By JON E. ROYECA
During the first quarter of 1890, the Philippines was scandalized by a homicide that happened on the island of Negros. This event reached even the shores of Spain and prompted the Filipino propagandists there to react to it. Until May of that year, it was still the talk of the town.
This incident was the killing of a Spanish landowner, Felipe Vidaurrazaga, and the culprit happened to be one of his laborers, a Filipino native. The assassin, a father of a family and without a previous bad record, surrendered himself to the authorities right after the killing and related all the information in connection with the murder.
Because of this crime, two Spanish-owned newspapers in Manila demanded that martial law be proclaimed in Negros, while other periodicals were not so inclined to it and just asked that the full weight of the law be meted out to the murderer.
In his article “Let Us Be Just,” which was published in the April 15, 1890 issue of La Solidaridad, Jose Rizal, was indignant. He wrote:
“[T]his is not the first time that the severity of the law is asked to be applied to the poor rural workers of the Philippines when the victims unfortunately belong to the European race! Some months ago, a husband surprised a friar staining his honor. The irate husband wounded and maltreated him, and the newspapers asked that the guilty assassin be rigorously punished, that the full weight of the law be applied to him, etc.”
That was how justice worked in the Philippines then. If a Filipino had done something against a Spaniard, the full force of the law was fiercely demanded and applied. Rizal continued:
“Would these men who ask for such vengeance ask differently if their own dignity had been offended or their honor stained? […] What is the purpose of invoking the full rigor of the law against a man, who is deeply wronged for the assassination of a landowner, or of a liar? Is not that telling the entire people not to believe in justice? Is it perchance the first time that an assassination is committed? Do not thousands and thousands of persons in all countries of the globe die daily under conditions a thousand and thousand times more serious, with more aggravating circumstances than in the cases before us?”
Rizal decried that if such crimes happened in Europe, martial law would never be asked because Europe was a place where abuses and oppression could easily be denounced, where the poor found protection, and where all were equal before the law.
What happened to the murderer of the Spanish landowner a few days later? He was shot to death by the Guardia Civil because he allegedly tried to escape while being escorted to the provincial capitol of Negros.
“The irate husband wounded and maltreated him, and the newspapers asked that the guilty assassin be rigorously punished, that the full weight of the law be applied to him.”
Rizal condemned this latest development in a follow-up article titled “Philippine Affairs” (La Solidaridad, April 30, 1890): “See how illogical! Desiring to escape after having presented himself spontaneously!” A local newspaper, El Porvenir de Visayas (The Future of the Visayas), also commented on the incident. “We repeat today what we said yesterday: There are providential actions that justify that certain punishments ought to be immediate not only because they are deserved but because of the wholesome example they produce. Once more the Civil Guard has fulfilled its duty!!!”
Rizal called such comments sarcastic because it was illogical for a murderer who had already surrendered to still try to escape. The murderer presented himself so that he would be shot by the Civil Guards? Besides, everyone in the Philippines knew that the Civil Guards were corrupt, cruel, and barbaric both to harmless civilians and criminal offenders.
In another follow-up article, “More On the Negros Affairs” (La Solidaridad, May 15, 1890), Rizal sought justice for the murderer, and by reprinting in it the Rules Concerning the Conveyance of Prisoners, he showed that the Civil Guards did not follow the rules on when firearms should be used against a prisoner. He also cited the barbaric treatments that the Civil Guards usually inflicted on the prisoners whom they were transporting.
This incident of a laborer murdering his landlord had shaped more the political philosophy of Rizal. It became the crucial theme of his second novel, El Filibusterismo. One of the novel’s characters, Cabesang Tales, committed murder to defend his land, family, and dignity. This theme was elevated to the national level when it was polished to become a bloody revolution against a foreign master in 1896, the Philippine Revolution against Spanish rule.