Rizal manuscripts stolen
Over 600 people attended my lecture at the Ayala Museum last Saturday on the theft of the Rizal manuscripts. The best account of this almost unbelievable story is a retelling by Nick Joaquin, but going through the newspaper reportage in 1961 in the Manila Times, Daily Mirror, Manila Bulletin, Manila Chronicle, and even Aliwan, provided cliff-hanging suspense you only get from action movies today.
Almost all the extant original Rizal manuscripts were on display in flimsy glass cases at the National Library in late 1961 to commemorate the centennial of Rizal’s birth and to give the scholars at the International Congress on Rizal more to think about. The timing of the theft added to the drama and was better reported on than the first time the Rizal manuscripts disappeared from the National Library after the war.
Then Library Director Luis Montilla recalled that the Rizal manuscripts were kept for safekeeping in Manila City Hall vaults, and not in the 19 vaults in the Legislative Building that crashed like a wedding cake during the Battle for Manila. The cultural casualties were numbered to have been at least 70,000 manuscripts. However, the City Hall vaults were forcibly opened using an acetylene torch, and all the Rizaliana and other memorabilia were looted. Most of these were returned in April 1946 under a no-questions, no-publicity policy of the National Library. Of the 122 major manuscripts lost, 106 were recovered. I hope that these missing manuscripts will surface one day. The statute of limitations has passed and we cannot prosecute the looters anymore. I wish that whoever has these will send a high-resolution scan to the Library.
The original manuscripts of “Noli Me Tangere,” “El Filibusterismo,” and “Mi Ultimo Adios” were reported missing on the morning of Dec. 8, 1961. Left at the scene of the crime was a right rubber glove. The thief or thieves entered and left through an unlocked window that had an electric wire passing through it. Or maybe the culprits came in with the crowd the day before and hid somewhere in the Library at closing time. The other theory, since there was no break-in, was that it was an inside job.
The motives proposed were varied: Was the theft a prank? Was it for money? Was it engineered by an avid, fanatic, or psychotic Rizalist? Was the theft meant to discredit the government’s Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission? Was it a publicity stunt for the International Congress? Was an anti-Rizal group out to destroy his works?
The police also looked into a possible connection with a break-in at the home of historian Gregorio Zaide, who reported that his research and notes on Rizal’s stay in Japan had been stolen. On Dec. 20 it was reported that Austin Coate’s briefcase containing his Rizaliana research was also stolen from his office in Kuala Lumpur.
Library Director Montilla, who was described as “dazed by the loss,” confirmed that the manuscripts were missing and that the acquisition costs for each were: The “Noli” was acquired from Soledad Rizal de Quintero for P25,000 in 1911; the “Fili,” from the heirs of Valentin Ventura for P10,000 in 1928; and the “Ultimo Adios,” in Hong Kong for US$500 circa 1908. All the exhibits were collectively insured with Fieldmen’s Insurance Company for P2 million, so it was unclear how much would be paid for the partial loss of three manuscripts.
The members of the Library staff were questioned and statements were taken. Some even appeared at the Manila Police Department for a polygraph test but were told the machine was out of order. House Speaker Daniel Z. Romualdez filed a bill providing for a fireproof, bombproof, theftproof National Archives where all historical documents will be kept and catalogued
Then on Dec. 15, 1961, a ransom note was received at the Manila Times that consisted of letters cut out from newspapers and magazines and pasted on bond paper. It threatened: “Tell P.I. Government to Pay P1,400,000 for Rizal manuscripts or I will send them to the fire; if P.I Government can afford publish, ‘can afford.’” The fingerprints lifted from the note did not match those found on the display case.
The Filipino Chamber of Insurance and Surety began a fundraising drive.
On a lighter note, Manila Chronicle columnist Ernesto del Rosario wrote: “Whoever stole the original manuscripts of the ‘Noli,’ ‘Fili’ and ‘Ultimo Adios’ will render service to history and art if he returns them to the National Library and steals the Rizal monument’s new tower instead.”
What people do not know is that the present National Library was the only building to be completed from a cultural complex designed by Juan Nakpil that was to rise on Rizal Park. To add height to the Rizal monument and give it a sleek modern look, a stainless steel pylon designed by Nakpil was installed on the obelisk, and the public howled. The pylon was removed and transferred to Roxas Boulevard where it became the visible boundary separating Pasay from Manila. I remember seeing it there many years ago but, like magic, it has disappeared from there, too.
Our story takes on a more exciting turn when we conclude on Friday with the story of how then Education Secretary Alejandro R. Roces brought home the bacon. The return of the Rizal manuscripts resulted in restrictions on access that did not prevent a bigger theft at the National Library in the 1990s.
Comments are welcome at [email protected]