Jose and His Love Affair with the British Museum’s Reading Room
Jose Rizal’s ten-month stay in London (25 May 1888 – 19 March 1889) was an intellectually fruitful period in his life. He spent most of his time at the Reading Room of the British Museum – copying, analysing, examining, and annotating the Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas by the Spanish lawyer and historian Antonio de Morga Sánchez Garay (more simply known as Antonio de Morga).
Rizal’s Purposeful Pursuit
Rizal was able to secure a reader’s pass to the museum’s Reading Room with a ‘little help’ from a friend – the Director of the India Office Library, Dr. Reinhold Rost. The Filipino scholar spent four laborious months of extensive historical research at the Reading Room.
The Sucesos was rare, too rare in fact. Fortunately it was available at the British Museum. Morga’s work was his primary reason why he went to London and the Reading Room was the most appropriate environment for such scholarly undertaking. He painstakingly copied all the pages of the Sucesos and annotated every chapter of it.
Besides the Morga book, Rizal also took time to gather, evaluate, and classify all historical materials related to the Philippines found in the museum’s collection. Rizal’s goal was to read all the manuscripts and documents he could find before leaving for Paris. In one of his letters to the notable Filipinologist, Ferdinand Blumentritt, Rizal wrote:
I’m busy, I’m assiduously reading all the ancient sources on the history of the Philippines, and I do not think I want to leave London until I have read all the books and manuscripts that have references to the Philippines. I want to become the ‘Filipino Blumentritt.’ (Italics mine.)
Rizal’s Unknown Masterpiece
In terms of his literary achievements, the Filipino national hero is most commonly known for “Noli Me Tángere” (Latin for Touch Me Not) and “El Filibusterismo” (Spanish for Filibustering, alternative English title is The Reign of Greed), published in 1887 and 1891 respectively.
However, unknown to many is that Rizal wrote another magnum opus with the lengthy Spanish title: Sucesos de las islas Filipinas por el Doctor Antonio de Morga. Obra publicada en mejico en el año de 1609, nuevamente sacada a luz y anotada por Jose Rizal, y precedida de un prologo del prof. Fernando Blumentritt.
Rizal published his annotated version of the Sucesos in 1890. Yes, it was actually his second book. Though “El Fili” was his second novel, it was third chronologically.
The English translation is equally lengthy: Events in the Philippine Islands by Dr. Antonio de Morga. A work published in Mexico in the year 1609, reprinted and annotated by Jose Rizal and preceded by an introduction by professor Ferdinand Blumentritt.
Professor Ambeth R. Ocampo, a renowned Rizal expert, offered some thoughts why Rizal’s Sucesos remained ‘unpopular’ even to Filipinos:
Unfortunately Rizal’s Morga has been relegated in the canon, under his “minor writings” (Craig 1927), and remains largely unread due to the pre-eminence of his novels, Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo. (Italics mine.)
The professor further commented:
Moreover Rizal’s annotations are secondary, and today’s scholars concentrate more on the primary source, Morga, than on Rizal’s notes. Few Filipinos today, even the most patriotic, would find the time and energy to read the small text of Rizal’s footnotes, even if penned by the national hero.
According to Penelope V. Flores, Emeritus Professor of Education at the San Francisco State University,
The value of this work is immeasurable because Rizal provided the readers with such an array of rich societal and cultural footnotes with complete scholarly referenced resources and full citations. Each chapter is sufficiently and authentically annotated regarding the Philippines in ancient times. Sad to say, many students of Philippine history are unfamiliar with Rizal’s annotated Historical Events of the Philippine Islands by Antonio Morga.
Rizal’s ‘Obsession’ to Know
The Filipino national hero seemed so ‘obsessed’ with the Sucesos that it caused him to travel to London just for that. He wanted badly to understand the first-hand account of the early Spanish colonial campaign in the Philippines as observed and recorded by an historian with a civil and legal mind. Rizal was no longer interested in the works of religious historians.
He had a strong suspicion that the Philippines was already culturally rich and had a self-sufficient economy long before the Spaniards arrived. He argued that the Spanish conquest and occupation was the cause of the country’s decline. To support and strengthen this assertion, he had to understand the pre-Hispanic conditions of the archipelago. Then Ferdinand Blumentritt endorsed Morga’s work to Rizal.
Translator and editor J. S. Cummins had this to say about Morga’s historical work:
“The Sucesos is the work of an honest observer, himself a major actor in the drama of his time, a versatile bureaucrat, who knew the workings of the administration from the inside. It is also the first history of the Spanish Philippines to be written by a layman, as opposed to the religious chroniclers. Morga’s book was praised, quoted, and plagiarized, by contemporaries or successors. Filipinos have found it a useful account of the state of their native culture upon the coming of the conquistadors…”
Rizal’s Other Scholarly Works
Even though Rizal was deeply immersed in his literary pursuit, he also made time to write other materials for the same purpose of strengthening and furthering the campaign for social and religious reforms in the Philippines. It was during this time in London that he accomplished the following:
- Los Agriculturos Filipinos (The Filipino Farmers). This was his first contribution to the political propaganda paper La Solidaridad (The Solidarity);
- La Vision del Fray Rodriguez (The Vision of Fray Rodriguez). A satire about the imaginary dialogue between St. Augustine and Fray Rodriguez, in which the latter was ridiculed by the former;
- Letter to the Young Women of Malolos. The popular piece that symbolised Rizal’s admiration for the Filipino women who fought for their freedom of education; and
- A Specimen of Tagalog folklore and Two Easter Fables. These were the two articles he wrote for Dr. Rost, editor of Trulnea’s Recurd, a journal dedicated to Asian Studies.
Rizal’s Pursuit of True Love
It is now tempting to speculate the reason why he did not settle down in marriage. Though some scholars believe that he fell in love with Gertrude ‘Gettie’ Beckett, he purposely did not give in to such affection. Rizal exactly knew why he went to London and falling in love with a Londoner (or anyone for that matter) was never part of his overall agenda.
It is understandable that many of us already failed to appreciate the works he accomplished in London, what is lamentable is that some are so grossly misguided to even entertain the thought, or much worse, believe that the national hero was Jack the Ripper.
What Rizal accomplished in London was significantly far greater than what we thought of. All his scholarly industrious efforts to study, copy, annotate, and write were all part of his comprehensive plan to liberate his country from religious abuses and social injustice. His time, talents, thoughts, emotions, actions, and treasures were strictly directed by his love for motherland. Indeed, Jose Rizal was a purpose-driven scholar and patriot.
- Cummins, J.S., (1969). Antonio De Morga and his Sucesos De Las Islas Filipinas. Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10(3), 560-581. doi:10.1017/S0217781100005081
- Ocampo, Ambeth R., Rizal’s Morga and Views of Philippine History. Ateneo de Manila University’s Journal of Philippine Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2 (1998), pp. 184–214.
- Clemente, Tina S., Rizal’s Morga and insights into pre-Hispanic institutions and trade. The Philippine Review of Economics Vol. XLVIII No. 2 December 2011, pp. 117-150.
- Acibo, Libert Amorganda, and Galicano-Adanza, Estela, Jose P. Rizal: His Life, Works, and Role in the Philippine Revolution. Rex Book Store, Inc. 1995, p. 48
- Flores, Penélope V., Dr. José Rizal’s annotation of Antonio Morga’s “Historical Events of the Philippines”.1609. 1 February 2011.
- Morga, Antonio de, (1559–1636), History of the Philippine Islands The Project Gutenberg EBook, 2003 [E-Book Number: 7001].
TO BUY RIZAL’S MORGA ON-LINE:
MORE ABOUT THE BRITISH MUSEUM’S READING ROOM:
The Reading Room stands at the heart of the Museum, in the centre of the Great Court. Completed in 1857, it was hailed as one of the great sights of London and became a world famous centre of learning. Those wanting to use it had to apply in writing and were issued a reader’s ticket by the Principal Librarian. Among those granted tickets were: Karl Marx, Lenin (who signed in under the name Jacob Richter) and novelists such as Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
RECENT ARTICLE ABOUT THE READING ROME:
- British Museum to bring back Reading Room as part of revamp, by Mark Brown. 4 July 2017