FFE Magazine

El Filibusterismo: The making of a revolution

Good day! How have you been? It has been raining over the weekend here in the Philippines so I wasn’t able to hold a walking tour around Manila. However, the weather made me look through my bookshelf where I ended up looking at my copies of Jose Rizal’s famous works.

                Do you remember reading through El Filibusterismo in textbooks during your high school years? I can’t remember so much of what we discussed back in my own high school days (don’t ask when it was!). But I can remember my old copy of El Fili that I used years later when I first started to teach. I leafed through it so many times its pages were coming apart!

                But unlike the pages of my book, history doesn’t come apart so easily, especially with folks like me who love telling tales from the past. This week, I’ll tell you a story about the making of a story: the day Rizal finished writing the second of his masterpieces: El Filibusterismo. I’m taking you back to September 18, 1891, years and years after Manila opened its ports to the world which inspired and allowed Filipinos like Rizal to travel the Europe.

                Find a comfortable seat and listen…

The road to El Fili

                After Noli Me Tangere, his first literary masterpiece, was published in 1887, Rizal planned to publish a follow-up novel that followed the transformation of his hero Crisostomo Ibarra. However, writing the follow up novel during his time wasn’t easy. Whereas J.K. Rowling was encouraged to write Harry Potter quickly because of positive reviews and movie prospects, Rizal faced obstacles that delayed his writing – obstacles that affected him and his family severely.

La Solidaridad members from left to right: Jose Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar and Mariano Ponce. Photo taken 1890.


Because of a possible threat to his life for publishing Noli, Rizal left the country and toured East Asia and North America until he reached London. In Europe, he became preoccupied with reading history books written about the Philippines, writing for La Solidaridad and planning his follow-up novel. Trouble arose when Rizal had to fight for justice in Madrid Courts because his family was being evicted from their land in Calamba, Laguna.

                This latter conflict greatly worried Rizal, who cannot come home to protect his family. But this wasn’t all Rizal worried about. There were greater necessities that kept him from focusing on El Fili – he was running low on cash.


Rizal dedicated El Fili to GomBurZa – the Filipino priests Mariano Gómez, José Apolonio Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora who were executed unjustly in 1872.

During this period, Rizal frequently moved from London to Paris to Spain and back to catch up on his readings on history and to consult with the Supreme Court in Madrid. He apologised to Marcelo H. del Pilar for his decreasing contributions to La Solidaridad, but he felt compelled to finish his book. The importance of finishing El Fili was reflected in one of his letters, where he said “It seems to me that this second part is more important than the first, and if I do not finish it here, it will never be finished.” When he ran out of money and of any hope for justice, he decided to move to Brussels, Belgium to live a meagre life and to publish at a cheaper price.

                Can you imagine this: our national hero, who was practically a champion of the Filipino people by then, stony broke and asking for money from friends? He has already pawned much of his valuable possessions just to pay rent and eat. But things got better as he travelled towards Belgium. And one of his best accomplishments during this time changed the course of Philippine history.

Rizal finishes the draft and publishes

                In Biarritz, Paris en route to Brussels on March 29, 1891, Rizal finished writing the draft for El Filibusterismo. Amid writing letters to friends asking for fare money to Hong Kong, Rizal rewrote and revised El Fili until he had 20 chapters ready for publishing by May 30. The book did not reach its final form until months later.

A marker on the house where Jose Rizal spent his days in Brussels. The sign reads: “National hero of the Philippines lived in this house when he wrote his novel ‘El Filibusterismo’ in 1890-1891”

Ghent, Belgium, September 18, 1891: hot off the press, Rizal took two copies of his masterpiece El Filibusterismo and sent them to friends in Hong Kong. Four days later, Rizal sent a copy to del Pilar with a letter informing the latter that he was planning to return to the Philippines. Historians later discovered that Rizal also planned to write a third novel and satire on the customs of Filipinos. By the end of September, Rizal was able to pay his printing dues thanks to the help of his friend Valentin Ventura who loaned him 200 francs.

The legacy

                After El Fili was published, copies of the book were smuggled into the Philippines where they were hungrily read by Filipinos who were tired of the injustices they experienced under the friars. The Spanish government naturally banned the book, but this did not stop the Filipinos from using it as an anthem for revolution.

An original copy of El Filibusterismo in the National Library. Minor repairs were made with the help of German conservators in 2011 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rizal.

Andres Bonifacio was one of those directly inspired by Rizal’s book – it gave him the idea of forming Katipunan, a revolutionary society which aimed to gain Philippine independence from Spain. Katipunan would later on lead to the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution, which imprinted the names of revolutionary heroes Emilio Jacinto, Melchora Aquino, Gregorio del Pilar, Antonio Luna and Emilio Aguinaldo in history.

                Rizal never intended for El Fili to be a call to revolution, though. Just like any of us who face dilemmas, Rizal had to struggle with his “personal demons:” in the book, Rizal’s Simoun stopped at nothing to start a revolution. But Rizal did not allow revolution to happen in his book. Do you remember what Rizal did at the end of the book? Well, don’t expect any spoilers from me!

                Yet the publication of El Fili also meant Rizal signed his death warrant. While not directly involved with the revolution, Rizal was still taken and executed in 1896 because of the power of his books.

Poster for a 1962 movie version starring Pancho Magalona and Charito Solis. Magalona played Simoun, the main character and revolutionary anti-hero of Rizal’s second book.

Today, El Filibusterismo is a mandatory reading among high school students and is required by law to be taught in public and private universities in the country. Though originally written in Castilian Spanish, translations in English, German, French, Japanese and Filipino languages are available.

                It’s amazing how one single book could hold such deep consequences! Without El Fili, do you think the revolution would still happen? I leave that up to you to decide. Meanwhile, why don’t you get a copy of El Fili the next time you visit the Philippines? Let’s talk about the book here… just leave your thoughts on the comment section below.


                Salamat (thank you) for listening… until we meet again for another great day in Philippines history!



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