Philippines – The Visayan Islands

WE have left Manila on one of the coasting steamers, and are now making our way from port to port through the Visayan Islands, which form the middle zone of our Philippine archipelago. They are of much the same nature as Luzon, composed of mountains and valleys with rich plains here and there along the coast.

The land is everywhere green. The plains are covered with plantations of rice, sugar, and hemp, and the mountains are so wooded that they look blue in the distance, rolling on and on in smoky masses until lost in the low-hanging clouds. The coasts are bordered with cocoanut trees which here grow at their best, and under them are silver-gray villages of thatched huts, with fishing traps on the beach, and fishing inclosures fenced with bamboos extending far out from the shore. We pass quaint boats with outriggers manned by brown-skinned men and boys engaged in catching and trapping the fish for which the waters are noted. Some are gathering beche de mer, and others the pearl shells off the coral islands of the group.

As we go onward, stopping at a new island every few days, we are surprised at the size of the Visayan Islands, and also at their resources and large population. These islands have about a fifth of all the land in the Philippines ; they are more than twice as large as Vermont. They have more than one third of all the people of the Philippines, or more than four times the combined population of the Solomons, the Fijis, New Caledonia, Samoa, the Carolines, and the Hawaiian Islands. They have three hundred and fifty towns, ranging from fifteen hundred to twenty-five thousand inhabitants each, and more than thirteen hundred and sixty villages with a total population of about two and one half millions.

The most of the Visayan people are on the six larger islands of the group ; namely, Panay (pa-ni’), Negros (na’gros), Samar (sa’mar), Leyte (la’ta), Cebu (sa-boo’), and Bohol (bo-hol’). These islands are also the richest. They abound in hard wood and in hemp, sugar cane, tobacco, and rice. They raise many kinds of vegetables and all sorts of tropical fruits. Some of them are rich in iron, copper, and coal, and others have gold, silver, and lead.

The Visayan people are somewhat similar to the natives of Luzon, although they have a different language. They live about the same way, and their villages are not unlike those we saw north of Manila.

We stop at Cebu, the capital of Cebu Island, situated where Magellan made his treaty with the natives, and cross over to Mactan, just opposite, where he was killed. Cebu is one of the chief hemp ports of the Philippines, and we can now see how this important product is raised and prepared for the markets.

Do you know what hemp is ? Every one of us has used it again and again. We have handled it as string and played with it as jumping rope. Some of our farmers bind their grain with it, our seamen use it to pull up and let down their sails, and it is made into all sorts of ropes from clotheslines to cables. Here in the Philippines the finer kinds are woven into cloth, and some varieties are sent to Paris where they are made into hats, nets, and carpets.

Hemp comes from the fibers of certain plants found in various parts of the world. Manila hemp, which is about the best’ of all, is the variety produced in the Philippines. It is the fiber of the same plant family that produces the banana. The hemp plant looks just like a banana plant, being composed of many wide leaves wrapped round and round a central stalk, which, when full grown, reaches a height of fifteen or more feet. The outer leaves are of a beautiful green; they are about a foot wide and often ten feet in length. As they grow they branch out from the stalk, shading the ground. The hemp comes from the white inner leaves, which are wound tightly around the central stem, there being so many that the plant at its base is often ten inches thick.

As it stands in the field it is as crisp as celery, and it can be chopped off with a carving knife or corn cutter. Each leaf has countless fibers extending through it, and these, when cleaned and dried, form the hemp of commerce.

Hemp is raised in all of the Philippine Islands, and it is so largely exported that it brings in millions of dollars every year. At the town where we land on the coast of Leyte, we see hemp fibers spread out on fences to dry, and we see men baling the hemp. Later on we go out on horseback with one of the natives to visit his plantation, passing buffalo carts loaded with hemp coming in. We go by vast fields of hemp, and our friend takes us through a mile or so of hemp fields on his estate to a place where men are harvesting the crop. We follow him closely for fear we may get lost. It is noon, but the plants are so near together that their great leaves join and shut out the sun; there are no paths, and we can see but a few feet in any direction. Now and then we stumble upon a cocoa-nut tree, but, as a rule, there is nothing but hemp, hemp, hemp.

Here and there is an open place where a stalk has been cut, but sprouts are growing about the stump, and we are told that a plantation once started reproduces itself many times. In forming new fields the sprouts from the older plants are pulled off and planted, and three years after that time the crop is ready for cutting. The only cultivation necessary is to keep down the weeds and to set out fresh sprouts now and then.

Let us watch them harvesting the hemp. Brown-skinned, half-naked men chop down the plants and tear them apart, throwing away the green outer leaves and taking the long white inner ones on their shoulders to the strippers. The strippers squeeze out the pulp and juice by drawing the hemp over a log upon which a dull knife is so hinged that it can be forced tightly down upon the leaf to press the pulp out as the man pulls it through. As the fiber comes out it is wrapped about a stick to keep it from breaking, and when finished it looks like a skein of fine silk. It now needs only to be dried in the sun to be ready for market.

After drying, the hemp is twisted up like . hanks of yarn, and taken to the warehouses, where it is sorted and packed for shipment to all parts of the world.

Leaving Leyte we call at Negros to visit some of the sugar plantations for which that island is noted, and then sail on to Iloilo (e-lo-e’lo), on the south coast of Panay. Iloilo is the second city of the archipelago and the chief port of the Visayans; it lies on an arm of the sea just off the strait, which runs between Panay and the little rocky island of Guimaras (ge-ma-ras’), having a wide and deep harbor.

The ground about the town is low and sandy, but there are mountains behind it. There are cocoanut trees an the edge of the city, and we hear the wind rustling through their green leaves as we ride in one of the small boats to the shore. We are again in the home of the cocoanut, and from now on shall see men gathering and drying cocoanut meat for copra wherever we go. Nearly all the Visayan Islands raise copra for export, and vast quantities of it are produced in Mindanao and in the Sulu Archipelago still farther south.

We spend but little time in Iloilo. It is only a small city, its best houses made of stone covered with stucco, and the poorer ones of poles thatched with palm leaves. We shop at the stores, and visit factories and other establishments, but find them much the same as those of Luzon.

We take excursions out into the country either on horse-back or in carts hauled by cattle with humps on their backs. They are similar to the sacred cattle of India, being as fine looking as a pure Jersey cow, They are used for plowing and all sorts of work.

The Visayans outside the cities live much the same as the natives of Luzon. They are huddled together in villages, and their houses are, if anything, more rude than those farther north. They are usually built well up from the ground, so that one has to climb to the front door on a ladder of bamboo poles. The ladders have rungs about as big around as one’s arm, and we sit on them now and then as we chat with the people. The rungs, in fact, are the front steps of the huts, and we frequently see the little ones playing upon them, turning over and over, and crawling in and out as in a gymnasium. or circus.

Out in the country the people have on less clothing than in the north. Little children wear cotton shirts which reach halfway to the knees, and the babies are often naked.

Other things, are equally primitive. See that girl in the field over there with a log on her shoulder. That log is her water bucket, and she is bringing a drink to her father. It is a bamboo tube six inches thick and twice as long as herself, with all the joints, except the one at the lower end, knocked out so that it will hold water. If she gives us a drink, we shall probably have to stand behind her and allow her to lower the tube to the level of our mouths, and the chances are, if we do so, we shall get a cold bath during the drinking.

Before leaving Iloilo we go to see our little brown cousins at school. The United States government has established schools in all parts of the islands, for it has determined that every Filipino shall have a good education. The schools look much like ours, although the children of the same age are smaller. They are brown skinned, and they wear clothes which would seem odd in our schoolrooms at home. Every boy has his shirt outside his trousers, and both boys and girls are in their bare feet or in slippers without stockings.

We are surprised at the interest the children take in their studies. Every one throws up his hand as the teacher asks a question, and the answers are bright. The Filipinos are naturally intelligent, and anxious to learn. They all study English. They are being taught the principles of our government, and in time they will probably be as far advanced in American citizenship as our people at home.