The Noli Me Tangere was a book so controversial, anyone who had possession of it in the mid-1890s could be arrested. And if you were the national hero who had written it, possession of the book could land you on death row. It is alleged that Jose Rizal had a copy of the book stashed in the luggage he brought home from Dapitan, and that this was one of the reasons why he was sent to jail and sentenced to death.
The book influenced the best minds of the revolution, but it also inspired ordinary townsfolk to rise up against a common enemy. Lisa Guerrero-Nakpil, Leon Gallery’s resident historian, asserts as much. “It’s the most important book in the history of the Philippines as far as the Philippine revolution is concerned,” she says. “You have to imagine that in those times, there was no social media—right now any little problem is spoken about by all of us, but at that time nobody talked about the abuses [of the church], and the hardship experienced [by so many Filipinos], for fear they’d be killed, or their houses would be burned, and their worldly possessions would be lost or confiscated.” It was an act of courage for Rizal to have written the book and he consequently served as an inspiration for an entire generation to rise up and take control of the country.
Nakpil says there were approximately two thousand first editions of the Noli that went into circulation and only a few were smuggled into the country. She also recalls the touching account Carlos P. Romulo wrote about the importance of the book to his father and his hometown Camiling in Tarlac. “They were able to acquire one of the first editions, and the copy was passed from hand to hand in the province.” The province had more than ten thousand people, and the book was read every night by various families, “until the book was finished. Until every family in that town had read it,” Nakpil says.
The book would be passed on from family to family to the point that each one had realized they weren’t alone, that all of them in some form or other had suffered under the hands of the colonial master.
“When people got their hands on a copy, they would memorize it, or they would get a scribe to transcribe it page by page—there was no Xerox machine then, there was no sms,” she says. And still ordinary Filipinos found ways to spread the word and pass on the book. When Bonifacio called on his countrymen to join the revolution, Camiling was one of the first towns to volunteer. That’s how potent the book was.
As with any of the revolutions the world now faces, especially those that have successfully overturned powerful institutions (whether in the workplace or in the government), all it took was a seed to spawn a movement, and for ordinary people to know that their terrors were shared. That means you and me, and what we choose to do in light of any one of the injustices we face as a modern society. We’re a country of revolutions, whether it was the revolution of 1896 or 1986, or even the social media revolution of 2016 (which turned our government into the Wild, Wild West, cowboys and indios, all of us).
One of the first editions of Rizal’s controversial, ill-advised, and ballsy book will be up for auction in February 2019. It’s a bit of history in our hands, a little reminder of the past, and a little footnote on the nobility of the Filipino in perhaps the most trying time in the history of our nation. If it falls into the right hands, it might even start a new revolution.