Why Did an Italian Assassin Invoke Rizal’s Name After Killing the Spanish Prime Minister?


On August 8, 1897, in Spain, a lone gunman shot then Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Canovas del Castillo point-blank, and killed him. The gunman was immediately arrested, and the news was received by a country in panic. But the strangest part of this tale is how the Italian assassin invoked the name of Philippine hero Jose Rizal in his defense.

A staunch supporter of the formerly deposed Spanish monarchy’s restoration in 1874, Canovas was the king’s first defender against his critics, ranging from Carlists to Socialists, Republicans, and Anarchists. He was not a loved man, having gained the ire of people within and beyond the borders of Spain. His policies of martial law in the Basque provinces and systematic repression in Cuba earned him the sustained animosity of the working class.

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One such person who hated Canovas’ rule was an Italian anarchist named Michele Angiolillo who had witnessed Canovas' brutality after he ordered the imprisonment and torture of 300 revolutionaries in what is known as the Montjuic trial in Barcelona. Angiolillo went after Canovas like an avenging angel, claiming he was an “executioner” not an “assassin” for the crimes Canovas had committed against the people of Spain and the people of the Philippines, by way of the execution of Jose Rizal just a few months prior.

It was reported by The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and Reuters in 1896 that Angiolillo "shot Señor Canovas in order to avenge Dr. Rizal, the insurgent leader who was executed in the Philippines." Separate Telegraph and Reuters articles said the assassin "expressed regret that he did not kill General Polevieja, for having caused the filibustering leader, Rizal, to be shot."


At first, Rizal’s inclusion may seem strange. By all means, Rizal was deemed a pacifist who renounced violence and instead vouched for peaceful reforms. His only connection to the ideology of anarchy, which advocates the absence of State and government, was a mere discussion relating anarchists and nationalists. The speculation of Rizal having anarchist sympathies has mainly been just that—speculation. Still, a closer look at his work tells a different story of what we’ve learned about Rizal.

Italian anarchist Michele Angiolillo


The anarchist of El Filibusterismo

A man’s soul is often reflected through his literature, and this may be the case with Rizal’s character Simoun in his novel El Filibusterismo. Modeled after the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas and real life 19th century French insurrectionists, Rizal’s second novel concerned itself with the persona of Simoun, who was Crisostomo Ibarra in disguise. Eschewing his prior idealism and belief in institutional change, a view similar to Rizal’s own, Simoun wanted the rulers of Spanish Philippines to act as corrupt and decadent as possible in order to provoke the people to rise up in arms. His plan was to wage a revolution, with the explosion of a pomegranate lamp that would kill off most of the country’s elite as a starting point.

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Simoun’s wish to ignite a lamp symbolizes the anarchist strategy of spreading its credos through the “propaganda of the deed” as the catalyst of a revolution. This “deed” is not so dissimilar for Angiolillo’s assassination. The anarchists believed that by eliminating public figures and politicians, the state will react in its most macabre level, which will then compel the people to act and overthrow the existing regime in place of a completely state-free and lawless society—the anarchist’s idea of utopia.

The assassination of Antonio Canovas


Anarchy in Spain

Rizal’s links to anarchy are also rooted in the very country that oppressed Philippine freedom—Spain. Rizal and other propagandists once cited Francisco Pia Y Margall, the president of the First Spanish Republic in 1873, as a notable influence for their cause.

Despite being a top politician in the colonizing country, Margall was unlike many Spanish overlords of his time. He championed anarchism as a form of social organization, attempted to implement anarchist policies into practice, lifted press censorship, and promoted the freedom of the colonies. He proposed a vision of an alternative Spain free of dictatorship, but it was a vision that Spain itself was not yet ready for.


But Barcelona was. The lone city of the north became the hotbed of radicals of all stripes and colors. It was in this city, where the Montjuich trials that triggered Canovas’ assassination happened, that Rizal’s La Solidaridad was born. In parallel existences, revolutionaries from both Spain and the Philippines were plotting the freedom of their people, and it was inevitable that the two would have crossed each other’s paths at some point.

Rizal the radical

Rizal’s death, which took place a few months before Canovas’ assassination, was Spain’s symbolic move to silence dissent. But as the assassin proved, it did anything but. Angiolilio acted in vengeance for his fallen comrades, which included Rizal, a martyr for Philippine freedom.

Whether Rizal was an anarchist himself or simply just a sympathizer is still up in the air. As long as the debate rages on, the question of Rizal’s political thought will always be relevant as Rizal himself continues to be viewed as a man of contradictions. Rizal, perhaps, was more radical than we think. Perhaps, he was the pomegranate lamp after all.


Anderson, B. (2014). The Age of Globalization: Anarchists and the Anti-Colonial Imagination. London, United Kingdom. Verso Books.

Quibuyen, F. (1999). A Nation Aborted: Rizal, American Hegemony, and Philippine Nationalism. Quezon City, Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Sarkisyanz, E. (1995). Rizal and Republican Spain and Other Essays. Manila, Philippines. National Historical Institute

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