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Manillamen,the early Filipino “migrants” in Australia

One of the enduring traits of Filipinos working or re-siding abroad is the capacity to maintain ties with their country, no matter how difficult their living circumstances.  

This strong link provides relief, in many ways, to the economic and political needs of the Philippines and its people. Today in fact, dollar remittances of Filipinos living overseas, including overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), are major source of revenue for the Philippine government from the very time Filipinos decide to live and work overseas. Also, Non-Government Organisations derive benefits from the generosity of overseas Filipinos as seen in the assistance extended during calamaties is such as the Mt. Pinatubo and a number of big floods of recent memory. 

In the early 1870s, the difficult political and eco-nomic situations in the Philippines drove many Filipinos, some forcibly by the Spanish colonial government, outside of their birth country. Many settled in the neighbouring British territories and colonies close to the Philippines.  

The aftermath of the Cavite Mutiny of 1872 caused many Filipinos to be exiled to Guam and the Marianas, then under the political administration of the colonial government in Manila. Many of these Fili-pinos eventually escaped from their detention and re-appeared in Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe, and few in Australia.

In the late 1860s many Asian adventurers, mostly from the ‘Malay peninsula’, were attracted to Northern Australia. As the Indonesians participated in the fledgling marine industry in Torres Strait, many of their brothers in the Philippines joined them and contributed their share in the rapid expansion of the industry.

In fact, Australia was so attractive to Asian settlers that during the entire period of the lucrative pearling industry (1874-1940s), five major Asian communities were developed and defined the Asian diaspora in Northern Australia, particularly in the Torres Strait. A Filipino diaspora, popularly known as ‘manillamen’ was considered one of the important pillars of the Asian diaspora that included the Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, and Sinalese, now Sri Lankans.  

The different Asian diaspora were characterised by ‘a history of dispersal, myths/memories of their homeland, alienation in the host… country, desire for eventual return, ongoing support of the homeland, and a collective identity importantly defined by these relations’. 

The first recorded arrival of Filipinos in Australia was as early as 1874 when the pearling industry was in its infant stage. But there is a possibility that, as early as 1842, when the City of Sydney was incorporated, Filipinos were already residing in the city, although this still needs to be con-firmed by further research.

Another point is that in 1840, there was already an existing and shipping link between Sydney and Manila. Many of the labourers, particularly divers in the pearling industry were taken from Sydney by the early pearl shell traders. 

Like their Muslim brothers in the southern Philippines, the early Filipino settlers reached Australia looking for jobs, via various British territories as in the case of the indentured labourers who came from Singapore and Hong Kong in the 1870s to work in the competitive pearl shelling industry. But the possibility of them being hired directly in Manila and brought to Thursday Island cannot be discounted.

The adventurous Filipinos, like those from the Malayan archipelago, were willing to work for lower wages compared to white divers. Moreover, the Malays, and the Filipinos, in particular, could be trained as capable divers. They were ‘res-ponsible, daring, and fatalistically brave’ and had a different approach to the dangerous task in pearl shelling operations. They were ‘venturesome, fearless and reliable.’ They were ‘careless’ as to what depths they descended. A depth of thirty to thirty five fathoms became an ordinary dive for Filipino divers.


As a consequence of the popularity of Filipino divers, a small Filipino community emerged in Thursday Island. It was a sizeable community given the small population of Colonial Queensland at that time. Thursday Island is located on the extreme part of north-eastern Australia. It is the smallest, but the most central and important among the Prince of Wales group of Islands.


As earlier stated, Filipinos may have first arrived in Australia during the late 1860s or in 1877. Author G. Evans, in his book Thursday Island 1878-1914,  mentions that of the 700 ‘natives’ listed as the total fisheries population of the island in 1877, among them were Filipinos. The same situation was also noted among those listed as ‘natives’ in 1878 and 1879.


Another source stated that prior to the introduction of the diving dress in 1874, there were already Filipinos working in the pearling industry in the Torres Strait. In 1901, testifying on the early part of the industry, William Noetke, a pioneer in the pearl shelling industry, stated that as early as 1874 Filipinos, together with Pacific Islanders were already eanged as divers employed by Sydney operators who exported the shells. This was less than two decades after Queensland became independent from New South Wales in 1859. 

In 1885, the Government Resident on Thursday Island reported that the island Filipino population numbered ‘one hundred and forty seven, higher than that number of the Japanese who were also engaged in the industry’. The following year, many of the  Island’s big pearl shelling operators, with a large number of vessels, moved to the northwest coast where vastnew shell beds  were discovered. Many Filipinos joined their employers in Broome, Western Australia,  which became the main headquarters of the pearling industry in Australia. Between 1879 and 1901, there were 99 known Filipinos working in the  Western Australian pearling industry. By 1890, there were only 25 Filipinos left on Thursday Island. The following year, however, the number increased to 61, all males. In the neighbouring little islands that were scattered throughout the  Torres Strait the presence of Filipinos was also reported. At Horn Island alone, there  were 125, Filipino residents comprising of a small Filipino community there, while on Prince of Wales Island, 17 were listed. There were 24 Filipinos on Goode Island and 46 were known at Waier Island, while on the least populated Hammond Island, 2 Filipino residents were noted.