Rafael Ortigas Jr. - A Legacy of Books


Beautifully bound rare books in the Ortigas Library.

It was over twenty years ago that Alberto Montilla brought me up to the offices of Ortigas & Co. to meet his brother–in– law Atty. Rafael Ortigas Jr. who recently passed away, this last June. I was on a brief visit to Manila from my home in Berkeley, California where I ran a rare book business specializing in East Asian and Philippine books, maps and old photographs. Meeting Rafa Ortigas for the first time left a lasting impression. Aside from being one of Manila’s leading business executives and lawyers, he was also one of the Philippine’s most legendary Filipiniana book collectors. Like most serious collectors he had an insatiable curiosity and a deep love of his subject, Philippine history. He was both gracious and welcoming, typical of traditional Spanish mestizo culture, which was his background.

He guided me to his corner office windows and pointed out many of the Ortigas family accomplishments. Most of the burgeoning new city and surrounding landscape below us from Camp Crame to Green Hills, Marikina to Mandaluyong, had once been part of the Ortigas holdings. His grandfather Don Francisco Ortigas, in partnership with future Philippine president Manuel L. Quezon, and four others, purchased the Mandaluyong Estate in the 1920s. At the time their real estate holdings were even larger in area than the Ayala Corporations current Makati holdings.

Even then, before Mega Mall and Robinson’s Mall were completed and so many high-rise condominiums had sprung up, the Ortigas Center was impressive. Broad Avenues crisscrossed the commercial lots, some named after Ortigas relatives and some after gemstones, a favorite of Rafa’s, who had a fascination with minerals and mining. On rainy days he could spot shiny black tektites in the fresh earth dug up on the many construction sites around Green Hills and Ortigas Centre.

What was impressive for me personally was not so much the burgeoning Ortigas business empire but the fact that I was facing one of the most knowledgeable book collectors in the Philippines. I had offered Rafa rare books by mail but invariably the reply came back, “Thanks but we already have a copy” or several copies for that matter. He had been buying books in Europe, the United States and here in Manila for over thirty years. Little did I know at the time, that years later I would be working for the Ortigas Foundation, assisting Rafa with his collection and helping to set-up and organize a library open to the public in the same Ortigas Building where we had first met.

Collectors fall into two broad categories, those who collect for rarity and aesthetic value and those primarily interested in scholarship and the advancement of historical research. Rafa was the latter. The two collecting styles often overlap and compliment each other even though the ultimate goals of the collectors are different. Collecting scholarly material requires more time and research, while signed first editions, fine bindings and illustrations require quite a lot more money. Beauty and rarity tend to outrank knowledge and scholarship in the market place.

The focus of Rafael Ortigas Jr’s collecting was Philippine history and the many ways Spain, the United States and the Catholic Church all interacted with Filipinos over the centuries to help create, write and even re-write that history. Given his strong Spanish roots he was quite partial to Spain and the traditional Church and felt Americans and modern Filipino nationalists had misrepresented both. One of his dreams was to someday commission writers to rewrite Philippine history in a manner similar to the famous Blair and Robertson project of a century ago. But this time, do it from a Filipino perspective.

Emma Blair and Alexander Robertson edited and annotated a massive fifty-five-volume collection of translated documents relating to the Philippine history, which was published in the United States between 1903 and 1909. Their aim was to create a new, English language reference base for future Philippine researchers. Given the era and the editors’ nationalities it naturally was written from an American, Anglo Saxon perspective. It was not very friendly towards the Spanish or the Catholic Friars, who the Americans had just defeated in the Spanish American War.

The oldest original publications in Rafael Ortigas Jr’s collection are Philippine ecclesiastical reports, histories and dictionaries of native dialects, mostly written by Spanish churchmen in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century up to the revolution of 1896. The finest example of this type of work is a complete fourteen volume edition of Fray Juan de La Concepcion’s, “Historia General de Philipinas - conquistas espirituales y temporales…” 1788 -1792, bound in vellum and complete with folding maps.

Some of the most important and most beautiful books from the nineteenth century are illustrated travel accounts of the Philippines written by Frenchmen. Dumont D’Urville’s two volume “Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde” published in Paris in 1839 has four chapters on the Philippines illustrated with fourteen exquisite engravings of local scenes. Between the years 1879 -1881 Docteur Joseph Montano traveled to the Philippines and Malaysia and published his account in a popular French travel journal along with engravings made from photographs. In the 1880s Alfred Marche spent six years in the Philippines and wrote about it with illustrations from photographs as well. Another treasure from this period in the Ortigas collection is an album of fifty-five large albumen photographs of Manila by the Belgian photographer Francisco Van Camp who had a studio on the Escolta in the 1880s.

One of the finest books ever published about the Spanish military in the Philippines was the “Expedicion a Jolo -1876” by Baltasar Giraudier. This is a highly decorated, oversized volume printed in Madrid with duotone lithographic illustrations depicting the Spanish invasion of Jolo. This single volume along with the deluxe four volume grand edition of Fr. Manuel Blanco’s  “Flora de Filipinas” mark a high point in nineteenth century Filipiniana book design and printing. Many years ago Rafa convinced his father to buy a set of the Blanco folios from a private collector. This turned out to be the start of a Blanco collection that is now quite possibly the most extant in the country, numbering hundreds of magnificent color and black and white botanical illustrations along with the lavishly bound text volumes.

The Ortigas collection also includes most major books published on the Philippine revolution and the subsequent Philippine War with the United States. This includes the huge Harper’s Illustrated History of the War, the Leslie’s Magazine history, the two-volume edition of Our Islands and Their People, the fifty-five volume Blair and Robertson compendium and numerous less well known Spanish, American and Filipino books and periodicals from that period.

Over the years periodicals became a major part of the collection with extensive runs of Spanish language magazines such as Excelsior 1928 - 1941, Ilustracion Espanola y Americana 1896-1898, El Renacimento - Diario Filipino and extensive sets of local and foreign newspapers from the turn of the century through the Second World War. Included in this reference material are gazetteers of the acts of the Philippine Commission starting from 1902, Philippine Commission reports, terrain studies, geographical dictionaries, mining reports and official guidebooks going back to the middle of the nineteenth century.

All in all the Rafael Ortigas Jr. collection numbers over seven thousand titles and is now on loan from the family to the Ortigas Foundation Library, which has its own large collection of Filipiniana material and books on World War II in the Pacific. A few years ago at Rafa’s urging, the library was fortunate enough to acquire the private libraries of the historian Dr. Gregorio Zaide of Manila and Filipino born American, Morton “Jock” Netzorg from the United States. Zaide’s library is rich in Asian history books and literature by and about Jose Rizal. The Netzorg collection includes a very rare, 1905, galley proof of the Philippine Insurgent records that was de-accessioned by the United States, State Department years ago, and the published copy of the 1898 Treaty of Paris which ceded the Philippines to the United States. Included with this is a huge folding map of the Philippines measuring several meters long. The rare and fragile books at the Ortigas Library are available for scholars to review by advance appointment.

In one of my last chats with Rafa Ortigas, only a few weeks before he passed away, he reiterated his desire to leave a scholarly legacy. While we sat at the large table in his sala, sampling a sinful selection of delicious chocolates a friend had brought him from Spain, he said to me, Companies and businesses come and go but a library should last for generations. His lifelong concern had been both the preservation of the historical record and a desire to clarify and improve the understanding of Philippine history. The greatest legacy any man can leave to future generations is a clear and thoughtful knowledge of the past. The Rafael Ortigas Jr. book collection and library will certainly enrich countless Filipinos for years to come.