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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare

A writer, physician, and patriot, José Rizal was perhaps the first Asian nationalist. His writing revealed the injustices he saw in the Philippines and so angered colonial officials that they banned his work and severely persecuted him.

Early Life and Writings

Rizal was born on June 19, 1861 in Calamba, Luzon. He grew up in a comfortably wealthy Philippine family. His mother, Teodora Alonso, was highly educated. In his secondary education at Jesuit Ateneo Municipal School in Manila, Rizal won literary honors. He briefly attended the University of Santo Tomás, then traveled overseas and completed his studies in medicine and the liberal arts at the University of Madrid, where he received a doctorate in philosophy and letters.

While in Spain, Rizal wrote Noli me tangero (The Social Cancer) in 1886, a sociological and historical novel that detailed the oppression Filipinos suffered at the hands of Catholic friars. This work established the main theme of his writing, which emphasized Philippine culture, class oppression, and the corrupting character of the Catholic Church as then structured in the islands. In 1891, Rizal's El filibusterismo (The Reign of Greed) was published, and it pushed him to the forefront of the Filipino reform movement.


Rizal was reacting to the history of the Philippines under Spanish rule and to his family's own experiences. In 1887, colonial injustices struck him directly. His family and many others in Calamba were tenants on an estate owned by the Dominicans. These tenants petitioned the government, complaining about abuses by the Catholic order. After a long court trial, the tenants lost their case, and the Spanish governor had them evicted from the estate. The authorities deported Rizal's father and his three sisters. In El filibusterismo, Rizal attacked the entire economic system as bourgeois and exploitative and predicted a mass revolution.

Rizal became leader of the Propaganda Movement, which advocated reforms. At no time did he call for Philippine independence, but he did raise national consciousness and glorify the Filipino culture that had existed long before Europeans arrived on the islands. Spanish officials reacted to his books by banning them and setting them on fire, and they punished anyone caught reading them. Rizal retaliated by writing more books and by writing for La Solidaridad, a newspaper produced by Filipino intellectuals in Spain. He formalized his political platform, which consisted of making the Philippines a province of Spain, replacing the Spanish friars with Filipino priests, protecting freedom of expression, and establishing the equality of Filipinos and Spaniards before the law.

Rizal moved to Hong Kong in 1890, where he planned a colony in British North Borneo for dispossessed Filipinos. He returned to the Philippines in 1892 and founded Liga Filipina, a nationalist organization that reflected his platform. Although this group lasted only a short time, it stimulated other young nationalists into action, including Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo, who became revolutionaries.

Exile and Execution

Spanish authorities reacted to Liga Filipina by arresting Rizal on July 2, 1892, four days after he had formed the organization. They deported him to Mindanao in the southern Philippines. At Dapitan, he spent his exile practicing ophthalmology. Along with his writing, he was an accomplished doctor who performed the first cataract operation in the Philippines.

Rizal also began town improvements and founded a school. He then requested a transfer to become a surgeon in the Spanish Army. The government agreed, and in 1896, Rizal headed for Spain. On his way there, however, the Philippine Revolution began, and the Spaniards suddenly arrested him for masterminding the rebellion, a completely false charge since he had no direct connection with the revolutionary uprising. Rizal was placed on trial and, with the help of church officials, convicted of treason. On December 30, 1896, he was executed in Manila by a firing squad, in full public view.

The execution made Rizal a martyr and stimulated the revolutionaries to expand their fight. They did not succeed in gaining independence, however, until after World War II. Rizal became a great figure in Philippine history, and his influence even produced a Rizalist cult that still worships him as a Filipino Christ.

Jose Tomas,
Neil A. Hamilton
Dr. Neil A. Hamilton is a professor of history at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and an adjunct professor of American history at the University of South Alabama. He received his PhD in American history at the University of Tennessee after graduating with a BA and MA from the University of Miami. A member of the Organization of American Historians, Hamilton has authored or coauthored a number of articles for historical journals and such books as The ABC-Clio Companion to the 1960s Counterculture in America (ABC-CLIO, 1997), Atlas of the Baby Boom Generation (Macmillan, 2000), American Social Leaders and Activists (Facts on File, 2002), The 1970s (Facts on File, 2006), Scientific Exploration and Expeditions: From the Age of Discovery to the Twenty-First Century (Sharpe, 2011), Outlaws Still At Large!: A Saga of Roots Country Music Since the 1970s (Outlaw Press, 2013), and Rebels and Renegades: a Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States (Taylor and Francis, 2016).

Further Reading

Coates, Austin, Rizal, 1969; Osias, Camillio, José Rizal: His Life and Times, 1949; Zaide, Gregorio, José Rizal, 1970.

MLA Citation

Hamilton, Neil. "José Rizal." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/316337. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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