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Into the Heart of Darkness: The Banca and Steamers in Rizal's Works and Letters

Into the Heart of Darkness: The Banca and Steamers in Rizal's Works and Letters*
Roli Talampas, Faculty Member, UP Diliman

I was building a boat which I intended to engage in inter-island shipping, with a capacity of some 300 cavanes of rice, more or less.
--Jose Rizal, October1896

Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, among the other prominent writers, were made famous by their works involving ships and men of the sea. Great maritime nations make great maritime writers but writers may vary in their pursuit of unforgettable narratives of sailing across the world's oceans. In 2002, three dozen scholars of seascape studies declared that “oceans matter”. Karen Wigen (in Bentley, et al, 2007: 3) who edited the output book of these scholars explains that studies on peoples who live by sailing ought to be paid attention. These scholars do vary in their interests though and can be conceptual, imperial-historical, sociological, or even anti-criminal.

Thalassology, or the studies of oceans and seas, takes from the two-volume epic work of Fernand Braudel entitled The Mediterranean World and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1976) and pictures the making of community in an enclosed basin, enough to shape culture and history by the dictates of geography. Newer thalassological studies (see., e.g., Peters 2003) delve into the evolution of interaction in the southern, southern Indian, etc oceans (see Simpson 2006; De Souza 2002) and are consistent with claims of longer and wider waves of community formation and social formation on the crest of the global capitalist tide.

Should this paper be on Rizal's thalassological views? Dare we match these ambitious and expectedly costly enterprises of Braudel and Wigen? This essay is modest in its pursuit of describing how a foremost Filipino scholar and writer exerted effort in a neglected item in the people's archipelagic existence that is often misunderstood. Philippine maritime attribute assumes urgency and importance, at least nowadays, only as leaders become attentive when the ships stopped sailing or a seafarer comes home in a box. The central claim of this paper is that Jose Rizal's exposure to the realities of his time in the Philippines and abroad allowed him to create and re-create a consistently patriotic view and hope for the peoples of the sea. “Journey into the soul” is perhaps the simple connection with a personal voyage into the Dark Continent or the Old World in the age of remaking the world's imperial (dis)order, earlier works by William Henry Scott (1981), Pierre Yves-Manguin (1980), and James Warren (2008), of boat-building, sailing and seamanship nothwithstanding.

Rizal, through his Noli and Fili and his letters, takes the readers to characters, places and events at the dawning of a new Philippines. In these, Elias and his banca sail in shallow waters, punctuated by an expected transposition to complete a small-town narrative. Later, Rizal's bigger vessels expand his view of the world affirming in the end that he must write and labor more for reforms even as he clarified that the people may locate themselves in historical processes. The continuity, complexity, and the beauty of Rizal's various devices still stand out as the masterful employment of the novel and novelties in pursuing determined heightened social awareness and action.

In Shallow Waters: Elias the Boatman and the Ethics of Pilotage

The shallow waters of San Diego provide depth to the character of the long-haired, scar-faced Elias, one who had been a fugitive to the North, a self-restrained inheritor of injustice, and a man who was curiously an atheist or at least an agnostic:

“Were I to believe in miracles, I should not believe in God. I should believe in a deified man, I should believe that man had really created a god in his own image and likeness," the mysterious pilot answered solemnly.

Elias's craft seated a few passengers, and his rowing and paddling indeed made him more pilot of the shallow waters of the Lake most familiar to Rizal. For instance, in the great escape beneath the enemies' noses, Rizal describes where Ibarra was hidden from view of the guards along the Pandacan river. It may have been a kayak now made famous by whitewater rafting in Kalinga and Cagayan de Oro.

The banka was one of those small, narrow canoes that do not seem to float but rather to glide over the top of the water.

The panorama against which such small boats are cast is provided in this passage:

The mountain-encircled lake slept peacefully with that hypocrisy of the elements which gave no hint of how its waters had the night before responded to the fury of the storm. As the first reflections of light awoke on its surface the phosphorescent spirits, there were outlined in the distance, almost on the horizon, the gray silhouettes of the little bankas of the fishermen who were taking in their nets and of the larger craft spreading their sails.

Rizal also tells the reader where Elias had a clandestine meeting with Ibarra where none could spy on them:

So saying, he drew away in the banka, rowing toward a thicket on the shore. As he covered the long distance he remained silent, apparently intent upon nothing but the thousands of phosphorescent diamonds that the oar caught up and dropped back into the lake, where they disappeared mysteriously into the blue waves.

One may wonder how the site description fits the actual locale, one that is taken from the vantage point of someone standing on the water margin. These were shallow and still waters indeed.

They were already at a distance from the shore, the sun had set, and as in these latitudes there is scarcely any twilight, the shades were lengthening, bringing into view the bright disk of the full moon.

It is unclear though why Elias alone accounts for the lakeside existence of the people of San Diego, a town with unnamed fishermen and a self-confessed former smuggler. It could be by design that Rizal singled out this boatman, the pilot, as the real hero of the town on the verge of revolt—someone who has traveled by choice and out of necessity far and wide, met many different kinds of persons along the way and served in many capacities in different places. A self-confessed, if honest, man was the real savior of many victims of injustice.

And so Elias and his banca that are the vehicles of transformation—from aquaintance to friendship, from darkness to enlightenment, from critique to revolution, from life to resurrection. In the latter, the boat was witness to Elias' narration and later Ibarra's flight to freedom. Elias' boat was now Ibarra's. Ibarra's Simoun would make the boat change its course.

The police boat and the boat from the Pasig now started in pursuit of him. A light track indicated his passage through the water as he drew farther and farther away from Ibarra's banka, which floated about as if abandoned. Every time the swimmer lifted his head above the water to breathe, the guards in both boats shot at him.

So the chase continued. Ibarra's little banka was now far away and the swimmer was approaching the shore, distant some thirty yards. The rowers were tired, but Elias was in the same condition, for he showed his head oftener, and each time in a different direction, as if to disconcert his pursuers. No longer did the treacherous track indicate the position of the diver. They saw him for the last time when he was some ten yards from the shore, and fired. Then minute after minute passed, but nothing again appeared above the still and solitary surface of the lake.

Half an hour afterwards one of the rowers claimed that he could distinguish in the water near the shore traces of blood, but his companions shook their heads dubiously.

Noli's Epilogue foretells of developments in shipping technology. It tells of a tragic accident that steamers and their overworked crewmen were wont to expect.

Probably our acquaintances of the town of San Diego are still alive, if they did not perish in the explosion of the steamer "Lipa," which was making a trip to the province. Since no one bothered himself to learn who the unfortunates were that perished in that catastrophe or to whom belonged the legs and arms left neglected on Convalescence Island and the banks of the river, we have no idea whether any acquaintance of our readers was among them or not. Along with the government and the press at the time, we are satisfied with the information that the only friar who was on the steamer was saved, and we do not ask for more. The principal thing for us is the existence of the virtuous priests, whose reign in the Philippines may God conserve for the good of our souls.

It is in the opening chapter of Fili that Rizal displays his knowledge of the then modern steamer, some of which he had sailed on to the foreign countries that he visited. The steamer Tabo, genuinely Filipino, was caricatured thus:

One morning in December the steamer “Tabo” was laboriously ascending the tortuous course of the Pasig, carrying a large crowd of passengers toward the province of La Laguna. She was a heavily built steamer, almost round, like the tabú from which she derived her name, quite dirty in spite of her pretensions to whiteness, majestic and grave from her leisurely motion. Altogether, she was held in great affection in that region, perhaps from her Tagalog name, or from the fact that she bore the characteristic impress of things in the country, representing something like a triumph over progress, a steamer that was not a steamer at all, an organism, stolid, imperfect yet unimpeachable, which, when it wished to pose as being rankly progressive, proudly contented itself with putting on a fresh coat of paint. Indeed, the happy steamer was genuinely Filipino! If a person were only reasonably considerate, she might even have been taken for the Ship of State, constructed, as she had been, under the inspection of “Reverendos” and “Ilustrísimos”....

Elsewhere, the steamer was seen to represent the upper and under classes of Philippine society, highly similar to the manner how passengers were given berths and perished on the ill-fated “Titanic.”

Shifts in Shipping

The big ships on the world's oceans became the principal vehicles for imperial domination and regal acquisitions (see, e.g. Harland 1984). Hugo Grotius even propounded mare liberum as a divine order for colonialists to seek fortunes wherever they were found overseas. It is with arrogance too that the Iberian lords and the northern European royalties commissioned multinational sailing ships for god and glory.

In the late sixteenth century the Spanish commander in the Philippines reckoned that with ten thousand or so Castilian veterans he would soon polish off the Chinese empire. Such complacent arrogance was the outcome of Europe's dazzling successes in the discovery and subjugation of assorted new lands and peoples in the previous hundred years. To contemporaries it was the expression of God's will and the reflexion of the natural inferiority of the mass of non-European mankind. (Scammel 1968)

But sailing ships such as naos and galleons on which conquistadores rose to prominence soon faded away with the birth of steamers. The United States sought to regulate immigrant entry on new steamers calling at US ports, chiefly New York and San Francisco, among others (Cohn 2005). English and American merchant shipowners sought to cash in on expanding trade and passenger traffic. Although Spain had specialist shipping beginning in 1860, none really served its only colonial outpost in the Far East. (See Valdaliso 2000)

Likewise, as Rizal sailed on first class section of passenger ships, he may have been unaware of the reconfiguration of the shipping labor developments (see Fingard 1977; Vickers and Walsh 1999). He would have occasion to practice his language skills and get to meet more foreigners. But he was no entirely oblivious to the events and crises in places that he was passing through as we shall see later.

The Big Ships: Salvadora, Djemnah, Belgic, City of Rome

Rizal's remarkable travelogues identifies some ships whose stories can still somehow be pieced together now as they have been the object of less attention from even the maritime scholars.

Rizal boarded the Salvadora in 1882 when he first left the country. On his seventh day on board small and slow Salvadora, he took time to record:

The steamship Salvadora, according to our information, is two hundred feet from stern to prow. It is quite pretty and clean. Its special features which attract attention are some beautiful cabins and four or five large boats. It runs from seven to eight miles an hour.

The captain, Mr. Donato Lecha, is an Asturian, dutiful, young and with a face beaming integrity. He is affable, a man of few words, much more refined than his other countrymen and colleagues that I have met. His assistant, who is a young Andalucían, is a smart and intelligent chap.
But one may wonder what happens to a “pretty and clean” steamer when Rizal intimated in his accounts that he and his fellow passengers were throwing up when the seas became rough. He had occasion to steadily account for passengers, their names, their children, nationalities but not where they or how they relieved seasickness, something that a particularly well-off passenger would not have failed to account for. Same would be for beds or bunks, meals, or even the smoke belching out of the steamer's engine. As will be noted in later trips, it would still be the Salvadora on which Rizal sailed back to the Philippines. The Salvadora must be a lonely service provider at the time. Unfortunately, further information on the Salvadora seems unavailable or elusive now.
Then he boarded the Djemnah in Singapore that sailed through to Europe.


Its home port was Marseilles and it is of course French. According to an on-line source, the Djemnah was Third in a series of (five) ships on plans Vésigneux (Irrawaddy, Anadyr, DJEMNAH, YANG TSE, OXUS) for the line of the Far East with identical characteristics to the (four) types of ships built for the line ORINOCO South America but with different accommodation, particularly the lack of poop. First departure from Marseille April 14, 1875 (
On board the Djemnah, Rizal relished the passing scene:

Several fishes play on the surface of the water, amusing the passengers with their movements. The passengers look gayer, induced naturally by the good weather. The heat is noticeable. Night comes, but at this moment it is delightful. The sky is illumined. The half-moon shines, if not as clear as in the Philippines, at least it is poetic. The sea is calm and the ship in rapid movement cuts the surface of the water. Some are strolling, others are meditating. A young man plays the piano; there is dancing and entertainment on the deck. I hear it while looking at the sea.

The Djemnah

The Djemnah had a tragic end in the aftermath of World War I.

Requisitioned in 1914 for the postal service. On July 14, 1918 traveling to Madagascar in convoy with a thousand soldiers, escorted by the British destroyer ...was torpedoed south of Crete by the German submarine UB 105..... cut in half, disappears in two minutes with 489 passengers and 59 crew members including Commander Charles Meric and chief engineer Francois Mailhol. ( translated from French using
Of historical importance to Rizal and to the sailing world was the Suez Canal, then sought to be nationalized by patriotic forces in Egypt. Shortening voyages that rounded the Cape of Good Hope, ships simply had to be quarantined then in the light of the tumultuous situation then rocking the westernmost outpost of the Ottoman empire that was steadily being westernized. Earlier, Christian ships were restricted from passage through the Red Sea and the Suez but French and British merchants of the East India companies simply prevailed over the Mecca off-limits zone (Kimche 1972).


Rizal wrote that he was on the Belgic when sailed from Yokohama, Japan to San Francisco in 1888. However, there were however four such Belgics. How do we know which one Rizal boarded.
Belgic I was an unlikely candidate. The 2,652 gross ton ship had a 10-year life—its maiden voyage was in 1874; it was “wrecked in the River Mersey” in 1884. ( Additionally, it was "sold with Gaelic to Spanish owners. They were quite prone to propeller damage." (Haws Merchant Fleet, cited in discus/messages/6937/18459.html?1031159380)

Haws Merchant Fleet provides more information on the third:

Belgic 3 :1911 sold 1913 scraped (sic) 1931.
Belgic III was in White Star service for only two years, from 1911 to 1913. She was a freighter/cattle carrier, built in 1903 as Atlantic Transport's Mississippi. She became Red Star's Samland in 1906, Belgic in 1911 and Samland again in 1913. She was scrapped in 1931.

So, it could only have been Belgic II. Again, Haws Merchant Fleet, cited in an on-line exchange, describes the said vessel:

Belgic II also had one funnel and four masts. Her funnel was centrally located between the 2d and 3d mast, while Belgic I had her stack much closer to the 3d mast, according to the drawing in Haws' Merchant Feets. Belgic II was in the Pacific service from 1885 to 1898.

Belgic III.

Belgic IV is described thus:

The Belgic (4) was originally built as the Belgenland (2) for the red Star line in 1914. In 1917 she became the Belgic 4 for the White Star Line, and served mainly as a cargo vessel without passenger accommodation. In 1923 the ship returned to Red Star Line and was heavily rebuilt, extra decks and a third funnel added, third mast removed, and the ship was renamed S/S Belgenland (2). She was used for the Red Star Line Antwerp - Southampton - New York service 1923 - 1932. In 1935 she became the Columbia for Atlantic Transport Line Co. Broken up 1936 in Scotland.
Although Rizal was again on first class, he like the Chinese immigrants were held in quarantine for a number of days, prompting to warn his own relatives:

I'll not advise anyone to make this trip to America, for here they are crazy about quarantine, they have severe customs inspection, imposing on any thing duties upon duties that are enormous, enormous.

Ever concerned about contagion or contamination from Asian, US health bulletin sought to summarize mortality and morbidity caused by immigrants. ("Weekly Abstract Sanitary Reports- April 26, 1888," online at Some of passenger manifests of the Belgics and other ships are now being used to trace the origins of Chinese descendants as they more or less are complete in their listings. It is unfortunate that the one on which Rizal was included is unavailable.

City of Rome

This ship has the following particulars: 8,415 gross tons, 560.2ft x 52.3ft, maiden voyage in 1881 with 1,480 passengers. More can be found in on-line sources:

Constructed of iron, clipper stem, three funnels, four masts, single screw and a speed of 16 knots. There was accommodation for 271-1st, 250-2nd and 810-3rd class passengers. She was considered by many to be the most beautiful steamer ever built.

From "The Atlantic Ferry" by A. J. MAGINNIS (p.49):

..the City of Rome was launched at Barrow on June 14th, 1881, and sailed on her first voyage from Liverpool, October 13th, 1881. This graceful vessel was the subject of much comment when being built, but the great expectations were, however, not realized. The construction of the hull, beyond being exceptionally strong, calls for no comment. She was built of iron throughout, and was 560 feet long, 52 1/4 feet broad, and 37 feet deep, and of 8144 tons; three funnels were for the first time fitted, which being uniformly spaced with four masts, gave the vessel a noble appearance in conjunction with the graceful bow and general outline of the hull. For the machinery, which was also by the Barrow Company, the three-crank engine was adopted, but it differed from the other types in the fact that there were six cylinders, three high-pressure, each 46 inches, and three low-pressure, each 86 inches diameter, fitted tandem fashion, with a stroke of 6 feet. A great departure was made in the working of the slide-valves by means of spur-wheels, which geared the weigh-shaft (on which the eccentrics were, fitted) with the crank-shaft, and thus enabled the valves to be fitted at the back of the cylinders. Hollow shafting was also fitted throughout, except for the propeller length. The boilers, which were of the usual type in iron, carrying 90 Ibs. pressure, were eight in number, with forty-eight furnaces' placed two and two in fore and aft line, which enabled a water-tight bulkhead to be fitted fore and aft on each side, so as to form the coal bunkers; this excellent arrangement was, however, altogether altered, as well as other parts of the machinery, after she was, returned to the builders, with a view of attaining a speed more in accordance with the newer Atlantic vessels. After completion of these alterations, she was again put in the Express Service, under the auspices of the Anchor Line, in 1884, where she remained until 1891. (

The City of Rome

Other Boats

Other boats that Rizal took included the Cebu, Kiu-Kang, Zafiro, Oceanic, Melbourne. The Cebutook Rizal to Dapitan when he was exiled in1892. Four years earlier, he was with Jose Ma. Basa on board the steamer Kiu-Kang on their way from Hong Kong to Macao. In late February 1888, he sailed on board the the US steamer Oceanic from Hong Kong to Japan. The Melbourne brought Rizal from Marseilles to Hong Kong in 1891. A present-day summary says:

On October 18, 1891, Rizal boarded the steamer Melbourne in Marseilles bound for Hong Kong. During the voyage he began writing his third novel in Tagalog. Makamisa, Dapitan, and another untitled novel were some of the unfinished novels of Rizal.

Rizal described his trip as “heavenly”. In the ship were over 80 passengers—mostly Europeans, and two Spaniards who were going to Amoy. Rizal was the only Asian among them, and amazed his fellow passengers with his knowledge of many languages. (

More could be said about Rizal's trips on board these vessel only if more materials could be unearthed. I leave that task to other writers.

Black Atlantic, Yellow Pacific, Brown Traffic

Interocean travels of masses of humanity produced hybridities and “double consciousness” essayed by such writers as Paul Gilroy (1993) in classic works like the Black Atlantic . Rizal's and other immigrant descendants like Amy Tan produced materials for the silver screen that show how people from the Celestial Empire streamed and were screened on entry on the other side of the Pacific. Carlos Bulosan's autobiographical America is in the Heart follows the travails of less fortunate plantation and fish cannery workers in the depths of the Great American Depression.
Today as we celebrate Rizal's 150th birthday, we cannot help but look back to similarities and differences in the evolution of global community speeded up by transport technology and modern digital communication. Where more than 10 percent of the Philippine population now reside and abroad, Filipinos have begun to make an important contribution to the meaning and content of the new diaspora, transnational family, and thalassology. Half a million seafarers rule the world's waters. This global tide has no ebb in sight yet.

We hazard the view that Rizal's travels through most of the world paved the way for early documented knowledge of the self and the others. In seeking enlightenment from the belly of the colonizer and would-be imperial power, Rizal bequeathed later generations of patently serious effort at building the nation by engaging people, institutions and historical moments wherever they were found.

It is clear though that a couple of months before his execution, Rizal transformed from being passenger/chronicler. His desire to help the people in navigating through changing colonial southern waters made him attempt at being both builder and master of the boat. It is a fitting rhumb on his personal compass.


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*- Written and presented in June 2011 on the occasion of the International Conference of the Sesquicentennial of Dr. Jose Rizal, UPD Asian Center. Request permission from author before citation . Write to