rizal, elias, and the crocodile

excerpt from Revolutionary Routes: Five Stories of Incarceration, Exile, Murder and Betrayal in Tayabas Province, 1891-1980. 2011pages 256-258.

It’s the strangest thing that I’ve “known” Elias since I was a child, but only as a picturesque presence in the garden, of man subduing beast. This was unchanged even in university where courses on Rizal’s novels focused on Ibarra and Simoun, Maria Clara and Damaso, Sisa and Pilosopo Tasyo. Only now that I’ve found the time and inclination to reread the Noli with eyes on Elias does it dawn on me what Lolo Isidro meant to convey when he asked Don Tomas Mapua to design him a grand mansion with a huge garden and a sculpture of Elias in epic combat with the crocodile, the rare tableau fenced with iron grillwork for all the world to see.

It’s a very small world, of course, that knows of Elias in our garden. Even Tiaong folk know the place only as ang malaking bahay na may buwaya — the big house with the crocodile. Elsewhere in Quezon, formerly Tayabas province, there is great pride, I hear, that Rizal portrayed Elias as a native of Tayabas, but as far as we know, there is no statue honoring him anywhere in the province, except in our garden in the sleepy old town of Tiaong where no one seems to know him by name or why he is depicted atop a crocodile. Neither do any of the books on Rizal and Noli that have come my way dwell on the Elias and crocodile story.

The encounter took place in the middle of a frivolous river picnic that the rich Ibarra was hosting for Maria Clara’s circle of friends and chaperones.

When the boats arrived at the fish trap the nets kept coming up empty. One of the men, Leon, explored the depths of the water with a pole and concluded that there was a crocodile caught in the trap:

‘Hear that? That’s not sand; that’s tough hide, the crocodile’s back. Do you see those stakes shaking? It’s struggling but it’s all coiled up. Wait … it’s a big one. Must be a yard thick all around.’

They all agreed that that the crocodile must be caught, but no one offered to do it. Maria Clara then said she had never seen a live crocodile, and it brought the boats’ pilot, later identified as Elias, who had been “silent and indifferent to all the merry-making” to his feet. Taking a length of rope he stepped up to a platform and dived into the water. Ibarra had drawn his knife for Elias to take but it was too late. They could only watch as “the water boiled and bubbled; it was evident that a struggle was taking place in its depths; the pallisade was shaking.” And then it was quiet, and the young man’s head emerged to everyone’s relief.

The pilot drew himself up to the platform, holding the end of the rope, and started to heave at it, dragging up the crocodile.

It had the rope tied around its neck and under its forelegs. It was as big as Leon had surmised; on its back grew green moss, which is to crocodiles what grey hair is to a man. It was bellowing like a bull, trashing the bamboo fencing with its tail, gripping the stakes, and opening its great black jaws with their long teeth.

The pilot was lifting it up all alone; no one thought of helping him.

Once the crocodile was out of the water and on the platform, he squatted on top of it and snapped its great jaws shut with his powerful hands. He was trying to tie the jaws together when the crocodile, in one last effort, tensed its body and, striking the platform with all the strength of its tail, succeeded in leaping into the lake outside the fish trap, dragging his captor behind him. The pilot was as good as dead! There was a cry of horror.

Then, with lightning speed, another body struck the water; they had hardly time to recognise Ibarra. Maria Clara did not faint because Filipina women do not know how.

Bloodstains spread through the waters. The young fisherman dived in, his native blade in hand, followed by his father. But they had scarcely disappeared when Crisostomo and the pilot emerged, clinging to the reptile’s dead body. Its white belly had been ripped open and the knife was stuck in its throat.

. . . Ibarrra was unscathed; the pilot had only a slight scratch on one arm.[1]

It was a fishing expedition that netted no fish, just an old crocodile caught in a trap that Maria Clara was curious about, never having seen one before. Elias may have thought it was reason enough to go fetch the beast, never mind that it was dangerous business. Armed only with a rope, he of “splendid” physique finally subdued and heaved the predator up to the platform. He was trying to tie the jaws shut, the moment that is frozen in time by the sculptor, the very same moment that the crocodile gathered critical strength and the next moment broke free, leaping back into the lake, dragging Elias along. Finally, Ibarra could stand by no longer, and jumped in with his trusty blade. It took nothing less than the combined efforts of the seething indio and the tisoy sophisticate to eliminate the enemy for good. A message from Rizal set in stone by Lolo Isidro in the time of America, some 83 years ago. He must have known that we would need reminding, he must have seen that America was, in essence, here to stay, and it would take another revolution to regain lost ground.

In the “heyday of the Revolution”, writes Quibuyen, “throughout Luzon and the Visayas, practically all revolutionary units were organized, directed, and led by the local ilustrados, prominent members of the principalia, and even the native clergy.” And let us not forget the Filipino women, who weren’t the fainting kind. “What Elias had hoped for in the Noli”– the masses and the native elite rising as one – “became a reality in the Revolution of 1898.”[2]

[1] Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal, 1886. English Translation by Leon Ma. Guerrero. Manila: Guerrero Publishing, 1995. 114-122.

[2] A Nation Aborted: Rizal, American Hegemony, and Philippine Nationalism by Floro C. Quibuyen. QC: Ateneo de Manila University Press. 1999. 310-311.


read too Adrian Cristobal’s “Elias: The Ethics of Revolution”