Wenceslao E. Retana

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Wenceslao Emilio G. Retana

Wenceslao Emilio Gamboa Retana was a 19th century Spanish civil servant, colonial administrator, writer, publisher, bibliophile, and Philippine scholar. He was known as one of the most erudite collectors of Filipiniana.

Early Life

Retana was born in Boadilla del Monte, Spain in 1862. He studied to be a military engineer in Guadalajara.

He later became a high official in the Ministerio de la Gobernación. In 1884 at the age of 22, he was assigned to the Philippines as a minor financial officer in the hacienda, assigned to the governorship of Batangas.

He married Adela Ramírez de Arellano, daughter of a distinguished family in Manila. The couple had eight children—four girls and four boys. One of their children, Alvaro Retana, would later be one of the earliest known gay writers in Spain.

Due to a heart ailment, he returned to Spain in 1890. He was again assigned to different government posts and offices. He was the secretary of the International Congress of American Scholars and secretary of the Congress of Geographic Orientalist of Madrid. Aside from his government positions, Retana was also active as a journalist, editor, and correspondent. He served as a correspondent of La Voz Española and Heraldo de Madrid, editor of La Oceanía Española, assistant editor of La Opinión, and correspondent of La España Oriental, El Porvenir de Bisayas, La Política de España en Filipinas, La Época, Heraldo de Madrid, El Nacional, La España Moderna, Nuestro Tiempo (1903), Raza Española, Boletín de la Academia de la Historia, La Política Moderna, and Guttemberg (1904). His nom de guerre was "Desengaños." He wrote on all aspects of Philippine life—culture, politics, religion, and art—such that his fame as a Philippine scholar extended internationally, perhaps second only to Ferdinand Blumentritt. On 13 October 1922, he was admitted as an academico to the Real Academica de Historia. In his multi-faceted life, Retana was a deputy to the Spanish Cortes, a police chief in Barcelona, and civil governor of two Spanish provinces.

The Anti-Filipino Phase

During his journalistic years, he wrote many articles defending the Spanish colonial government in the Philippines against calls of economic and political reforms. With the Feced brothers, he founded La Politica de España en Filipinas, a political journal to address every issue brought up by Marcelo H. del Pilar and other propagandists in La Solidaridad.

Retana carefully positioned himself at the heart of the conservative Spanish ideology regarding the Philippines. He wrote that the promulgation of liberal laws, such as the Maura Decree in 1893, would turn indios from being obedient subjects to a people much conscious of their native rights. In his view, the solution to the increasing agitation in Philippine political life lay in the restoration of Spanish friars to their rightful roles as political and spiritual leaders of the colony. He was adamant that what del Pilar called the frailocracy was the "ultimate and true citadel in the Philippines." Such was his unreserved advocacy of the frailocracia that many of his enemies suspected that he and two Feced brothers, Pablo and Jose, were directly receiving subsidies from the Augustinians and other orders for the continued publication of La Politica. Years later, Filipino historian Manuel Artigas y Cuerva would substantiate that the friars financially supported the Spanish writer.

Because of this, he earned the ire of many Filipino members of the Propaganda Movement such as Jose Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, and Mariano Ponce. The liberal thinker Rizal was very much at the top of the list as the enemy of the staunch conservative Retana. He published an article in August 1890 of La Epoca, ridiculing the plight of Rizal's parents who were driven out of their lands. In less than 24 hours, Rizal sent a representative to challenge the scholar to a duel. Rizal would tolerate personal attacks, since he was a fighting man, but he would not brook any insult on a relative. Retana backed out from the duel and apologized to Rizal when his friends told him that Rizal was very skilled in fighting with a sword or pistol.

In Madrid, Retana positioned himself as the leading authority on the Philippines. He was known to assiduously study works of Filipinos and give critical reviews. Not even the great painter Juan Luna escaped his judgement, which led the fiery painter to bitterly complain about Retana's putdown in one of his letters to Rizal in December 1890:

"(Wenceslao Retana) says that I am not known in Spain and that he has seen all my paintings, except one, and according to those who know, I do not occupy any notable place among Spanish painters, but, on the contrary, I am a painter of the fifth or sixth class! Tell me now what inanities this man says about me and what his judgment is that I should get offended. All this is written to make our countrymen understand that we are...as always of an inferior race and we are always at the tail end."

The Rizal Conversion

After the loss of the Philippines and the execution of Rizal, Retana experienced a conversion. In the February 1904 prestigious Alma Española article "España en Filipinas: La verdad para todos," he stated that "We (Spaniards) have all contributed to the loss of the Philippines." He publicly acknowledged for the first time that it was a serious political error of Spain to have ordered the execution of Rizal. His complete turnaround was evidenced by his magisterial biography of Rizal published in 1907, wherein he argued that Spain made a grave mistake by having Rizal tried and executed.

Foremost nationalist Isabelo de los Reyes wrote in his 1908 review of the book that although the name of Retana was greeted with antipathy because of his earlier pro-friar and anti-Rizal stances, his past disgraceful conduct was condoned by this subsequent important contribution. History writer Elizabeth Medina observed that this book "not only paints a portrait of Rizal the man, but compellingly describes the process of the loss the most important remaining colony of Spain." He devoted the last years of his life to writing books about the Philippines and collecting books, manuscripts, and documents about the former Spanish colony. Among his works are El periodismo filipino, Aparato Bibliográfico de la Historia General de Filipinas, Archivo de bibliofilo filipino, Apuntes para la historia, Crisis de la literatura en Filipinas, Folletos filipinos, Frailes y clerigos, and Vida y escritos de Dr. Jose Rizal.

Retana died in Madrid on 21 January 1924.


Retana's name is inextricably bound with Philippine historiography. Even after the loss of Philippines to the US, he kept up with his Filipiniana publications, producing more than 36 scholarly works. Among his key works still being cited by Filipino scholars are Archivo del bibliofilo filipino (Archive of the Filipino bibliophile), a five volume series of primary historical documents that preceded Blair and Robertson; Bibliografia de Mindanao (1894), a key source for Mindanao history; La imprenta en Filipinas (1593-1810) (The press in the Philippines), 1899; Noticias histórico-bibliográficas de el teatro en Filipinas desde sus orígines hasta 1898 (Bibliographic and historical notes on Philippine theater from its origins until 1898) (1909), a landmark historical scholarship; and Vida y escritos del Dr. Jose Rizal (1907), the first and most scholarly biography of the national hero.

Retana was a consummate researcher and scholar, leaving no stone unturned in search of Philippine documents that would shed light on its history and culture. In La imprenta en Filipinas, he deduced that the first book printed in the Philippines was Doctrina Christiana and that in 1604, the first typographic press was manufactured in the Philippines. In 1893, he published Father Joaquín Martínez de Zúñiga's unpublished manuscript Estadismo de las Islas Filipinas, first written in 1803 as a statistical overview of the colony. The edition was appended with Retana's copious notes and appendices. Historia de Mindanao y Jolo, first written in 1667 by Jesuit Father Francisco Combes, was enriched with notes by both Retana and Fr. Pablo Pastells, the Jesuit confessor of Rizal. This book was followed up in 1897 with an extensive bibliography and supplemented with new text and historical and linguistic data. A similar landmark book was Antonio de Morga's book Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas first published in Mexico in 1869, which he annotated extensively in a new edition published in Barcelona in 1908, a project that invited direct and audacious comparison to Rizal's similar attempt eighteen years earlier in 1890.

Not content with his seminal 1907 biography of the national hero, the following year, Retana sponsored the first Spanish publication of Rizal's El Filibusterismo in Barcelona, a work that the national hero had deliberately kept from being circulated in Spain, fearing its unwelcome reception.

As a bibliographer, Retana made it a point to examine some of the most important primary documents in Philippine history. Andres Bonifacio's Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog, which was first published in the Katipunan newspaper Kalayaan, was examined, transcribed, and attributed to Bonifacio by Retana. Retana's transcription is our only remaining link, as the original copy in the collection of the National Library was presumably lost in World War II. The transcript of Rizal's trial was also personally studied and transcribed by the scholar; in fact the tumultuous last years of Rizal cannot be reconstructed without Retana's dogged research. The eternal question of Rizal's retraction is also tackled in Retana's biography. In it, he described his interview with Father Balaguer, a Jesuit who was one of the last to see Rizal, and who told him that such a retraction was made. Retana asks for proof but gets none.

During his years in both the Philippines and Spain, Retana amassed a great personal collection of Filipiniana. Such was the fame of his collection that Tabacalera, then based in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, acquired his collection in 1885 and then asked Retana to be its chief bibliographer, upon which he was able to compile his monumental Aparato bibliográfico de la historia general de Filipinas, a work that surpassed the similar work of his friend and contemporary Jose Toribio Medina, the greatest Spanish-language bibliographer of all time. Demonstrating his keen love for sharing books, in 1912, Retana arranged the sale of the fabled Tabacalera collection of Filipiniana to the Philippine National Library, then under James Robertson. Over a thousand of its extremely rare Philippine books were originally from Retana's collection. It could be said that Retana was really the father of the fabled Filipiniana collection of the Philippine National Library.

Cognizant of the value of his papers, the Philippine government passed P.L.A. No. 3130, an Act authorizing the Secretary of Justice "to purchase the papers, documents, and other printed works and unpublished manuscripts relative to the Philippines, owned by the heirs of the late Wenceslao R. Retana, and the copyright upon the same, which shall all become the property of the Philippine Islands, and shall be kept and filed in the Philippine Library and Museum."

Even today, his writing still remains fresh and relevant to Philippine readers. Retana scholar Elizabeth Medina writes: "Retana doesn't sound dated or boring, but speaks in a voice so modern it is astounding. His humor, sarcasm, and witty irreverence are a delight, whether aimed at the friars, the Spanish authorities, or the Filipinos.... what makes Retana most deserving of being read today is as a creditable witness of the historical moment that has had the greatest impact on the Filipino consciousness, and how Rizal transformed himself into its symbol. He gives witness as one who embodied and was able to clearly state the meanings that the mentality of those times ascribed to those events. Thus, I believe he is able to transmit to Filipinos a hundred years hence a vision that is both moving and explicative in a culturally accurate manner–he succeeds in transporting us to that compelling time, so that we may gain insights that a conventional academic approach cannot give."

Retana was one of the foremost Spanish intellectuals of his time, the greatest Philippine scholar, and the perfect foil to the embodiment of the ilustrado class, Rizal. The discourse of the two reflected the ambiguities and united sentiments of that time.

In his own words

  • "DEFINITION OF yo cuidado: Él cuidado [He’ll take care of it.]. The word CUIDADO (bahala in Tagalog) is conjugated there in a very singular way: Yo cuidado, tú cuidado, Él CUIDADO; nosotros cuidado, vosotros cuidado, ellos cuidado [In Tagalog: Akong bahala, ikaw bahala, siya bahala, tayo/kami bahala, kayo bahala, sila bahala.] All of the philosophy contained in these Philipinisms does not fit in the limits of a footnote, nor in a brochure. The Spanish declare that the expressiveness of these phrases is so rich that they can find nothing analogous in any language. Four quick examples will give an idea of the philosophy as I call it. In the editorial office of a newspaper, the editor says, “Who will be in charge of writing the article on such topic?” “Yo cuidado,” someone says. Very good, there’s nothing more to be said—the one who said I’ll take care of it! solemnly promised to do the job—impossible for him to fail. The phrase obliges him that much. A father knows that his daughter is too headstrong for her own good. His biggest threat is this: “Tú cuidado, ah?” [You better watch it, eh!] Like someone who says, "Careful! Because if you do anything out of hand... yo cuidado!" [I’ll take matters into my hands!]. People are murmuring about someone who hasn’t shown up, “That man! What mess has he gotten himself in this time! But you—you’re his friend, why don’t you give him some good advice?” “Me? ¡ÉL CUIDADO!" [It’s his problem!] The phrases yo cuidado, tú cuidado, etc., are therefore equivalent to a promise that cannot be broken, an indulgent or forceful warning, a reprimand, etc. etc.; an expression of indifference; or a recommendation, as when one says to a servant, “tú cuidado con la casa, ah?” [Take good care of the house, eh?] And it means several other things besides, that we cannot include here because of space constraints. – From Cosas de Allá (1893), translation by Elizabeth Medina, from her book Sampaguitas en la Cordillera (2005).


  • De los Santos, Epifanio. 1909. "Epifanía Wenceslao E. Retana, ensayo crítico acerca de este ilustre filipinista." Establecimiento Tipográfico de Fortanet. Madrid.
  • Medina, Elizabeth. "Who Was Wenceslao Retana?" Accessed 20 May 2008.
  • Schumacher, John N. 1967. "Wenceslao E. Retana. An Historiographical Study." Philippine Studies, Vol. 10, no. 4. Manila.



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