Letter No. 11
February 23rd, 1857
My dear Father,
I find that I have again rather overstepped my limit of time for writing home – more than a month having passed since I last wrote you on January 11th. I have, however, no very startling intelligence to communicate from this remote corner of the world.
I mentioned in my last letter that I was on the point of starting on an expedition to the interior of the island. Said expedition was duly accomplished, and we returned to our household duties on the 23rd ult. after an absence of 12 days, during which we travelled through most of the northern portion of the island. Part of the trip was done on foot – in places where no roads have yet been made – a few leagues on horseback, and the rest in an American “spider” carriage with four horses. We visited 14 of the 35 pueblos (towns) which the province of Iloilo contains – many of them populous enough to be ranked as large towns, and others only classable as villages.
We went through a series of fine tracts of land, both cultivated and non-cultivated, capable of raising anything producible within the tropics. Saw little of any of the crops, except the portion of sugar yet uncut. The rice crop was cut in December. In the tobacco districts the young seedlings were just being planted out. The weather was very wet and unfavourable during most of the journey, and the roads consequently bad, but we managed to get on very well, putting up with all the friars at all the convents on the way – their reverences treating us remarkably well in the matters of chocolate, breakfasts, dinners and suppers.
On the whole I draw most favourable inferences as to the future of this fine island when the capabilities of its fertile soil become developed. The project of getting up a business with the American firm referred to in my last still holds good; but I have been almost at a standstill ever since, from inability to get the necessary stone building commenced. There having been only one regular stone building ever erected at Iloilo (that by a former Governor with every command of laborers, etc. for getting it done) it is difficult to get any of the natives or mestizos to undertake to build a large stone go-down by contract. There is another great drawback in relation to a proper site. The ground in the neighbourhood of Iloilo is very flat, and in the immediate vicinity of the river nothing more or less that a mangrove swamp inundated by the tide at high water. In order, therefore, to build anything by the water side it is necessary to fill up with earth to a considerable extent, so as to get a firm platform for the foundation. Those sites which are already reclaimed from the swamp in this way are already either occupied by (cane and palm thatched) private stone houses, or not purchaseable from their present owners. Consequently I have had to look out for a new site, which will have to be filled in at a considerable expense if I finally decided to adopt it.
Here is a rough outline which will perhaps enable you to form an idea of the present state of the case. The difficulty is the long extent of road which would have to be made, and which would cost $1000 (over) besides the many obstacles in the way of getting a stone building constructed at an (at present) isolated point to which everything, including the fresh water necessary for mixing lime, would have to be conveyed by water, as the road would not be made until the completion of the building. The stone and the tiles for the roof will have to come from Manila, the supplies of stone in the neighbourhood being only obtainable from the coral formations and other strata of the island of Guimaras where, however, enough workmen cannot be collected to produce a sufficient quantity in a reasonable space of time. In fact, it is at all times difficult to get a sufficient permanent number of workmen here for any object. The Indians are so woefully apathetic and so fond of their ease, that as soon as they earn a real or two, nothing will induce them to work while a cent remains. Add to this the difficulty of meeting with a suitable contractor and it will not be a matter for surprise if so simple a work as an oblong building with only a ground floor, and consisting of four stone walls and a tiled roof, occupy fully 12 months in building.
After confabulating with several mestizos, none of whom could eventually make up their minds to enter into a contract, I have at length met with one who promises to send in a calculation of his terms in a few days. If they seem reasonable, and the house (company) at Manila approves of the design of making a road of the length indicated on the other side, proceedings will be commenced as soon as possible. If the expense of the road is objected to, shall probably fix on a site much nearer to the reclaimed land though the ground there is very low and muddy, and the water for ships discharging not quite so deep.
All this is very slow work, you will think, before even making a beginning, but this is the most astonishing place for not being able to do anything out of the usual course of things I ever saw. When the go-down is finally built (if that consummation ever comes to pass) I hope to see it constantly filled and refilled with produce, though I don’t expect this will be the case to a satisfactory extent unless the Manila firm determiners engaging in the direct foreign trade, and with this idea I wrote them a few days ago that they must keep in view that, in proposing to them to authorize the expense of the whole concern, I look much more to the foreign trade here that may be done hereafter, as unless you can afford to give much better rates than others (which can only be done for a foreign and not the Manila market). It will be difficult to secure such a quantity of produce as will repay the outlay for some time. The very high prices which have been ruling in Europe for sugar for some time past have raised the rates in Manila to an unprecedented figure, so that there is a great inducement for natives and mestizos to plant any amount of sugar.
In the matter of imports I am not doing much. I have received another consignment of 12 cases of piece goods since I last wrote, the greater part of which are disposed of, but until I get to Iloilo and have a regular place for a sort of piece goods warehouse or shop, nothing very brilliant can be done. My house at Iloilo – though I have been promised possession from week to week – is not yet ready, and I have ceased to speculate as to when it will be. The landlord has not begun yet to paint it inside. My vehicle has come, a splendiferous affair, costing with harness, etc., $500, built at Manila by a British coachmaker – rather a large sum – I formerly calculated on somewhere between $350 to $400, but it better to have a good article which will sell again than a rattletrap which would have to be sent to Manila every now and then for repairs.
There is great trouble in the Philippines just now about the currency question – silver is at a premium of 25% and nobody will look at gold if they can help it. For my current expenses I am obliged to give small bills on Manila for which I get the silver here. These bills are paid in silver at Manila at a charge to me of course of the current premium which being at present as just mentioned 25%, is rather a pull on one’s salary – not to mention the high rate of house rent. I attach very little importance, however, to these small financial evils.
I am sorry to say that the answer about the steamer between this place and Manila has been received, and is to the effect that the capitalists at Camarines have lately gone into so many and such important negocios that they are not free at present to take up the steamer project seriously – so there is an end in the meantime at all events, to my schemes in that direction. The idea will probably be taken up by someone before long, although in this un-enterprising country it is impossible to say how long a time will elapse before there is a regular mercantile steam communication in this important archipelago. At present there are three steamers which ply between places at a short distance from Manila, but they are wretchedly small things, two of them only about six horsepower each. When you write next to Bob please mention that nothing appears likely to come of the steamer notion. I hope that you have put yourself to little or no trouble in getting the particulars I asked for – though they will always be useful, and may some day turned to account. I will write to Robert at some future time, when things here assume a more definite shape. Meanwhile, if he decides to take on a merchant ship on leaving the “Orion” I think the Australian and Manila line as likely a one as any, and may perhaps by that time be in a position to give him a cheap cargo.
You will have seen in the papers the account of the present state of affairs in the south of China. The southern Chinese mind now seems to be so effectually roused against foreigners, that although the British may take Canton and do any amount of damage along the coast, it may be very difficult to again resume the former commercial relations with them. J. Taurus, however, must (maugre the Persian war) carry out what he has undertaken to do, and hold Canton for some time, or it will never be a fit place for foreigners to live in.
I am at present engaged in a slip-slop sort of way in getting up my official report on Panay, which I am afraid I have already delayed too long. It will be a very lame affair, as my head is not worth a ½ d and there is not a scrap of statistical information to be had about the place.
I hope this will find you all well – glad to hear that Aunt Kitty was in such good health and spirits. The mail from Europe of December arrived here yesterday, but I have no letters or papers from Manila. I suppose they came by some vessel. For the present you must please take this rigmarole letter as an epistolary installment to A/C. With love to Mother and all at home I remain, my dear Father,
Your affectionate son,