Wenceslao Retana, His Benefactors, Books, and Transformation

by John L. Silva
Executive Director, Ortigas Foundation Library 
(Original Transcript of John Silva's talk during the Tabacalera Exhibit held at the Ayala Museum on May 17, 2014)


The Tabacalera Book Collection and Wenceslao Retana, collector and bibliographer needs a beginning. 

It starts with Antonio Lopez Y Lopez, later given the title of Marques de Comillas by the King of Spain.  

At a young age of 15, Antonio Lopez goes off to Cuba to seek his fortune. There he learned growing and cultivating tobacco and managed to get himself into the shipping industry resulting later in a transatlantic company with numerous ships plying the Atlantic Ocean. He had more than enough ships to carry Spanish soldiers to military campaigns in Africa and later on would be the shipping company of choice for Spanish soldiers sent to attempt to squelch the Cuban and Philippine revolution. 

He returned to Spain a very wealthy man, given the title Marques and in his close association with the King and the government may have been clued in to the latter’s decision to end its tobacco monopoly in the Philippine colony and give it to favored entrepreneurs. With the help of his own bank, he gathered a sizeable sum to start Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas, known popularly as Tabacalera. 

Around this time, the Marques has a palace built for himself in his hometown Comillas. He employed a Catalan architect Joan Martorell who was known for his Gothic revival style. For this project, Martorell would include his protégé, the young Antoni Gaudi. 

Martorell, Gaudi and other architects like Lluis Domenech I Montaner would receive more building commissions by the Marques and his family including a hotel beside the palace designed by Gaudi with its radical new shapes, texture and colorful designs. The building would later be lovingly called El Capricho de Gaudi. Thanks to the Marques’ patronage and commissions offered Gaudi’s, architectural genius flourished 8 making him the foremost leader of the Catalan Modernist design style. The Philippines was far away farther from Spain than the Americas and much less noticed or understood by Spaniards. So, the new Tabacalera Headquarters in Barcelona set up a library to gather as much information about the country, its climate, resources, population, their characteristics and the like. 

The formation of this library, first for practical reasons, changed in its purpose. The late 19th century was a period of massive wealth accumulation among the astute businessmen of the world. This was the period of the robber barons first coined for Pierpoint Morgan who was an American industrialist and financier. Along with Henry Huntington in California and Edward Ayer in Chicago both making their money in the railroads and real estate development, they decided to take on the culture of an old world gentleman. Their newly built mansions would contain extensive libraries that stored rare books, maps, prints and manuscripts. The philanthropic instinct of preserving the world’s knowledge, in turn learning from the best of the minds of the centuries, was seen as doing something good with the money entrusted to them coupled with the human instincts of leaving a legacy. 

There is a story about Edward Ayer who was one day persuading his friend the retail store magnate Marshall Field to donate to the building of a Chicago anthropological museum. Field tried to fend of Ayer’s request by saying how he didn’t know anything about museums. So Ayer sat him down and said “Listen, you may sell your goods till hell freezes over and make your pile but in 25 years your name will be forgotten.” Field would donate one million dollars to a building named after him, the Chicago Field Museum, and with another eight million to that Museum after his death, ensured his good name and legacy for generations. 

In a way, the Marques de Comillas, and his son, the second Marques and the first directors of Tabacalera, steeped in the same gentlemen’s culture saw their fledgling library with the same philanthropic intentions. Gathering a collection of everything to be known of La Yslas Filipinas. 

Wenceslao Retana would also be collecting at around that time. Retana made his way to the Philippines in the 1880’s to work as a minor civil servant in the colonial administration with a bureaucratic job of no distinction. Retana, a wide-eyed observer of native life and politics wrote his impressions and essays in several newspapers. 

Retana’s views were conservative; he believed, like many Europeans of the period in the possession of colonies and the subjugation of its people. His views endeared him to the friars who having lost their lands, churches, and wealth in Mexico and other parts of the Americas were licking their wounds and making their last stand in the Philippines. 

After six years on the islands, he returns to Spain laden with books and quite knowledgeable of the tropical islands. 

He comes across the La Solidaridad, the Filipino newspaper with a stable of ilustrado writers demanding inclusion in the Spanish Cortes, more political rights, and an end to Friar abuses. 

This was not acceptable to the friar-leaning Retana. In another newspaper he helped found and was associate editor, he attacks La Solidaridad’s positions. He also wrote ripostes and pamphlets using the pen name Desengano to belittle, insult, and make racist remarks about the Filipinos and their character. 

One such pamphlet he wrote was Frailes Y Clericos a revealing study of a European mind of the 19th century still in the belief of racial superiority and slavery. 

Many Solidaridad writers were incensed by Retana’s remarks, one of them Jose Rizal. But Retana would pay no mind to the Filipinos. He thought it beneath him to respond to them, the natives, who he disdained. He would only spar with another European, Ferdinand Blumentritt, a German anthropologist who was quite learned on Philippine ethnography. 

The Solidaridad was supposedly a scholarly forum but in reality its writers and detractors that found print in the paper were not adverse to incredible sarcasm, bitchery, and plain name calling. In one such fiery debate between Blumentritt and Retana, here are some choice words they had for each other and for their works. 

Looking back at the arguments and the vitriol that the ilustrados and the pro-friars threw at each other, they are now 130 years later somewhat silly, mainly because the whole racial Blumentritt to Retana superiority angle has “Clapper of the become passé. Friars, ignorant,vulgar,

It’s hard to dolicephalic, fabricator, falsifier, understand that fraud, foolish, Retana, a careless, nonsense, scholar and writer of many Philippine related books Retana to from Blumentritt indigenous “arrogant, theater to ridiculously language to obsessed, silly, mores would absurd…” have a chink in the armour, a blind spot, holding on to racist notions of a people he seemed to know very well. 

Retana held on to these backward views until 1898 or thereabouts when Spain would lose the Philippines and Cuba and it’s intelligentsia would wonder and write ‘why did they lose the war?’ ‘why did the colonized people declare their liberation?’ Despite the shouts of Viva Espana by the Spaniards who witnessed Rizal’s execution, there were a growing number of Spaniards who were uncomfortable with Rizal’s acceptance of death. Retana himself describing the last few minutes of Rizal, bound and ready to face the execution squad. He described Rizal’s composure as “serene.” TheFilipino cause, he may have surmised, was righteous, just and noble. 

There have been several accounts as to why Retana would do an about-face. One reasoning was that he was an opportunist. Rizal was now the mourned hero and the American Government’s favorite. He would look out of place if he continued with his tirade. 

It was also possible that Retana may have tired of being the friar’s lap dog and saw a greater task ahead of him that would secure his name in Philippine history. 

About the time that Tabacalera was collecting Filipiniana, Retana approached the company’s Librarian for two reasons. One, to get Tabacalera interested in purchasing his collection and to hire him to be the company’s bibliographer for the combined collection. In addition, as historian Grace Cano would describe in detail, Retana pressured the librarian to think seriously about acquiring yet more Philippine titles from a Madrid rare book dealer Vindel and thereby possessing the single most extensive and rarest Filipiniana book and documents collection ever. Retana also warned that the collector Edward Ayer and the Library of Congress were serious in purchasing many of the Filipiniana on the market. 

Retana’s scheme worked; Tabacalera bought his collection and many other titles and he was hired to write a bibliography of 4,700 titles bound in three huge volumes and entitled the Aparato Bibliografico de la Historia General de Filipinas. 

The very detailed and oftentimes colorful annotations replete with facsimiles and illustrations made the Aparato interesting reading. His enemies including Blumentritt would begrudgingly admit that the Aparato, extensive and well written, would be the definitive bibliography of a Filipiniana collection for a long time. Up to today, scholars and bibliographers would still cite the Aparato with reverence. 

The Aparato was Retana’s opus eventually persuading National Library Director James Robertson, to purchase the Tabacalera collection for 200,000 pesos (USD 100,000). In today’s value, 100,000 dollars would be equivalent to 2,283,000.00. Some thought the price too low and it can be debated but the outcome for Tabacalera was more than money. The Spanish company gained the prestige of having given a prized book collection to a country that had enriched them. 

After the purchase, Dr. Robertson purchased or acquired other collections including Jose Rizal’s own library so that by 1914, their Filipiniana collection alone numbered 20,000 titles. It was considered the finest collection of Filipiniana material in the world. 

World War II would literally destroy that distinction. The Japanese invasion in 1941 and the subsequent three-year occupation did not disrupt the National Library’s functions nor its collection. It would be, sadly, in just the one month of February, 1945 with the approaching American liberation forces that everything was lost. A Japanese Naval unit refused to withdraw from the city and instead held their ground. 

The American Army had to mortar fire significant parts of the old section of the city along with the administrative buildings including the National Library then housed at the Legislative Building. Over 100,000 civilians died, and much architectural, cultural and historical memory lost. 

The first entry and the earliest book in the Aparato bibliography, De Moluccis Infulis by Maximilano Transilvano (1524), recounting Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe and “discovery” of the Philippines did not survive the war. So too the second entry, Delle Navigationi Et Viaggi by J. B. Ramusio (1557). By some miracle, a 1561 book by Francisco Alvarez on a nautical history of Ethipioa survived with bullet holes noted. Of 12 books published from 1524 to 1572 listed in the Aparato, only 5 titles survived noted in a later 1960 - 65 catalogue. 

The Library classified eight books, from dated 1605 - 1640 as incunabula, having been printed by the wood block method using bamboo. Only two such books survived both from the Tabacalera Collection: A 1630 Vocabulario de Japon declarado primero en Portugues por los Padres de la Compania de Jesus, published by Colegio de Santo Thomas, printed by Tomas Pinpin and Jacinto Magaruloa 30 and a 1640 Historia de la Provincia del Sancto Rosa rio de la orden de predicandores en Philippinas, Japon, y China, Diego Aduarte author, published in the same college and printed by Luis Beltran. 

The Aparato listed 55 locally printed books starting with the 1630 Vocabulario to a 1756 Ordenanza in Manila. Only eight survived the war. 

Books printed in the Americas were also in the Aparato. The first America listing was a Relacion a Reynos de Espana y Francia (no author) dated 1643 printed in Lima, Peru. The second was a Memorial Compendio Breve Del Libro intitulado Noticias Sacras y Reales de las Dos Imperios de la Nueva Espana, el Peru, y sus Islas Indias Occidentales printed in Nueva Espana (Mexico) in 1648. These first two books luckily survived. 

The major fatalities were the newspapers in the periodicals section with its 162 listings starting from the 1846 La Esperanza Diario de Manila to the 1904 El Adelanto, Diario de la Manana. Some of them were in the Tagalog language. There were pro-independence, even radical publications appearing in 1898 and 1899. These periodicals, like El Heraldo do Iloilo, La Independencia, and La Republica, whose reportage and commentaries were, in lieu of books, immediate and relevant sources for that tumultuous period in the fight against Spain and later, the United States. Given their fragile state and combustibility, only eight survived the war. 

In 1946, a year after the end of the war, the reconstituted National Library catalogued the rare Filipiniana books collection which included the Tabacalera Collection. Unfortunately, the typed manuscript has turned brittle and torn. There were attempts to tape the shredded pieces of the pages together and photocopied. The photocopies are no longer readable. 

In the 1960-65 listing of the rare books collection, there is mention of the numerical fate of the Tabacalera Collection. When the Collection was purchased in 1913 it numbered 4,623 titles. In the 1960 – 65 listing, only 1,404 books remained. 

Between the end of the war and the 1960’s there were recorded instances of books misplaced and finding their way to other sections of the Library. Some loss may be attributed to theft. From a collection of 20,000 rare Filipiniana titles including Tabacalera’s, once trumpeted as the most extensive collection inthe world, the list after the war numbered only 8,135 titles. It wasestimated that 96% of the total National Library Collection was lost. 

A historian who catalogued the remainder of the Library’s collection cautioned on thinking the remaining 4% as intact. In the 1960 – 65 listing, every Tabacalera book had a “Salvage” notation. Many of these books were described as being punctured with bullet holes, brittle, crumbling, with worm holes, pages missing, blackened with soot or waterlogged. Many of these remaining books, deteriorated and damaged were eventually microfilmed or photocopied with the originals duly stored. 

Securing the sale of the Tabacalera Collection certainly benefitted Retana in many ways with the Aparato securing for him a scholarly prestige downplaying, if not expunging his notoriety for having been a racist pro-friar stooge. 

He didn’t stop there though. In 1907 he wrote a biography of Jose Rizal using sources as intimate as interviewing Rizal’s mother and siblings and as broad as the letters, books, and photographs of the hero that he had access to. It was an adulating piece of work verging on idolatry. It was Retana’s way of apology. 

You see, Retana as the leading Filipinist in the late 19th century rationalized and justified the friar presence in the Philippines. He would give that stamp of approval for the friars to go on a campaign to destroy their number one enemy of all time, Jose Rizal. 

In effect, Retana’s obdurate and backward scholarship would be the ammunition for the Friars to hound Rizal, have him arrested, dispose of a Governor General (Blanco) who was set to stop the execution, replace it with another Gov. General (Polavieja) who would carry the dastardly deed, give Rizal a kangaroo court trial, force him to recant unsuccessfully, and have him executed. 

From then on, Retana would go the other way. He would pounce on the friars and the Catholic Church ridiculing and castigating them in print. Much as this would earn him respect among some of the local intelligentsia, for example, those in the progressive El Renacimiento, there were others who still placed him at arm’s length. 

His bibliographic fame was short lived. In his latter years, he felt unappreciated for his scholarly work. He was right. In one decade of American colonial rule, Philippine society became conversant and literate in English. The “American Century” had marginalized Spanish culture and language in their former colony. Hispanic-Philippine studies lost its panache to be replaced with an assaultive American education and mores, inclined more to the sciences, rationality and liberal thought and less on blind faith and catechismal thinking. 

Just as people change due to circumstances, enlightenment or catharsis, people can change again and again. 

In 1924, knowing he was not going to live long, he wrote a letter to a priest friend, retracting all his anti-Friar stances and wishing to die back in the folds of the Church. 

Wenceslao Retana may have been forgotten and his collection and that of Tabacalera’s may been blown to smithereens. But his Aparato, would allow us to search for those no longer be available at the National Library. The Ortigas Foundation Library has some as well as other libraries here and throughout the world. Ironically the Library of Congress would have much of the collection. 

Despite his early erroneous views, we owe a debt of gratitude to Retana. 

The historian Ramon Echeverria wrote in the foreward to the reprint of Pedro Chirino’s The Philippines in 1600 that the early accounts of priests in the Tabacalera collection was no mere accounting of people’s features, dress,practices, rituals, flora and fauna. “We, the readers today, …see more. We see the beginnings of an historic transformation. An indigenous society, vaguely recognizable as ancestral to our own, is under the catalytic and cohesive influences of a new faith and a different culture being transmuted, for better or for worse, into something he can unhesitatingly recognize as Filipino.” 

Going through the Aparato, one realizes how little we have translated, read, dissected and learned from the thousands more sources of books that over a hundred years ago, Retana had already read, cited, reviewed and commented on. Retana’s legacy to a people and their aspirations he alternately loathed and later loved was to know who we are.