In an earlier article, ‘Nitroglycerine in the Pomegranate’ in nlr 27, I discussed the novels of Filipino José Rizal—Noli me Tangere and, in particular, El Filibusterismo (Subversion) of 1891—within a loosely literary framework. I argued that Rizal learnt much from European novelists, yet transformed what he found there to explosive new anticolonial effect. But Rizal was not only the first great novelist but also the founding father of the modern Philippine nation, and did not read merely fiction. He also perused the newspapers and magazines of the various capitals in which he lived—Madrid, Paris, Berlin, London—not to mention non-fiction books. More than that, from very early on his political trajectory was profoundly affected by events in Europe, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, and their often violent local backwash thousands of miles away in his home country. The aims of the present article are twofold. One is to use a transnational space/time framework to try to solve puzzles which have long perplexed critics of Rizal’s last published novel. The second is to allow a new global landscape of the late nineteenth century to come into view, from the estranging vantage point of a brilliant young man (who coined the wonderful expression el demonio de las comparaciones) from one of its least-known peripheries.footnote1

By the time El Filibusterismo was published in 1891, Rizal, now thirty, had been in Europe for almost ten years, and had learned the two master-languages of the subcontinent—German and French—as well as some English. He had also lived for extended periods in Paris, Berlin and London. He subtitled his second major fiction novela filipina with good political reason. But it could almost as well be termed novela mundial. Bismarck had made Germany the dominant power in Europe, and pioneered a new global German imperialism (alongside several others, of course) in Africa, Asia and Oceania. Alfred Nobel had invented the first wmd readily available to energetic members of the oppressed classes almost anywhere. On the Left, the terrifying defeat of the Commune, the collapse of the First International, and Marx’s death had opened the way for the rapid rise of anarchism in various forms, initially in France and Spain, but not much later in other parts of Europe, North America, the Caribbean and South America, as well as the Far East. I shall try to show how this global political context shaped the peculiar narrative of El Filibusterismo.

Compared to Noli Me Tangere, which has been translated into a good number of languages and is widely known and loved in the Philippines, El Filibusterismo is relatively unregarded. At one level, this neglect is easy to understand. The novel has no real hero. Women play no central role, and are barely sketched as characters. The plot and subplots are stories of failure, defeat, and death. The moral tone is darker, the politics more central, and the style more sardonic. One might say that if the Father of the Philippine Nation had not written it, the book would have had few readers up till today. For Filipino intellectuals and scholars it has been a puzzle, not least because they have been distressed by its apparent lack of verisimilitude, its non-correspondence with what is known about Philippine colonial society in the 1880s. The temptation therefore has been to analyse it in terms of its author’s ‘real-life’ ambivalence on ‘revolution’ and political violence (which will be touched on later). But at least some of these difficulties are reduced if we consider the text as global, no less than local.

In 1833 a dynastic crisis occurred in Spain, which gave rise to two successive civil wars, and haunted the country to the end of the century. In that year the ferociously reactionary Fernando vii—imprisoned and deposed by Napoleon, but restored by the Unholy Alliance in 1814—died, leaving the crown to his only child, the three-year old Infanta Isabella, with her Neapolitan mother becoming Regent. Fernando’s younger brother Carlos, however, disputed the succession, claiming that the 1830 public abrogation of the Salic law prohibiting women from becoming sovereigns was a manipulation designed to rob him of his inheritance. Raising an army in the ultraconservative North (Navarre, Aragon and the Basque country), he opened a war that lasted the rest of the decade and ended only in an uneasy truce. The Regent and her circle turned, for financial as well as political reasons, to the liberals for support; and, by a measure of far-reaching consequences, as we shall see, expropriated the property of all the powerful monastic Orders. At sixteen, Isabella was married off to the ‘effeminate’ Duke of Cádiz, and soon became accustomed to finding her pleasures elsewhere. On coming of age, she moved away from her mother’s policies, fell under the sway of some ultraconservative clerics, and presided over an increasingly corrupt and ramshackle regime.

In the last months before this regime finally fell, in September 1868, Isabella ordered the deportation of a number of her republican enemies to the Philippines, where they were incarcerated on the fortified island of Corregidor in Manila Bay. In the empire-wide exhilaration that followed her abdication and flight to France, some older well-off, liberal-minded Manileño creoles and mestizos, including Antonio Maria Regidor, José Maria Basa and Joaquín Pardo de Tavera—later to become good friends of Rizal—organized a public subscription on behalf of the suffering prisoners.footnote2 In June 1869, the rich and liberal Andalusian General Carlos Maria de la Torre took over as the new ‘Captain-General’, and horrified much of the colonial elite by inviting creoles and mestizos into his palace to drink to ‘Liberty’, and strolling about the streets of Manila in everyday clothes. He then proceeded to abolish press censorship, encouraged freedom of speech and assembly, stopped flogging as a punishment in the military, and ended an agrarian revolt in Manila’s neighbouring province of Cavite by pardoning the rebels and organizing them into a special police force.footnote3 The following year, Overseas Minister Segismundo Moret issued decrees putting the ancient Dominican University of Santo Tomás under state control, and encouraging friars to secularize themselves, while assuring them, if they did so, of continued control of their parishes in defiance of their religious superiors.footnote4 The same exhilaration set off what became a ten-year insurrection in Cuba under the capable leadership of the well-to-do landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who at one point controlled the eastern half of the island.