Text by Junart Kim S. Nieva
Jose Rizal, Philippine national hero, would have turned 160 years old this year. Although it may not seem a significant milestone, let us revisit a historical moment when he arrived in 19th century England.
1888. Queen Victoria was the reigning monarch. Rizal was 27. From the USA, he arrived in Liverpool in May of that year, staying overnight at Adelphi Hotel before proceeding to the capital city London. The grand Edwardian style hotel, still in operation today, is situated near the city centre and is just a short walk from Liverpool Lime Street station.
Rizal had to go abroad (for the second time) so he could fight better his persecutors back home. One of the main reasons he came to England was to enhance his English language. Rizal boarded with the Beckett family in 37 Chalcot Crescent, Primrose Hill, Northwest London. A memorial dedicated to him exists in a small garden at Primrose Hill Community Library, Sharpleshall Street (NW1 8YN).
He was romantically linked to Gertrude Beckett (aka Tottie), the eldest among the daughters of his landlord. The English maiden used to assist Rizal with his paintings and sculptural works, and even prepared English tea for him in the evenings. They fondly called each other ‘Gettie’ and ‘Pettie.’
But not all infatuations lead to romance. “I cannot deceive her. I cannot marry her because I have other ties,” Rizal said to Regidor, “but I am not going to commit the indignity of placing passion over the pure and virginal love she might offer me.” His main task and top priority during his stay was to copy, analyse, and annotate the rare book Sucecos de las Islas Filipinas, written by Spanish historian and lawyer Antonio de Morga, kept in the British Museum (former British Library). The book inspired our young hero to annotate information about the early history of Spanish occupation in the Philippines.
The British Museum in Bloomsbury remains one of the world’s top repository of knowledge on human history, culture, and artefacts. During Rizal’s time, a special pass was needed to enter, much like Hogwarts Library’s restricted section. He was able to secure a reader’s pass through a man of authority, Dr. Reinhold Rost who was a friend of Ferdinand Blumentritt. Dr. Rost attributed to Rizal the title ‘Una Perla de Hombre’ (A Pearl of a Man). The power of network and connection then existed among notable readers of the Reading Room including Karl Marx, and novelists Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and Bram Stoker (Dracula).
It was in London that Rizal wrote the famous ‘Letter to the Women of Malolos,’ in which he showed appreciation and support to the courageous Bulakenyas campaigning for education, as well as his first ever article published in La Solidaridad, ‘To the Filipino Farmers,’ both written in 1889. With all these great works accomplished over a short period of time, one can surmise that Rizal’s stay in the United Kingdom, though brief, was very productive.
In the summer of 1888, Rizal wrote to Blumentritt, “If I were a free European, I should now be married and have a family, and could live at the side of my parents. I would dedicate myself to science and, in the company of my friends, in peace and tranquillity, enjoy this beautiful world. If you only knew how I envy the meanest clerk in London!”
There was a prospect of a better life in the United Kingdom and yet, amidst all the opportunities, he chose to continue the fight for his countrymen, his one true love.
*Junart Kim S. Nieva is an educator, writer, social entrepreneur, and a member of the Knights of Rizal – London Chapter UK. He lives in Surrey, England. Connect with Junart at firstname.lastname@example.org.