Daily Archives: 8 January 2007

Earliest Filipino Immigrants to North America

In 2006, the State of Hawai‘i celebrated its centennial of Philippine immigration, but the earliest Filipino immigrants to North America arrived in 1763, and their story was first brought to the attention of Americans by a writer chiefly famous for his ties to Japan, Lafcadio Hearn, according to The Filipino Americans (1763–Present): Their History, Culture, and Traditions, by Veltisezar Bautista (Bookhaus, 2002), excerpted at length here.

About 235 years ago, a settlement was established by Filipino deserters from Spanish ships at Saint Malo in the bayous of Louisiana, near the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The people who settled there were called Manilamen, who jumped ship during the galleon trade era off New Orleans, Louisiana, and Acapulco, Mexico, to escape Spanish brutalities. Known as Tagalas, they spoke Spanish and a Malay dialect. They lived together—governing themselves and living in peace and harmony—without the world knowing about their swamp existence.

Thus, they became the roots of Filipinos in America.

It was only after a journalist by the name of Lafcadio Hearn published an article in 1883 when their marshland existence was exposed to the American people. It was the first known written article about the Filipinos in the U.S.A.

(Note: This write-up was adapted from Hearn’s article entitled Saint Malo: A Lacustrine Village in Louisiana, published in the Harper’s Weekly, March 31, 1883.)

The Times-Democrat of New Orleans chartered an Italian lugger—a small ship lug-rigged on two or three masts—with Hearn and an artist of the Harper Weekly on board. The journey began from the Spanish fort across Lake Ponchartrain. After several miles of their trip, Hearn and the artist saw a change in scenery. There were many kinds of grasses, everywhere along the long route. As Hearn described it, “The shore itself sinks, the lowland bristles with rushes and marsh grasses waving in the wind. A little further on and the water becomes deeply clouded with sap green—the myriad floating seeds of swamp vegetation. Banks dwindle away into thin lines; the greenish, yellow of the reeds changes into misty blue.”

UPDATE: In the comments, Lirelou expresses some doubts about the location and date of this account.

There are some definite disconnects here. First, no treasure galleons operated anywhere near Louisiana. Spanish treasure from the Philippines was off-loaded at Acapulco and transported across the country (through Mexico City) to Veracruz, from where it travelled to La Habana, and after that, off to Spain. Second, Filipinos were not unknown in Mexico. Indeed, the Mexican national dress (la Poblana) is generally agreed to have been inspired by the the Filipina wife of a prominent colonial official in Puebla, who was known throughout the city as “la china poblana”. The “chinese” allusion is in reference to her race. Filipinos were classified as “chinos” in Mexican colonial records. More to the point, when the city of Los Angeles was founded in the 1780s, one of the founding families was listed as “chinos” whose place of birth was “Manila, Islas Filipinas”. So, Filipinos played some minor roles in Mexican colonial history as far north as California. The tone of the original article suggests that it was written at a time when tales of Spanish atrocities against their colonial subjects abounded. This does not mean that Saint Malo was not founded by Filipinos who had jumped ship from Mexico. Spain received Louisiana from France in compensation for the loss of Havana in the Seven Years War (1[7]63), and had a tough time recruiting colonists. After several failed attempts in Spain, they turned to Acadians recently paroled to France, with the end result that enough of these latter volunteered to leave us the Cajuns of today. The colony was, until its return to France, sustained and supplied out of Mexico.

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Baghdad Merchant at a Viking Funeral, A.D. 922

When the day arrived on which he and his slave-woman were to be burnt, I went down to the river where his ship lay. It had been dragged on to the shore, and four supporting poles had been cut for it from birch and other wood. Moreover, something that looked like their big wooden sheds had been placed around it. Then the ship was placed on the wooden scaffolding, and people began to walk up and down speaking to each other in a language I did not understand. The dead man was still in his grave as they had not removed him from it. Thereupon they brought a bench, put it in the ship and covered it with silk rugs and cushions with painted patterns from Byzantium. An old woman, whom they call ‘the Angel of Death’, spread the rugs on the bench. She was in charge of the sewing of the clothes for the dead man and in charge of the preparation of his body. She is also the one who kills the slave-women. I saw that she was an old giant of a woman, thickset and sombre of aspect.

When the people came to his grave, they first removed the soil from the wooden palisades and then the palisades. Then they dragged him out in the clothes he had died in. I noticed that he had turned black because of the great cold in that country. Together with him in the grave they had put silk, fruit and a stringed instrument. All of this was removed as well. Oddly, the man did not smell, and nothing had changed about him, except the colour of his skin. So they dressed him in trousers, top trousers, a kind of coat and mantle of painted silk with gold buttons, and on his head they put a cap of silk with sable fur. They carried him into the tent they had put up on the ship, where they placed him on the rug and supported him with the cushions….

Meanwhile, the slave-woman who wished to be killed was walking up and down, and she went into one after another of their tents, and the master of the tent had intercourse with her, saying ‘Tell your master that I only do this out of love for him.’… So they took her to the ship. There she took off the two armbands she was wearing and gave them to the old woman they call the Angel of Death, who was the one who was going to kill her. Then she took off her two ankle rings and gave them to the Angel of Death and her daughters. Thereupon they led her into the ship, but did not let her into the tent. Then the men came and they were carrying shields and wooden batons, and they handed her a beaker of nabîdh [a liquor]. She sang over it and drank it out. The interpreter said to me, ‘She is now taking leave of her friends with it.’ Thereupon another beaker was handed her. She took it and lingered somewhat longer over the song, but the old woman hurried her to make her drink it and enter the tent where her master was.

When I looked at her, she looked utterly confused. She wanted to go into the tent, but put her head between it and the ship. Then the old woman took hold of her head and got her into the tent, and the woman followed her. The men now began to beat the batons against the shields to drown the sound of her screams, so that the other girls should not get frightened and refuse to seek death with their masters. Then six men entered the tent, and they all had intercourse with her. Thereupon they put her next to her dead master. Two of them held her legs and two of them her hands. And the woman called the Angel of Death put a rope around her neck and gave it to two men for them to pull. Then she stepped forward with a dagger with a broad blade and thrust it between the ribs of the girl several times, while the two men strangled her with the rope so that she died.

The one who was next of kin to the dead man thereupon stepped forward. He picked up a piece of wood and set it alight. Then he walked backwards, with his back to the ship and his face to the audience, carrying the torch in one hand, while he held the other behind his back; he was naked. In this way they torched the wood they had placed under the ship, after they had put the slave-woman they had killed to rest next to her master. Then people arrived with wood and kindling. Everyone carried a piece of wood on fire at one end. This they threw on to the pyre, so that the fire caught first in the wood, then the ship, then the tent and the man and the slave-woman and everything in the ship. Thereupon a strong and terrible wind rose, so that the flames grew in strength and the fire blazed even more strongly.

Next to me was a man of al-rûs [the Viking settlers in Russia], and I heard him speaking to the interpreter who was with me. I asked the latter what he had said to him. The interpreter answered, ‘He said you Arabs are stupid.’ I asked why. He answered, ‘Because you throw the one you love and honour the most into the ground, and the soil and worms and bugs consume him. We on the other hand burn him in a moment, so that he goes to Paradise immediately.’ Then he roared with laughter. When I asked him why he laughed, he said, ‘The master of the dead man has sent the wind out of love for him to carry him away immediately.’

And really an hour had not passed before the ship, the wood, the slave-woman and the master had turned to ashes and dust of ashes. Thereupon they built in the place where the ship had stood something that resembled a round mound. In the centre of it they erected a large pole of birch. On it they wrote the name of the dead man and the King of al-rûs, and then they left.

SOURCE: Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing, edited by Tabish Khair, Martin Leer, Justin D. Edwards, and Hanna Ziadesh (Indiana U. Press, 2005), pp. 277-280

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