Looking Back

Kamel and Klein, early Czechs in Manila

Postcard-pretty” is a description that has fallen into disuse in the digital age, where postcards have faced extinction like dinosaurs. Communications sent by post are now unfairly compared with email and derided as snailmail.

“Postcard-pretty” has since been replaced by “Instagrammable,” a word that brings to mind Cesky Krumlov, one of the most Instagram-worthy towns there is, tucked away in the heart of the Czech Republic. Walking through its winding cobbled streets is literally walking in history; it has a fortified castle on a hill that only needs flame-belching dragons, witches, dark knights and a princess in distress to complete the medieval fairy-tale picture.


My short visit to Cesky Krumlov last year, arranged by Jaroslav Olsa, Czech ambassador to the Philippines, seemed odd, since I was dead-set on following the trail of Rizal and his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt. Well, there is more to Philippines-Czech relations than Rizal and Budweiser beer. Our historical relations run deep, and starts with Jesuit missionaries in the Philippines who were sent not from Spain but from Bohemia.

Georg Josef Kamel (born in Moravia in 1661 and died in Manila in 1706) has been largely forgotten in the Philippines, even if he lives on through the flower named in his honor by Linnaeus—the Camellia. Kamel brought his pharmacological gifts to Manila, where he treated the ailments of all who sought his cures. He had trained in the Jesuit pharmacy in Cesky Krumlov, which has preserved a baroque apothecary complete with paintings depicting Saint Pantaleon and Saint John of Nepomuk, who is better known in the Philippines under his Spanish name San Juan Nepomuceno.


Kamel’s apothecary will put any antiseptic Mercury Drug store to shame with its display of antique weighing scales and other measuring tools set side by side with copper mortar and pestle. Unlike the modern drugstore whose heart is the cash register, this Jesuit pharmacy is dominated by an image of the Virgin Mary. From an array of bottles and canisters arranged neatly on the finely carved wooden shelves, the curator pulled out one with the Latin inscription “Sanguinis draconis Pulv.” Every can has its original contents, explained the curator, as he opened the can with the Latin marks to reveal a fine red powder supposed to be “Dragon Blood.”

Czech Jesuits once lost to Philippine history have been brought to light through the efforts of Ambassador Olsa, who once requested me for bibliographic references to a certain Pavel Klein who was born in Bohemia in 1652 and died in Manila in 1717. Klein was as important as Kamel; he served as rector of the Jesuit Colleges in Cavite and Manila, and rose to become superior of the Jesuit Mission in the Philippines.

But why was there no material about him available? I realized later that he was there all along. I searched under his Czech name Pavel Klein and his Latin name Paulus Klein, only to discover that he was filed under the Spanish form of his name—Pablo Clain (pronounced Cla-in).

Aside from botany and pharmacology, Klein was also into astronomy; he left a report of an eclipse visible in 18th-century Manila. His research on Tagalog was the foundation for later dictionaries like the “Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala,” compiled by the Jesuits Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar and first published in 1754 and again in 1860.

In the digital collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de España is Klein’s “Remedios faciles…” [Easy remedies for the alleviation and help against various ailments noted by Pablo Clain, S.J. in this territory. Dedicated to the glorious Archangel San Rafael…]. It’s a work that circulated in manuscript form until it saw print in Manila in 1712 and again in 1857. A rare work of 218 pages, the book was printed on rice paper and, while obsolete today, can still be read for the long list of plant names compiled by Klein in Tagalog, Visayan and Kapampangan, together with their corresponding names in Spanish and Latin. These words give us a picture of 18th-century Philippines, its languages and its notions of health and illness.

Kamel and Klein have been rescued from the dustbin of history to highlight early Philippines-Czech relations. While they may be mere footnotes to some scholars, they underscore the fact that Philippine history is built on many interesting bits of information derided as trivia.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]


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TAGS: Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic, History
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