The Former Philippines thru Foreign Eyes
By Fedor Jagor et al
Public Domain Books
[Manila hemp.] One of the most interesting productions of the island is Manila hemp. The French, who, however, hardly use it, call it “Silk-Plant,” because of its silky appearance.
The natives call the fiber bandala, and in commerce (generally speaking) abacá, just as the plant from which it is obtained.
[Abacá.] The latter is a wild species of banana growing in the Philippine Islands, known also as Arbol de Cañamo (hemp-tree), Musa textilis, Lin. It does not differ in appearance to any great extent from the edible banana (Musa paradisiaca), one of the most important plants of the torrid zone, and familiar to us as being one of our most beautiful hot-house favorites.
[Undetermined plant relations.] Whether this and the “musae" (M. troglodytarum, M. sylvestris, and others), frequently known, too, as M. textilis, are of the same species, has not yet been determined. The species Musaceae are herbaceous plants only. The outer stem consists of crescent-shaped petioles crossing one another alternately, and encircling the thin main stem. These petioles contain a quantity of bast fiber, which is used as string, but otherwise is of no commercial value. The serviceable hemp fiber has, up to the present time, been exclusively obtained from the southern portion of the Philippines.
[Abacá districts.] The southern Camarines and Albay are favorably adapted for the cultivation of this plant, as are also the islands of Samar and Leyte, and the adjacent islands; and Cebu likewise, although a portion of the so-called “Cebu hemp” comes from Mindanao. In Negros the bast-banana thrives only in the south, not in the north; and Iloilo, which produces most of the hemp cloth (guinara), is obliged to import the raw material from the eastern district, as it does not flourish in the island of Panay. In Capiz, it is true, some abacá may be noticed growing, but it is of trifling value. Hitherto all attempts, strenuous though the efforts were, to acclimatize the growth of hemp in the western and northern provinces have failed. The plants rarely grow as high as two feet, and the trouble and expense are simply unremunerative. This failure may be accounted for by the extreme dryness prevailing during many months of the year, whereas in the eastern provinces plentiful showers fall the whole year round.
[Peculiar to the Philippines.] The great profit which the Manila hemp has yielded in the few years since its production, however, has given encouragement to still further experiments; so that, indeed, it will shortly be shown whether the cultivation of abacá is to be confined to its present limited area, while the edible species of banana has spread itself over the whole surface of the earth within the tropics. On the volcanic mountains of Western Java a species of the Musaceae grows in great luxuriance. The Government has not, however, made any real effort to cultivate it, and what has been done in that respect has been effected, up to the present date, by private enterprise. Various writers have stated that abacá is to be obtained in the north of the Celebes. Bickmore, however, says positively that the inhabitants having made great efforts in attempting its successful cultivation, have abandoned it again in favor of the cultivation of coffee, which is found to be far more profitable.  According to previous statements, Guadaloupe appears to be able to produce abacá (fiber of the M. textilis?);  and Pondicherry and Guadaloupe have produced fabrics woven from abacá, and French Guiana stuffs from the fiber of the edible banana;  all these, however, are only experiments.
[Superiority of fiber.] Royle affirms that the Manila hemp (abacá fiber) excels the Russian in firmness, lightness, and strength in tension, as well as in cheapness, and has only the one disadvantage that ropes made from it become stiff in wet weather. The reason, however, is found in the manner in which it is spun, and may be avoided by proper preparation.  Through the better preparation of the raw material in Manila by means of adequate machinery, these difficulties have been overcome; but abacá no longer has the advantage of superior cheapness, as the demand has increased much faster than the supply. During the year 1859 it was worth from £22 to £25 per ton; in 1868, £45 per ton; while Russian hemp fetched £31 per ton. Thus in nine years it rose to double its value.
[Banana varieties.] In Albay there are about twelve varieties of the best banana cultivated, which are particularly favored by the qualities of the soil. The cultivation is extremely simple, and entirely independent of the seasons. The plants thrive best on the slopes of the volcanic mountains (in which Albay and Camarines abound), in open spaces of the woods protected by the trees, which cast their shadows to an extent of about sixty feet. In exposed level ground they do not thrive so well, and in marshy land not at all.
[Cultivation.] In the laying out of a new plantation the young shoots are generally made use of, which sprout so abundantly from the roots that each individual one soon becomes a perfect plant. In favorable ground the custom is to allow a distance of about ten feet between each plant; in poor ground six feet. The only care necessary is the extermination of the weeds, and clearing away the undergrowth during the first season; later on, the plants grow so luxuriantly and strongly that they entirely prevent the growth of anything else in their vicinity. The protection afforded by the shade of the trees at this period is no longer required, the young buds finding sufficient protection against the sun’s rays under cover of the fan-like leaves. Only in exceptional cases, contrary to the usual practice, are the plants raised from seed. The fruit, when ready, is cut off and dried, though care must be taken that it is not over ripe; otherwise the kernels will not germinate. These latter are about the size of peppercorns; and the extraction of them in the edible species almost always brings about decay. Two days before sowing, the kernels are taken out of the fruit, and steeped overnight in water; on the following day they are dried in a shady place; and on the third day they are sown in holes an inch deep in fresh, unbroken, and well-shaded forest ground, allowing six inches distance between each plant and row. After a year the seedlings, which are then about two feet high, are planted out, and tended in the same way as the suckers. [Differences with abacá.] While many of the edible bananas bear fruit after one year, and a few varieties even after six months, the abacá plant requires on an average three years to produce its fiber in a proper condition; when raised from suckers four years; and raised from year-old seedlings, even under the most favorable conditions, two years.
[Cutting.] On the first crop, only one stalk is cut from each bush; but later on the new branches grow so quickly that they can be cut every two months.  After a few years the plants become so strong and dense that it is scarcely possible to push through them. Bast is in its best condition at the time of blossoming; but, when the price of the fiber happens to stand high in the market, this particular time is not always waited for.
[Prejudice against cutting after blossoming.] Plants which have blossomed cease to be profitable in any way, by reason of the fiber becoming too weak–a matter of too great nicety for the unpractical consumers on the other side of the Atlantic to decide upon, and one in which, despite inquiries and careful inspections, they might be deceived. There really is no perceptible reason why the fiber should become weaker through fructification, which simply consists in the fact of the contents of the vascular cells changing into soluble matter, and gradually oozing away, the consequence of which is that the cells of the fiber are not replenished. These, on the contrary, acquire additional strength with the age of the plant, because the emptied cells cling so firmly together, by means of a certain resinous deposit, that it is impossible to obtain them unbroken without a great deal of trouble. The idea may have erroneously arisen from the circumstance that, previously to drying, as with hemp, the old plants were picked out, and allowed to be thrown away, though not without considerably increasing the rate of pay, which already consumed the greater part of the general expenses. 
[Extracting the fiber.] In order to obtain the bast, the stalk above ground is closely pruned and freed from leaves and other encumbrances; each leaf is then singly divided into strips–a cross incision being made through the membrane on the inner or concave side, and connected by means of the pulpy parts (the parenchym) clinging together. In this manner as much as possible of the clear outer skin only remains behind. Another method is to strip the bast from the undivided stem. To effect this the operator makes an oblique incision in the skin of the under part of the stalk, drawing the knife gradually to the tip, and stripping off the whole length as broad a piece as possible; and the operation is repeated as many times as practicable. This method of handling is more productive than the one previously described; but, on the other hand, it takes considerably more time, and for that reason is not often practised. The strips of bast are then drawn under a knife, the blade of which is three inches broad by six long, fastened at one end to the extremity of a flexible stick so that it is suspended perpendicularly over a well-smoothed block, and at the other end to a handle connected by means of a cord to a treadle, which can be pressed firmly down, as occasion requires. The workman draws the bast, without any regard to quality, between the knife and block, commencing in the middle, and then from side to side. The knife must be free from notches, or all indentations, according to the direction of Father Blanco. 
[Laborers’ work and wages.] Three hired-men usually get twenty-five pounds per day. One worker cuts up the stalks, strips off the leaves, and attends to the supply; the second, frequently a boy, spreads out the strips; and the third draws them under the knife. A single plant has been known to yield as much as two pounds of fiber; but the most favorable average rarely affords more than one pound, and plants grown in indifferent soil scarcely a sixth of that quantity. The plantations are worked either by the owner or by day-laborers, who, when the market prices are very low, take half share of the crop harvested by them. In these cases an industrious workman may obtain as much as one picul in a week. During my stay exceptionally low prices ruled–sixteen and one-half reals per picul undelivered. The workman could, therefore, in six days earn half the amount, viz., eight and a quarter reals at a rate of one and three-eighths reals per day. The day’s pay at that time was half a real, and board a quarter of a real, making together three-quarters of a real.
By daily pay. Half share.
The workman therefore earned daily 0.75 r. or 1.375 r. Wages amounted to per picul 12. 6 r. or 8. 25 r. Profit of the planters after deduction of the wages 3. 9 r. or 8. 25 r.
[Lupis and bandala.] The edges of the petioles, which contain much finer fiber than the middle parts, are separately divided into strips an inch wide, and with strong pressure are drawn several times under the knife. This substance, which is called lupis, is in high request, being employed in the native weaving; while is chiefly used for ships’ rigging. 
[Grades of Lupis.] Lupis, according to the fineness of the fiber, is sorted into four classes–first, Binani; second, Totogna; third, Sogotan; and fourth, Cadaclan. A bundle of these is then taken up in the left hand, and, while with the right the first three sorts are inserted between the fingers, the fourth is held between the thumb and forefinger. This last description is no longer used in fine weaving, and is therefore sold with bandala. After the fine sorts have been pounded in a rice-mortar, in order to render the fiber soft and pliable, they are severally knotted into one another, and converted into web.
[Lupis fabrics.] Generally the first sort is worked as woof with the second as warp, and the third as warp with the second as woof. The fabrics so woven are nearly as fine as piña fabrics (Nipis de Piña), and almost equal the best quality of cambric; and, notwithstanding the many little nodules occasioned by the tangling of the fiber, which may be discerned on close inspection, are clearer and stouter, and possess a warmer yellowish tint.  As to these last three qualities–purity, flexibility, and color–they stand in relation to cambric somewhat as cardboard to tissue-paper.
[Weaving.] Weaving such fabrics on very simple looms is exceedingly troublesome as the fibers, which are not spun but twisted, very frequently break. The finest stuffs require so great an amount of dexterity, patience, and time in their preparation, and for that reason are so expensive, that they would find no purchasers in Europe where there is the competition of cheap, machine-made goods. Their fine, warm yellowish color also is objected to by the European women, who are accustomed to linen and calicoes strongly blued in the washing. In the country, however, high prices are paid for them by the rich mestizos, who understand the real goodness of their qualities.
[Bandala fabrics.] The fibers of the inner petioles, which are softer but not so strong as the outer, are called tupus, and sold with bandala, or mixed with tapis and used in the native weaving. Bandala also serves for weaving purposes; and, in that portion of the Archipelago where the native abacá plantations are, the entire dress of both sexes is made of coarse guinara. Still coarser and stronger fabrics are prepared for the European market, such as crinoline and stiff muslin used by dressmakers.
[A Pre-Spanish product.] Before the arrival of the Spaniards the natives wore stuffs from abacá; which became an important article of export only some few decades since. This is in great measure due to the enterprising spirit of two American firms, and would not have been attained without great perseverance and liberal pecuniary assistance.
[Unbusinesslike early methods.] The plants flourish without any care or attention, the only trouble being to collect the fiber; and, the bounteousness of Nature having provided them against want, the natives shirk even this trouble when the market price is not very enticing. In general low prices are scarcely to be reckoned on, because of the utter indifference of the laborers, over whom the traders do not possess enough influence to keep them at work. Advances to them are made both in goods and money, which the creditor must repay either by produce from his own plantation or by giving an equivalent in labor.  As long as the produce stands high in price, everything goes on pretty smoothly, although even then, through the dishonesty of the workers and the laziness, extravagance, and mercantile incapacity of the middlemen, considerable loss frequently ensues. If, however, prices experience any considerable fall, then the laborers seek in any and every way to get out of their uncomfortable position, whilst the percentage of profit secured to the middleman is barely sufficient to cover the interest on his outlay. Nevertheless, they must still continue the supplies, inasmuch as they possess no other means of securing payment of their debt in the future. The laborers, in their turn, bring bitter complaints against the agents, to the effect that they are forced to severe labor, unprofitable to themselves, through their acceptance of advances made to them at most exorbitant rates; and the agents (generally mestizos or creoles) blame the crafty, greedy, extortionate foreigners, who shamelessly tempt the lords of the soil with false promises, and bring about their utter ruin. [Change to a safer basis.] As a general rule, the “crafty foreigner” experiences a considerable diminution of his capital. It was just so that one of the most important firms suffered the loss of a very large sum. At length, however, the Americans, who had capital invested in this trade, succeeded in putting an end to the custom of advances, which hitherto had prevailed, erected stores and presses on their own account, and bought through their agents direct from the growers. All earlier efforts tending in this direction had been effectually thwarted by the Spaniards and creoles, who considered the profits derived from the country, and especially the inland retail trade, to be their own by prescriptive right. They are particularly jealous of the foreign intruders, who enrich themselves at their expense; consequently they place every obstacle in their way. If it depended upon the will of these people, all foreigners would be ejected from the country–the Chinese alone, as workmen (coolies), being allowed to remain. 
[Anti-Chinese feeling.] The same feeling was exhibited by the natives towards the Chinese, whom they hated for being industrious and trustworthy workers. All attempts to carry out great undertakings by means of Chinese labor were frustrated by the native workmen intimidating them, and driving them away either by open violence or by secret persecution; and the Colonial authorities were reproached for not affording suitable protection against these and similar outrages. That, as a rule, great undertakings did not succeed in the Philippines, or at least did not yield a profit commensurate with the outlay and trouble, is a fact beyond dispute, and is solely to be ascribed to many of the circumstances related above. [Good work for good pay.] There are those, however, who explain these mishaps in other ways, and insist upon the fact that the natives work well enough when they are punctually and sufficiently paid. The Government, at any rate, appears gradually to have come to the conclusion that the resources of the country cannot be properly opened up without the assistance of the capital and enterprise of the [Tardy justice to foreigners.] foreigners; and, therefore, of late years it has not in any way interfered with their establishment. In 1869 their right of establishment was tardily conceded to them by law.
[Abacá production and prospects.] At this period the prospects of the abacá cultivation seemed very promising; and since the close of the American war, which had the effect of causing a considerable fall in the value of this article in America, the prices have been steadily increasing. It is stated (on authority) that, in 1840, 136,034 piculs of abacá, to the value of $397,995 were exported, the value per picul being reckoned at about $2.09. The rate gradually rose and stood between four and five dollars–and, during the civil war, reached the enormous sum of nine dollars per picul–the export of Russian hemp preventing, however, a further rise. This state of affairs occasioned the laying out of many new plantations, the produce of which, when it came on the market, after three years, was valued at $3.50 per picul, in consequence of the prices having returned to their normal condition; and even then it paid to take up an existing plantation, but not to lay out a new one. This rate continued until 1860, since which time it has gradually risen (only during the American civil war was there any stoppage), and it now stands once more as high as during the civil war; and there is no apparent prospect of a fall so long as the Philippines have no competitors in the trade. In 1865 the picul in Manila never cost less than $7 which two years previously was the maximum value; and it rose gradually, until $9.50 was asked for ordinary qualities. The production in many provinces had reached the extreme limit; and a further increase, in the former at least, is impossible, as the work of cultivation occupies the whole of the male population–an evidence surely that a suitable recompense will overcome any natural laziness of the natives. 
An examination of the following table will confirm the accuracy of these views:–
[Export of “Manila hemp."]
Export of Abacá (In Piculs).
To 1861 1864 1866 1868 1870 1871
Great Britain 198,954 226,258 96,000 125,540 131,180 143,498 North America, Atlantic Ports 158,610 249,106 280,000 294,728 327,728 285,112 California 6,600 9,426 – 14,200 15,900 22,500 Europe 901 1,134 – 200 244 640 Australia 16 5,194 – 21,244 11,434 6,716 Singapore 2,648 1,932 – 3,646 1,202 2,992 China 5,531 302 – – 882 2,294
Total 273,260 493,352 406,682 460,588 488,570 463,752
Commercial Report Prussian Consular Report Belgian Consular Report English Consular Report Market Report, T.H. & Co.
[Large local consumption.] The consumption in the country is not contained in the above schedule, and is difficult to ascertain; but it must certainly be very considerable, as the natives throughout entire provinces are clothed in guinara, the weaving of which for the family requirements generally is done at home.
[Sisal-hemp.] Sisal, also sisal-hemp, or, as it is sometimes known, Mexican grass, has for some years past been used in the trade in increasing quantities as a substitute for abacá, which it somewhat resembles in appearance, though wanting that fine gloss which the latter possesses. It is somewhat weaker, and costs from £5 to £10 less per ton; it is only used for ships’ rigging. The refuse from it has been found an extremely useful adjunct to the materials ordinarily used in the manufacture of paper. The Technologist for July, 1865, calls attention to the origin of this substitute, in a detailed essay differing essentially from the representations contained in the “U. S. Agricultural Report” published at Washington in 1870; and the growing importance of the article, and the ignorance prevailing abroad as to its extraction, may render a short account of it acceptable. The description shows the superior fineness of the abacá fiber, but not its greater strength. 
[Varieties of sisal.] Sisal-hemp, which is named after the export harbor of Sisal (in the north-western part of the peninsula), is by far the most important product of Yucatan; and this rocky, sun-burnt country seems peculiarly adapted to the growth of the fiber. In Yucatan the fiber is known as jenequem, as indeed the plant is obtained from it. Of the latter there are seven sorts or varieties for purposes of cultivation; only two, the first and seventh, are also to be found in a wild state. First, Chelem, apparently identical with Agave angustifolia; this ranks first. Second, Yaxci (pronounced Yachki; from yax, green, and tri, agave), the second in order; this is used only for fine weaving. Third, Sacci (pronounced Sakki; sack, white), the most important and productive, supplying almost exclusively the fiber for exportation; each plant yields annually twenty-five leaves, weighing twenty-five pounds, from which is obtained one pound of clear fiber. Fourth, Chucumci, similar to No. 3, but coarser. Fifth, Babci; the fiber very fair, but the leaves rather small, therefore not very productive. Sixth, Citamci (pronounced Kitamki; kitam, hog); neither good nor productive. Seventh, Cajun or Cajum, probably Fourcroya cubensis; leaves small, from four to five inches long.
[Machine-spinning.] The cultivation of sisal has only in recent times been prosecuted vigorously; and the extraction of the fiber from the leaves, and the subsequent spinning for ships’ rigging, are already done by steam-machinery. This occupation is especially practiced by the Maya Indians, a memorial of the Toltecs, who brought it with them upon their emigration from Mexico, where it was in vogue long before the arrival of the Spaniards.
[Profit.] The sisal cultivation yields an annual profit of 95 per cent. A mecate, equal to five hundred seventy-six square yards (varas), contains sixty-four plants, giving sixty-four pounds of clear fiber, of the value of $3.84; which, after deducting $1.71, the cost of obtaining it, leaves $2.13 remaining. The harvesting commences from four to five years after the first laying out of the plantation, and continues annually for about fifty or sixty years.
[Banana substitute unsatisfactory.] In tropical countries there is scarcely a hut to be seen without banana trees surrounding it; and the idea presented itself to many to utilize the fiber of these plants, at that time entirely neglected, which might be done by the mere labor of obtaining it; besides which, the little labor required for their proper cultivation is quickly and amply repaid by their abundant fruitfulness. 
This idea, however, under the existing circumstances, would certainly not be advantageous in the Philippines, as it does not pay to obtain bast from the genuine abacá plant as soon as it has borne fruit. The fiber of the edible banana might very well be used as material for paper-making, though obtaining it would cost more than the genuine bandala.
[Fiber-extracting machinery.] In the Report of the Council of the Society of Arts, London, May 11, 1860, attention was called to a machine invented by F. Burke, of Montserrat, for obtaining fiber from banana and other endogenous plants. While all the earlier machines worked the fiber parallelwise, this one operated obliquely on it; the consequence of which was that it was turned out particularly clear. With this machine, from seven to nine per cent. of fibrous substance may be obtained from the banana. The Tropical Fiber Company have sent these machines to Demerara, also to Java and other places, with the design of spinning the fiber of the edible banana, and also to utilize some portions of the plant as materials in the manufacture of paper. Proofs have already been brought forward of fiber obtained in this manner in Java, the value of which to the spinner has been reckoned at from £20 to £25. It does not appear, however, that these promising experiments have led to any important results; at least, the consular reports which have come to hand contain no information on the subject. In the obtaining of bandala in the Philippines this machine has not yet been used; nor has it even been seen, though the English consul, in his latest report, complains that all the hitherto ingeniously constructed machines have proved virtually useless.
The bast of the edible banana continues still to be used in the Philippines, notwithstanding that the plants, instead of being grown, as in many parts of America, in large well-tended gardens, are here scattered around the huts; but the forwarding of the raw material, the local transport, and the high freightage will always render this material too expensive for the European market (considering always its very ordinary quality)–£10 per ton at the very least; while “Sparto grass” (Lygaeum spartum, Loeffl.), [Paper-making materials.] which was imported some few years since in considerable quantities for the purpose of paper-making, costs in London only £5 per ton.  The jute (Corchurus casularis) coffee-sacks supply another cheap paper material. These serve in the fabrication of strong brown packing paper, as the fiber will not stand bleaching. According to P. Symmonds, the United States in recent years have largely used bamboo. The rind of the Adansonia digitata also yields an extremely good material; in particular, paper made entirely from New Zealand flax deserves consideration, being, by virtue of its superior toughness, eminently suited for “bill paper.”
[Preferability of discarded cloth.] It must not be overlooked that, in the manufacture of paper, worn linen and cotton rags are the very best materials that can be employed, and make the best paper. Moreover, they are generally to be had for the trouble of collecting them, after they have once covered the cost of their production in the form of clothing materials; when, through being frayed by repeated washings, they undergo a preparation which particularly adapts them to the purpose of paper-making.
[Increasing use of wood and straw.] The more paper-making progresses, the more are ligneous fibers brought forward, particularly wood and straw, which produce really good pastes; all the raw materials being imported from a distance. That England takes so much sparto is easily explained by the fact that she has very little straw of her own, for most of the grain consumed by her is received from abroad in a granulated condition.