Looking Back

Paciano Rizal and the 1882 Manila epidemic

/ 04:06 AM February 05, 2020

Rizal with a face mask is a meme shared on social media that makes people smile in the face of the coronavirus epidemic; it proves, at least to me, that the national hero remains as relevant today as when he was shot in 1896. Rizal’s correspondence contain references to the 1882 cholera epidemic that killed hundreds in Manila, until the typhoons drove it away, or so they thought. The way we deal with an epidemic in 2020 has parallels in 1882.

On July 24, 1882, Paciano Rizal wrote his brother regarding the town fiesta, family affairs, and even a postscript about two moderate earthquakes. He also noted: “There is cholera in Manila and they say that they are hiding it very carefully, so that abroad they will not declare this port dirty and consequently create another obstacle to the export trade. In our town we had three cases in the course of one month and all of them fatal.”


Rizal’s brother-in-law, Antonino Lopez, in August 1882, wrote: “Here at Calamba, as well as in every barrio, there is a procession every night praying to God to spare the town of the plague. All foodstuff that may cause illness, like those with bad smell such as tuyo, [bagoong] alamang, and the like, are forbidden; therefore the town of Calamba is very clean.”

Classes were suspended indefinitely and students from Manila returned to quarantine in their towns. Paciano described Calamba as a “veritable Tower of Babel. All the students and non-students, colegialas and not are there for three days under observation if they carry the plague on their bodies. Everybody is going home on account of the closing of educational establishment for both sexes. Every province is virtually isolated from the others. The cholera inspires such fear that the court, the civil guard, and the telegraph are very busy.”


A full report by Paciano from September 1882 reads: “When [the cholera epidemic] was officially declared in Manila, land and sea communications were interrupted. Ships coming from filthy ports were forbidden to stop here. The steamers that come from Manila go directly to Sta. Cruz [Laguna] to be fumigated and quarantined for 12 hours. Towns[people] are not allowed to mingle with each other or enjoy any consideration, except with the permission of the government.

“As to the social life in our town, many people go to church in the morning to attend daily prayers as prescribed by the Archbishop’s pastoral letter. There is a continuous movement of men carrying bottles to get medicine. The priests are always riding in vehicles to bring spiritual aid where they are called. In the afternoon there are bonfires in many places to serve as disinfectant and the people go to church again to recite the novena to San Roque. At night, processions, sometimes three, cross one another in the streets until late hours. At their conclusion, the participants eat at the house of the leader, who prepares food and fireworks as much as his resources permit.

“What I admire in these things is the contrast between the sentiments of old and young: The old grieve when they ought to rejoice because the plague makes them see their end closer; the young rejoice when they ought to grieve because they are in danger of not being able to fulfill the object for which they have come to this world.

“Now that the plague is at its peak, an average of 15 persons die daily. From night to morning, healthy and robust men become corpses, or at least so completely unrecognizable and emaciated, hovering between life and death. Those who succumb to any other disease deserve to be envied, because, at least, they are attended to and taken care of at their homes, they are taken to church and are buried in the cemetery, but the victims of this scourge cannot comfort themselves that they are treated thus. Their relatives, even the close ones, flee; they are not taken care of and if sometimes they are attended to, they become a heavy burden to their household who fear contagion. They are wrapped up and buried with the Chinese. It is a sad thing to die under these circumstances and of this disease; one is exposed to be devoured by dogs. I doubt very much if the grave has a depth of two spans, and there is a throng of dogs around. If we were of the Brahmin caste, reincarnation would be most natural thing for us, but as Catholics, we want our remains to be respected.”

History gives us perspective to count our blessings.

[Comments are welcome at [email protected]]

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TAGS: 1882 cholera epidemic, Ambeth R. Ocampo, Jose Rizal, Looking Back, Paciano Rizal
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