It is unfortunate that Rizal’s cranial measurements and other anatomical data did not form part of Virchow’s notes. Had they been so, there would be no need to exhume Rizal’s remains from under the Luneta monument so these can be measured and scanned for further study.

Almost all Filipino grade-schoolers know that there is a frog, a bug, and a winged lizard whose scientific names began carrying the hero’s surname after they were classified and put into the books at Dresden. Rizal almost got his name into butterflies’ names as well, as Kiehl wrote him on Nov. 3, 1894:

“Some weeks ago I received from Dresden a small collection of [butterflies], 31 samples with pins that arrived in bad condition. Of course, the handling of butterflies requires special attention. The principal thing is to catch other fresh samples whose wings are not in the least flayed. It is also necessary to have good nets. And once caught the butterflies are not held down with pins but placed in paper bags. I take the liberty now to send you some in a little tin box as follows: two nets and paper bags of various sizes by way of sample filled with natural butterflies, though damaged ones. The paper bags are for the purpose of showing how the butterflies are inserted in them.

“I request you to please have some of your assistants make me a collection of Mindanao butterflies so that I can publish a ‘Fauna of Mindanao’ similar to the ‘Fauna of Nias.’ By way of a little experiment you can return to me this little box filled with any kind of butterflies in paper bags, caught with one of the nets. I shall pay you, or send you the payment in any form you like for the expenses incurred and all that I owe you. Basis of equivalence: 25 samples in good condition are worth one  duro  (then five  pesetas).”


Kiehl was to make Rizal a research assistant or informant. One would wonder how else Rizal would be compensated aside from cash. Did some of the butterflies carry his surname, too, when they were classified and given Latin scientific names? What credit did he get when Kiehl published the proposed “Fauna of Mindanao”?

In March 1895, a few months after sending the butterfly-catching and -packaging supplies, Kiehl requested that Rizal collect not only butterflies but also locusts, beetles and blowflies. Unfortunately, Kiehl was not too happy with the collections sent and bluntly told Rizal so. In November 1894 Rizal complained: “It is very difficult for me to catch butterflies without spoiling them, for my boys are not skilled in the art. However, I shall try to collect all the insects that fall into my hands. I am glad to know that you have found new species among those I have sent you.”

After a pledge to send more specimens, the correspondence ended. Rizal had other pursuits and Kiehl gave up. Such was the end of Rizal’s butterfly-catching.

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TAGS: anthropology, butterflies, column, dr. carlos czepelak, Jose Rizal
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