Saturday, March 14, 2009

The story of Josephine Bracken and the proof of her full Irish origins.


One of the aims with this website concerning the life of Josephine Bracken is to publish factual details, in so far as these can be reliably established. Many inaccuracies and rumours relating to her have originated, persisted and been added to ever since she first stepped onto the stage of history. Most of these have been promulgated on the scantiest of evidence or indeed in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, and unfortunately in some cases by personages who ought to have known better. For example, it was reported that at a conference on Jose Rizal in the 1990s, a prominent Filipino politician stated that Josephine had been a bar girl in Hong Kong prior to her involvement with Rizal. To the best of my knowledge there is no evidence that supports the validity of that statement - it appears to have simply been based on deliberately defamatory details in a contemporary Spanish newspaper account of Jose Rizal's execution - yet it was given an apparent plausibility by virtue of the prestige of the speaker. Also, the respected historian Austin Coates claimed in his 1968 biography of Rizal that Josephine was illegitimate and of mixed race. This was based mainly on an interpretation of one particular primary source - that had some details overwritten thereby making it suspect - and in opposition to a wealth of other such sources that discredit his declaration.

The intention here is to give a basic outline of the life story of Josephine Bracken. A comprehensive biography could run to 200 pages or more, so for reasons of length and other constraints it will unfortunately be necessary to condense or omit some aspects of her story in this website. I ask of anyone who believes that anything is incorrect, to respond using the comment facility. Then, should it be necessary, it can be amended. I ask that any information that is offered is factually based rather than opinion or rumour. The final two sections provide conclusive proof - based on original documentary sources uncovered by this writer - that Josephine Bracken was fully Irish and legitimate.

It is my hope that this website will give a better and wider understanding and an appreciation of the historic role played by Josephine Bracken than has been the case up to now; and that it can be enjoyed despite my somewhat inelegant writing style.

Studio photograph of Josephine Bracken

The Story of Josephine Bracken

Section 1. Unrecognised

For a country that is ever eager to acclaim the exploits of people of Irish origin or descent in foreign lands, it is remarkable that the story of Josephine Bracken is little known here, even among historians. For example The Encyclopaedia of Ireland contains no reference to her though it does list Che Guevara who it appears had a female ancestor who emigrated from Ireland to South America in the 18th century, thereby making him perhaps 1/16th Irish. That widely inclusive publication, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, contains no reference to her either. She has however a listing in Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopaedia, which is somewhat lacking in detail and unfortunately contains a number of factual errors.

Although she never set foot in Ireland - unlike Guevara - Josephine Bracken was fully Irish and earned a place in the history of the Philippines through her intimate connection with Jose Rizal, the man regarded as responsible for inspiring the natives to successful revolution against their Spanish colonizers in the late 19th century.

An ordinary woman from a somewhat obscure background, for the first eighteen years of her life there was nothing to suggest that before her 21st birthday Josephine Bracken would have historic distinction thrust upon her. Following that, she returned to relative obscurity and died aged just 25.

Section 2. Origins

Josephine was born in Hong Kong in 1876 to an Irish couple, James Bracken and his wife Elizabeth. Bracken, a native of Co. Offaly - formerly King's County - in Ireland, joined the 28th Infantry Regiment (the 28th Regiment of Foot) of the British Army in 1858 at Crinkle Barracks on the outskirts of the town of Birr in County Offaly. Army records show that when he enlisted (aged 18) his place of birth was recorded as 'in the Parish of Gallen near the Town of Ferbane in the County of King’s'. (Incidentally, his surname was originally spelt as 'Brackin', and that particular spelling was sometimes used in records relating to him.) When his marriage - to Elizabeth Jane McBride (aged 21) in St. Patrick's Church, Donegall St, Belfast in 1868 - was officially registered, his father, Michael, is listed as a baker residing at Eglish, a townland close to the town of Birr. (Somewhat puzzlingly there are two versions of their marriage record - giving different versions of some of Elizabeth's details - at the Ulster Historical Society in Belfast. In one, dated 30th April, she is listed as living at North Queen St, with her father named as Charles. In the other, dated 4th May, she is recorded as a servant living at Lancaster St, while her father, Thomas, is described as a sailor. The earlier version is consistent with the church record, while the later version is consistent with the record at the Registries of Marriages in Dublin and Belfast.)

About four months after their wedding, Bracken’s regiment was posted to Gibraltar, while Elizabeth remained in Ireland and was living at what was probably her birthplace - her parents' home at Mullaghdoo, Island Magee, Co. Antrim - when she gave birth to the couple’s first child, Charles, in April 1869. (
Elizabeth's father, Charles - after whom her first born was likely named - died in 1871 in Mullaghdoo, aged 82. Her mother, Keniah, aged 85, died in nearby Ballykeel, Island Magee, in 1895. Elizabeth herself appears to have been an only child.) Shortly afterwards, together with her child, she rejoined her husband at Gibraltar where she gave birth to a daughter, Nelly, in 1871. The following year the regiment was posted to Malta and there the couple had two more children: a daughter, Agnes, born in 1873, and a son, Francis, born in 1875 who survived just three months. The regiment’s next posting was to Hong Kong and it was there that their fifth and final child, Josephine, was born on 9th August 1876. (About seven weeks later she was baptised and christened 'Leopoldine'. However when her birth was officially registered about two weeks after that, she was recorded as 'Josephine'.) As both her parents were Irish, Josephine too would have been officially classed as ‘Irish’, or more accurately, ‘British’, as all of Ireland was then a part of the United Kingdom.

A month after Josephine’s birth, her mother Elizabeth Bracken (aged 30) died and was buried in the Colonial Cemetery at the Happy Valley. Today, a small stone inscribed with a number marks her grave. Subsequently the baby Josephine was given for fostering to her godparents - George Taufer, believed to have been of German-American origins and his wife, Leopoldine Marie Magedo, a Macao-Portuguese.

In January 1878 James Bracken left Hong Kong with his regiment for its next posting at Singapore. It is not clear whether his other children remained with him for the remainder of his term of duty. In May 1879 the 
28th Regiment of Foot arrived back in Ireland. The following year, having completed two terms of duty, James Bracken was discharged to pension. On 12th August 1880 he married Mary Smith (nee Doyle) in Carrickfergus, County Antrim. (Carrickfergus is near to Island Magee, where James' first wife, Elizabeth, originated. His second wife, Mary, was from Ballinaclash near the town of Rathdrum in County Wicklow.
Army records show that when in 1883, Charles, (aged 14) joined his father's old regiment, - by then incorporated with the 61st Regiment of Foot to form the Gloucestershire Regiment - James was living at 11 North Strand Road in Dublin City.
Death records for Ireland show that an Ellen (Nelly) Jane Bracken died on 4th November 1886, aged 15, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. Her death record describes her as a 'restaurant keeper's daughter' and gives the cause of death as 'gastritis'. Her address is listed as 16 Amiens St - North Strand Road is a continuation of Amiens St - with her father recorded as James Bracken. Thom's Dublin Street Directory for the years 1887-9, connect James Bracken with that building - a boarding house/dining room - either as a tenant or owner.
Mary Bracken died, aged 55, at 16 Amiens Street on the 13th January 1889 and was buried in the graveyard of Saint Bridget's Church in the townland of Macreddin, near Aughrim in County Wicklow.

From the Freeman's Journal of 13th January 1889
(Courtesy of Michael Campion)

In early 1890 James Bracken was living at 19 Tyrone St Upper - a short distance away from his former address. (The name of this street was later changed to Waterford Street. As a result of extensive redevelopment in the late 20th century, the street no longer exists.)
Just two months short of her 26th birthday, Josephine's other sister, Agnes, died in Dublin City on 27th  February 1899 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. The cause of death is recorded as 'phthisis'. She does not appear to have ever married or to have had any children.
On  30th  August 1904 when James' eldest child (and Josephine's brother) Charles was married in the Roman Catholic Church of St Paul on Arran Quay in Dublin, James is listed as a railway clerk; while Charles' residence is given as Shorncliffe Military Barracks (Folkestone, England). Like his father, Charles appears to have served two consecutive 11-year terms in the army. Whether James was actually still alive at the time of Charles' wedding is uncertain; there is no listing for him in either the 1901 or 1911 Census of Ireland; neither is he listed in the Registry of Deaths. It is possible that he emigrated sometime after 1890, but that seems unlikely. The Census of Population of Ireland taken on 2nd April 1911 shows that Charles Bracken (41) was living with his wife Bridget, nee Kennedy (29) and their two surviving children, James (6) and Francis (3) at 22 Harold Road in Dublin. It appears that the older boy was named after his paternal grandfather, while, when the younger son was baptised he was perhaps named in honour of Charles' baby brother who had died in Malta some 32 years earlier. Over the next five years the couple had two more sons but do not appear to have ever given birth to a daughter. In 1936 Charles and Bridget moved to Flat No. 4G in the newly opened Pearse House, a public housing development in south inner-city Dublin. Bridget died in 1938 while Charles, then aged 80, died in 1950. Both were buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Grave No. 4258 in Section 41 of the Colonial Cemetery, Wan Chai, Hong Kong - the grave of Elizabeth Bracken

Section 3. Early Life

Details of Josephine’s early life are sketchy and this section is based to some extent on a document whose authenticity is disputed.

Her foster father, George Taufer, worked as an engineer in charge of the steam-powered fire engine run by the Hong Kong Fire Insurance Company. He retired in 1882 and invested his savings in properties from which he drew rents. When she was about seven, Josephine attended at a school founded in 1860 by Italian nuns, the Canossian Sisters. Around this time her foster mother died and about a year later Taufer remarried. His second wife died in 1890 and he remarried again in late 1891. The then 15-year-old Josephine and her new stepmother did not get along and as a result she left home for a few months staying at the Canossian Convent. During this period Taufer became dissatisfied with the treatment he was receiving from his latest wife. It appears that over the years he had become more and more dependent on Josephine for his care and to administer his affairs. He pleaded with her to return and shortly after she did, Josephine banished her stepmother from the home and, it seems, from their lives.

George Taufer, Josephine's foster father

Sometime around 1893 Taufer began to lose his sight. Desperate for a cure he came to hear about Jose Rizal, the one person who could possibly help him. Rizal had practised as an ophthalmic surgeon in Hong Kong for a short period but had left there to visit his homeland, the Philippines, in June 1892. On learning this, Taufer proceeded to sell some of his properties, paid off his debts, and in late 1894 along with Josephine and his natural daughter Sarah, set out to find him. In Manila they heard that he was in the town of Dapitan on the southern island of Mindanao. Sarah, having formed a relationship with a man she met on the ship to Manila, choose to remain there. Josephine and Taufer continued the search and by about January of 1895 they arrived at Dapitan and met Rizal who was living nearby at a place called Talisay.

Within a short period Rizal concluded that George Taufer’s condition could not to be cured. By then although practically blind, Taufer nevertheless became aware of the close relationship that was developing between Josephine and the young doctor. Some reports say that frightened he was about to lose the one person who would take care of him, he sized a razor threatening to cut his throat, and had to be restrained by Rizal. Later Taufer decided to return to Hong Kong. Josephine accompanied him as far as Manila and then went back to Rizal at Talisay. (George Taufer died in November 1897 in Hong Kong and is believed to be buried close to the graves of his three former wives in the Catholic Cemetery, Happy Valley.)

At the early stages of their relationship it is doubtful if Josephine fully understood and appreciated the perilous position of her lover. Even if she did it would probably have made no difference. However over the next two years she would certainly find out.

Jose Rizal

Section 4. Jose Rizal and the Spanish Philippines

Jose Rizal, the son of relatively affluent and well-educated native Filipino parents, was born near Manila in 1861. At that time the Philippines had been a colony of Spain for an almost unbroken period of nearly 300 years. From the earliest times the Spanish colonizers were accompanied by their clergy who set out to convert the natives to Roman Catholicism and in this they were largely successful. Over time the principal religious orders - Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian friars, recruited exclusively from Spain - became in effect the ruling authorities, achieving a power and influence over the lives of the natives that was practically absolute and far from benign. And with power came corruption, e.g. they amassed personal wealth; expropriated common land; exploited native women to father children; they conspired to determine who would hold the civic positions of town mayor etc.; prevented the native clergy from having their own parishes; controlled education; and prevented the adoption of a common language in the archipelago. Some friars are alleged to have used the Confessional box to gather intelligence; and any dissent or criticism of themselves or the colonial power was not allowed to develop, with anyone they considered a threat being ruthlessly neutralised, if necessary by death sentence.

As a child Rizal saw many instances of friar abuse. But aged just ten, one event in particular - when as a result of a petty dispute with a cousin-in-law, his mother at the instigation of the friars spent two and a half years in jail - helped to set him on his life’s course. In consequence, and while still a student, he began to formulate ideas that might lead to the Philippines achieving some element of self-rule.

Shortly before his 21st  birthday he went to Spain to continue his studies. There he soon became the principal spokesman and inspiration for a political movement composed of fellow expatriate Filipinos that sought by peaceful means to achieve reforms from Spain for their homeland. Among many accomplishments his most significant achievement during this period in Europe was to write Noli Me Tangere (Berlin 1887), a novel that ridiculed the friars and depicted how they were keeping the native people poor and ignorant. When it reached the Philippines it had the effect of awakening the people to their true plight, giving them the courage to come together and confront friar abuses.

In 1887 he returned to his country and practised as a doctor and ophthalmic surgeon for about five months. The friars, incensed by the reaction to his novel, sought to have it banned and Rizal tried for treason. Concerned that his life was in danger he decided to return to Europe. (In contrast to the east/west route he took on his first journey to Europe, Rizal choose to travel via Hong Kong, Japan, across the Pacific Ocean to the western United States, then overland to New York, and from there to Liverpool in England on the steamship 'City of Rome'. On the transatlantic voyage, apparently the ship berthed for a few hours at Queenstown - today named Cobh - in Ireland on  23rd  May 1888 [see: -]. Asuming this is correct then it can be stated that while Josephine Bracken never set foot in Ireland it is extremely likely that Jose Rizal did. Perhaps his travel dairies definitively confirms this?) Back in Europe for a second occasion, Rizal, by now convinced that the Philippines would not be granted reforms by peaceful means, produced a sequel novel, El Filibusterismo (Ghent 1891), the subject of which was revolution.

In late 1891 he moved to Hong Kong and practised as an ophthalmic surgeon. The following year, on a visit to the Philippines, he was arrested. While the friars wanted him dead, instead the Governor General had him exiled to the town of Dapitan on the southern island of Mindanao and, though obliged to remain there he was nevertheless allowed the freedom to involve himself in activities such as farming, teaching, engineering, scientific work and in his profession of doctor and ophthalmic surgeon. Although he had become a freemason when in Europe, Rizal never abandoned his faith and during his time in exile attended regularly at Sunday mass. The Dapitan clergy continually attempted to persuade him to retract his criticisms of Church conduct, but it came to nothing; Rizal was not for turning.

Then in early 1895, two and a half years into his exile, the 18-year-old Josephine Bracken came into his life.

Rizal Statue at the Plaza, Dapitan City

Section 5. At Talisay

What caused Rizal to fall for Josephine has been the subject of much speculation. It is fair to describe her as an ordinary woman, not too well educated, from a relatively modest background. In contrast Rizal came from a solid middle class, highly educated family. As well as being a doctor, a surgeon and a novelist, he was among other things, an accomplished poet, artist and polyglot; he has, with good reason, been described as a genius. For Josephine’s part it is easy to see the attraction. It seems her life with her aged foster father had become increasingly difficult; it would have been natural for her to try to make a life of her own. For Rizal’s part, it is claimed that he had come to believe that he would never be allowed to leave his place of exile; despondent and with his defences down he became involved with a person that, had his circumstances been normal, he would not have been attracted to. But it is generally agreed too, that it was from a motive of protection that drew him to her

While there had been a few other women in his past, Josephine alone was the one he sought to marry. However as the friars had prevented the introduction of civil marriage to the Philippines, Rizal was obliged to apply to the Church for permission; but as this would only be granted if he retracted his criticism of the Church, the couple decided instead to live as common-law partners.

Josephine’s life at Talisay involved domestic work and assisting Rizal, whom she referred to as "Joe", in his medical work and with the school he had established. In a letter to his family (he had eight sisters and an older brother) he wrote ‘What she does for me, how she obeys me and attends to me, would not have been done to me by a Filipina’. In an earlier letter informing them of the relationship, he described her as ‘more or less an orphan alone in the world’ and ‘a person whom I esteem and greatly appreciate and would not wish to see exposed and abandoned’. He requested his mother to extend hospitality and treat her as a daughter. On those occasions when Josephine visited his family in Manila, some treated her courteously. However others were less accommodating for a number of reasons: - they felt she was not a suitable partner for Rizal; they were concerned at the scandal of their unmarried state; and, most importantly, they were suspicious that she was spying on behalf of the friars.

Around early March of 1896, in an event of great sadness for the couple, Josephine gave birth prematurely to a stillborn baby. (Some reports date the event to late 1895; and/or that the baby was born alive but survived only a short time; and also that it was a boy.)

Woodcut of Josephine Bracken by Jose Rizal

Section 6. Sentence of Death

When he was about to be exiled to Dapitan, Rizal had accepted a stipulation that he would not attempt to escape or involve himself in political activities. He had kept his word; but inspired by his writings and earlier speeches, a group known as the Katipunan (meaning 'association' in Tagalog) had formed with the intention of winning independence through violent revolt. While by then convinced that revolution was the only option to achieve independence, Rizal communicated his opposition as he believed it could not succeed, principally through lack of arms. However in August 1896 revolution broke out and shortly afterwards at a rigged trial in Manila he was found guilty of being involved and sentenced to death.

The day before his execution Rizal made his farewells to members of his family in his prison cell. In a last letter to them he concluded 'Have pity on poor Josephine', and in Mi Ultimo Adios his final and greatest poem, he immortalised her in words translated as follows, ‘Farewell, sweet tender foreigner, my friend, my felicity’.

Rizal's final farewell to Josephine (Rizal Monument, Manila)

Photograph of Rizal's execution scene

Rizal Monument, Manila

Section 7. Aftermath of Controversy

On the eve of his execution, following the visit by members of his family, Josephine too visited Rizal in his cell. One version of events has it that about an hour before his execution on 30th December 1896, Josephine again visited Rizal in the sole presence of a priest. Immediately following his death the Church authorities proclaimed that at that meeting, Rizal had retracted his Church criticisms and was allowed to marry her. Whatever the truth of this there is no doubt that it suited Church purposes. The revolution had not succeeded but neither had the revolutionaries been defeated; a Rizal retraction might deal a significant blow to their morale.

In the Philippines ever since, it remains an issue of controversy as to whether a retraction and marriage took place. Josephine herself always claimed that they had married. Adding strength to her claim is the last gift she received from Rizal – his copy of the book Imitation of Christ by Thomas-a-Kempis. On the cover he wrote in English 'To my dear and unhappy wife, Josephine. December 30th 1896. Jose Rizal'. However many, perhaps most, historians conclude that Rizal, though facing death and concerned for Josephine's sake to regularise their relationship, was nevertheless not someone to retract; and so they were never married. (With opinion polarised on this issue, remarkably no one seems to have considered the possibility that Rizal did not retract but was nonetheless allowed to marry. With the Church authorities having firmly set their face against a marriage in the absence of a retraction, this outcome would have represented their second best option in that they could emphatically assert that as the couple were allowed to marry, therefore a retraction must have occurred.) Although it is extremely unlikely that this matter will ever be definitively concluded, among the general population in the Philippines today however, Josephine Bracken is often referred to as "Jose Rizal's wife" and that she was "Irish".

 Rizal's last gift to Josephine

A result of Rizal's execution was that the revolution gathered pace. In January 1897 Josephine joined the insurgents and there are reports of her taking part in battles and killing a Spanish soldier. However in May that year she returned to Hong Kong.

From The Hong Kong Daily Press of 7th January 1897
(Courtesy of Adam Nebbs)

Section 8. Later Life

Shortly after the defeat of the Spanish fleet by the United States Navy in Manila Bay, the revolutionaries declared the independence of the Philippines on 12th June 1898. One of the first acts of the new government was to proclaim the date of Rizal’s execution as a public holiday. While this has been maintained ever since, the prospect of the country staying independent was short lived, as the United States in a particularly bloody campaign took power. It would be almost fifty years before independence was finally achieved.

In Hong Kong in December 1898 Josephine married Vicente Abad, a Filipino of Spanish decent. The following year she and her husband moved to the Philippines. Around that time they were the parents of a baby daughter, Dolores, affectionately called "Dolly" by Josephine. (There is evidence that Dolores was not the natural child of Josephine. Her entry in the baptismal register states her parents are unknown, and lists Josephine as her godmother. The Roman Catholic Church does not permit the natural mother of a child to also be that child's godmother. Dolores Abad died in Manila in 1987.) The couple had no other children. During her second period in the Philippines, Josephine lived a quiet life, shunning the limelight. Relations with Rizal’s family, strained at the best of times, sundered completely shortly after his execution when - asserting she was his widow - she unsuccessfully tried to acquire some of his possessions.

In early 1902 suffering from milliary tuberculosis, she returned to Hong Kong where, aged 25, she died on the night of 14th/15th March. (Her death certificate states 14th March.) The authorities, concerned that her condition was infectious, had her buried next morning in the Happy Valley Cemetery. Her husband, Vicente Abad, arrived there as the grave was being closed. He himself died the following year without having an opportunity to indicate to other family members, her exact final resting place.

Josephine and Vicente Abad's wedding picture

Official copy of death record of Josephine Bracken (click on image to enlarge and read details)

From the China Mail newspaper of 15th March 1902
(Courtesy of Samuel M. Rosales)

Section 9. Place in History

Anyone visiting the Philippines today can’t help but notice the many memorials to Jose Rizal. It is no exaggeration to say that every town has its Rizal Street, its Rizal school and Rizal statue. Banks, film theatres, restaurants etc. are named after him. His profile is featured on the basic unit of currency, the Peso coin. He is commemorated more widely and exclusively than the other nationalist heroes. With countless biographies and other writings, he has been described as the most documented Asian of the 19th century.

And Josephine has not been forgotten. At the Rizal Monument in Manila are a series of bronze-works depicting scenes from his life. One shows her assisting as he performs an eye operation; another depicts their leave-taking in the death cell; in Dapitan City a street bears her name, as does another street in the vast sprawl of Manila. In school history books, her role is described and in the many films on Rizal’s life, her role is included. A proposed feature film of her own life, for which the Philippine Film Development Foundation sought funding in the early 1990’s - with Winona Ryder suggested to play Josephine - never got to production. However in the year of the centenary of her death, 2002, her first full biography, written by her great-grandson Macario Ofilada, was published. (One of the many Rizal biographers, the late Sir Austin Coates, is reported to have compiled a Josephine biography but decided not to publish as he felt her story was "so sad and pathetic". However he may have had a different reason not to publish, as will be seen later, below.)

Josefina Street, Manila. (Photo courtesy of Joe Keane)

Street sign, Dapitan City

Section 10. A Parallel Controversy

In this article, for reasons of length, it has been necessary to condense some details and omit others. However, it would be incomplete not to describe another controversy that has dogged Josephine Bracken’s identity. As stated earlier, in the Philippines she is often referred to as "Jose Rizal’s wife" and as "Irish". However among those there who have studied her life, alongside the ongoing controversy as to whether the couple were ever married, is another controversy about her true origins.

Within a few years of his execution, like a trickle that would soon become a flood, biographies of Jose Rizal began to be published. Whereas many of the essential details regarding Rizal’s life were easily accessible and verifiable, Josephine’s origins, as well as her character, became the stuff of rumours (with some of them particularly base). At an early stage there were claims that she was of mixed race i.e. Eurasian. One of Rizal’s early biographers, the American Austin Craig, in a book published in 1909 (The Story of Jose Rizal, The Greatest Man of the Brown Race) speculated that Josephine had an Indian mother. That particular theory perhaps arose from the knowledge that James Bracken had served with his regiment in India for a period in the 1860’s. However when Craig published his major Rizal biography (Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal) in 1913 it contained the results of research on Josephine’s origins that he had conducted in Hong Kong in the period since his earlier Rizal biography. Included in the book was a reproduction of a baptismal certificate dated 2nd October 1876. Signed, it appears, by the priest who had performed her baptism five days earlier, it clearly stated that Josephine’s parents were the Irish couple, James Bracken and his wife Elizabeth. (And Craig went further in a later publication in 1940 - Farthest Westing with Josephine Craig - when he emphatically dismissed those more base rumours and excoriated those who had originated them.)

Then, in 1968 a Rizal biography - Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr - was published which rekindled the issue of her true origins. The writer, the late Sir Austin Coates, was at that time employed in the British administration in Hong Kong. (He and Austin Craig remain the only major historians to carry out research in Hong Kong into Josephine’s background. Of the many Rizal biographies, those by both he and Craig are deservedly rated as being among the most outstanding. However as regards those sections on Josephine Bracken in particular, Austin Coates’ book should perhaps carry a health warning that reads - Hypotheses presented as facts.)

Coates’ big discovery was the entry for Josephine in the Baptismal Register kept at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong. Dated 27th September 1876 it clearly shows that when originally completed, Josephine was described as 'Anglo Chinese' and 'illegitimate', and, although her father is named as James Bracken, her mother is listed as not known. (The entries are a mixture of Latin and Italian as the diocesan clergy were provided from the Vatican State, Italy.)

In contrast, the details of her origins that were entered at the Registry of Births, disagree substantially with those of the ecclesiastical record. Dated 12th October 1876 and signed by James Bracken as her father, the official birth-registration document shows her mother as 'Elizabeth Jane Bracken formerly McBride'. (Both documents are in accord that Josephine’s date-of-birth was 9th August 1876.)

In his book Coates was resolute in his evaluation of these two contradictory records. For him, the Baptismal Register entry represented the truth. His explanation for the dissimilar details entered at the Registry of Births was: - that Bracken had fathered Josephine with an unknown Chinese woman and wished to conceal not just the fact she was illegitimate, but more importantly that she was Eurasian which carried a significant stigma in the Hong Kong of those times; so, Coates claimed, Bracken had her falsely registered as his child with his recently deceased wife.

But the baptismal entry contained another twist. It is not known when but sometime after it was originally completed, it was overwritten to read 'Anglo' and 'legitimate'. However Coates was again emphatic as to when and why this had occurred, stating (in reference to her marriage to Vicente Abad in December 1898) that 'in Josephine’s life seen as a whole the only date when there was any necessity for this interference with the records is 1898' - the implication being that the changes were done on behalf of Josephine, in order to conceal her true origins when she was about to marry Vicente Abad in the same church in which she had been baptised. (Strictly speaking it was not the same church, as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was actually rebuilt in the 1880s. It was however on the site of the previous building.)

Why Coates decided, with such certainty, on this interpretation of the differing facets of the two documents is puzzling. There is a lot of other evidence, both circumstantial and direct, regarding Josephine’s origins, to which he had access and it’s reasonable to conclude he must have been aware, that at the least would urge caution.

Among historians, academics and commentators in the Philippines, the task of investigating and determining Josephine Bracken’s origins has been left to outsiders - almost solely to Austin Coates in relatively recent times. Consequently most of them completely and emphatically accept Coates’ interpretation. The few who disagree have not produced any evidence that disproves it. However this writer has uncovered information, in documents from that period, that both discredits the original baptismal register entry as a reliable source, and also establishes that Josephine Bracken was both legitimate and fully Irish.

Baptismal certificate for Josephine Bracken reproduced in 'Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal' by Austin Craig, published 1913

Section 11. Reasons for Caution

The first point where Coates’ interpretation raises doubts, is in accepting that any British Army private soldier, in the Hong Kong of those times, would have taken the trouble to falsely register and find foster parents for his illegitimate Eurasian child. It seems far more likely that he would have ‘done a runner’ leaving the woman ‘holding the baby’. A more obvious explanation for Bracken’s action - in finding foster parents for the child - is the fact that his wife had recently died and he himself, with three other small children, was not in a position to care for such a tiny infant. And surely too, if the child was indeed born to a Chinese woman, the natural mother would have wanted to keep her baby herself.
The next point of doubt is Coates assertion that James Bracken had Josephine falsely registered as his wife’s child in order to conceal the fact that she was Eurasian. Surely Bracken would have been aware that this was ultimately futile; the evidence would be clear to all, particularly as the child grew older. And surely too, if his motive was deception, Bracken would have acted consistently by supplying the same set of false details to the baptising priest that, Coates claimed, he supplied to the Birth Registry.
Then there is the fact that Elizabeth Bracken died just one month after Josephine’s birth. It raises the possibility that she may have recently given birth; a high death rate as a result of childbirth was a feature of those times, even more so in a place like Hong Kong. Elizabeth Bracken’s death certificate does not confirm this, simply stating that her death was due to ‘Acute Hepatitis’. However that does not rule out the possibility that she had lived with the condition for some time and that it became exacerbated as a result of a difficult pregnancy and/or childbirth. (At his own request, James Bracken reverted from the rank of corporal to private, four months before Josephine’s birth. Was this perhaps to allow him to spend more time caring for a pregnant wife who may also have been in poor health?)
The fact that some of the details originally entered in the baptismal register were later changed, might be expected to raise more doubts; mistakes happen and it seems reasonable that if discovered, an effort would be made to correct them. Lending strength to the possibility that this is what actually occurred is the reproduction of a baptismal certificate for Josephine (reproduced above), published in Austin Craig’s 1913 biography of Jose Rizal - Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal. Dated 2nd October 1876 - five days after her baptism - and signed (it appears) by the baptising priest, it named her parents as the Irish couple, James Bracken and his wife. This strongly indicates that the baptismal entry was corrected within days. (It is not known where this certificate is now. Perhaps Craig bequeathed it with his other papers to some institution or university?) Coates’ interpretation of why and when the changes were carried out is unconvincing for two reasons: - Firstly ecclesiastical records are usually well guarded and there is generally a reluctance to make changes without good reason. And secondly the Roman Catholic clergy in Hong Kong in 1898 would probably have been aware of Josephine’s role along with Rizal in opposition to their fellow clergy in the Philippines, and would have been unlikely therefore to do her any favours. A related point is, if Josephine was in fact Eurasian, then why didn’t the friars in the Philippines notice it and then use it to malign in their campaign against Jose Rizal. On both counts, there is no evidence that they did. And surely Rizal, who most probably was well aware of the differing facial characteristics of Europeans and Eurasians, would have noticed this too; but there is no evidence of that either.
And then there are the photographs and drawings of Josephine - they show someone who does not appear to be Eurasian. (Even Austin Coates conceded that “Josephine looked distinctly European”.)

Josephine Bracken, from a drawing attributed to Jose Rizal but provenance disputed

Section 12. Discription Of My Life

Perhaps the single most important item that would urge caution, is a hand-written document titled Discription Of My Life (the misspelling is in the original document) which emerged some time after Josephine’s death. Also referred to as The Josephine Autobiography, it contains, among other things, details of James Bracken’s and Elizabeth McBride’s backgrounds and marriage; the birthdays of their four children born prior to Josephine; the date of death of the youngest of these; Josephine’s date of birth; the date of Elizabeth’s death; and, details of Josephine’s adoptive parents.
It is widely believed that this document was compiled and written by someone other than Josephine and therefore is a forgery. Nevertheless, the information contained in it concerning James Bracken’s family has been established (particularly by Austin Coates) to be more or less correct.
Whether forged or not, it is reasonable to conclude that the source for these details was Josephine herself and that they must have originated with her father. It appears that James Bracken - who left Hong Kong when she was just 17 months old - left this information with her foster father, to be passed on to her when she was older. Accepting this was what happened, it is consistent with what would be expected to be done by the father of a legitimate child, rather than an illegitimate one. (Some have claimed that throughout her life, Josephine held a longing to be reunited with her Irish soldier father, just like that of the eponymous hero of Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim.)

First page of 'Discription Of My Life'

Section 13. Cherchez la Femme

The details outlined above represent circumstantial evidence only. They do not provide definitive proof regarding Josephine Bracken’s true origins. But, at the very least, they raise doubts as to how Coates could be so certain in his very definite interpretation. However, when considered with information uncovered by this writer, there can be no doubt that Coates got it wrong; and that Josephine Bracken was actually fully Irish and legitimate.
Before coming to that information, it is necessary to examine some of the circumstances relating to her birth. The first point to appreciate is, that if Josephine was born following (or close to) a full pregnancy term - generally agreed to be about 9 calendar months/40 weeks - then her mother, whoever she was, would have become pregnant in early to mid-November 1875.
There is no dispute or doubt as to whom Josephine’s father was; all the evidence confirms that he was the Irishman, James Bracken. (In disputes where the identity of a parent is in question, it is practically always that of the father. Perhaps uniquely, in Josephine's case it is the identity of her mother that is in doubt.) So, if Coates’ interpretation - that Josephine was Bracken’s child with an unknown Chinese woman of Hong Kong - is to be credible, then Bracken would have had to have been in the colony in early November 1875, or not very much later.
Records for Bracken’s regiment, the 28th Regiment of Foot, show that they departed from their previous station, Malta, for Hong Kong on the troopship Himalaya on 18th December 1875. The log of the ship - kept at the National Archives at Richmond in London - is consistent with the regimental records, giving their date of disembarkation at Hong Kong as 1st February 1876. As Josephine was born on the 9th August that year, Coates interpretation relies therefore on an acceptance that she was conceived and survived a pregnancy term of 27 weeks and one day, at the very most; but more realistically less than that as it seems extremely unlikely that Bracken could have formed a relationship with a Chinese woman that resulted in her becoming pregnant on his first days in the colony. But even if so, it's hardly credible that such a premature baby would have survived in the Hong Kong of those times. Even today, a baby born after a term of 27 weeks, or less, has a poor chance of survival even with expert medical attention. As an illustration of just how poor, consider the fact that when abortion legislation was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1967 it allowed for a termination at up to 28 weeks, as it was accepted that such an immature foetus could not survive unaided outside the womb. (Mainly as a result of advances in medical science, this was changed to 24 weeks in 1990.)
It is therefore logical to conclude that the entry for Josephine in the Baptismal Register - even ignoring the fact that it was later overwritten - is not a reliable source because it contains an inherent contradiction. If, as that document states, Josephine is the daughter of James Bracken and was born on the 9th August 1876, then she could not have been Anglo Chinese - as described - because it was impossible that she was conceived and born to a Chinese woman of Hong Kong within a period of just fractionally greater than 27 weeks, at the very most.

(Although Austin Coates does not appear to have ever publicised the information that James Bracken was in Hong Kong for only fractionally longer than six months prior to Josephine's birth, it is extremely unlikely that he was unaware of this because he is known to have researched widely and thoroughly, even visiting the Ferbane area of Co Offaly, Ireland, in an attempt to find details of James Bracken origins. Perhaps the reason he did not publish his Josephine biography was not because he felt her story was "so sad and pathetic" as reported, but rather because the information on James Bracken's date of arrival at Hong Kong, if included, would have totally undermined his claim that she was of mixed race and illegitimate, resulting in a significant diminution in his reputation as a historian.)

Log of H.M. Troopship Himalaya for 1st February 1876 (click on image to enlarge and read details)

Section 14. Reclaiming Josephine Bracken as Irish

So, as this therefore rules out the possibility that Josephine was born to a Chinese woman, who then was her mother? The answer is obvious, and hardly surprising.
Elizabeth Bracken gave birth to her forth child, Francis, in early June 1875 in Malta, where her husband's regiment was then stationed. The death records in Malta show that this baby died on 1st September that year. In those times, most babies were breast-fed and this would usually continue into their second year. It is well established that a lactating woman has a higher level of protection from becoming pregnant. However after lactation ceases that protection also ceases. It is reasonable to conclude in Elizabeth’s case that following the death of her baby Francis, lactation ceased soon afterwards, and, consistent with the pattern of her earlier pregnancies it is probable that she again became pregnant on or about mid-November with the baby due to be born the following August.
So, as there is no evidence that rules out the possibility that Elizabeth could have been Josephine’s mother (e.g. it has not been shown that Elizabeth was pregnant with some other child during that particular period); and, as there is definitive evidence that excludes the possibility that Josephine’s mother was a Chinese woman of Hong Kong; and, as there is no evidence that she was the child of some other woman; and, as the entry for Josephine at the Registry of Births is coherent, stating that her mother was Elizabeth Bracken; it is therefore reasonable to conclude that James Bracken’s Irish wife, Elizabeth, must have been Josephine’s mother.
And so it is established that Josephine Bracken, a little known but nevertheless intriguing and tragic historical figure, was both legitimate and fully Irish.

Josephine Bracken, from a drawing attributed to Jose Rizal

Further reading: -

Austin Craig: Lineage Life and Labors of Jose Rizal, Philippine Education Company.
Can be downloaded from the internet at : -

Austin Coates: Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr, Oxford University Press.

Leon Ma Guerrero: The First Filipino, Guerrero Publishing.

Macario Ofilada: Errante Golondrina, The Life and Times of Josephine Bracken, New Day Publishers.

Ambeth R. Ocampo: Rizal Without the Overcoat, Anvil Publishing, Inc.

Bibliography Update, June 2011

Luis Lisa & Javier de Pedro: Romance and Revolution (A look into the lives and times of Jose Rizal and Josephine Bracken), The University of Asia and the Pacific.

This book, published in 2010, contains the results of new research in the Philippines, Spain and Hong Kong. The writers present fresh evidence supporting the conclusion that Josephine must have been Irish and legitimate. They also present a persuasive case that the couple did indeed marry. The writer Austin Coates receives particular scrutiny and criticism for deliberately misinterpreting various historical sources and ignoring other information in an attempt to buttress his belief that Rizal would not have retracted his Church criticisms.
The writers do not appear to have ever read this website as they make no comment on the finding presented here that James Bracken did not arrive in Hong Kong until 27 weeks and 1 day before the birth of his daughter Josephine.

[Concluded 1st February 2009 except for any necessary amendments, corrections, updates, etc.
N.B. A change in the posting date – above at top – will indicate there has been a significant change within the contents.]

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