What Rizal Did in Dapitan: Collecting Local Fauna, Establishing a Boarding School, and Healing the Sick
When Jose Rizal was shipped off to Dapitan—a sleepy town at the northernmost tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula—he had lived in Madrid, Paris, and London; taken a train across the United States; made acquaintances with European intellectuals; and written two novels that would spark a revolution. He was a globetrotting, cosmopolitan man exiled to what must have seemed like the middle of nowhere.
Instead of giving himself over to despair, however, he put his talents to good use. In the first few weeks after his arrival, Rizal stayed in the house of the town’s military commandant, Capt. Ricardo Carnicero, who would later become his friend. Rizal won a Manila lottery with Carnicero and another Spaniard, and after receiving his share of the prize, he bought a 16-hectare piece of land in a coastal barrio called Talisay, just off the Dapitan poblacion.
Farming and fishing
He cleared the land to sow rice and corn, and invited his brother-in-law, Manuel Hidalgo, to engage in the sale of abaca, which they could grow in Dapitan and ship to Manila to be sold at a higher price. Rizal would later set up the Association of Dapitan Farmers—the first commercial association in the town—and drew up its constitution and by-laws. When he found out that the locals did not know how to fish with nets despite their proximity to the sea, Rizal asked Hidalgo to send over large fishing nets and taught them how to fish himself.
In a letter that Rizal wrote to his close friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, the Austrian Philippinist, he described the vicinity and narrated his morning routine: “I have many fruit trees, mangoes, lanzones, guayabanos, baluno, nangka. I have rabbits, dogs, cats. I rise early—at five—visit my plants, feed the chickens, awaken my people, and put them in movement. At half-past seven we breakfast with tea, pastries, cheese, sweetmeats. Later I treat my poor patients who come to my land; I dress, I go to the town in my [canoe], treat the people there, and return at 12 when my luncheon awaits me.”
During his stay in Dapitan, Rizal collected a variety of local fauna and had them shipped over, in jars filled with alcohol, to the renowned German scholar Adolf B. Meyer, whom he had met in Dresden and who was the director for about 30 years of the Dresden Royal Museum for Zoology, Anthropology, and Ethnography. Among the specimens he sent were birds, snakes, insects, a sea horse, two scorpions, a boa constrictor, a tortoise, the head of a wild deer, and the skin and skeleton of a tingaog, which was a kind of cat that produced musk. Rizal assembled a formidable collection of 346 species of seashells and a wide assortment of butterflies. He also discovered four new species—a flying lizard, a tree frog, and two beetles—all of which would be named after him. Some of the specimens he sent are still extant in the Dresden Museum of Ethnology, in a building named in honor of Meyer.
In exchange for the delivery of these scientific specimens, Rizal refused to accept money and instead asked for books. One time, he asked Meyer to send him works by Aeschylus and Sophocles, along with the complete works of Nikolai Gogol and books written by five other Russian writers, all in German. Another time, he asked to be sent a French treatise on mathematics. Meyer generously obliged with two volumes, and in addition, sent over an encyclopedia of Jewish knowledge called Das Jüdicsche Lexikon, a handbook on the preparation and stuffing of birds, and volumes on natural history, German vocabulary, and Malay grammar. When Rizal received these books, he was already subscribed to the Scientific American and the Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art, a London weekly.
School for boys
Rizal took in six local boys, whom he described as poor and intelligent, and built a school for them. Josephine Bracken watched over the students and made sure they did their homework when Rizal was away. The school had a curriculum modeled after the German gymnasium; the students were taught arithmetic, geometry, Spanish, English, French, German, fencing, wrestling, and boxing.
Their education was not confined to the four walls of the classroom. Rizal and his wards constructed an aqueduct that piped water from a mountain stream across the river to a public fountain, which was sculptured into the head of a lion. They made do with the materials available to them: bamboo, rocks, ruined roof tiles, mortar made out of lime from burnt seashells, and bricks, which Rizal made himself through a wooden machine that he invented.
Jose Caancan’s woodcarvers’ shop where he trained three generations of Paeteños in the art of sculpting. Caancan was later revealed to be Rizal's student in Dapitan
Over time, more students were admitted to the school through an unusual and inventive test: after nightfall, Rizal would ask the applicant to go into the forest and retrieve a cane he left behind. Some of Rizal’s students who were in on the plan would make terrifying noises in the woods to scare away the unsuspecting neophyte. If he successfully returned with the cane despite the provocations, he was welcomed to the school.
Poet and doctor
On top of all of these pursuits, Rizal had the time to write poetry and engage through correspondence in a religious colloquy with a Jesuit, Fr. Pablo Pastells. He continued to practice his profession, curing sick locals and offering medicine gratis to those who could not pay. With the help of Fr. Francisco de Paula Sanchez, another Jesuit, he made a relief map of Mindanao in the town plaza of Dapitan. He published an article on kulam, dug up prehistoric artifacts in an old burial ground, wrote a new orthography of the Tagalog language, and planned to work on a dictionary of Philippine languages, with translations in English, French, and Spanish. Rizal’s endeavors were so varied that it is difficult to talk about them other than by enumeration. When Rizal left Dapitan, four years after he arrived, he was so loved by the local Dapitanons that they sent him off with a parade.
What prompted this restless verve in Rizal and how do we account for the breadth of his enthusiasms? A plausible answer is his interdisciplinary education. In his last year at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila, he took philosophy, mineralogy, chemistry, physics, botany, and zoology. Even when he was already studying metaphysics at the University of Santo Tomas, he took additional classes in agriculture, topography, and drafting at the Ateneo Municipal, which granted him the title of Land Surveyor and Appraiser. While studying medicine at the Universidad Central de Madrid, he enrolled in courses in philosophy and literature, and took lessons in fine arts at the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.
Rizal’s time in Dapitan can be seen as a testament to the virtues of a broad and generalist education. It illustrates the merits of the Renaissance man over the strict specialist. The past century has brought on the further fragmentation of disciplines, but the multifarious activities of Rizal attest to the usefulness of interdisciplinary thinking. Rizal’s eventful four years in Dapitan show that he was not just a martyr who was shot for writing two novels; he was a fascinating, endlessly curious man whose talents spanned across boundaries.
- Bantug, J.P. “Rizal and the Progress of the Natural Sciences.” Philippine Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 1961
- Bonoan, R. “Rizal’s Record at the Ateneo.” Philippine Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 1979
- Letters Between Rizal and Family Members. National Heroes Commission, 1964
- Miscellaneous Correspondence of Jose Rizal. National Heroes Commission, 1963
- Quibuyen, F. “Rizal’s Legacy for the 21st Century: Progressive Education, Social Entrepreneurship and Community Development in Dapitan.” Social Science Diliman, vol. 7, no. 2. 2011
- Reminiscences and Travels of Jose Rizal. National Historical Institute, 1977
- Rizal-Blumentritt Correspondence. National Heroes Commission, 1963
- Schumacher, J. “Some Notes on Rizal in Dapitan.” Philippine Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 1963