Letter No. 9
Jaro, near Iloilo
Nov. 23rd, 1856
My dear Nanny:
Here’s the state of things no less than two months have gone by since I last wrote you on September 15th. The opportunities of writing to Manila in October were nil – too, early in the month – and in November owing to the coasting craft being laid up till the typhoon season is over, there have been none until now, when the valiant brigantine “Soterrania” is going to venture through the Silangan (Straits) to Manila. We had a semi-typhoon here on the 15th ult. which did not do much damage; but a tremendous hurricane visited Manila on the 27th, and did some wild and whirling work for a few hours. Five large ships were driven on the shore, all the bamboo houses blown away, trees torn up, lamp posts hurled down, boats and small craft upset, watery graves made, etc. are some of the items against old Boreas, blustering railer, the windows of K & Co’s house at Santa Ana were blown in and the house rendered uninhabitable.
I broke off my last (letter) in an abrupt manner which, had the matter been of any interest, might have led you to sing out as Macbeth did to the witches: “Stop! You imperfect speaker, tell me more,” but as it wasn’t, will say no more at present about those defunct little angelitos (angels). Two or three days ago I had the pleasure of receiving yours of July 15th written at Croft with an idyllic sketch of your existence there in that flowery and fruity month. Your remarks about those young juveniles who have taken their places at “nature’s banquet” since I left home some nine or ten years ago, and who will be quite young women by the time I get back, are interesting to the avuscular mind. As for the conspiracy between you and Mary to elect me to the dignity of godfather to the unconscious little Florence Newcombe I cannot but think – though highly flattered by this mark of what’s-his-name – that you have made a very poor selection as regards not only the religious but the worldly benefits which godfathers are supposed to bestow on their spiritual charges. However, “ustedes cuidado[i]!” as the Philippine Indian say apropos of everything. In the meantime it won’t be very difficult in this semi-savage place to renounce the “vain pomp and glory of the world” as I see I am called upon to do by the form of ministration of baptism in the name of F.N. The last two months have glided away in a quiet peaceful sort of way, though I fear with far too little of either mental or bodily exertion, unless reading all manner of things from seven in the morning till nine at night and writing to Manila might be considered as a substitute for one, and a walk of two or three miles a day an equivalent for the other.
Of real positive work I have done nothing, and in that respect may apply to myself the reproach of everlasting old Titus about losing not only one, but sixty days. To this old Montaigne would reply “Quoy! n’avez vous pas vescu![ii]” and really at times one begins to be of the opinion of that old Representative, and to think that when a fellow gets through a certain amount of time without any extraordinary evils, he may congratulate himself and say “Well, there’s so much got through all right.” This view of the case is particularly attractive when the thermometer is continually hovering between 80 and 90 degrees F.
My vehicle not having arrived yet from Manila, and the road between this place and Iloilo being frequently in very bad condition, I have been very seldom at the seaport lately, and consequently have not seen much of the family at Government House. The last time I was there, a few days ago, the charming Carmen, Mrs. Carles and her husband and Don Juan Baroda started off by moonlight at 10 o’clock, “and into the moonlight they galloped abreast” on native ponies, rather to the trepidation of Carmen, who has only lately commenced doing equestrian. I find my position of being the only foreigner here rather awkward and triste (sad) sometimes. Spanish and Anglo-Saxon ideas are so radically different about many things that there can seldom be any complete sympathy, and I have never formed anything approaching to a friendship with any Spaniard except one, and he was a South American. Not that there is a lack of some decent fellows among them but the two races don’t amalgamate easily. John Bull is too angular and insular in most cases, but the Don on the other hand has generally seen little of the world beyond his own exceptional country, and has grafted on his own original stock an undercurrent of French ideas about everything else. Most of the Spaniards at Iloilo are, speaking from a social point of view, of a third or fourth rate sort, many of them ex-mates of vessels and that sort of thing who have left the sea and taken to small trading operations in the province – worthy, useful covies enough, but not exactly Admirable Crichtons.[iii] The most congenial agreeable people I have yet met with are the Governor and Lt. Governor, the under of the latter, the “interventor” of the Customhouse, one or two of the medicos and some of the naval officers who, however, are seldom long at the point of the station. As yet, however, I have not made the acquaintance of all the folks, but when I get settled at Iloilo (which I believe will be about the month after next when the house is finished) I intend to become more of a “man-about-town.”
In the meantime I have a fine opportunity of practicing another of the ideas of the Ancient Representative Man aforesaid “Or, puisque nous entreprenons de vivre seuls, et de nous passer de compaigne faisons nostre contentment despender de nous: desprenons nous de toutes les liasons qui nous attachment a aultruy: gainons sur nous de pouvoir a escient vivre seuls, et vivre a nostre ayse.”[iv] A medical friend in Manila saddled me before I left with a lot of drying paper, a vasculum, and other apparati for collecting plants, and I have latterly been making a small collection for him which is to be sent to Prof. Balfour of Edinburgh. Generally I come home of a morning with a handful of plants, greatly to the astonishment of the natives, who can’t comprehend the use of picking a lot of weeds. There are a good many very valuable plants in the Philippines and this island which as I mentioned to you before is the very isle where –
Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance,
Led on the eternal spring.”
is especially thick with ambrosial growth and “groves whose rich trees weep odorous gums and balm.”
If I were a scientific botanist and chemist I should doubtless find out many important things; but not being either, and not having talent or patient industry enough to become either the one or the other, I cannot immortalize myself in that direction. Talking of want of industry, Gilfillan mentioned in his “History of a Man” an amusing though affected instance of a fellow student excusing himself to Professor Milne for not performing the prescribed exercise, on account of the “invincible, incessant, and ineradicable laziness of his nature.”
I should like to show you the plaza of Jaro on a market day at about 2 in the afternoon when the movimiento reaches its apogee. On Thursdays the usually empty stalls are furnished and decked out by their proprietors with attractive goods. Showy handkerchiefs, dresses, gauze and blond kerchiefs of the head, lace, ginghams (all of a check or plaid pattern), sarongs, Chinese silk, trouserings, cotton twist, jacanettes, muslins, blue and white shirtings, etc. etc. with a sprinkling of hardware, glassware and “all sorts” calculated to overcome the aboriginal mind and make it shell out its hard-earned reals and quartos. These stalls represent capitals of from L50 to L500 in stock. Temporary shops of bamboo and of palm leaves are also improvised for the sale of different native products comprising of leaf tobacco in assorted bundles, earthenware, woven baskets, hats of straw and bamboo, mats, hemp of a very fine quality used in the native textures, coarse cakes of sugar, rice, dried beans, pease and other vegetables, pineapple leaf fibres, cotton twist made from native cotton, oils, vegetable pitch, cowries, skins, nondescript eatables and other heterogenous rummy-looking things. The square becomes a perfect babel on market days, and, looking out from my windows which command the whole scene, you behold a congeries of confused groups where camisas are mingled with sarongs, civilians with principals, sombreros with pañuelos, and the subdued-looking Indian damsel with the more noble and self-asserting (though somewhat porcine) mestizo can’t stop to explain those mysterious terms just used.
Sallying forth into the scene of action you forthwith find yourself tumbling over long rows of brown and canary coloured damsels seated on the ground each with a small heap of silk and cotton sarongs (a sort of large pillow slip open at both ends in which the women envelop themselves), kerchiefs, trouserings, etc. of native fabric. Besides these vendors of indigenous goods you also observe swarms of other daughters of “our general mother” perambulating the different shops and offering their delicate piña and sinamay goods to the critical examination of the mestizo purchasers. Conceive this with the usual gabble of a multitude intent on the absorbing process of buying cheap and selling dear, under the shadow of a thousand umbrellas with which they vainly endeavor to ward off the glare of the noonday sun when the tall cross in the plaza scarcely leaves an atom of shadow. Conceive the bright colors, and the shifting groups, the strings of jaded horses and oxen, the confused rows of primitive vans and vehicles, the church tower looking scorched up and ready to topple down with the heat, the holy friar leaning wearily out of the convent window, and then conceive the done up, irresolute-looking figure of Nicholas Loney mooning across the square, armed with a silk umbrella, a self-expatriated Briton, the only specimen of his race on the island.
Some of the native textures made in this province are very beautiful, that is, as to quality. The designs, though in some instances good, are not as a rule in very good taste, but it is surprising what admirable articles the women turn out of these rude looms. I have heard the number of looms in this province estimated at 50,000, but I think this is rather over the mark. All the female population appears to be employed in weaving, and in almost every house there are three or four looms, in some as many as a dozen; but I am wasting all my available writing ground on something very dry like statistics.
A few days ago I received a polite necrological invitation as follows: “The Señorita Doña Trinidad Fernandez and Mamlanda has died. Her brothers, sisters and friends beg you to commend her to God and to assist at her funeral rites which will be performed tomorrow between 7 and 8 in the morning at the church of Iloilo, and accompany the body to the cemetery of Arevalo; for which favour they will eternally grateful. Iloilo, November 16th, 1856. Señor Don Nicholas Loney, V.C. de S.M.V.”[v]
Accordingly next morning at six I donned my black coat and trousers whisked a black ribbon round my neck, and trundled off in a hired carriage with two black horses to Iloilo. There I found the whole Spanish population assembled, and a lot of the mestizos also, near the house of the defunct whose brother is a government employee. Accompanied by the Governor we all went up the house, and after waiting some time three native priests arrived dressed up in all the ecclesiastical finery of the Catholic Church. Their long under robes were made of the finest piña beautifully embroidered with large flowers. They commenced chanting over the body which lay on a trestle in an open coffin in a room, and then a great number of long wax candles were lighted and one given to each of us, we then formed in a double line in the street, and the body still exposed was conveyed between us to the Church. It is the custom here not to put on the lid of the coffin until the ceremony at the church is over. Señorita Trinidad I noticed had a long white dress with shoues and white stockings, and a lace cap with a wreath of white artificial flowers and pale green leaves; she was 22 years of age, rather tall, her face was disfigured by the old king of terrors (smallpox) but the features appeared to be good. She died of dropsy aggravated by almost total inactivity. It was supposed she was in love with someone in Manila, as she was continually wanting to go back there, and used to sit constantly in her chair chewing the cud of sweet and bitter fancy.
Arrived at the church the coffin was placed on the top of a high temporary cenotaph where the white lace cap of flowers appeared in strange contrast to the black coffin and funeral glare of the long waxen candles. There were about 50 candles ranged in large carved candlesticks on the cenotaph, and the saints’ shrines were all lighted up in a similar way. The priest’s little choristers chanted in Latin, incense was wafted about, holy water sprinkled with a silver instrument, mysterious fumigations went on at the altar, and I and the rest stood round with lighted candles which were extinguished and thrown on the ground and relighted at particular parts of the service. Several times we all knelt down for a few moments on the stone floor, and after about an hour had passed in this way, left the church. Outside everybody lighted up big cigars and started off for Arevalo, a town about five miles distant. I went with Ortiz and two other fellows in a carriage and four, the corpse was put in another vehicle, and the whole proceeding drove at a gallop to the churchyard. There we saw the coffin bestowed in a niche built in the wall.
The churchyard of Arevalo appeared to be a new one, and the niches had few tenants. The only one with an inscription was the burial place of an Englishman named Wyndham which bore a legend in Spanish signifying, “Here lies the body of Don Guilliamo Wyndham, a native of England who died here on the 10 November 1855.” He had lived for a long time in Sooloo (Sulu) where he was well known, and possessed great influence with the people there who made him a “Datu” or chief. Getting into difficulties with the Spanish Government at the time of their attack on the place when most of his property was destroyed his health gave way under a series of vexations and he died of dysentery at Iloilo leaving a mestizo wife and daughter. All this, I am afraid, will be very uninteresting to you and I will wind up the lugubrious tale by adding that I returned to Iloilo, breakfasted at Ortiz, under the shadow of the saints formerly mentioned to you, and got home to my den at about two in the afternoon.
Last month I had an invitation of a very different kind. It was in an official form and conveyed an intimation that the day being the Queen’s birthday (Isabel II) the Governor hoped I would accompany him at dinner. I duly arrayed myself in a blue coat with V.R. buttons and a white neckcloth. It was a portentious sight to see me leading in the gobernadora to dinner and doing the amiable generally. But fancy sitting in that mortal coat and choker and patent leather boots from 6 till 11. These are sacrifices which one offers up on the altar of an unappreciating country.
I find that postal considerations prevent my replying to Mary’ note, tell her that I accept with enthusiasm the godfathership and will write next mail. I have another goddaughter at Singapore called Annie Loney Ker, a small thing two years old. Last night I was invited by the priest of the adjacent village of Manduarriao to the feast of the pueblo. Went to the convent where there were lots of people, a supper and a dance. What would they think at Plymouth of dancing, music and supper in a religious building with eight or ten priest looking on, smoking big cigars and taking a hand at whist! It was an animated affair, though the rain prevented many of the village belles from coming. I looked on and sipped a glass of beer and talked Gammon to different fellows. Space is up and this absurd letter must do till next time, till then and always I am
Your affectionate brother,
P.S. Dreamed last night that I was at a splendid ball with Mary, and in wandering through spacious rooms and marble halls, lost her in the crowd. What does this signify?
[i] Meaning “it’s up to you.”
[ii] “heavens, have you never lived.”
[iii] James Crichton, “the admirable,” (1560-1687) traveled to Paris in 1577 where he is said to have disputed on scientific questions in 12 languages. He served in the French army, was a staunch Catholic and a good swordsman. He was killed in a brawl in Mantua, Italy. His title of Admirable originated from Sir Thomas Urquhart’s narrative of his career.
[iv] “Since we have undertaken to live alone and do without the company of others, let us make our happiness depend on ourselves only: let us cut all the ties that bind us to others: let us get such a grip of ourselves that we can deliberately live alone, and live at ease.”
[v] The initials stand for “Vice Consul of Her Majesty, Victoria.”