Rizal’s affair with ‘la petite’ Suzanne

By Ahmed Cuizon
Jose Rizal’s romantic exploits wherever he went is legendary. But at age 29, did he really have an affair with a Belgian woman 16 years his senior? Apparently so, some historical accounts say. But Pros Slachmuylders, a Belgian, believes otherwise and shows evidence that history writers need to rectify the books.

(Photo: The mischievous Jose Rizal when he was around 29 years old and living in Paris. In a cropped portion of a group photo with the Pardo de Tavera family and friends, Rizal is wearing a turban and a knowing smirk. One theory behind this picture is that Rizal had just finished posing in the turban for his friend Juan Luna, who could not afford professional models for his paintings. The veiled women to Rizal’s left (presumably they just finished posing for Luna too) are Paz Pardo de Tavera Luna, Juan’s wife, and Nelly Boustead, Rizal’s half-French, half-Pinay girlfriend at the time. This photo is the property of the Pardo de Tavera family and appears in Little Bad Boy courtesy of Mara Pardo de Tavera, supposedly a Paz look-alike.)

“Author Gregorio Zaide in his book, Jose Rizal, Life, Works and Writings states that the young Rizal romanced with Suzanna Jacoby who was actually his landlady, instead of her niece Suzanna Thill in 1890,” Slachmuylders says. “Lest we accuse the young Rizal of romancing a 45-year-old woman, we should set the record straight.”

A real estate executive now based in Cebu, Slachmuylders is past chapter head of the Order of the Knights of Rizal in Belgium.

Historians have linked Rizal with more than a dozen women, although only nine have been identified: Segunda Katigbak, Leonor Valenzuela, Leonor Rivera and Consuelo Ortiga, all Filipinas; O-Sei-San, Japanese; Gertrude Beckett, English; Nellie Boustead, French; Suzanna Jacoby, Belgian and; Josephine Bracken, the 18-year-old Irish girl whom he married while on exile in Dapitan.

An educated Filipino mestizo who inspired the Philippine revolution against Spain, Rizal pursued higher studies in Europe where he published his two anti-Spanish books, the “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.” Fear of reprisal from Spanish authorities forced him to stay abroad for some years.

In 1890, Rizal was only 29 years old when he left Paris which had become too expensive for him. At that time, he was preparing for the publication of his annotations of Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas.”

Saddened that his friend from London, Antonio Rigidor backed out on his pledge to support the project, Rizal had to save money, especially since his own family had not sent him any for quite some time.

This was when the young Rizal decided to move to Brussels sometime in February or March of 1890. There, he lived in the boarding house of the two Jacoby sisters, Catherina and Suzanna who had a niece also named Suzanna but whose surname was Thill. The younger Suzanna is often referred to as la petite or “little Suzanne.”

The historian Zaide states that two things lightened up a depressed Rizal while in Brussels. First was the summertime festival of Belgium which lasted for many days. The second, Zaide points out, was “his romance with Suzanne Jacoby, the petite niece of his landladies.”

This particular Zaide account, Slachmuylders asserts, is the source of the confusion. “After a research in Brussels and in Asselborn in Luxembourg Province and on different letters from la petite Suzanne, it is surely not Suzanna Jacoby who was the romance of Rizal, but her niece Suzanna Thill,” he adds.

Slachmuylders says based on the municipal records of Brussels on March 28, 1890, three ladies appeared to have been registered in the boarding house where Rizal stayed: Catherina Jacoby, her younger sister Suzanna Jacoby and their niece Suzanna Thill.

At that time, Catherina was 55 years old while her sister Suzanna was 44 years and 6 months old. On the other hand, Suzanna, their niece, was only 17 years and 9 months old, having been born on April 4, 1872.

Slachmuylders thinks that Zaide mistook the young Suzanna’s middle name Jacoby as her last name instead of Thill, As proof, he presents a copy of the Jacoby family tree showing that the two Suzannas are a generation apart.

Other documents presented by Slachmuylders are copies of the birth certificates of the sisters Catherina and Suzanna Jacoby who remained unmarried until their deaths in 1912 and 1913, respectively.

Clearly, he says, Rizal must have been attracted to the young Suzanna and not the older one, as all his other romantic relationships were with young women.

Memorable as it was however, Rizal’s stay in Brussels was short-lived, as he had to move to Madrid. On his departure, he left the young Suzanna a box of chocolates.

After Rizal wrote a letter to the Jacoby family from Madrid, the young Suzanna, signing as Petite Suzanne answered back in French, saying: “After your departure, I did not take the chocolate. The box is still intact as on the day of your parting.”

Teasingly referring to Rizal as le petit diable or “little bad boy,” the young Suzanna in her second letter dated Oct. 1, 1890 wrote: “Don’t delay too long writing us because I wear out the soles of my shoes for running to the mailbox to see if there is a letter from you.” She also added, “There will never be any home in which you are so loved as in that in Brussels, so, you little bad boy, hurry up and come back…”

But alas, Rizal never wrote or came back. At that time, he learned that his girlfriend of 11 years, Leonor Rivera was about to marry an English engineer. Heartbroken, he instead wrote to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, saying that he almost lost his mind over the sad news.

Rizal romanced at least two other women, Nelly Boustead and Josephine Bracken before he was put to death by firing squad in 1896.

At the age of 48, Suzanne Thill meanwhile married Victor Wolff in Vorst, Belgium in 1920. She died in 1951 at the age of 79.

Today, Rizal’s alleged love affair with 45-year-old Suzanna Jacoby still persists in history books and in websites devoted to his life and works.

Even the book “Indio Bravo” written by Asuncion Lopez-Rizal Bantug, granddaughter of Paciano, Rizal’s brother, is ambiguous as to which of the two Suzannas romanced with him.

With the help from the Order of the Knights of Rizal here in the Philippines, Slachmuylders is bent on rectifying the historical error by calling on historians to take note of his research findings.

Last year, Slachmuylders’ group also helped unveil a historical marker commemorating Rizal’s stay in Brusells in 1890.