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‘Draco rizali,’ the winged dragon

Jose Rizal’s huge correspondence—954 letters to and from him—were published chronologically in six volumes by T.M. Kalaw before World War II. The letters were reorganized and supplemented in 1961 by the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission that grouped these into correspondence with: family members, colleagues in the Propaganda Movement, and Ferdinand Blumentritt (in two volumes, because these contain copies of the originals in German and Spanish that are now preserved in the National Library).

Often overlooked is a fourth volume from the 1961 series, where letters from people who could not be classified in the previous three groupings were bunched together under the title “Miscellaneous Correspondence.” Those looking for the few letters from Rizal’s girlfriends will find those here. For the theologically and philosophically inclined, there are a handful of lengthy letters exchanged between Rizal and the Jesuit superior Pablo Pastells, which was the subject of a doctoral dissertation by the late Fr. Raul Bonoan, SJ.

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For those interested in Rizal’s scholarly side, there is material on natural history, philology, grammar, etc. Not many know that to keep himself occupied during his exile in Dapitan from 1892 to 1896, Rizal kept scribbling: some poetry, some drawings, some notes on archeology, and even the beginnings of an English-Tagalog dictionary that begins and ends with some entries for the letter “A.”

The letters to Dr. A.B. Meyer of Dresden are significant because the specimens sent to Germany from Dapitan are still extant and can be viewed in the storage facility of the Dresden Museum that is named after Meyer. Three years ago I made a day trip from Berlin to view the Rizal items, and missed out on an even bigger collection in the Berlin Ethnographic Museum that I did not even know existed. I was shown a few bladed weapons and other items that would be considered quite ordinary if not for their association with Rizal. These items, together with a lot of specimens of animals, reptiles, insects, etc., give context to the correspondence between Rizal and Meyer.

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For example, on Nov. 20, 1893, Rizal sent preserved animals to Dresden that included: three snakes, talig-bilao (Dupog), one sagita volans (curiously, this is based on its Latin name, which translates to “flying arrow”), one seahorse, two scorpions, two ascarides, various coleoptera, one boa constrictor, one iho, one hao, one ataybia (serpent), one kalasagan, one tipuso, one magdulog, and one kabankaban.

One can only wonder how many of the things Rizal sent in the 1890s are still extant today. We know that some of the specimens were not listed in the scientific catalogues at the time, so Rizal’s name is attached to a species of: flying lizard (Draco rizali, Wandolleck), a beetle (Apogonia rizali, Heller) and a frog (Rhacophorus rizali, Boettger, 1899). An Internet search resulted in two more insects: Spathomeles rizali and Hydropsyche rizali.

Rizal also offered a collection of 200 shells that he had classified, but there seems to have been no takers. He also tried to collect butterflies that seemed to have been in demand among European collectors, but he did not know how to catch and preserve them so these often arrived in Europe in very bad shape.

He complained about the difficulty in sending the materials to Germany. His mail was opened by the Spanish authorities in Dapitan and Manila, which sometimes led him to write letters in multiple languages: Spanish, German, French, and English to confound the people reading his mail. Then there was the problem of finding the best alcohol in which to preserve the specimens, and the proper bottles to send them in.

For payment, Rizal preferred books instead of hard cash. In November 1893 he requested the following bound volumes, in German, of the following authors: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Furgenjew (Turgenev?), Danilewsky, Valdimir Korolenko, and even the complete works of Gogol in German. We know that Rizal read voraciously and that the authors that influenced his novels were the works of: Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Eugene Sue (“Wandering Jew”), Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) and a certain Conde de Volney (“Ruins of Palmyra”). I am neither a book historian nor knowledgeable in literature, so Rizal’s interest in Russian writers during his Dapitan exile is worthy of a doctoral dissertation.

The books he ordered from Meyer in November 1893 arrived in Dapitan in April 1894 and Rizal felt indebted because the specimens he sent were free, and if there was any cost on his part it was for packing and shipment. So he wrote a letter of thanks that reads in part:

“Do not mind the cost of this. This and what I shall send you later will not be sufficient to pay for the books that you have sent me. I send you dead nature and you in exchange send me your spirit, the geist in the pages of the books. Henceforth, I shall send you what I can; you will appraise it and you send me its equivalent in scientific and literary works. When I have more freedom, I will look for skulls of mountain people for you.”

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Skulls from the Philippines can be found in European museums, but Rizal was unable to send any human ones. But that is the subject for another column.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: “Ruins of Palmyra”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Aeschylus, Alexandre Dumas, charles dickens, Conde de Volney, Danilewsky, Dapitan, Dr. A.B. Meyer, Draco Rizali, Dresden, Eugene Sue, Ferdinand Blumentritt, Fr. Raul Bonoan, German, Gogol, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jose Rizal, Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission, Pablo Pastells, Propaganda Movement, SJ, Sophocles, T.M. Kalaw, Valdimir Korolenko, Victor Hugo
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