Rizal, imagining Christianization

Like many of us today, Jose Rizal must have wondered whether the first batch of natives who were baptized knew what was going on. Language was a barrier; Spanish missionaries had not yet learned our native tongues, nor compiled those monumental glossaries and grammar books. No matter how clearly they enunciated the strange Iberian words and Latin phrases, we can be sure that none of our ancestors understood a single thing. Apparently, that did not matter. More important was the number of warm bodies baptized to justify the imperatives of the Empire. To our forebears, baptism and the Holy Mass must have looked like elaborate arrival ceremonies, so they went along politely.

Jose Rizal was more than curious about the state of pre-colonial Philippines; he read ethnographic papers by European scientists, including Ferdinand Blumentritt, about various highland communities beyond the pale of Christianization. When he came across Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas”(1609), at the British Library, he spent months annotating it, Chapter 8 in particular, where he found traces of what the natives were like at the point of contact. That was the best he could do, Rizal told Blumentritt, because he had neither the time nor the energy to write a history of the Philippines.

After writing the “ Noli me Tangere” and “ El Filibusterismo” which made him public enemy no. 1, Rizal continued putting to bed purported histories and fantasies. He left behind bundles of loose pages, translations of scientific works, untitled manuscripts which read like chapters of novels aborted by a firing squad at the crack of dawn. One of them was about the fate of Tagalog nobility after the conquest of Rajah Sulaiman’s Manila and other riverine kingdoms. Set in 1635, in the “extramuros” district of Maalat (later Malate), this was given a title– “The Ancient Tagalog Nobility”– by the Rizal Centennial Commission in 1962 and included in a collection of non-political writings called, “ Prosa” or prose.

The narrative opens with the death of a prince of Ternate whom the Spanish colonial government betrayed and left to languish and starve to death in a dungeon. Natives retrieved his remains and a funeral was held at Malapad-na-bato on the west bank of the Manila (Pasig) river. A portly white-haired man with an aristocratic putong, clothed in black silk and gold ornaments appeared to pay homage and participate in the burial rites. Shortly after, an Agustinian friar and a Jesuit arrived and began to search for vestiges of pagan practices. They confronted the old man with a silver mane– What brings you here?– to which he replied that May Kapal, the only God, brought him to the funeral. Infuriated, the friars bellowed that May Kapal is a false god, to which the old man countered that the Creator of all things cannot be a false God.

The Agustinian brandished a crucifix, retorting that only their God is the true one, and proof of this was the triumph of Spanish soldiers over the natives, the blind followers of Satan. The old man declared with an air of contempt: “You conquer because you have superior weapons; but May Kapal is May Kapal, a Being who creates, not a Being who destroys! Your religion now dominates by force, the day will come when force will also dominate your religion!”

Another would- have been- chapter of a novel– “Sinagtala y Maria Maligaya”– was translated by suffragette and eminent historian, Dr. Encarnacion Alzona, in July 1957, from a photostat copy belonging to the Bureau of Public Libraries. This is about two sisters, also of noble Tagalog lineage, living in Maalat ( now Malate), an area outside the walled city, within the cannon-range of Fort San Antonio Abad. Both were baptized, but only Maligaya took the new religion seriously because she was in love with Martin, a Christian native. Maambun, their father, a descendant of Lakandula had resisted Christianity but was forced to embrace it because he was in love with Isabel, a Christian. Kamandagan, Maambun’s father reproached him for abandoning the old religion, but he assured his family it was all for show. The waters of baptism had scarcely touched his forehead; he did not understand a word and when the Spanish priest asked ritualistic questions, the acolytes answered for him.

To Maambun, the problem was not baptism, but the very strange beliefs about “ three or four are one”, of a mother who is a virgin, and of a father who is not a father. “ He promised to be a good husband to Isabel (mother of Sinagtala and Maligaya) like all their ancestors who were never baptized. Sinagtala would echo her father; she was baptized as a child, she could not refuse. Wasn’t It enough that she went to church to kneel, pray and listen to the sermons? What more can they ask of her? Rizal was just imagining what it must have been like.