How many people read Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere when it was hot off the press? Two thousand copies were printed, a number must have been sold among the Filipino expats and Spanish liberals sympathetic to the cause of indio Filipinos. Rizal sent a copy to Prof. F. Blumentritt whom he had not yet met in person. The rest were smuggled into the Philippines, consigned at the La Gran Bretaña Bazar in Manila where it was probably sold under the table. Many copies were confiscated and burned at the behest of the religious orders. A solitary student from the University of Santo Tomas was arrested with a copy in his possession. We do not know what happened to the hapless chap.
Today’s historians are still arguing about how many people read the Noli; some say no one did because it was written in a language the masses could not understand much less read, others say that Rizal wrote it only for the ilustrados because they were the “movers and shakers” who could do something about the ills of society; yet others say that no one read it, Rizal had just wasted his time and sacrificed his life for nothing. Which brings us to my original question of why they were picking on Rizal, if no one read his pesky book?
One of his biographers, Rafael Palma wrote that no one had dared touch the wounds of the country, Rizal would be the first one to do so. (Nadie quería tocar las llagas de su país, el sería el primero en hacerlo).
Rizal returned home unnoticed, he opened a clinic in Calamba and many of his patients were disappointed that he was not the rumored German doctor, but an indio like them.
Governor-General Emilio Terrero y Perinat summoned Rizal and asked him for a copy of the Noli. Rizal asked the Jesuits to return the copy he gave them but they refused; he finally found a soiled copy that his friends had been reading in secret. Before leaving the palace, the Governor asked Rizal – Are you going home? They won’t leave you in peace. So, he assigned Don Jose Taviel de Andrade, a young lieutenant to be Rizal’s personal body guard. Gov-Gen. Terrero had not read the Noli, but he must have heard about it already.
He sent the soiled copy Rizal gave him to the Rector of Univiersidad de Santo Tomas for his comments. In reply, the Rector said- there was not a single page that did not contain impiedades, herejías, escándalos y frases antipatrióticas” ( impieties, heresies, scandals and anti-patriotic phrases). He claimed that Rizal’s purpose was to denigrate social and religious institutions of this country and to arouse the inhabitants to rebel. The Rector marked with a red pencil ideas he considered anti-Spain and its legal representatives in the colony ; with a blue or black pencil he marked the impious , heretical and scandalous parts. The general conclusion was that the Noli, at all levels, is anti-church, anti-dogma, anti-religious orders, anti-military and against all the civil, social, political instances established by Spain in these islands. If circulated in the Philippines it will cause grave ruin to faith and morals and will extinguish the native indio’s love for Spain, perturb the hearts and passions of the inhabitants and make Spain face very tragic days.
Gov. Terrero then sent the Noli to the Comisión Permanente de Censura composed of religious friars and seculars. A certain Friar Salvador Font, the parish priest of Tondo, wrote the final report. The verdict was that the importation of the Noli should be forbidden absolutely, nor should it be reproduced and circulated in these islands because it is a corrupting and pernicious book. However, they made the mistake of publicizing these acerbic anti-Noli reports in the newspapers, thus unwittingly giving the book and its author immense publicity. Some contemporary historians say that had Rizal’s satirical attacks been limited to the civil government, the friars would have turned a blind eye.
Fr. Font and the prior of Guadalupe, Fr, Jose Rodriguez, published pamphlets against the Noli which were distributed after Mass, outside the churches, thus whetting the curiosity of people who would never have heard about Rizal, much less the Noli. Even the Jesuits greased their propaganda machine, accusing their former student of writing incendiary proclamations , perverse theories, deadly pamphlets from HongKong. They blamed him for the 1 March 1888 movement in Manila where a group of demonstrators demanded that the Archbishop of Manila and the religious orders be banished from the archipelago.
Out of the 2,000 copies printed, perhaps less than half were circulated in Manila and environs. Even if only a few got to read Rizal’s Noli, many more heard about him and his book from the personifications of Padres Damaso and Salvi.