Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Letters of Nicholas Loney (1)

Letter No. 1


To Mr. MacTaggart:

This (Manila) is not at all a bad place to live in, and to a fellow with health and spirits and fond of amusement it would be quite the reverse. It is a large place containing some 20,000 inhabitants. Beyond the more regular and stone-built part of the town, an endless amount of nipa (palm leaf) houses stretch away into the distance, each with its little Indian occupants, its pig, its small naked urchins, its little prints of different saintly personages, its small effigy of Our Saviour or the Virgin Mary, its little crop of vegetables, its indispensable ladder for purposes of ascent or descent, and its equally indispensable pool of dirt beneath the whole.

The street in which we live, the Escolta, is, after the Rosario, about the best in the place. In it are the best of the Chinese shops which display an ample store of articles of the Central Flowery Land, with goods of the kind most adapted to the consumption of the European population. The Rosario again contains an almost entirely British manufactured goods in the shape of gaudy handkerchiefs, prints, sayas, cambayas,[i] trouserings, muslins, cards and the like; hoc genus omne[ii] are prominently displayed both inside and outside the doors of the celestial establishments underneath the shade of the capricious awnings (sustained by light iron poles) the size cut, colour and duration of which are regulated by government ordinance, and which keep the pavement eventually cool and shaded during the whole of the day.

Here flock Indians of various colours, sorts, and sizes, from a fine clear olive yellow, to a dark and dirty brown (the majority) others again of attractions sufficient to render the place dangerous…..

Beneath this long arcade sit groups of damsels each with her basket of piña or jusi (fabrics made of pineapple fiber) busily employed with needle and thread, an occupation which they occasionally interrupt to gaze upon you with great bead-like inviting eyes as you pass… Let us in imagination cross together the fine stone bridge which connects the extra-muros or suburbs of Manila on the Binondo side of the Pasig with the city itself. Observe the water of the fine river rushing through the massive archways. Look at the bancas[iii] large and small which rush swiftly by, propelled by vigorous strokes of rummy-looking oars. See those clumsy cascos or lighters (evidently built on the lines of Adam’s first attempt at fabricating cargo boats on the Euphrates) creeping slowly along, instigated by long poles of thick bamboo. Do you see those provincial crafts of queer shapes and dimensions, whose names “Encarnacion,” “Santa Lucia,” “San Jose,” etc. denote that you are in a land where Roman Catholicism flourishes and rears its ancient head? Behold lower down the small forest of masts appertaining to vessels of larger size which have entered the river to lay up for a while for repair or in low water to unload. You ask the nature of that green substance with which the river is covered here and there, and which comes down from the lake in vast quantities and gathers into little fields and banks where the current does not come. That is a peculiar plant called the “quiapo”[iv] weed which, at times though so fair and pleasant to look upon, assails one’s olfactory organ in an unpleasing manner.

That not ignoble, looking-building by the river side is the Customs House, a horrid Upas tree which cramps the custom of the Port, and beneath whose deadly influence Enterprise grows faint and languid , and Energy itself grows listless and benumbed… at some future time we will conduct you there and show you the mode of getting things through, and instruct you in the signings and countersignings, the runnings up and waitings cap in hand, the manifestings, and the cocketings and formulas….

The little box opposite is the Guard House of the Captaincy of the Port, and near it lie the faluas which visit every vessel which arrives, and supply it with Customs officers, and guard the river from the entrance of contraband goods. Yonder is the suspension bridge, a light airy looking structure which sets the river off well. That tall pillar surmounted by a yellow globe and ornamented with gold dolphins, is erected to the discoverer of the strait which bears his name – “Quae nunc Magellan ab illo dicitur.” It has the plain inscription – “To Hernando Magellan.”

We have now arrived at the end of the bridge,[v] but we have to stop before we enter the archway which terminates it, by command of the sentry, who perceives five to six carriages coming up the other way, and as there is – absurdly enough – only room for one file to pass at a time, we must wait awhile, which gives you leisure to examine the two Chinese lions above the gate, each bearing shields with an inscription commencing “In the reign of King Charles….” On your left you have the calzada with its row of almond trees, where in the cool of the afternoon any quantity of carriages career about with Dons, Doñas and Señoritas…

On your right is a small drawbridge, and a road leading to a portcullised gate, and a fierce-looking sentry. Then we come to another and bigger portcullis, and fiercer and bigger-looking sentries. We take a rapid survey of the moat with its stagnant water, rank weeds and wavy grass, encounter the weary glance of the officer on guard, progress through it, and enter the City.

A curious-looking place, isn’t it? Though there is nothing very striking about it. Up long narrow streets we go, with tall house on either side apparently sealed up with squares of oyster shells.[vi] Scarcely a human being to be seen, though one or two shadows are discovered flitting about like unearthly things – dodging the sun, and diving into mysterious portals whence they issue not nor are any more seen. Here and there is an apothecary’s shop, or a place for selling wines and refreshments. In the portals of some of the best houses are little strands of siri and beechnuts with an accompaniment of three nondescript fruits, five or six mangoes and a bunch of plantains. At intervals a sign such as:

“Fonda de los Dos Hermanos”[vii]

“Tienda del Chino Lim Chai. Zapatero superior”[viii]

“Aqui se venden billetes de la Loteria” and so on.[ix]

There you see a big church, and there is another, and round the corner a third. You see those skulls exposed in a sort of framework outside some of them, and underneath, dreadful representations of Ye Unpleasant Place, with sketches of unhappy-looking people, men women, and children, Kings, Bishops and monks, struggling desperately in bright red flames? That’s to inspire Ye Vulgar with a proper dread of what will happen to them if they don’t attend properly to their religious duties…

That old, grey, lichen-covered building is a convent, and you will see more of them about. Through more silent streets, past more sacred edifices, and we reach the Palace square. That’s where my friend the Marquess de la Solana lives, moves and has his being. It isn’t a very imposing-looking building, neither so big as the new House of Parliament nor so splendid as St. Peter’s, but as Mercutio remarked when Tybalt ran him through the body – “Gad, twill serve, Sir.”

In the middle of the square is a statue of King Charles the something or other with a legend stating that he was the first man to introduce into the Philippines a health measure, a man whom the ancient Greeks would have deified, and who would have been canonized in the Middle Ages. I allude, Sir, to smallpox vaccination and the admirable Jenner.

Nearing the bridge again on our return, is the shell of a large and fine old church, burnt it is said, during the time of the occupation of the place by our irreverent countrymen, and where they used to stable their horses. You enter, and see great beams lying prostate in wild confusion, odd bits of carving, trunks of apostolic figures, and niches in the wall now tenantless of their former saintly occupants. Above, the deep blue azure sky in a frame of grey old stone and weeds, which if you had read them, remind you of the following lines from “The Roman” [x]relative to the Coliseum, (though if you haven’t read ‘em, why of course they don’t naturally enough, occur to you!):

“… When the clouds

Dressed every myrtle on the walls in mourning

With calm prerogative the eternal pile

Impassive shone with the Unearthly light

Of Immortality. When conquering suns

Triumphed in Jubilant earth, it stood out dark

With thoughts of ages: like some mighty captive

Upon his deathbed in a Christian land

And lying through the Chant of Psalm and Creed,

Unshriven and stern, with peace upon his brow,

And on his lips strange gods…”


[i] Sayas are skirts and cambayas blouses that form part of the native female attire.

[ii] All of this sort

[iii] Bancas are dug-out canoes and cascos are larger wooden flat-bottomed craft used to transport heavier cargoes.

[iv] The present form of water lilies that clog inland waterways.

[v] The old Puente de España, located approximately where the Jones Bridge has been built.

[vi] Latticed oyster shells used as glass in windows.

[vii] The Two Brothers Inn.

[viii] Store of Lim Chai, the best Chinese shoemaker.

[ix] Lottery tickets sold here.

[x] A dramatic poem by Sydney Dobell (1824-1874).

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