Letter No. 8
September 15th, 1856
My dear Nanny,
On the 16th of last month I wrote thee a feeble scrawl in which I brought my travels’ history up to the point of my settling down in this web-weaving town – thereby conferring an imperishable celebrity on this house. I have nothing very tremendous to record since my last. The last mail which was received here on the 17th of August with dates from England to June 9th did not bring me a letter from home. I imagine that if any was sent by the June mail it must have miscarried. During the last month I have been leading a queer sort of indescribable life. The weather has been very wet and boisterous and there has been no such thing as getting out of doors except at rare intervals. When it rains in the tropics, the streets – particularly in a flat place like this – become inundated with water which on subsiding leaves a delightful stratum of mud. Fortunately, however, a few hours of sunshine suffice to make the roads walkable again, and sometimes towards evening or early in the mornings I have been able to do my accustomed peripatetics, or cut over to the convent, or make a descent upon Iloilo. At other times I am restricted to perambulating up and down the sala, reading, and occasionally doing a little writing. Wouldst know how the insipid creature hath lived and moved during the last two days?
September 13th. After dinner set out on foot for Iloilo, the full moon scarcely visible behind a dull bank. Clouds shed a sort of mournful light across the wide plain of rice fields. Most of the fields partly covered with water shining with a muddy lacklustre dullness. Nothing to be heard but the monotonous creeping of the water through the banks of the higher fields into the lower. Met scarcely anyone except four native skirry[i] bringing along a malefactor with his arms tied behind his back, and when I was approaching Iloilo, was overtaken by Notary Don Joaquin Montero, who gave me a lift in his vehicle. Went up to Don Joaquin Ortiz and found him and Apalategui at cards. I talked to Ortiz about things in general, and arranged to send for my ten cases ex “Rosita” on Monday. He says he is going to build another godown and is getting timber ready for constructing a vessel of 300 tons to be employed between this town and Singapore. I am glad to see these symptoms of an extending trade.
Ortiz is an Andalusian who came to Iloilo twenty-one years ago, married a mestizo, and had gradually, by making specs in tobacco and trading with Manila, accumulated a large capital. His wife is of Chinese descent, and the features of her sons also show traces of Celestial origin with Iberian modifications. The house contains some good rooms, and some good furniture badly arranged. One large room is hung round with immense portraits of pictures of different saints, sent out from Spain – stern, austere, olive-colored San Antonios, San Joaquins and San Geronimos. Ortiz is a lively, good-humoured individual of about 55, with Spanish features and a straightened forehead, given to drawing the long bow to any extent, and full of a pardonable bit obstrusive vanity regarding his riches, trade, and general extensiveness. Went afterwards to the Governor’s house where I remained till half past ten, returning home in the Lieutenant Governor’s drag with that functionary, Vita, the Government surveyor, and Lopez, the commander of the gunboat station.
Present at the Governor’s were Rosello, a Lieutenant attached to the station, Manuel Roldan a ditto ditto, Rafael de Comas, the Lieutenant Governor Antonio Vita, the surveyor aforesaid Lopez, the gallant commander aforesaid Relar, the comptroller of the inert Custom house, the Governor’s father, Don Jose, the Gobernadora Doña Federica, her sisters Carmen and Dolores Kierulf (this name means in Danish “water wolf” I believe). A curious custom prevails in the Philippines in Spanish society, of ranging eight or ten chairs in two straight lines on each side of the principal window of the sitting room, the idea being to allow the sitters therein to get the benefit of the current of air from the window. When a stranger enters the room, the masculine part of the society usually gets up and bows, or goes through a process of individual hand-shaking with the new arrival. As for the wimmin’ they never shake hands with the men, and would consider it a great impropriety to do so, or to walk arm in arm, except with a relative or very intimate friend. Amidst this politeful company behold the unpolished Nick, squatted down in a low armchair alongside the amiable Dolores, with whom he opens a feeble conversation in the usual meteorological manner of a Briton.
“How very much it has rained lately.”
“Yes, we have not been able to go out the last week.”
Carmen: “How do you get on in Jaro, Loney?”
I.“Oh, well enough, the rain makes me rather too much of a prisoner, but I manage to exist, how is Doña Federica?”
C. “Much better today, thank you, she has been out of her room since yesterday, and will be here directly.”
I.”Nothing in particular. Bell sends his regards to you all, they are much in want of rain for the young rice crops, and to cool the air.”
C. “Well, I am sure we could spare them a little of our wet weather.”
I. ”Yes, but my letters were dated August 21st, and we had the same sort of suffocating weather as the Manila-ites at that time; they send me a few cases of goods by the “Rosita,” so if you want any handkerchiefs or anything in that line I can supply you ad limitum.”
C. “Ah now if they had sent some pretty sayas we should be glad to take some, there is going to be a saya ball soon and Dolores and I intend going as mestizas.
I. “I am sorry they have not sent any, but I shall write for some. These goods have arrived at a bad time, during the rainy season, and I did not expect any so soon. Did you hear that Mr. Butler [ii]has been buried in Manila? His body arrived on the “Queen of England” from China. His wife Doña Josefa had it sent out from England.”
D. “How foolish not to leave the poor man’s bones in his own country.”
C. “Do you know if he was a Catholic?”
I. “I don’t know, but presume he was so nominally, or he could not have married Mrs. B.”
And so on – a heap of “falaises” pretty much in that style. With reference to the familiar use of my surname as above by the charming Carmen, I should remark that after one or two interviews the Spanish Señoras generally address a person by his surname, sinking the formal “Señor.” Sayas are a peculiar dress worn by the mestizas, they are tied around the waist, and over them is worn a jacket or skirt made of the fibres of the pineapple plant.
September 14th. Read most of the day Captain Julien de la Graviere’s “Voyage Chine,” a very good work. His descriptions of those places in China where I have been are well written, without the exaggeration which most French travellers usually commit, and the view he takes of Chinese politics at the time, 1847 to 1850, seems to be clearsighted and just. He also has three or four good chapters on the Philippines worth reading. The description of the appearance of the Bay and City of Manila must seem good to anyone who has seen them.
At five my mestizo friend Cornelio Melliza of Molo came, and after dinner we drove in his carriage to Molo, passing through the populous pueblo of Mandurriao, along a road bordered nearly all the way with houses on each side, stuck in amidst palm trees and dense tropical vegetation. Remained a couple of hours at Melliza’s (who has a good house at Molo where live his wife and family and his father-in-law, an old blind man, asthmatic but lively, intelligent and full of conversation). They know of some gutta percha trees (called in the Bisayan language “natu”) and I urged them to exploit the juice and send as much as possible to Manila.
Cornelio is going to drive me over on Monday to Oton, a town locally famous for its manufacture of sinamay,[iii] silk and cotton sarongs, napkins, tablecloths, etc. (Monday is the market day, and I daresay the sight will be interesting to the commercial eye). My ten cases of goods arrived from Iloilo brought along by an imposing array of two carts drawn by buffaloes, and one drawn by a reddish brown cow. Mrs. Maria Lopez (an Indian matron to whose husband I brought a letter of recommendation from her son-in-law, a Chinese friend at Manila) being then at my house, returning my visit, I took advantage of the circumstance to victimize the old lady and an unsuspecting friend who accompanied her, with goods to the value of $492.69 – and have subsequently sold another lot of $275 – thus getting quit of four and a half cases, but I am quite disappointed with these goods which are not well selected for the market. Consequently I have sold part of them off at once cheaply, but fear the remainder will stick for some time on hand.
I am now going to prepare for the dinner table, round the legs of which I perceive my three cats are roaming impatiently, rubbing their sides up against them as if to coax the banquet-bearing mahogany into a propitious mood. Two of the cats belonged to the family living here previously. The other is an unfortunate arrival which appeared on the stairs one day in a battered state enough to move the compassion of a Tamerlaine or Timon the Tartar. It now moves about gingerly on three legs, but is able to polish off a pretty good ration. The other two were in a half-famished condition, (Indians are passively cruel in this way to all animals), but are not getting into good case. The male cat has had one of its hind legs put entirely out of joint and, in walking, maneuvers along in an extraordinary manner. It is ridiculously scratching himself on the side of his game leg. Although his paw can’t reach the part affected he goes through the motions with great perseverance. He is, however, a rapacious scoundrel, and is constantly grabbing bits out of the other cat’s mouth, a treatment which she, being a meek resigned female, submits to without a murmur. She has two small kittens, one as black as night, the other tortoise-shell – in a deep box in my room. These she is always scheming to keep out of sight – covers ‘em up in a kind of bower made of old “Times” newspapers at the bottom of the box. I have destroyed the cunningly devised fabrics, however, so often that she has latterly given up making any more – but still persists in never going near the box if anybody is in the room, or if discovered in the neighborhood, pretending not to have the slightest connection with any box or case whatever.
There is an old dog also, who makes his appearance at meal times, almost as far gone as old Argus at the time when to him
“Fate granted to behold
His lord when twenty tedious years had rolled.”
This old Argus when in receipt of the diurnal bone retires to the staircase and goes through a laborious munching. There is yet a further quadruped on the establishment in the shape of a little Manila poodle which was given me by the wife of the owner of the house, but which, never having seen a white face before, will have nothing to do with me on any terms except hostile ones. He has consequently taken refuge in the kitchen and leagued himself most devotedly to Domingo and his wife. Occasionally he comes to the door of the sitting room, and discharges a portentious, but very rapid growl, and hastens back to the kitchen. He is a very pretty little dog, with brilliant eyes, and full of pluck if he had anybody to back him in his warlike propensities. Every morning when I go through the culinary department on my way to the bathroom, he used to make predatory attacks on my heels, both in going and returning – lying in wait under a bench for that purpose. I have given orders to hit him on these occasions, and he is now far subdued as to content himself with faint growling when I pass.
As for the bipeds of the household, they get on tolerably well, though I hear that Blas’s former master more than suspected him of a tendency to emulate the thievish propensities which beset his celebrated namesake of Santillan[iv] soon after he set out from Oviedo. Domingo and his wife had a dreadful row this morning just before breakfast. I heard the young rascal hitting his little spouse several severe stingers with his slipper – but they appear to have made it up again now quite satisfactorily. Au reste, it’s the “custom of the country” for an Indian to administer to his better moiety an occasional thrashing.
Another curious custom of the country is the nonchalant way in which these children of the tropics have in every house of sleeping about anywhere on the floor. The happy pair above mentioned take up their nightly quarters on a mat at the landing place near the dining table, and Blas extend his muscular limbs on an old bit of matting without anything like a pillow, at the door of the sala. Talking of strange customs, I daresay you have heard of the poetical practice prevalent in some Roman Catholic countries of carrying young children to their graves to the sound of joyous music, their innocent souls being supposed to go at once to heaven. This is the case in Manila among the Indians and mestizos, where the parents can afford it, but I never saw it carried out to such extent as here. The music in this place is very good, much better than what you generally hear in provincial towns in England. On an average about four children per diem are brought to the church, just opposite my windows, where the priest performs the usual rites previous to their being conveyed to the cemetery. Each little yellowish-brown corpse is laid, dressed out in satin and embroidery, or bright cloth and spangles according to the pecuniary means or piety of the parents…
September 20th. Those perennial circumstances again, O.W.N.C. have prevented me from continuing the thread of linked dullness since the 13th, and now I am embarked upon such a sea of small letters for this craft (have written 7 pages all about styles of goods to one poor victim) and the time for sending ‘em away is so close upon the “nick” that I am compelled to leave those unfortunate little corpses awaiting burial on their biers until I can find time for their decent inhumation though I fear they’ll come and haunt me until this is done. But what I must find time for is to acknowledge receipts of your welcome letter of June 3rd. Primroses “May” and violets duly to hand – I have sniffed at these faded representations of the summers of my native land, and imagining the ghosts of a faint odour to proceed therefrom felt emotions similar to those experienced by poor Susan in London on hearing the larks in Wood street:
“Tis a smell of enchantment; what ails him? He sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees - .”
On glancing at the preceeding lines they seem to me to be made up of infantile stories about cats and dogs, and I must apologize for writing such meagre trash. Adios till next time and with love to Mary (I note the arrival of the small stranger at Croft), Harriet, Sophy, Aunt Kitty, and all the good people, I remain dear Nanny,
Your affectionate brother,
[i] Slang for policeman.
[ii] John Benjamin Butler was a pioneer British merchant in Manila, married to Maria Eustaquia Somes (1820-1882) known as Doña Mariquita. The reference here that he was married to Doña Josefa is probably an error. Butler was a devout Catholic, although his father was Bishop of Lichfield in England, and his remains may be found today in one of the crypts of San Agustin Church in Manila.
[iii] A transparent hemp fabric.
[iv] Gil Blas, the celebrated character in a Spanish picaresque novel.