Monday, July 6, 2009

Last Farewell

The execution of Dr. Jose Rizal

In my recent deal with a stamp dealer, I saw in his stock this old picture showing the scene of Rizal's execution. It's not the original picture, I know, but it was obviously developed from the original film. It now hangs above my bed to remind me how alone we really are -- at birth and in death.

This stamp was based on the photo above

Very few people in this world, mostly martyrs and criminals in Death Row, know the exact date when they will die. In a recent survey, people were asked whether they'd rather know or not. Only 5% answered yes.

Last Farewell

A long, long time ago, long before men searching for gold desecrated Fort Santiago, a condemned man stirred in his cell inside the fort.

That morning, a Monday, he was told the verdict of the court – he would be executed at 7 next morning, 30 December 1896. The trial had ended just a few days ago, and the sentencing was immediate. He would not even see the new year unfold.

In the afternoon he was visited by members of his family, a newspaperman, his defense counsel, and some priests. Soon after, the sun went down, allowing the darkness of his last night to enter his cell.

It would not have mattered, because a light had been kept burning in his cell. The light was not allowed to go dark as there was a standing order to keep the prisoner in sight all the time.

Guards were posted outside his window, not only to keep watch but also to keep him from committing suicide, should the thought enter his mind. But the prisoner just spent the night in front of his table, bare except for an alcohol burner, inscribing his last thoughts. He kept on writing as the shadow of a guard looking in fell on him from time to time.

What he wrote would survive and become part of his country’s recorded history. It was a magnificent verse expressing the man’s love and aspiration for his country, of his dreams when he was young, of his prayers for widows and orphans of war, for mothers who weep in sorrow, and for those submitted to torture.

He also wrote of places “where there are no slaves, no hangmen, no oppressors; where faith does not kill, where he who reigns is God.”

At 6 o’clock in the morning, he wrote his final letters to his father and mother. Then the guards came and bound his hand behind his back.

Outside, the sky was bright and blue in the best season of the year. The prisoner felt the slight chill in the air. Streets and buildings outside the fort were hung with flags. Even before first light a dense crowd had already gathered. People lined both sides of the route leading to the grassy expanse of the Luneta de Bagumbayan, the grass still damp with the dew of tropical night.

Local people, dressed in their best, had come to join the Spaniards in uttering patriotic cheers. Despite the tension in the city and the extra security measures taken, there was an exhilarated atmosphere of fiesta. As the minutes drew near 7 a.m. the noise of the crowd were hushed. The beat of an approaching drum announced the arrival of the condemned man.

First came the drummer. After him, flanked by tall Spanish Jesuits in black soutanes and shovel-hats, came the smaller figure of the prisoner, followed by his lawyer, Taviel de Andrade, and a military escort.

Aged 35, shorter than the average Filipino, and pale after two months in prison, Rizal was dressed in a black suit, white shirt and tie, and a black derby. His expression was serene as he scanned the faces in the crowd; his eyes, compelling and intelligent, locked with those who looked at him. As he passed, silence reigned as people stared with the uneasy sense of being controlled by something only a man about to die would understand.

The crowd was so dense and there was so much jockeying for position that the escort had to force a way through to the place of execution, which was some distance from the wall of Intramuros, nearly in the center of Luneta.

An open square has been formed, where on three sides soldiers held back the crowd. The fourth side, facing the blue of Manila Bay, was empty. It was the direction in which the shots would be fired. It was where Rizal would stand.

To kill a Filipino, a firing squad composed of Filipino soldiers was formed. But behind them stood a row of Spanish soldiers, prepared to take over and shoot the squad itself should anything go wrong.

Rizal stood facing them. The Spanish captain in charge approached and directed him to face the sea. Rizal said he wished to die facing the firing squad. He should not be shot in the back; he was not a traitor. The captain expressed his regret: he had his orders and must obey them.

Rizal asked to be shot in the small of his back, not in the head. The captain agreed. Did the prisoner wish to kneel? No, he will die on his feet. He also declined to be blindfolded.

It was now 7 o’clock. The sun was up, a bright and silent witness to his execution. With the trees and ornate lamp posts of Luneta casting long shadows across the grass, Rizal stood facing the sea.

A preparatory word of command was barked; Rizal braced for the impact. Another word of command; in the next second would come the shot.

In the last moment of his life, Rizal, in a clear, steady voice, with his last breathe, uttered his last words, the cry of Christ on the cross: “Consumatum est!” Then the volley of shots followed; Rizal tried to turn around as he fell.

Since the execution was on a December day, there was no rain to wash away the stain of dried human blood from the grass of Luneta. Time would eventually erase the stigma of the execution, but Time could not secure the Filipinos' fervor for freedom.

Speaking through his character in El Filibusterismo, Fr. Florentino, Rizal observed: “…We must secure [our liberty] by making ourselves worthy of it. And when a people reaches that height, God will provide a weapon, the idols will be shattered, tyranny will crumble like a house of cards and liberty will shine out like the first dawn.”

Are we to be enslaved by ignorance and corruption throughout our short life? Rizal died, but he was free.

The romanticized narrative of Rizal's execution above -- edited from an article in The Angeles Sun, April 1989 issue -- was heavily derived from books by Austin Coates, Austin Craig, etc., and from newspaper and magazine articles. Imagination, plus a sense of deep indignation from reading Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, provided the impetus to post this blog, with a spark of hope that Filipinos will realize that they still are not worthy of freedom that only people who love their country deserve.

For details of Rizal's trial and execution, go to and read pps. 60-69.


Mariel Chua said...

Papa!!! This is soo amazing! I like how you started with 'the prisoner' and later started referring to Rizal. But one doesn't really notice the transition because you write so seamlessly, it flows so well.

Maybe you can pitch this to another publication for the next Rizal Day :)

William said...

Shucks! I blush...