The Austrian Frigate Novara visits Manila in 1858

excerpts from
Karl Scherzer (1861)

  • Historical notes relating to the Philippines
  • From Cavite to Manila
  • The river Pasig
  • First impressions of the city
  • Its inhabitants
  • Tagales and Negritoes
  • Preponderating influence of Monks
  • Visit to the four chief monasteries
  • Conversation with an Augustine Monk
  • Grammars and Dictionaries of the idioms chiefly in use in Manila
  • Reception by the Governor-general of the Philippines
  • Monument in honour of Magelhaens
  • The "Calzada"
  • Cockfighting
  • "Fiestas Reales"
  • Causes of the languid trade with Europe hitherto
  • Visit to the Cigar-manufactories
  • Tobacco cultivation in Luzon and at the Havanna
  • Abáca, or Manila hemp
  • Excursion to the "Laguna de Bay"
  • A row on the river Pasig
  • The village of Patero
  • Wild-duck breeding
  • Sail on the Lagoon
  • Plans for canalization
  • Arrival at Los Banos
  • Canaoe trip on the "enchanted sea"
  • Alligators
  • Kalong Bats
  • Gobernador and Gobernadorcillo
  • The Poll-tax
  • A hunt in the swamps of Calamba
  • Padre Lorenzo
  • Return to Manila
  • The "Pebete"
  • The military Library
  • The civil and military Hospital
  • Ecclesiatical processions
  • Ave Maria
  • Tagalian merriness
  • Condiman
  • Lunatic Asylum
  • Gigantic serpent thirty-two years old
  • Departure
  • Chinese pilots
  • First glimpse of the Celestial Empire
  • The Lemmas Channel
  • Arrival in Hongkong Harbour
Abáca, or Manila hemp

Another chief product of the Philippines, which first found its way into the markets of the world from these islands, is what is called Manila hemp. This, however, is not the common hemp plant (Cannabis sativa), but is produced from the fibres of the "Musa textilis" a species of banana, and is called by Tagals abáca. The plant comes in great quantities from a almost every one of the Philippines, from Luzon to Mindanao, so that the area over which it extends stretches between the equator and 200 N. This seems, however, to be the most northerly limit of vegetation of the Musa textilis, and consequently it is out of question to attempt to introduce into Europe the cultivation of this most useful plant, which, ere it can be profitably grown, requires a temperature of 77 Fahr. The stem of this musacea grows in the Philippines to a height of from 9 to 12 feet, by about (3 inches in thickness, its leaves being of an exceedingly dark green colour, 8 feet in length by 12 feet in width. The fruit is smaller, and neither so yellow nor so palatable as that of the common banana. To procure the hemp, the trunk, so soon as the fleshy bulbous fruit makes its appearance, is stripped of its splendid leaves, which serve as fodder for the oxen, and is left about three days to ferment. It is then peeled off in pieces, which by the application of a corresponding pressure are drawn between two knives, not too sharp, in order to separate the hemp, which now begins to be visible, from the bast, which, owing to the fermentation, has become rather brittle. This process is continued until the hemp is sufficiently cleaned to admit of its being spread out and dried in the sun. A skilful workman may make extract from 8 to 10 feet of hemp a day. There are 450,000 cwt. of hemp produced annually, of the value of £520,000, the greater part of which is sent to the United States of North America, while from 30,000 to (30,000 cwt. is manufactured into rigging for ships in the country itself, at the splendid factory of Messrs. Russell and Sturgis, an American firm, by whom it is exported to Singapore, Australia, arid China. This raw material, as well as the various products manufactured from it, has a magnificent future opening to it, and will ere lon g compete advantageously with English arid Russian hemp in the European markets. The principal objection as yet made to the use of the Manila hemp for rigging, viz. its contracting in wet weather, can easily be obviated by more careful treatment of the fibres in the process of manufacture. On the other hand, in strength and elasticity the abáca surpasses its rival, as has been proved by repeated experiments, especially over common European, and even Russian, hemp.* Messrs. Russell aud Sturgis have, it is true, monopolized the hemp product of the entire Archipelago, but under their fostering care it must sensibly increase and become perceptibly improved. From the leaves of Musa textilis, like those of all other species of the banana tribe, very excellent paper can be made, and by the increasing cultivation of the musaceæ in the tropics, two main objects could be attained, viz. providing a plentiful subsistence for the natives, and extending and cheapening the medium t hat mainly contributes to widen the circle of knowledge of mankind.**

Next to Musa Textilis, the Ramé shrub (Boehmeria tenacissma) especially deserves the attention of business men. The fibre of this member of the urticaceæ, which unites extraordinary toughness with much beauty and fineness, is stronger and more durable than that of Russian hemp, and with careful preparation would make into finer thread than the very expensive material which is used in Europe at the present day for making the world-famous Brussels point-lace. The variety of purposes to which this useful plant may be applied has hitherto been less fully recognized than those of the Manila hemp. In Europe the Boehmeria tenacissima is but found in botanical gardens, or herbariums, and as yet not the slightest use is made of it for industrial purposes. And yet the introduction on a large scale of Manila hemp and Ramé fibre into the European markets in place of Russian hemp, would have more than merely a commercial and industrial importance!***

We may also notice in this connection another description of fabrics made from fibrous material, which though but little known beyond the limits of the Archipelago, seems to us to deserve to be more extensively known, and, it would seem, may be most profitably taken up. These are the delicate almost transparent tissues prepared from the fibres of one of the Bromeliaceæ (ananassa sativa), which are used by the natives for ornamental shirts, chemisetts, and are known in commerce by the names of Piña or grass-cloths.**** The threads of these textures are so thin, that they can only be woven in apartments where there is not the slightest breath of air. The natives contrive to weave them into the most beautiful designs, and were they submitted to some chemical process which should impart to the web a clearer colour, less of a dirty yellow, the world of taste would be enriched by the addition of one of the most exquisite materials that could be pr esented to adorn the graceful form of woman, and while seeming to conceal her charms, would but render them more conspicuously attractive.


* The experiments made at Fort St. George near Madras in July, 1850, with lines and rigging made of abáca and European hemp, with the view of testing their respective availability, gave the following interesting results: a rope of Manila hemp, 12 feet long, 3 1/4 inches in circumference, and weighing 28 11/16 oz., required a strain of 4460 lbs. to break it: on the other hand a rope of English hemp of similar dimensions, weighing 39 oz., broke with a strain of only 3885 lbs. A second smaller rope of Manila hemp, 1 3/4 inches thick, and 9 1/2 oz. weight, also 12 feet in length, required 1490 lbs. to break it, while an exactly similar cord of English and Russian hemp, weighing 13 oz. per fathom, broke with 1184 lbs., so that in the first instance the abáca line was 13 percent., and in the second nearly 22 per cent. stronger than ropes of similar size of European hemp.

** Compare with Forbes Royle's valuable treatise upon Manila hemp, entitled "The Fibrous Plants of India fitted for cordage, clothing, and paper." London, 1855.

*** The best Manila hemp is worth fom 4 1/2 to 6 dollars per Spanish picul=140 lbs. Cordage made by steam power of the various dimensions, from half to one inch thick, tells at 25, and from one to five inches thick, at 10, piasters per picul.

**** The fabrics known by the name of Sinamay are on the other hand made of the fibres of the Musa textilis. They are of less gossamer tissue, but almost transparent, and far more durable than the fabrics made from the Piña.

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created: March 08, 1998
updated: March 08, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger