The Brilliant Life And Turbulent Times Of Don Jacobo Zóbel y Zangróniz
This feature story was originally titled as The Great Jacobo Zóbel, and was published in the September 2008 issue of Tatler Philippines
In poor health and spirit, the proudly liberal Jacobo Zóbel y Zangróniz died on 6 October 1896, two weeks short of his 54th birthday. It was a most turbulent epoch. The Philippine national revolution had just broken out more than a month before. Filipino revolutionaries led by Andrés Bonifacio besieged Spanish troops in San Juan del Monte, Mandaluyong, Pandacan and Santa Mesa, all barely a few miles from the seat of government in Intramuros, while the Spanish secret police rounded up reform-minded liberal criollos (Creoles, or Spaniards born in the colonies) and indios (ethnic natives) as well as prominent Filipinos, for interrogation. Three weeks earlier Zóbel’s cousins-in-law, Francisco L Roxas (1851-97) and Pedro Pablo Roxas (1847-1912), were detained and interrogated. The three were among the most prominent businessmen and civic persons of the era. Under a cloud of suspicion for complicity with the rebels, Zóbel died worrying about the survival of his family and business enterprises. Little did this broken-hearted man know that he would become the great patriarch of future generations of the Zóbel de Ayala family, who would later distinguish themselves in business, philanthropy, the arts and even in war.
THE FIRST IN LINE
Born on 12 October 1842 in Manila, Zóbel’s father was Jacobo Zóbel y Hinsch (1815-66), a German pharmacist of Danish origin who would make Manila his primary home. His mother was Ana Zangróniz y Arrieta (1818-48), the daughter of a Real Audiencia judge from Navarra, Spain. Jacobo Sr was born in Hamburg and was baptised in the Lutheran church of St Katherine. In 1849 he became a Spanish citizen. The older Zóbel cultivated not only business interests but also philanthropic activities by being an administrative member of the Hospicio de San José and the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to Philippine economic development. Jacobo Sr’s own German-born father, Johann Andreas Zóbel, established the family’s first pharmacy and chemical laboratory on Calle Real 23, Intramuros, in 1834.
At the age of 6, the young Zóbel suffered the tragedy of his mother’s early death. In 1848 he and his father went back to Germany, where he studied for four years at Dr Brandmann’s school. Later he attended the Johanneum public school until 1858. The father, desirous of having the young Zóbel supplement his German education with a Hispanic upbringing, took him that year to Madrid, where he was enrolled at the Universidad Central, José Rizal’s future alma mater. There Zóbel studied to become a pharmacist, obtaining, at the age of 22, a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and natural sciences. It is said that an insatiable appetite for learning characterised his student days. Besides his major, he studied archaeology, palaeology, numismatics and history. He intensively pursued his love for languages, both living (Spanish, German, Arabic, French, English, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Russian) and dead (Chaldean and Etruscan). While in his junior year, he published numismatic and palaeographic monographs in German and Spanish. In Madrid he met the fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen, who became his correspondent. Zóbel wrote the author’s Spanish biography and, preceding Rizal by 22 years, translated Andersen’s fairytales from Danish into Spanish in 1864. The world-famous author would describe the young student in his book Viaje por España, calling him “mi nuevo y joven amigo [my new and young friend], Jacobo Zóbel Zangróniz de Manila.” Andersen was grateful to the student for his hospitality and wrote of Jacobo’s dedication to scholarly studies.
An encounter with the German classical scholar and epigraphist Emil Hübner (1834-1901) would make a lifelong impression on the young student by encouraging his love for antiquities and esotericism. Inspired, Zóbel developed a love for numismatics, scouring Europe, from Paris to London and Berlin, to study ancient coinage and palaeography. He was advised by the eminent numismatist and archaeologist, Antonio Delgado y Hernández (1805-79) of Madrid. During this time, Zóbel initiated his historical research on ancient Spanish coins from its origins until the emergence of the Roman Empire, a period which spanned more than 400 years. The two-volume research, titled Estudios Históricos de la Moneda Antigua Española desde su Origen hasta el Imperio Romano (Historical Studies on Old Spanish Coins from their Beginnings up to the Roman Empire), would only be published 17 years later and would become his magnum opus, a classic work that is still used as reference material in Spanish libraries and universities.
It seemed that the young antiquarian and classical scholar was neglecting his pharmacy career due to his multi-farious academic pursuits, but his father’s declining health forced a return to the Philippines after a 15-year European sojourn. Writing about the young Zóbel, Hübner said that if left on his own, the young man would have gladly pursued a scholarly career. Moreover, the young man wanted to keep abreast of all the most modern developments, especially in the industrialised northern European countries.
Reared in the German intellectual tradition, Zóbel was the direct product of a liberal European education. He was the forerunner of the Filipino ilustrado (the word, at that time, meant Philippine-born Spaniards). His contemporaries were as disparate as the future propagandist and fellow Universidad Central de Madrid alumnus, Antonio Regidor (1845-1910); the artist and future director of Escuela Superior de Pintura, Grabado y Escultura, Lorenzo Rocha (1837-98); and Fr José Burgos, the staunch advocate of Filipino clerical rights. In Spain, Zóbel was witness to the rising tensions between progressive versus conservative elements. Spain’s economy was weak; its political institutions were unstable; it lacked the resolve to integrate its few colonies into its national life.
The political and social confusion in Spain contrasted wildly with that of Germany, where Zóbel spent his formative years, with its rising wealth, industrial progress, Protestant austerity, open intellectual inquiry and increasing imperial and military power. In the Philippines a generation of young Filipinos born to newly affluent families would pursue liberal education to reinforce the claim of the economic elite to the leadership of the indigenous society. These Chinese mestizos (half-breeds) and full-blooded Spaniards born in the Philippines would give rise to the ilustrado or enlightened class, which would reach its apogee in the third quarter of the 19th century. Like Zóbel, these intellectuals were strongly influenced by progressive thinking and were critical of authoritarian regimes.
AN ILUSTRADO IN MANILA
The worldly young graduate arrived in Manila on Christmas 1863, working immediately for the family pharmacy and chemical laboratory. Almost two years later Jacobo’s father left for abroad for health reasons but suffered a stroke on 1 June 1866. At the age of 24, Zóbel found himself at the helm of the family enterprise.
Apart from economic affairs, Zóbel found life in the Philippine capital stultifying. He complained about the lack of books that hindered the city’s intellectual life. In 1869 he described Manila, writing in Spanish that “in this city of 300,000 inhabitants, three-fourths are mestizos and Tagalogs, with only 5,000 Europeans, and the rest Chinese … there isn’t any public library. The University of Santo Tomás library contains only old jurisprudence or theology books. The same situation exists in the other libraries of the four religious orders, as well as the college seminary and the Jesuit high school ...” The following year despite many difficulties, he and his brother Fernando were instrumental in establishing the Casino Español, which they endowed with foreign and Spanish periodicals and books.
A scholar in his own right, Zóbel was a firm believer in the value of a well-rounded education. He encouraged young intellectuals and scholars by hosting literary tertulias (social and musical gatherings) in his own home library and salon. On his return to Manila, one of his main projects was to establish a school of arts and commerce, which the administration regarded suspiciously. He openly criticised the country’s lack of representation in the Spanish Cortes. He decried the Spaniards’s attitude towards work by declaring that “of the 30, only three will work.” Wanting to improve the city of his birth, he joined government committees on health, agriculture and commerce, only to be disappointed to find out that they could only give advice.
Frustrated in his efforts at reform, Zóbel in 1869 turned to other like-minded progressive intellectuals for support. Among these were Joaquín Pardo de Tavera, a professor at the University of Santo Tomás; his good friend, the artist Lorenzo Rocha; Real Audiencia judge Joaquín Icaza; the businessmen Máximo Paterno and José Bonifacio Roxas, his future uncle-in-law; and the powerful and influential secular priest, Fr José Burgos. Some of these progressives had established the Comité de Reformadores, which the historian O.D. Corpuz described as the country’s first Liberal Party, because “it was composed of the richest and wisest Filipinos.” The group campaigned for legal equality with the peninsulares (Spaniards living in the Philippines) as well as political and civil rights under the banner of asimilación, or Philippine integration as a Spanish province.
Little did Zóbel know that his involvement with some of the most illustrious and reform-minded Filipinos would sweep him full force into the maelstrom of turbulent events that soon would engulf the country.
THE RISING LIBERAL TIDE
The 1860s was a decade of unparalleled tension in Spain, signalling an imminent fracture in its politics and society. Democratic and republican forces were at work against the monarchy of Queen Isabella II. In 1868 a revolutionary democratic movement supplanted the monarchy. This would have long-range implications for the Philippines, with the arrival in 1869 of a new governor-general, Carlos María de la Torre, who signalled a wholesale shift in Philippine colonial policies, by abolishing corporal punishment, secularising public education and generally liberalising policies.
De La Torre encouraged Zóbel, by now a recognised reformist leader, to go on with his objectives. The governor appointed Zóbel as mayor of Manila. On assuming office, the young politician declared: “I accept the position provided that the government will help in my struggle against the improper use of funds.” Zóbel lost no time in implementing the long-delayed royal decree of 1863 providing for the establishment of public and normal schools. He introduced systematic tree planting and beautified the streets of Manila with the flame-coloured flowers of the caballero tree. He established libraries and introduced the bicycle. He encouraged Tagalog translations of agricultural and industrial pamphlets. He openly stated his opinions and ideas in articles that were critical of the administration, contributing to columns in El Porvenir Filipino, El Eco Filipino and Diario de Manila newspapers.
Professor Lourdes Brillantes, in her book 81 Years of Premio Zóbel, wrote that despite his biting intelligence, Zóbel was a most amiable man with “a happy but resolute disposition. He abhorred the dolce far niente attitude (carefree idleness) towards principles and priorities. He wanted to educate the Tagalogs not by rote or mechanical instruction but through a more profound and encompassing method to prepare them for a sovereign and independent future.” He regarded women as “generally astute and the souls of the home.”
Zóbel, as a liberal Philippine-born Spaniard, attracted the distrust of many in power who were peninsulares. Brillantes described the start of Don Jacobo’s run-ins with the colonial administration when he “asked for the curtailment of the absolute power of the governor-general, and called for the reorganisation of the religious administration. He was very critical of the incumbent governor-general ...” Zóbel’s written critiques would annoy officialdom and once, after a heated exchange of correspondence with a governor-general, Zóbel was courageous enough to challenge him to a duel. Zóbel’s letters displayed his fighting spirit and indomitable stance. Brillantes concluded that “Don Jacobo’s loyalty to Spain and to the Crown was unquestionable, but he found it difficult to recognise the authority of a superior whose cultural and intellectual levels were beyond him.”
After the pivotal Cavite mutiny of 1872, Zóbel was accused of complicity with the rebels on trumped-up charges that he was a German spy and that he had imported firearms. His enemies slipped into his waistcoat fake papers with Masonic signs and the heading “Independent Philippine Republic of Malaysia and Melanesia.” Zóbel was arrested in September 1874 and charged with treason. Through friends in Berlin and Madrid, he had high-level officials in both governments intercede on his behalf. In February 1875 he was acquitted by the Real Audiencia for lack of sufficient evidence.
A NEW LIFE
By this time Don Jacobo, as he was called then, resolved to change his priorities and to spend more time with the business. In the meantime, the original pharmacy of his father included a chemical laboratory, as well as a company that imported the most modern technical marvels. The Intramuros store developed into an emporium selling medical books, photography and paint supplies, perfumes and alcohol lamps. Business success afforded him financial freedom.
At 33 Zóbel thought it was time to settle down; after all, he was one of the most eligible and sought-after men in Manila. Piercingly intelligent and cultured, blond and blue-eyed, hirsute with flowing locks of hair and an imposing beard, he was indeed the cynosure of many a maiden. On 5 February 1876, he married Trinidad de Ayala, a mestiza coming from an illustrious family. The newlyweds made plans to leave the country on an extended honeymoon and to settle in Europe, where Don Jacobo could study the new industry of mass transportation. However, their plans were delayed by the sudden death of Trinidad’s father, Don Antonio de Ayala, that year, leaving her and sister Carmen the two wealthiest women in the country. Carmen had married her cousin, Pedro Pablo Roxas, the son of Don José Bonifacio Roxas, in 1870. From the Roxas side came the Casa Roxas business, which was established in 1834. Later it would be renamed Roxas Hermanos and subsequently Casa Ayala. The intermarriages of the Roxas-Ayala-Zóbel clans would result in the birth of Ayala y Compañía in 1877. Together with Pedro Pablo Roxas, Zóbel became a partner of Ayala y Cía in 1877.
READ MORE: A Closer Look At The Ayala Corporation, Philippines' Oldest Conglomerate
Doña Trinidad was a kind-hearted woman with soft twinkling eyes and a warm disposition. Perhaps these qualities enabled her to understand her very complex husband who had just been incarcerated for political reasons. After all, she herself was also raised in a household with a liberal tradition.
Her mother, Doña Margarita Roxas de Ayala, was the most respected businesswoman and philanthropist of her time. Doña Margarita was instrumental in securing the pardon of her own father, Don Domingo Roxas, founder of Casa Roxas, who, like Zóbel, was unjustly imprisoned in Fort Santiago. Demonstrating her personal resolve and extraordinary courage, Doña Margarita undertook a long voyage in 1842, passing the Cape of Good Hope on her way to Spain to seek Queen Isabella II’s intercession.
Jacobo and Trinidad finally left on their round-the-world tour in June 1876. They began their trip in Japan, where Don Jacobo made firsthand observations of the country’s government and educational system. They proceeded to San Francisco and Philadelphia to attend the centenary fair of American independence. The couple journeyed on to Madrid, where they settled. Their sons, Fernando and the twins Enrique and Alfonso, were born. Don Jacobo was determined to master the emerging industry of mass transportation by studying tram and railway services in Europe. He also renewed his numismatic studies to complete the voluminous research on ancient Spanish coins that he had started during his student days.
But tragedy struck in 1882 when, at the age of 5, Alfonso, one of the twins, suddenly died in Madrid. After a five-year European sojourn, the grief-stricken couple returned to their beloved Manila. Back in business, Zóbel set about to make his name synonymous with progress and the latest in technological innovation. He became a representative of Eiffel and Co of Paris, and built the first steel bridges of Ayala and Quinta in Manila. In December 1885 he established the first mass transportation system in Manila, the Manila-Tondo tramline, which was extended to Malabon and was powered by steam. His business partners were the Spanish banker Don Adolfo Bayo and Don Gonzalo Tuason, one of the richest Filipinos at that time. Eventually Zóbel built four horse-drawn tramlines in Manila and its arrabales or suburbs, which were Malate, Sampaloc, San Miguel and Tondo.
But Don Jacobo was not immune to failure. An amusing story told by Félix Roxas, his cousin-in-law and the secretary of the Compañía de Tranvías, illustrates the businessman’s humanity. “The company was frequently beset by the precarious health of the streetcar horses. The percentage of deaths and debility of the animals was alarmingly high. Don Jacobo set about a system of registers to keep track of the health and condition of the animals. However, the foremen had a hard time tracking the identity of the horses since the underlings and coach drivers consistently refused to band or tag the animals. Hence, horses that were newly bought were marked in the register as unserviceable, while those that had long been in service were marked as fit. Annoyed unremittingly by the continual death of horses and chaos at the interchanges, Don Jacobo set a deadline for the inventory of healthy animals to be finished by 11 the following morning. When he showed up the next day and found out that his order had once again been ignored, he simply walked away in disgust.
Not all of Don Jacobo’s businesses turned to gold. Félix Roxas also reported that while in Spain, Don Jacobo lost an inordinate sum of money in a large engineering project that tried to drain the swampy areas of Salinas (de Bonanza) on the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. This property was said to have been inherited by his wife, Doña Trinidad.
For the next decade Don Jacobo would dedicate his life to his many businesses and cultural activities. Don Jacobo and Doña Trinidad’s magnificent mansion on Calle General Solano in San Miguel, Manila, would serve as a venue for many concerts and glittering events. Zóbel regained his political and social standing and was appointed by the King of Spain, on 25 May 1882, to the Consejo de Administración, a socio-civic and business advisory body to the governor-general. His business advice was so valued that he was made a member of the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País, a counsellor of the first Philippine public bank Banco Español Filipino, and the secretary of the Cámara de Comercio de Manila.
As a true cultural patron, he advised the Ministro de Ultramar Antonio Fabié on the reorganisation of the School of Arts and recommended his old friend Lorenzo Rocha to become its director. He received numerous awards, including the Gran Cruz de la Reina Isabel la Católica in 1880, the Caballero de la Orden de Rey Carlos III from the Spanish government, and knight-commander of the Order of the Northern Star of Sweden and Norway. He received an award from the French Academy and was elected a member of the prestigious Real Academia de la Historia on 10 May 1878, an achievement he held very dear because of his scholarly and scientific pursuits. He was also recognised as an Hijo Predilecto de Vizcaya, or a Favourite Son of Vizcaya, part of the Basque region in northern Spain.
THE TERRIFYING END
It seemed that don Jacobo Zóbel had reached the pinnacle of his life with his many awards and achievements and memberships in socioeconomic and artistic organisations. But once again, the cruel hand of fate would intervene with the final arrival of the revolutionary winds of change in the 1890s. A strong undercurrent of unrest would be unleashed by the exile in 1892 of the political thinker José Rizal, with the Katipunan secret society rapidly organising the discontented masses. In direct opposition, reactionary forces would unite behind the powerful Archbishop of Manila Bernardino Nozaleda and several successive and repressive governors-general.
The Roxas and Zóbel families would be implicated in the outbreak of the revolution in August 1896. The most prominent businessmen of the times, like Zóbel and his cousins-in-law Don Pedro Pablo Roxas and Francisco L. Roxas, were suspected of funding the mass uprising. Don Francisco was approached by Katipunan officers in June 1896, soliciting a cash contribution for the purchase of arms. When he refused, the Secret Chamber of the Katipunan decided to forge papers to implicate him and several rich and aristocratic Filipinos. The false papers named him as the president of the society.
Authorities found the incriminating papers in August 1896 and arrested Don Francisco the following month. In his book The Roots of the Filipino Nation, OD Corpuz wrote that “an October 1896 report by a Spanish officer refers to them [the traitors] as ‘rich proprietors’ and despicable, ‘shameless filibusteros [filibusters]’ who enjoyed high social position and benefited from Spain’s protection. It must be said, however, that not one of the men who were falsely implicated betrayed the society to the authorities.” His relatives sent entreaties to the highest offices of Spain to no avail; Don Francisco was executed at Luneta on 11 January 1897, 12 days after Rizal’s execution.
Unfortunate circumstances threatened to conspire against Zóbel. He was a personal friend to many of those who were persecuted, executed or deported for the 1872 Cavite Mutiny. He was of German origin and was known to have supported Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of a unified Germany. Zóbel was an import agent of firearms. He supported liberal reforms and equal opportunity for all Filipinos, Creoles or natives alike. After the outbreak of the revolution, a wave of terror was unleashed in Manila and its surroundings. Don Jacobo knew that with his previous background, he could have easily been dragged into the tumult. Fortunately, nothing could be turned up to implicate Zóbel and he was left alone. Against the backdrop of impending chaos, Don Jacobo died of a stroke in October 1896. Austin Craig wrote that “his funeral was attended by many people, church dignitaries and civic leaders, for he was truly mourned by the city.”
In Spain, Don Jacobó’s powerful friend, fellow académico electo of the Real Academia de la Historia and dominant politician of the last half of the 19th century, six-time Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo (1828-97) defended Zóbel’s name and honour and made a public amendment to the brilliant man’s life.
In 1896 the stories of Zóbel, Pardo de Tavera, Regidor, Fr. Burgos, the Roxases, and ultimately Rizal intersected. Socio-cultural historian Resil Mojares in his landmark book Brains of the Nation (2006) described similar incongruous and tenuous social and political intersections as giving rise to the birth of a true Filipino national intelligentsia.
Although separated because of origin, class and generation, Zóbel and Rizal shared social, political and religious ideals. Both were rigorous scholars and scientists, both spoke German and Spanish and both represented the highest enlightenment ideals of Filipinos. Forever united by the year of their untimely deaths, Zóbel, like Rizal, is an immortal exemplar of a true Renaissance man—a highly cultured polyglot and intellectual, fearlessly liberal and unapologetic for his impossibly altruistic ideals.
DON JACOBO'S DESCENDANTS
Jacobo Zóbel y Zangroniz's widow, Trinidad, together with her sister Carmen Ayala de Roxas, ably steered the family and business through the Philippine Revolution and World War I. Don Jacobo’s son, Fernando, supported the proclamation of the First Republic, writing letters to Emilio Aguinaldo, whom he called the new Caesar.
Don Jacobo’s other son and heir apparent, Enrique, married his cousin Consuelo Roxas, who died tragically of cholera. They had three children: Colonel Jacobo, a hero of the Bataan Death March and father of Enrique or Enzo, who led the Ayala Corporation from 1967 to 1983; Alfonso, who became an Ayala y Cía partner and was the father of Jaime Zóbel de Ayala (Ayala Corporation board chairman from 1983 to present); and Mercedes, who married Joseph R McMicking and steered her grandfather’s business to greater heights with the development of Metro Manila’s business and financial capital Makati.
The young widower then married, at 34, Doña Fermina (Mina) Montojo, daughter of Admiral Patricio Montojo, who headed the Spanish fleet in the unequal battle of Manila Bay.Their offsprings would be: Matilde, who died young; Consuelo (namesake of Don Enrique’s first wife), founder of the Consuelo Zóbel Alger Foundation; Gloria, numerary member of the Academia Filipina, corresponding member of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española and patroness of Premio Zóbel, the oldest and most prestigious literary award in the Philippines (founded in 1920 by her father); and Fernando, international artist and founder of the Ateneo Art Gallery and the Museum of Abstract Art in Cuenca, the first modern art museum created in Spain.
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