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Comet, cholera, and calamity in 1882

/ 04:05 AM February 12, 2020

Comets then and now must be a spectacular sight. Spotting one is deep in my bucket list after the sore disappointment with Kohoutek, billed as the “comet of the century,” which was not visible in Manila in 1973. When a comet rips the darkness off an evening sky, people have traditionally interpreted it as a bad omen. One that was seen in Ilocos in 1807 was documented in a series of 14 paintings attributed to Esteban Villanueva; the paintings also provide us a visual history of the 13-day Basi Revolt when the Bantaoay river turned red with blood. Another comet was seen in Calamba in 1882, a year that was remembered for typhoons, floods, earthquakes, and a cholera epidemic that left hundreds dead and thousands in fear and mourning. Maria Rizal, writing from Calamba in November 1882, asked her brother Jose if the comet they saw was visible in Spain, too. “Tatay is asking,” she wrote, “if you have not seen a comet there, like the one we used to see at the height of the cholera epidemic at four in the morning.” Rizal replied on Dec. 30, 1882: “Tell Tatay I saw the comet with the long tail one night when Sanciangco, Paterno, and I were returning from the house of Don Pablo. The tail was long and it was visible from one to six o’clock in the morning.”

The Great Comet of 1882 is an often overlooked detail in the correspondence of Rizal that recounts the terror of cholera, a story relevant to our times with the novel coronavirus outbreak. Face masks and sanitizers flew off drugstore shelves in 2020, the way manzanilla and cognac did in 1882. Silvestre Ubaldo, Rizal’s brother-in-law, remarked in October 1882: “Because of this sickness [cholera], the drugstores’ supply of manzanilla flower was exhausted and there is a shortage of cognac in the groceries, and its price doubled. None can be obtained… Here we take manzanilla and tea as our drinking water, and scrub and clean the house constantly.”

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Regular house cleaning and boiled water were probably what kept the Rizals cholera-free. Manuel Hidalgo, another brother-in law, related how their houseboys were afflicted but got cured with local remedies — “sambong, pepita, garlic, etc.” Antonino Lopez, yet another brother-in-law, reported on sanitation ordinances in Calamba, which banned sale of foul-smelling food like buro and tuyo.

December 1882, people believed that typhoons and floods had washed away the cholera epidemic. But a new disease took its place — beri-beri, described by Saturnina Rizal in a letter: “There is a new disease prevailing here now. It starts with the swelling of the feet and the legs until the knee, then difficulty in breathing ensues, and two hours later the patient is dead. Toneng, mother of Pangoy, died of this disease; Comadre Geña Paño is gravely ill of this disease also.”

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Rizal’s correspondence uncovers other problems that came with the epidemic. Rizal’s sister apologized for the plain embroidery on handkerchiefs and linens sent to him from home, because Biñan folk would not take on special orders. She described flooded streets that had to be traversed by banca. Ruined rice and sugar yields led to rumors of famine, so rice was imported from Saigon to stabilize prices.

Disease makes desperate people act in irrational ways, so it was cool to watch Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s measured and inspiring message on the coronavirus emergency, compared to the silence from Malacañang. The prime minister clearly separated race and politics from the disease, to counter any bias against China and the Chinese. That is not new, and we see it in Rizal’s experience with quarantine on his 1888 visit to America. In three letters to various people, he complained about being quarantined off San Francisco despite no illness reported on board, and the fact that they had not docked in any infected ports. Rizal pointed out that with 642 Chinese on board, American officials facing an election made a show against Chinese immigration, so Rizal had to suffer with them. Still, 700 bales of silk were offloaded from the ship despite the quarantine, but not the passengers. Rizal felt this was unfair and arbitrary. He advised his family: “I do not advise anyone to make a trip to America, for here they have these absurdities of quarantine and strict customs inspection, that on anything they impose tax after tax, enormous, enormous.”

As I always say, history does not repeat itself, people do.

[Comments are welcome at [email protected]]

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TAGS: Amberth R. Ocampo, beri-beri, cholera epidemic, comet sightings, Kohoutek, Looking Back
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