Jose Rizal – An Intrepid Traveller and National Hero

Jose Rizal

Jose Rizal (June 19, 1861 – December 30, 1896) was considered somewhat of a Renaissance man. Possessing an indistinguishable burning desire to learn, Rizal was fluent in many languages, a capable artist, published author and medical practitioner.

How could one man achieve so much? And all by the age of 33 when, by rifle fire, his life was cut short. One key factor to Jose Rizal’s successful pursuit of knowledge, understanding and his consequential insights was travel.

Starting out as a young medical student, Rizal left his Philippine homeland to study in Madrid, then France and later Germany. While learning his occupational craft, he became fluent in French and German (he was already fluent in Spanish due to the Philippines being a colony of Spain at this time) – bonus skills as a result of travelling outside of his usual geographical boundaries. Through the influential people he met and befriended due to his travelling, Rizal not only became fluent in 22 languages, but he was able to use this skill for the betterment of humanity. He would bring strangers together by speaking to them in their native French, German, Italian or English – “I speak with everybody and at times I serve them as interpreter,” he wrote. He had a lasting impact on the Tagalog language, the native language of his beloved Philippines, through devising a new orthography to “help simplify and systematize its writing.”

One of his friends, an Austrian scholar whom he exchanged reference books and connections with, wrote that Rizal, “can become for your people (the Philippine people) one of those great men who will exert a definite influence on their spiritual development.”

Rizal’s friend was right. Because he travelled with a sense of purpose and duty, Rizal was able to use the fertile intellectual spaces of the places he travelled to gain knowledge and insight about his homeland and how to better deal with the situation there. Taking a step back, he was able to gain a perspective that he would otherwise not have possessed. Travel was arguably a significant, if not crucial, factor in making him an effective thinker and communicator. Through novels that he wrote while still overseas, influenced by the interesting mix of people and ideas of an industrialising Europe, he articulately expressed the major problems faced by the Philippines, still under the thumb of Spanish colonial rule. Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo remain influential and relevant to this day, still read and analysed by Philippine students – still influencing their spiritual development.      

After travelling through Macau, Japan and America, he arrived in London. Availing of the British Museum, Rizal was able to write a comprehensive history of the Philippine islands before the occupation of Spain. It was his gift to the Filipino people, one that could facilitate their freedom through knowing their previous rich sovereignty. Travelling, in addition to increasing our knowledge and wisdom, brings a natural urge to share what we have discovered and learned – it makes us more generous.

The power of Rizal’s insights, perspectives, understanding, skills and knowledge gained through his travels proved too threatening to the Spanish ruling class in the Philippines. Upon his return, he was declared an enemy of the state for publishing his novels and exiled to Dapitan in the far South. He spent four years there, using the time to build a school, a hospital, a water supply system and to teach farming and horticulture.

Those four years also cultivated a separate rebellion group, although Rizal would be incorporated and implicated with their actions (considered treason) due to his known and influential ideas through his written works. Rizal would eventually be arrested, tried and convicted for rebellion, sedition and conspiracy. On December 30, 1896, he was executed by firing squad.

Considered to be his final work, Rizal penned Mi Ultimo Adios while imprisoned in Fort Santiago during the days leading up to his execution. From the heart and soul of a man about to make his last departure, its many verses are exquisitely written and a beautiful love letter to his most beloved corner of the planet – the Philippines.

"My lifelong dream, my deep burning desire, Is for this soul that will soon depart to cry out: Salud! To your health! Oh how beautiful to fall to give you flight, To die to give you life, to rest under your sky, And in your enchanted land forever sleep"

 Salud, tagay, to Jose Rizal, to the Philippines and to the power of travel.