The rich Rizal friend who smuggled Noli and Fili to PH 2
Dr. José Rizal and José Ma. Basa. Photos from Wikimedia Commons (left) and Leon Gallery (right).
Culture

Meet Jose Ma. Basa, Rizal’s wealthy friend who smuggled Noli and Fili to the Philippines

The desk from which this unique revolutionary would write to Rizal, Aguinaldo, McKinley is up for auction this September
ANCX Staff | Aug 30 2021

José Ma. Basa y Enriquez (1839- 1907) was a generation ahead of National Hero José Rizal but the two men would be life-long friends.

A wealthy merchant and a staunch liberal, Basa’s first brush with political activism was as the clandestine distributor of the newspaper El Eco Filipino. While published by his brother-in-law Frederico Lerena in Madrid, it was Basa who used his network to bring the paper to Manila. It was a “skill”he would later use to smuggle in copies of the Noli and Fili, written by his friend Rizal. Possession of these incendiary works was reason enough to clap you into jail, sometimes by way of the Spanish secret police.

Basa’s reputation as an agitator and reformist put him squarely in the sights of the Spanish colonial government. In the reign of terror after the Cavite Mutiny of 1872, he was rounded up along with the legendary Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora. He would, however, escape execution unlike GomBurZa, but the governor-general was adamant on setting an example and meted out the harshest sentence of banishment of ten years to Basa. (He was exiled along with Pedro Paterno’s father, Maximo, to the Marianas.)

As it says in a memoir by his great-grandson Mario Henson Basa featured in a Manila newspaper, “Basa devoted his whole life for the betterment of his country. He was at the forefront of the early stages of the battle for reforms. He became the distributor of the liberal newspaper and was a member, with Fr. José Burgos, of the Comite de Reformadores (Committee of Reformers). It was through Basa’s efforts, that the newspaper La Solidaridad and Rizal’s two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo reached the Philippines. Basa also wrote propaganda pamphlets in Hong Kong and opened his home to Filipino exiles.”

Indeed, Rizal would correspond often with Basa, keeping him informed of his progress with his novels and sending him copies of both of these landmark books. One can imagine him opening the hero’s letters and writing back on a magnificently carved desk which is up for bids at the upcoming Leon Gallery Magnificent September Auction on September 11. But more on this desk later. 

The Don José Basa Writing Desk
Lot 114 The Don José Basa Writing Desk

According to Mario Henson Basa's  research, “Jose Ma. Basa was born on Dec. 19, 1839, in Calle San Jacinto in Binondo to a Spanish mestizo known as Matias Basa and Joaquina San Agustin. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Santo Tomas and later associated with fellow students like Joaquin Pardo de Tavera and Fr. Jose Burgos, who shared his views on the atrocities of the Spanish friars. At 21, Basa already had a thriving business, with his distillery being the most lucrative.

“As a member of the Comite de Reformadores, he aspired for Philippine autonomy from the centralized government of Madrid and took up the cudgels for the native clergy. This latter sentiment soon evolved into an anti-friar stance that raised suspicions among authorities that the group’s members were separatists.”

José Ma. Basa would eventually leave the Marianas, some say through an ingenious plot of bribing officials and escaping dressed as a priest. He would never return to the Philippines in his lifetime and would make his home — and a second fortune — in Hong Kong. Family lore has it that he made his home on busy Nathan Road, in a two-story house fitted with beautiful furniture made by various artisans. 

Rizal stayed in Basa's house in Hongkong and they corresponded regularly to share ideas and frustrations with the Spanish regime in the Philippines. The two developed a deep friendship as the first editions of Noli Me Tangereand El Filibusterismo were smuggled into the Philippines from Hongkong through the efforts of Basa.

The man re-built his fortune with the aforementioned desk, which features a double-dragon: The first curling along the top of the drawers and cabinets; the second on the apron of the front of the escritorio. On the sides are bamboo trees incised into the wood. All in all, it is a fitting metaphor for two titans of that revolutionary era.

Jose Basa with Grupo de Filipinos Ilustres 
José Ma. Basa (standing, second from left) with Grupo de Filipinos Ilustres 

The magnificent Japanese export writing desk of dark–stained boxwood from the late Meiji period comes in two parts in the Western lexicon: the cartonnier (paper storage) above and the bureau plat (writing desk) below. The cartonnier is a Japanese shodana, a traditional shelf for the display of small, exquisite objects or various heirlooms. Presiding over it is a splendid reticulated dragon. The shodana’s shelves and drawers are profusely carved with a glorious mélange of Japanese flora and fauna. The writing desk itself is supported by four traditional oni demon faces on the corners atop legs fully carved with bamboo, chrysanthemums, and cherry blossoms. The ensemble is emblematic of successful Japanese excess adapting to Victorian aesthetics. (To know more about the desk, please click on this link.)

But while the desk was indeed a tool for Basa to rebuild his wealth, more importantly, it was on this desk too where he would write Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, and two presidents, Gen.Emilio Aguinaldo of the Philippines and Pres. William McKinley of the United States. He would importune McKinley for help in the fight against Spain. Basa would produce many propaganda pamphlets to be sent to the Philippines that so impressed Marcelo Del Pilar, he paid him a visit in Hongkong.

Basa would pass away in 1907 and his remains finally returned to a hero’s welcome in 1911, commemorated by his inclusion in Guillermo Tolentino’s Grupo de Filipinos Ilustres where he is depicted standing behind Fr. José Burgos and General Antonio Luna, the man in the middle of important revolutionary events.

The Magnificent September Auction is happening on September 11 beginning at 2PM. Check out the e-catalogue and auction offerings by going to leon-gallery.com or click on this link. The event is presented by the country’s premiere auction house Leon Gallery together with ANCX.ph, the urban man's guide to culture and style, the lifestyle website of ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel.

[Images courtesy of Leon Gallery]