Paul Kekai Manansala
Manilamen: The Filipino Roots in America
(Excerpted from The Filipino Americans (1763-Present): Their History,
Culture, and Traditions by Veltisezar Bautista. Bookhaus Publishers.
Hardcover, 8 1/2 x 11, 256 pages, $29.95.
St. Malo House Drawings - From Nestor Palugod Enriquez Collection
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
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."
Then later, all they could see was the blue sky and blue water. They
passed several miles of unhampered isolation. They found a cemetery in
the swamp where dead light-keepers were believed buried. They passed
Fort Pike and a United States customs house, the eastern part of the
Regolets; later, they reached Lake Borgne.
I. THE DESTINATION
And then the mouth of a bayou-Saint Malo Pass appeared. Afterwards,
they finally reached their destination: Saint Malo! The sight that
first attracted their attention was the dwellings of the Manilamen. The
houses were poised upon supports above the marsh. Then they saw the
wharf, where unusual dwellings were grouped together beside it.
Fishnets were hung everywhere. Almost everything was colored green: the
water, the fungi, the banks, and "every beam and plank and board and
shingle of the houses upon stilts."
Manila-style Houses. Hearn described the houses:
All are built in true Manila style, with immense hat-shaped eaves and
balconies, but in wood; for it had been found that palmetto and woven
cane could not withstand the violence of the climate. Nevertheless, all
of this wood had to be shipped to the bayou from a considerable
distance, for large trees do not grow in the salty swamp.
Below the houses are patches of grass and pools of water and stretches
of gray mud, pitted with the hoof-print of hogs. Sometimes these
hoof-prints are crossed with the tracks of the alligator, and, a pig is
missing. Chickens there are too-sorry-looking creatures; many have
but one leg, others have but one foot: the crabs have bitten them off.
All these domestic creatures of the place live upon fish.
There were about thirteen or fourteen large dwellings standing upon
wooden piles. Considered as the "most picturesque" of these houses
was perhaps that of Padre Carpio, the oldest Manilaman in the village.
Carpio was like a judge in the settlement. All quarrels among the
inhabitants were submitted to him for arbitration and decisions.
Carpio's house consisted of three wooden edifices; the two outer
edifices looked as if they were wings. The wharf was built in front of
the central edifice probably for convenience.
To protect themselves from bites of mosquitoes and other insects, the
dwellers had every window closed with wire netting. During warm
weather, sandflies attacked the fishermen, and, at all times, fleas
attacked them. Reptiles, insects, and other animals abounded in the
What Do They Looked Like? Hearn described the dwellers:
Most of them are cinnamon-colored men; a few are glossily yellow, like
that bronze into which a small proportion of gold is worked by the
moulder. Their features are irregular without being actually repulsive;
some have the cheek-bones very prominent, and the eyes of several are
set slightly aslant. The hair is generally intensely black and
straight, but with some individuals it is curly and browner....None of
them appeared tall; the great number were under-sized, but all
well-knit, and supple as fresh-water eels. Their hands and feet were
small: their movements quick and easy, but sailorly likewise, as of men
accustomed to walking upon rocking decks in rough weather.
In the fishing village, there was one white man called the Maestro (the
Tagalog word for teacher) who had been the ship's carpenter. There
was one black man, a Portuguese Negro, who was believed to be a
The Maestro spoke the Manilamen's dialect (probably Tagalog, the
dialect in Manila). There were times that he acted as a "priest" or
man of God by conferring upon some non-Christian dwellers the sacrament
of the Catholic faith.
According to the Maestro, the Manilamen often sent money to friends in
Manila to help them emigrate. Usually, the Filipino seamen continued to
desert at every chance from Manila galleons when they docked in New
Orleans, Louisiana, or in Acapulco, Mexico. They settled in the
marshlands of Louisiana where no Spaniards could reach them.
Living there, they had their contacts with inhabitants of Louisiana,
particularly with residents of New Orleans, only a few miles away from
II. THEIR WAY OF LIFE
The Filipino fishermen seldom got sick, although they lived mostly on
raw fish that was seasoned with oil and vinegar. (There was no mention
of rice, even though rice was and still is the staple food of
Filipinos.) There was no liquor found in any of the houses.
Those Manilamen were polite. In fact, every man in the settlement
greeted Hearn and the artist with buenas noches when they met them at
For Men Only. No woman lived in the settlement during Hearn's visit.
The fishermen with families had their wives and children in New Orleans
and in other localities.
There were two occasions in the past, however, during which two women
dwelled in the village. The first woman left after her husband died.
The second woman departed after an attempted murder was made on her
One night a man attacked her husband, but the woman and her little son
helped subdue the culprit. The villagers tied his hands and feet with
fishlines. Then the man was fastened to a stake driven into the muddy
land. The next day he was dead. The Maestro buried him in the gray mud.
A rude wooden cross was placed on the grave.
No Tax Man, No Policeman. In the settlement, the Manilamen promulgated
their own rules and laws. This was done even though they had no
sheriff, police, or prison. The settlement was never visited by any
Louisiana official, even though it was within the jurisdiction of the
parish of St. Bernard. No tax man ever attempted to go there, either.
During busy fishing seasons, the settlement usually had about a hundred
men. In case of disputes, the problem was usually submitted to the
oldest man in the settlement, Padre Carpio. Usually, Padre Carpio's
decisions were final; no one contested them. If a man refused a verdict
or became a problem, he was jailed within a "fish-car." Naturally,
due to hunger and the harsh weather conditions, coupled sometimes with
rising tides, he would usually change his mind and obey any rule or
decision. Even if the settlers were all Catholics, a priest rarely went
to the village.
No Furniture. There was no furniture in any of the dwellings: no table,
no chair, and no bed. What could be considered as mattresses were
filled with what Hearn called "dry Spanish-beard." These were laid
upon "tiers" of shelves faced against the walls. The fishermen
slept at night "among barrels of flour and folded sails and smoked
Art Treasures. What could be considered art treasures preserved at the
village were a circus poster and two photographs placed in the
Maestro's sea-chest. One was a photo of a robust young woman with
"creole eyes" and a bearded Frenchman. They were the wife and
father of the Maestro, the ship's carpenter.
Saint Malo-New Orleans Connection. The swamp dwellers had contacts with
the city of New Orleans as it was in New Orleans where some of their
families lived. It was also the headquarters of an association they
formed, La Union Philipina. Furthermore, when a fisherman died, he was
usually buried temporarily under the reeds in the village. A wooden
cross was planted on his grave. Later, the bones were transported to
New Orleans by other "luggers" where they were permanently buried.
At the Restaurant They Eat. There was a restaurant in the locality of
Lake Borgne. Formerly owned by a Manilaman and his wife, but owned by
some Chinese during Hearn's visit, the eatery was mostly patronized
by Spanish West Indian sailors. Even businessmen of New Orleans
frequented it. The cost of food was cheap and the menu was printed in
English and Spanish.
Father and Son. A half-breed Malay, Valentine, was considered as the
most intelligent among the fishermen. Educated in New Orleans,
Valentine left his job in the city to be with his father, Thomas de los
Santos, in the settlement. His father, married to a white woman, had
two children, Valentine and a daughter named Winnie. Valentine became
the best "pirogue oarsman" among the swamp dwellers.
Latin Names for Men and Boats. Some Latin names (many of which are
still today's Filipino names with different spellings) of the swamp
dwellers were Marcellino, Francesco, Serafino, Florenzo, Victorio,
Paosto, Hilario, Marcetto, Manrico, and Maravilla. Some had names of
martyrs. Boats were also named after men and women.
"Let's Play Monte." It was at Hilario's casa (house) where
dwellers entertained themselves at night after a hard fishing day's
work. They played monte or a species of Spanish keno. The games were
played with a cantador (the caller) who would sing out the numbers.
Such singings were accompanied by "the annunciation with some rude
poetry characteristics of fisher life or Catholic faith:"
Paraja de uno;
Dos picquetes de rivero-
a pair of one (1); the two stakes to which the fish-car is fastened.
Farewell, Manilamen! After Hearn and his group said goodbye, they
departed. Hearn described his farewell:
Somebody fired a farewell shot as we reached the mouth of the bayou;
there was a waving of picturesque hands and hats; and far in our wake
an alligator splashed, his scaly body, making for the whispering line
of reeds upon the opposite bank.
III. MANY YEARS AFTER
In 1988, Marina Espina, then a librarian in the University of New
Orleans, published a book entitled Filipinos in Louisiana (A. F.
Laborde & Sons, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1988). Included in the book's
front matter is an excerpt from Larry Bartlett (Dixie, July 31, 1977):
The year was 1763, and the schooner had unloaded its cargo at the
Spanish provincial capital of New Orleans. Then its crew of Filipino
sailors jumped ship and fled into the nearby cypress swamp....
1763 was thus recognized by the Filipino American National Historical
Society (FANHS) as the year that the Manilamen arrived and settled in
the marshlands of Louisiana. In fact, in 1988, it marked the 225th
anniversary of the first Filipino settlement in Louisiana. The
association that was organized in 1982 by Frederic and Dorothy Cordova
has branches in different parts of the country.
Espina published her book after an extensive research on the first
Manilamen who settled in the United States.
According to Espina's findings, every year, during those early years
of American history, some of the Filipino sailors jumped ship off
Acapulco, Mexico. Afterwards, many of them migrated to the bayous of
Louisiana and other gulf ports. Since they spoke Spanish, others
married Mexicans, and they assimilated easily with the population
Saint Malo, Etc. According to Espina's accounts, Saint Malo was only
one of the Filipino settlements. The other settlements were the Manila
Village on Barataria Bay in the Mississippi Delta by the Gulf of
Mexico; Alombro Canal and Camp Dewey in Plaquemines Parish; and Leon
Rojas, Bayou Cholas, and Bassa Bassa in Jefferson Parish, all in
Louisiana. The oldest of these settlements was Saint Malo. But Manila
Village on Barataria Bay was considered as the largest and the most
popular of them all. Houses were built on stilts on a fifty-acre
Because there were no Filipino women, the Manilamen courted and married
Cajun women, Indians, and others. Some of them enrolled their children
in schools in New Orleans.
Filipinos in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. According to oral
history passed from generation to generation and later cited by
Filipino historians, Filipinos took part in the Battle of New Orleans
in 1815 as part of the War of 1812. Those were the men who signed up
with the famed French buccaneer, Jean Baptiste Lafitte to join the army
of Major-General Andrew Jackson.
On January 8, 1815, a British army numbering about 8,000 men prepared
to capture New Orleans, Louisiana. Under the command of Major-General
Sir Edward M. Pakenham, the British soldiers were pitted against the
American army composed of only 1,500 under the command of Major-General
Jackson. The American Army consisted of "regular army troops, state
militia, western sharpshooters, two regiments and pirates from the
Delta Swamps." (Could the Manilamen have been mistakenly identified
as pirates having come from the swamps?)
The British moved directly into New Orleans. The English soldiers
attacked the American entrenchments. The Americans had fortified their
positions behind the earthworks and the barricades of cotton. The
battle lasted only half an hour. The British suffered 2,000 casualties,
with 289 killed. On the other hand, the Americans had only 71
casualties with 31 killed.
Actually, the battle was meaningless. It occurred before news of the
Treaty of Ghent arrived on December 24, 1814, ending the so-called 1812
The Filipinos participation in the war, however, was not recognized in
Here's an excerpt from the book The Baratarians and the Battle of New
Orleans by Jane Lucas de Grumond. ((Louisiana State University Press,
Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)
Cochrane (Admiral Cochrane of the invading British fleet) had sent two
officers in a boat to reconnoiter the area below New Orleans via Bayou
Bienvenu. They were disguised as fishermen and some of the Spanish
fishermen were their guides. They reached the bayou and ascended to the
village of the fishermen.
Perhaps the fishermen had something to do with the situation. They were
accustomed to fish in Lake Borgne and then to take their fish in
pirogues to the canals of De Laronde's and Villere's plantation...
In the above quote, the author mentioned "Spanish fishermen" and
the fact that they were used to fishing in Lake Borgne. The only known
fishermen in the Lake Borgne area, who spoke Spanish, were the
Manilamen. Could there be other Spanish fishermen in the area? Or could
they be the Filipinos who were not known as Filipinos but might be
known as Spaniards because they spoke Spanish? Could some of the
Filipinos from the fishing village have been signed by Lafitte to join
the American soldiers? It is indeed a great possibility.
Shrimp Drying. It was at the Manila Village that they started their
shrimp-drying industry. The Filipinos built platforms for drying shrimp
in an area southeast of New Orleans in the early 1800s. The Manilamen
were considered to have introduced in the state and in America the
drying of shrimps. The Saint Malo settlement was destroyed by a strong
hurricane in 1915 and the Manila Village was washed away by Hurricane
Betsy in 1965.
(End of excerpt from The Filipino Americans (1763-Present): Their
History, Culture, and Traditions by Veltisezar Bautista. Illustrations
drawn many years ago are included in the book. For more info about the
book, click here.