Eufemio Agbayani III
Historic Sites Development Officer II
National Historical Commission of the Philippines
“Turn your eyes to the farmer burnt by the sun tilling the stubborn earth and burying a seed. He too contributes through his modest but useful work to the glory of the nation.” – Jose Rizal, El Amor Patrio, June 1882 (translated by Raul J. Bonoan)
We often remember Rizal for his thought-provoking literary works such as his two novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, or his annotations to Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas. We also remember him as an accomplished ophthalmologist—such that we call him Doctor Rizal even if what he received is a licentiate and not a doctorate.
Yet even if in our mind, Rizal was first and foremost an intellectual, he engaged in manual labor. In particular, he took part in what is probably the most important of them all: agriculture.
Rizal’s first exposure to agriculture was in his childhood. He was born to a family of inquilinos; his father Francisco Mercado rented land from the Dominicans and managed farmers who tilled the land. The profit after paying the canon and the farmhands allowed the family to build a home at the center of town.
Reminiscences in Noli Me Tangere
As a novel written after real life, Rizal used Noli Me Tangere to reminisce his rural childhood. Yet as he wanted the setting of his novel to be any town in the Philippines, he strategically described the fictional San Diego by giving it all the major crops (minus abaca). It produced sugar (commonly found in estates in Laguna, Central Luzon, and Western Visayas), palay (grown throughout the country), coffee (grown in Batangas), and fruits exported to other towns.
Rizal also reminisced the rich aquaculture of the Laguna de Bay in a scene of his Noli Me Tangere, where the character Tia Isabel recited what to do with a variety of fish from the lake:
The ayungin is good for the sinigang. Leave the bia for the escabeche. The dalag and the buan-buan for the pesa, the dalag will last longer. Put them in the net so they can stay in the water. The lobster to the frying pan! The banak is to be roasted, wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with tomatoes. Leave the rest for decoys; it’s bad to empty the corral completely.
Although Rizal considered being a doctor, lawyer, or even a priest, his interest in farming remained. He studied to become a licensed land surveyor at Ateneo de Manila, receiving his license in September 1881. One could speculate at why he took this course. Perhaps he wanted to measure the land his family was renting to make sure that they paid just right. Perhaps he wanted to explore other idle lands which his family could till for free.
Even when Rizal studied abroad to become an ophthalmologist, he was still curious about farming. In a letter to his parents on 2 August 1882, he expressed interest in studying agriculture and lamented how only a single Filipino – Mariano Cunanan of Pampanga – was studying to become an agriculturist. He saw agriculture as an honored and intelligent profession, saying, “Here the agriculturist is much wiser perhaps than many bishops and many lawyers there.”
Rizal’s curiosity was also sustained by reading. A bibliographic card preserved by the NHCP in its Museo ni Jose Rizal Fort Santiago Collection suggests that he owned a book entitled Farming to Profit in Modern Times by John Walker. Perhaps he was researching ways to improve their farming techniques back in Calamba, especially after sugar prices went down and the Dominicans’ rent went up.
Leader of Farmers
Rizal was not naïve to the complications and tragedies of farming. Although it is in fiction, the story of Cabesang Tales in El Filibusterismo may have been familiar to Rizal’s contemporaries. Tales turned to being a bandit or tulisan after losing his lands and even his family after trying to turn a wooded place into a farm.
Earlier, Rizal contributed articles in La Solidaridad describing the sorry state of Filipino farmers. In Sobre La Indolencia de Filipinos published starting 15 July 1890, Rizal cites that Filipinos had a rich agricultural culture prior to the arrival of Spaniards, but constant depredations by pirates and calls for arms and/or public works discouraged many indios from aggressively developing their farms. Rizal summarizes these grievances: The miserly return that the Filipino gets from his labor would in the end discourage him.
Rizal also talked about the hardship faced by contemporaneous Filipino farmers in Los Agricultores Filipinos, an article which appeared on its 15 March 1889 issue. The article focused not only the scientific aspect of farming but on the social and economic challenges they faced. In addition to storms and pests, Filipino farmers faced forced labor, the possibility of being arrested, and the predilection of tulisanes who forced farmers to give them part of the harvest. His sole means of defense, a firearm, was difficult to procure and register.
Rizal suggested to his readers that government officials should visit and ask farmers their concerns directly and to allow a free press to publish stories of abuse. One such unfortunate story was his family’s land troubles in Calamba which culminated, sadly, in the expulsion of many Calambeños from the town and the exile of some of them, including Rizal’s own justifyPaciano.
These tragic events encouraged Rizal to find an alternative, a New Calamba, in North Borneo. He writes to Blumentritt, “In Borneo I shall not be a planter but the leader of planters who are thinking of emigrating there with me… There are vast fields over there where we can found a new Kalamba.” He visited the area in late 1891 and early 1892 and received the approval of the British authorities. Rizal must have shared these plans to his friends, as Ariston Bautista Lin, Juan Luna, Antonio Luna, and Sixto Lopez wrote letters to him asking for an update. Unfortunately, his plan was disapproved by the Governor General. He cited that there were many lands to develop in the Philippines. Yet it is not improbable that he thought a Filipino colony just outside the borders of Spanish Philippines could be used as a base for a revolt.
Rizal’s vision of a new Calamba would only come true through his unexpected exile to Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte. He arrived on 17 July 1892 and stayed at the Casa Real which served as the residence and office of the commandant Don Ricardo Carnicero.
The month after his exile, he planted fruit trees in the land between his place of residence, the Casa Real, and the sea. By January 1893, using money from lottery winnings he received the previous September, he wrote his family to report his purchase of land across the bay in Talisay which had “fifty lanzones trees, twenty mangoes, macupa, some fifty lanka, santol, balonos [wild mangoes], eighteen mangosteens… 16 coconut trees from which we get tender coconut milk.” He also reported that he had planted “1,400 coffee seeds, 200 cacao” and had green mangoes. Descendants remember that he also planted pineapples and corn.
Carnicero reports that the land had “more than 60 cacao trees, some coffee trees, and many fruit trees of some value.” These had been abandoned by the previous owners as they were being eaten by wild boars and monkeys. They continued to pester Rizal throughout his stay but this did not deter him from maintaining his farms, in which he is recorded as keeping ducks, pigs, and chickens in addition to his plants and trees. In the early months, as his books had not yet come with him, it is entirely possible that Rizal depended on local help on how to cultivate the fruit trees. It is known that he engaged the services of Subanen helpers, one of which he had grown fond of named Agyag.
Once Rizal had settled in his Talisay estate, much of his daily routine was occupied by farming. In his letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt on 19 December 1893, he shares that he begins the day at 5:00 am by feeding his chickens and spends his afternoons tending his farm. For a time he found himself content with the serenity of a farmer’s lifestyle, saying to Carnicero on a note dated 25 October 1892, “I myself, though a descendant of farmers but not so by profession, would remain here forever and engage in farming with pleasure.”
The land in Dapitan and its neighboring areas was so fertile that he invited his fellow Calambeños to resettle. One of them, Aquilino Gecolea, quickly heeded his call. He arrived in December 1892 and found an ideal place in Punta Blanca (now part of Manukan town). Rizal later set his sights on Ponot which was then home to many indigenous Subanen. On 10 April 1895, he requested Jose Ma. Basa for his books as he had planned to clear the area by June. He was granted permission on 1 June on the condition that he would not bring any fellow Calambeño. He refused this condition and contented himself in Dapitan.
As late as 1896, Rizal’s final year on earth, he had been actively searching for other places to cultivate. On 10 February, he bought land from Ramon Carreon in Daanglungsod in the twon of Lubungan (now Katipunan town). This plot of land still functions as a farm managed by descendants of Fernando Eguia, a student of Rizal. On 22 April, he bought land from Cosme Borromeo near Linao, the source of the waterworks he had built. This increased the size of his Dapitan estate from 16 hectares to approximately 18.
Plants need water, and to support his farmland and his adopted town, Rizal helped construct two separate water systems. The first was a water system conceptualized by the Jesuits and approved for construction in the month Rizal arrived. The project leader was a Jesuit brother, Juan de Costa, who had built a water system in Balingasag, Misamis Oriental. Rizal’s knowledge as a surveyor may have been useful in charting the course of the pipes from its source in Linao to a point just across the river from the town center. He may have also designed its main faucet with a lion’s head.
Rizal also built an internal water system for his Talisay farm consisting of a dam and a water tank which is no longer extant. When he opened his school in January 1894, his students also helped him maintain his estate and planting/farming was part of the curriculum.
Rizal improved upon a formula on how to use paste from the bakhaw mangroves to fill in holes in wood. “With a knife I remove the peel of the [mangrove] fruit until the pulp comes out. I boil the pulp until the water turns reddish. Then I crush the hot pulp. A small quantity of lime water mixed with the paste prevents it from being damp” (Letter to Fr. Francisco de Paula Sanchez, 30 December 1892). Rizal later used bakhaw paste for some of his artworks made in Dapitan especially Wild Boar, immortalizing some of the animals which threatened his fruit trees.
More than a year after Rizal arrived in Dapitan, he discovered how abaca could be a profitable crop for Dapitanons. He entered a partnership with Mariano Hamoy, a Dapitanon businessman, for its cultivation. It had become so profitable that he had convened an association of planters and harvesters in August 1894 and finished the group’s by-laws on 1 January 1895. Its objectives were: (a) to improve farm products; (b) to obtain better markets; (c) to collect funds for their purchase; and (d) to establish a cooperative store with moderate prices.
Rizal entered into a partnership with a Spaniard, Antonio Miranda, to improve the fishing industry in Dapitan. He had planned to introduce the pukutan system and had asked a pukutan (ring net) from his brother-in-law Manuel Timoteo Hidalgo, husband of Saturnina Rizal. Rizal also requested for expert fishermen and he was willing to sustain their livelihood, even building them houses and paying for their stay, but none arrived.
Despite this setback, Rizal found farming sustainable and profitable. He may not have expected to become a farmer, but he made the most out of his exile both emotionally and economically. So prosperous was Rizal’s estate when he left it on 31 July 1896 that when he was fined after the sentencing for sedition, Spanish officials were able to recover the following properties:
Two parcels of land in the sitio of Daanlungsod, of the town of Lubungan, with an approximate area of 35 hectares, with a stand of 2,000 abaca plants
A piece of hilly and stony land with an area of about eighteen hectares
- A light material house of bamboo and palm-leaf thatch with wooden posts and plank flooring, measuring 10 meters and 5 centimeters long and 11 meters and 40 centimenters wide…
- a light material shed of bamboo and palm-leaf thatch with wooden posts and plank flooring, measuring 15 meters long and 7 meters and 10 centimenters wide…
- 31 coconut trees
- 10 bamboo trees and a number of fruit trees
- a vessel of the kind called vilus, unfinished, measuring 19 meters 85 centimeters from stern to stern, 1.65 meters breadth of beam, and 1.30 meters depth of hold, and two masts.
This list offers a glimpse in the great economic activity that Rizal left behind. Today, Dapitan is still a largely agricultural city although, thankfully, its fishing industry is better than during Rizal’s time and now its income is augmented by tourism centered on historic sites and a famed resort.
Agriculture remains as a challenging profession. Farmers are tempted to give up by destructive floods, low prices, costly transportation, unauthorized importations, and easy money from developers who would buy their land. Yet their work is essential for the sustenance and growth of our nation. It is hoped that rediscovering Rizal’s respect for agriculture can inspire everyone – from leaders in government to ordinary citizens – to support farmers in all possible ways.
Bonoan, Raul J. “Rizal’s First Published Essay: ‘El Amor Patrio’”. Philippine Studies 44, no. 3 (1996): 299-320.
Capino, Diosdado G. and Virginia Buenaflor. Stories of Rizal’s Exile in Dapitan. Manila: Manlapaz Publications, 1961.
Guerrero, Leon Ma. The First Filipino. Manila: National Historical Commission, 1974.
Jose Rizal: Correspondence with Blumentritt. Vol. 2. Manila: National Historical Commission of the Philippines, 2011.
One Hundred Letters of Jose Rizal to his Parents, Brother, Sisters, Relatives. Manila: Philippine National Historical Society, 1959.
Rizal, Jose. Ang “Filibusterismo”. Translated by Maria Odulio de Guzman. Mandaluyong City: National Book Store, 1960.
Rizal, Jose. Noli Me Tangere. Translated by Domingo de Guzman, Francisco Laksamana, and Maria Odulio de Guzman. Mandaluyong City: National Book Store, 1950.
Rizal, Jose. Noli Me Tangere: A Completely New Translation for the Contemporary Reader. Translated by León Ma. Guerrero. London and Hong Kong, Longman Group Limited, 1961.
Rizal, Jose. Political and Historical Writings. Manila: National Historical Institute, 1976.
Rizal’s Correspondence with Fellow Reformists. Manila: National Heroes Commission, 1963.
Rizal Shrine Dapitan City, Zamboanga del Norte. Manila: National Historical Institute, 1993.
Ocampo, Ambeth R. and Andrew Gonzalez, FSC, eds. Rizal the Scientist. Proceedings of a Seminar in Commemoration of the Rizal Death Centennial (1896), June 20, 1997. Manila: De La Salle University Press, 2002.
Villaroman, Noel G. Dapitanon. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 2018.