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Early Filipino Australian Trade Connection

Historical research shows that even before establishment of  official commercial relations with its neighbours, the Australia  had conducted  trading in the lively Asia-Pacific region including the Philippines. 

These commercial activities even became obvious after 1788 . With the arrival of Governor Arthur Phillip in Sydney where a British Colony would be established,  Manila products found their way into the new colony through the British trade in Asia.  

In fact, a study undertaken a few years back by Filipino scholar, Dr. Serafin D. Quiason, confirmed that for more than 100 years, between 1644 and 1765, an English ‘country trade’ with Manila existed and it became one of the most important branches of the English-Asian country trade. The existence of an active trade between the Philippines and neighbouring countries, though small in scale, was also confirmed by recent study made by Filipino historian, Dr. Benito Legarda, Jr who said that the Philippine situation was ‘based in the Anglo-Saxon North Atlantic’ operation.’ 

Between 1800 and 1808, among the sixty-three vessel arrivals in Sydney from the United Kingdom, twenty five arrived from the United States, and nineteen from the Indian ports. In 1804, an American ship, the Fair American, arrived in Sydney with Oliver Slater on board. Slater was one of the early traders who worked in Sydney. The American vessel carried a general cargo and came from Manila. Not all vessels arriving in Sydney were bringing in cargoes for the infant British colony.   

After centuries of its ports being closed to overseas commerce, Manila was finally opened to international trade in 1834. It was a turning point in the economic history of the Spanish colony. The de facto commercial intercourse with the outside world that existed for many years surfaced and became a bigger indeavour in the colonial trade in Asia. Manila became an important Asian trading port of call, competing heavily with Singapore and Batavia, now Jakarta. 

The entry of foreign commerce into the Philippines favoured the small group of English entrepeneurs in Manila. 

Rapid development

In less than a decade, Manila’s commercial importance reached as far as Australia, and the Manila trade ‘soon played an important part in the developing economies of New South Wales and Queensland’. Philippine products such as sugar, indigo, hemp, buffalo hide, sandalwood, tobacco, and coffee were exported to Singapore and the rest of Asia-Pacific region. 

In Sydney, the pastoral industry which was supported heavily by the colonial government was in trouble. Overseas prices of wool in England declined to an alarming low and reduced the profitability of the industry.  

This over-dependence on wool as the major source of support for the colonial economy favoured importers and manufacturers of consumer goods and benefited food producers such as the Philippines. While the pastoral industry was crippled, a variety of urban manufacturing ventures sprang and established their foothold in Sydney, which became the scene of diverse commercial activities never experienced in the early colonial history of NSW. 

The Dixon’s tobacco factory was established in 1841 while the Australasian Sugar Company and P.N. Russel’s Sydney Foundry and Engineering Company saw their city operations started in 1842. 

There was a remarkable expansion in the productions of consumer goods. It did not take time before Sydney started purchasing a great quantity of Philippine products, particularly sugar used for the distillation of rum. Australian colonies became the principal buyers of Philippine sugar with 174,777 piculs shipped from Manila alone in 1847. 

There were other sizeable quantity of cigars and other products such as manila hemp, the best cordage manufactured in the Philippines from the fibres of the plantain tree. Manila hemp was favoured by the colonies because its fibre length, lightness and whiteness of colour. Around 9,000 to 15,000 piculs of manila hemp were exported annually from Manila and considerable shipments were made to Australian colonies. Sydney based merchants started to recognise the lucrative Manila trade and soon many of them ventured further north. One of the early Sydney merchants was Robert Towns who made  frequent trips between Asia, the islands in the Pacific and Australia. 

Towns was born in 1794 in Northumberland. Even with little formal education, he worked his way to success. Initially, he gained command of a ship in the Mediterranean trade at the age of nineteen after studying navigation at night school. In 1827, he arrived in Sydney with general cargo and within five years was trans-porting bounty of immigrants and merchandise in his own ship, the Brothers, almost every year. 

By 1833, he became part of the establishment when he married Sophia, the half-sister of W.C. Wentworth. The couple settled in Sydney in 1843 and he worked in the city as a merchant agent representing Richard Brooks & Company of London. 

As a merchant, he was highly speculative and much of his early energy was devoted to whaling where he derived the most profits. His business activities reached as far as Calcutta sending horses; sandalwood, turtle shell and bêche-de-mere to Canton; goods and provisions to New Caledonia; wool and whale oil to London. 

On his trip back to Sydney, his ships brought sugar and rope from Manila; rice from India; wheat from Val Paraiso, Chile and salt from Cape Verde. It is said that to maximise profits, he would delay his ship arrival in Sydney so that when his goods arrived, there is already a high demand from the needy colonial settlers. 

As a Sydney personality, he was associated with the reorganisation of the Bank of New South Wales where he served for many years as its director and later as its president. With all his successes, he became landholder and his shipping business extended all over the world. He entered politics when he was appointed to the Legislative Council of NSW in 1856 but resigned in 1861. 

His business interest extended to Queensland where he acquired properties in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Later he sent an expedition to find a port in Queensland which resulted to the foundation of the settlement of Cleveland Bay, which later became what we know today as the City of Townsville. 

It has been said that when a Filipino migrate to other country, he becomes a discipline and a good worker. The same could be said about the early Filipino migrants in Australia. In an 1880s official report regarded them as ‘industrious workers’ while an Australian employer told a government committee that Filipinos can work ‘day after day, year in and year out’ and that’s why he like them.

John Douglas, the Govern-ment resident for Thursday Island between 1885-1897 reported that when the Filipinos have made a little money, they send an order home for a wife and ‘they then marry, beget children, and frequently become natu-ralised.’

Filipino arrivals

The early Filipinos were attracted to Australia by the pearl shell industry. The industry started around 1869 and was first managed by white operators who utilised the services of Pacific Islanders including Filipino pearl divers. When the industry expanded to areas along the mainland coast-line to the northern limits of the Great Barrier Reef, and throughout the Torres Strait, Sydney merchants dispatched their vessels and found the situation in North Queensland a lucrative commercial undertaking that could not be missed. They realised that the northern islands were vast sources of wealth.  

The early pearlers brought with them workers, mostly Malay and Pacific Islanders, hired in Sydney. William Noetke, a pioneer in the pearl shelling industry once testified in a government inquiry that among the ‘coloured’ workers who came from Sydney were Filipinos. The adventurous Filipinos, like the Malays, were willing to work for lower wages and were regarded as responsible, daring, fatalistically brave. They had a different approach to the dangerous tasks in the pearl shelling operations. One of the early employers of Asiatic or coloured workers was James Merriman, a Sydney-based shipowner. 

One historian regarded him as the ‘originator of the pearl and bêche-de-mere trade which dominated the Torres Strait for many years. With partners like Captain B. Jenkins and Captain H. Fairclough, he engaged heavily into the Pacific, including New Zealand busi-ness. James Merriman was born on 23 October 1816 at Parramatta to George Merriman and Mary, a convict. He was orphaned as an infant. When he grew up he joined a whaling fleet for four years. By 1852, Merriman, with his business partner, was running regular shipping services between Sydney and the principal ports of New Zealand. He was one of the early employers who hired ‘Asiatics’ or coloured labourer to work in his fleet. His preference to non-white workers was due to the difficulty of engaging a crew at the Shipping Office. He even complained to a Legislative Assembly select committee about the problem. He is credited with giving Sydney mercantile life stability during his time.  

As a prominent personality in Sydney, he was elected City alderman in 1867 until 1883. He was mayor in 1873, 1877 and 1878. During his last mayoralty, he organised the successful Indian Famine Relief Fund. His active political life was almost cut short when he got sick seriously but continued his stint as a political leader. He was even nominated and won as representative for West Sydney to the Parliament where he stayed for three years.

During this period, he served as a commissioner of the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879, as a trustee of Hyde, Phillip and Cook Parks and as a transit commissioner.  For the second time, he became ill and he died from heart disease and dropsy at his house at The Rocks on 13 May 1883, leaving his wife Anne Thompson, two sons and three daughters. 

Another Australian who linked the two countries and became an early visitor of the Philippines and retained a memory of the country is Nicholas Chevalier, an artist who, through his paint brushes, created his perception of the Filipinos and the Philippines, in particular its women and the countryside. He was a Russian-born landscape colonial artist who also worked for the Melbourne Punch as political cartoonist.  

One of his numerous works is entitled Waiting at the Ferry completed in 1881 (This is the cover of the author’s book, Footnotes to Philippines History). A contemporary Australian writer dismissed this work as whimsical for the reason that she believes Chevalier never set foot on Philippine soil. 

The painting is the favourite artwork of Bill Bleathman, director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania. It is large oil located at the gallery staircase and described as a portrait of ‘a Filipino beauty with long, dark hair and burning eyes, yet it is the scruffy little dog at her feet which always brings a smile to Director Blenthman’s face.’  

A closer look at the painting, a Filipino would not miss the roosters crammed on a container on the woman’s head and the thin cigar between the woman’s fingers. A further examination of the canvas behind the woman figure is an authentic Filipino village with a couple of residents doing their daily chores. Domes-ticated animals are also found on the backyard of the house. What is interesting is Chevalier’s skill of capturing the local scenery in the Philippines, the palm and banana trees behind the nipa huts, in particular. 

The apparel of the woman herself would show that the painter knew the object of his painting and not just a product of his imagination or copied from somewhere else. He must have visited Manila, contrary to the belief of that Australian writer, and observed Filipino women and the kind of dress they were wearing, particularly the colourful striped tapis and the upper garment made of jusi or banana fiber. I checked the Internet for other works of Chevalier and I found his painting titled Maori Girl, Hinemoa, in a canoe, with native palm on a hillside. A closer look at this painting one is reminded of the same treatment the painter did when he captured a Filipina beauty in his canvas. The ethnic look of the Maori girl is replaced by a European face and body, similar to what the painter did in his painting of the Filipino woman waiting in the ferry. Another item I found is a scene similar to the Pasig river with its cascoes, house boats during the Spanish period. 

According to published biography, chevalier studied art in Lausanne, he the moved to Munich to pursue architecture. In 1851, he was living in London and exhibited his watercolours at the Royal Academy and worked for the lithographer Ludwig Burner. He did further art study in Italy, then sailed for Melbourne and worked in various capacities as an illustrator, decorator (he designed decorations for the Duke of Edinburgh visit to Melbourne in 1867), print-maker, teacher and artist. He travelled widely in Victoria andNew Zealand and these trips produced many of his known art works, a few of which were purchased by the National Gallery of Australia. He helped establish a school of art and art gallery in Victoria and was a founding member of the Victorian School of Fine Arts.

He toured Victoria and Tasmania with the Duke of Edinburgh in 1867-68. In 1u870, he was invited to join the Duke in his homeward trip to London and acted as the second artist during the royal journey. It was during this trip that Chevalier visited Sydney, New Zealand, Tahiti, Manila, Japan, India, and Ceylon. After this trip, he settled in England and stayed there for the rest of his life. In 1872, he exhibited one hundred and fifty views at the Crystal Palace and then ninety-five watercolours, mounted on five screens, at the South Kensington Museum. His last years were spent in reading and writing in preference to painting, and engaged in poetry as well as music. He was a brilliant linguist, fluent in French, English, Russian, German, Italian and Portuguese. In 1882, he became an adviser to the National Gallery of New South Wales. He died in 1902.

Many of his New Zealand Paintings were presented to the National Art Gallery of Wellington. In Australia, his works are represented in the Sydney, Melbourne and Ballart galleries, the Mitchell and La Trobe Libraries and private collections. The Art Gallery of New South Wales has a self-portrait of him. It would be interesting to find out which places he visited during his trip to Manila and other things he might have painted about the Philippines or comments made about his travel.

NOTE – This is part of the author’s book planned to be released next year, under  working title : Two Identies: Australia and the Philippines.