Jose Rizal, suspected spy, deciphered
(Editor’s Note: June 19 is the 150th birth anniversary of National Hero Jose Rizal. The author is the shrine curator of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.)
MANILA, Philippines—The story that Jose Rizal was once accused of espionage would raise eyebrows today. Though mischievous gossip about him spices up classroom discussions, the idea that he was an undercover agent would seem preposterous.
To generations brought up on Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible” or Daniel Craig as the debonair James Bond, a sartorial Rizal in his bowler hat and overcoat doesn’t fit the stereotype. But the accusation was actually made during his sojourn in Berlin, as recounted by his companion Dr. Maximo Viola in his diary.
Rizal was no ordinary tourist wandering aimlessly in cities he visited. With a Baedeker guidebook in hand and a pedometer in his pocket, he would walk to a city’s historic and cultural sites, sample the local fare and, presumably, ask locals about their customs.
Perhaps the locals regarded him with amusement—or awe, because Rizal was fluent in several European languages. It would have been no surprise if the local police suspected his inquisitiveness as “fishing for information,” as had happened in what Viola described as “a rare incident that occurred in the life of our Rizal [in] Berlin.”
Viola recounted in his diary a conversation one morning between Dr. F. Jagor and Rizal, where he overheard “threats of deportation” against the latter.
After Jagor left, he and Rizal talked about the matter.
This was Viola’s narration:
“The chief of police had visited [Rizal] very early asking him for his passport, and as he didn’t have any with him, he was advised to show it at the police prefecture within four days from that date. Otherwise, he would be conducted under guard to one of the German frontiers.
“Immediately we applied for the required passport at the Spanish Legation located in a distant … district of the Jews. After many comings and goings, so many promises, and the expiration of the 4-day term, it turned out that the Count of Benomar, the ambassador … of the Spanish government [in] Berlin, had no power to issue [a] passport. …
“Vexed, … we went to the police prefecture, not without cursing the Spanish regime, and there was exposed in satirical tone the solemn blunder committed by no less than an ambassador who, after promising so much and making us waste time in going back and forth, learned at the 11th hour that it was not within his power to issue such a document.
“And now, lacking time to apply to another competent Spanish authority to give him such a document which, never in his travels in France was required of him, [Rizal] placed himself unconditionally under the orders of the established government.”
‘Spy’ for France …
Viola wrote that after deliberating on Rizal’s travail, the chief of police told him that he was being asked to present a passport due to his “visiting cities, towns and villages, even the smallest and insignificant, with more or less prolonged sojourns in all and each one of them, and establishing certain personal relations with some of their inhabitants.”
He continued his narration thus:
“The government, in view of the investigations made and the information furnished by the different police precincts, had interpreted all those steps taken by Rizal as acts of espionage in favor of the government of France. (At that time, the relations were strained between Germany and France.)
“To all this Rizal replied that it was true that he had been in the various points in Germany alluded to, not for any illicit motive but for purely instructive purpose.
“Desiring to study the ethnography of the nation, he had adopted the principle of making his preliminary investigation in the towns or smallest villages where the customs and ways of living of the people are simple and natural, unlike in the large cities where those characteristics were more or less modified by artificial culture.
“In view of these explanations and perhaps of secret reports, the chief of police was satisfied and since then there were no more threats of deportation.”
… And for Germany
Rizal must have been dumbfounded by all the attention, and brooded over who might have told the German authorities of his activities.
The speculations were that with Rizal’s increasing popularity for his incisive articles in the Propagandists’ newspaper La Solidaridad, his enemies might have instigated the deed. It is not implausible because during his homecoming in 1887, he was branded a German spy.
In a letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt in September 1887, Rizal wrote: “My father does not allow me to go out alone or eat in another house. The old man fears and trembles for me. They take me for a German spy, an agent of Bismarck, a Protestant, a Mason, a wizard, a soul halfway to damnation, etc. So I prefer to stay at home.
“The constabulary firmly believes all this and spreads the word around that I am plotting. The corporal (born in Madrid) thinks I have a foreign passport and that I roam about at night.
“I am in the hands of God and my destiny. Let come what may!”
While Rizal may not have engaged in espionage, he was adept in creating and using subterfuge cryptograms.
A cryptogram contains an encrypted message that needs to be decoded using a cipher key. Simple cryptograms use a substitution cipher; each letter in the text is replaced by another letter, and to find the message, one must discover the alphabet pattern employed.
Rizal encrypted several passages in his diary entries to veil his feelings toward certain persons.
On Jan. 4, 1883, he wrote: “… Violent discussion on Lobo Street about the ticket hawkers. I decided not to take part in the discussion and so I didn’t. Padsi ce burvendi cili pese qua ta hefem psarodamla. Tala rofua eum amenisedi da Vimruati: vsai qua damlsi da pivi ta enesé ye namir.”
A contemporary, the eminent Spanish novelist Miguel de Unamuno, writing to Rizal’s biographer Wenceslao E. Retana, said he had worked out the cipher key to uncover the message: “In these ciphered phrases Rizal substituted the letters in the first line for those below:
a e i o c f g l m n r s t v
e a o i v g f t n m s r l c
“He left out the letters u, b, d, h, j, p, q, y. Apply and you’ll see that it says: ‘Pedro is looking for votes so that he will be made president. Lete is still in love with Consuelo; I believe that shortly he’ll love her less.’ Knowing the key, it is already easy to decipher the other ciphered phrases.”
It is amusing to learn that Rizal did not think much of compatriot Pedro Paterno’s ambition to control the Círculo Hispano-Filipino, and was resentful of rival Eduardo Lete’s affections for the woman they both fancied, Consuelo Pérez Ortiga.
But while apparently displeased with his friends, Rizal was civil with them, and literally concealed his views to himself.
He also criticized the Paternos for deceiving a fellow Filipino student: “I went to class. The law students refused to enter while the decrees were not revoked. Lete came to thank me on behalf of C.O. At night Esteban was here; we talked of various … Pelasmitahearptilediomdofmenamla.Tahepsinalodipefesrurdauderpesehevastalsecejesdarpuarmihequasodipefesmede …”
(Decoded: Paterno has exploited him harshly. He promised to pay his debts in order to make him work and afterwards, he didn’t want to pay him anything.)
Who among the Paterno brothers was Rizal referring to and who was the victim of the deception? Was it the common friend, Esteban? Rizal must have sympathized with the victim and was vexed by the perpetrator’s ruthlessness.
According to Retana, the Paternos, especially Pedro Paterno, lived ostentatiously in Madrid, and while Rizal was acquainted with them, he was never invited to any of their banquets because he was too poor to afford a dress coat.
In other passages, Rizal expressed tenderness for his fiancée Leonor Rivera (nicknamed Taimis): “I received two letters—one from Uncle Antonio, 2 December and another from P., 30 November. Te vesle da Taimis ar vesoñire y vim um gomet da tir ner efsedebtar.”
(Decoded: Leonor’s letter is loving with a most pleasant ending.)
But he occasionally doubted the sincerity of her love: “Tonight I had a very sad dream. I imagined I returned to the Philippines, but what a sad reception! My parents did not show up and Taimisheboerodiomgoatpasidaumeomgodatodedlemfsemdaquamilamoesanadoi …”
(Decoded: Leonor had been unfaithful; but her infidelity was so great that it had no remedy.)
Did Rizal intuit that Leonor would eventually marry another man, Charles Henry Kipping, in 1890?
Like the cryptograms he devised, Rizal continues to be an enigma, with his wide range of interests remarkably augmenting his talents.
Many more layers will surely be uncovered by diligent historians sifting through Rizal’s diaries and letters, revealing the complexities of his erudite mind.
The National Historical Commission of the Philippines has organized various events in celebration of Rizal’s sesquicentennial birth anniversary. For details, log on to www.nhi.gov.ph.
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