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Haggling over the ‘Ultimo Adios’

Tradition has it that Jose Rizal wrote his undated and untitled valedictory poem we all know as the “Mi Ultimo Adios” (My Last Farewell) on Dec. 29, 1896, the eve of his execution. Sorry to be unromantic, but if I face a firing squad in the morning I will write out a will, rather than a long poem!

The original manuscript measures 9.5 x 15 centimeters, with faded writing in Rizal’s neat hand on both sides. No erasures, mistakes or hesitation. Before it was cleaned and transferred to an acid-free folder, it used to be preserved under glass in a leather case, protected inside a strong narra box.

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The manuscript appears to have been folded into four parts and was hidden inside an alcohol stove or burner, a gift from Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera, which  Rizal used from travels abroad till his last days in Fort Santiago. It was bequeathed to his spinster sister Trinidad with the words: “There is something inside.” The Rizal sisters, according to family tradition, gingerly fished the manuscript from hiding with their hairpins. Then the sisters made handwritten copies, which were distributed and later printed and disseminated in Hong Kong in early 1897 by Mariano Ponce, who gave the untitled poem the title “Mi Ultimo Pensamiento” (My Last Thought). These contemporary copies have since turned up at auction houses, generating confusion over which is the authentic one by Rizal.

When Josephine Bracken left the Philippines in 1897, she took the “Ultimo Adios” with her, insisting it was bequeathed to her and not to Rizal’s family. We can now be sure of this, not only through humorless reminiscences of Rizal’s kin but from a file concerning the acquisition of the “Ultimo Adios” by the Philippine government in 1908 that I came across in the Library of Congress two weeks ago.

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On July 5, 1907, Edwin Wildman, author and brother of the US Consul to Hong Kong at the end of the 19th century, wrote the Bureau of Insular Affairs (BIA) in Washington offering the manuscript for sale to the Philippine Museum for $500. In November of that year, Wildman received a reply that the governor-general of the Philippines was requesting that the manuscript be sent to Manila for authentication, by comparing it with Rizal manuscripts in the archives.

In December 1907, Wildman sent the manuscript by registered mail from his home in New York to BIA in Washington, which forwarded it to Manila. He reiterated the $500 price, saying: “I only regret that I am not in position so that I can present this souvenir to the Philippine Museum, an act that would give me much pleasure.” He also provided the following note on its provenance:

“ORIGINAL MSS OF DR JOSE RIZAL’S POEM ‘MY LAST THOUGHTS TO MY COUNTRY.’

“The night before the execution of Dr. Rizal he sent for Josephine Brackin. ‘I came to the Palace and was conducted to an altar where I found him waiting.’ He said: ‘Ah, dear, my time has come to be united to you, but separated forever.’ He begged me to forgive him the sorrow he had caused me, and told me that in the little cooking machine he had hidden a paper for me—the last message to his country.” —extract from Josephine Rizal’s own story from  “Aguinaldo: A Narrative of Filipino Ambitions,” by Edwin Wildman.

“The original manuscript poem of the ‘last message’ above referred to was given to the present owner in 1898 (for a consideration) in Manila.”

Months passed and Wildman was agitated, until he received a letter dated Aug. 31, 1908, stating: “We have just received a cable from Manila about the manuscript of the Rizal poem in which the Governor General advises us that the Philippine government desires to purchase the manuscript, but that they are of the opinion that the price asked is too high, and want to know whether you will accept five hundred pesos, or two hundred and fifty dollars. What may we say to the Governor General about the price?”

The offer was repeated again in October, prompting Wildman to write: “While I would like to oblige the government in the matter, I offered the poem at one-half of its value as estimated by collectors here, as I wanted to give the Philippines the first opportunity to possess it. If the Government do not want it at the price offered will you be so kind as to cable them to return it by first steamer and greatly oblige.”

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Manila blinked, Wildman was paid $500, and the “Ultimo Adios” has remained in the National Library since.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: “Mi Ultimo Adios”, ambeth ocampo, Jose Rizal, Josephine Bracken, Looking Back, National Library
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