Indigenous Australians of Filipino descent trace their relatives across the seas

“If they ask me who I am, I always describe myself as an Aboriginal first because this is the country that I have been born in. This is the country of the Aboriginal people, but I also say that I have other backgrounds in me. I am proud to have those backgrounds because would I be around today if they didn’t come? No! Those people came here. They came for a reason. They mixed in a way with the Aboriginal people…” 


Kevin Puertollano

The publication of Re-imagining Australia: Voices of Indigenous Australians of Filipino descent, the new release book I wrote with Dr Christine Choo, was the catalyst that prompted Kevin Puertollano, his sister and his first cousin to go to Manila and attend our book launch on 18 October 2016.

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between Australia and the Philippines, the Australian Embassy and the Cultural Center of the Philippines hosted the book launch and the exhibit that showcased the little known historical link between Filipinos and Australians.

ccp-launch-aL-R: Roma Puertollano, Patricia Davidson, Deborah Ruiz Wall, Kevin Puertollano, Ambassador Amanda Gorely, Peter Sabatino, Josephine David Petero and Dr Raul Sunico

Tomás Puertollano, Kevin’s forebear was born in Sta Cruz, Marinduque in 1867. It was 127 years ago since Tomás arrived in Australia on the schooner, S.S. Australind from Singapore in 1889. He never returned to his homeland. In 1898, he married Agnes Guilwill Bryan, a ‘half-caste’ (of White and Aboriginal descent) in Beagle Bay. In 2014 after attending a family wedding in the Philippines, Roma Puertollano and Patricia Davidson made a quick visit to Marinduque to see what they can find about the story of Tomás. They met Fr Martin Puertollano, a parish priest in Sta Cruz, Marinduque. Fr Martin promised to help them look for baptismal and other relevant records.

In 2016, Kevin Puertollano, Roma Puertollano, and Patricia Davidson decided to attend the book launch in Manila and afterwards look for their Filipino relatives. They booked Dewey Hotel in Sta Cruz, Marinduque and made contact with Fr Martin. On 24 October 2016, Fr Martin  organised a Puertollano gathering at the hotel followed by a walk to the Sta Cruz church archives to find out more about their common ancestral connection.The following day, Fr Martin’s father invited local Puertollano families at his home in Suha where a big feast of local cuisine was served and speeches given by family representatives detailing how they are related.


Reconnection with Puertollano relatives from Marinduque; Fr Martin in yellow shirt

Adobo was a Filipino dish passed down to the descendants. Fr Martin asked Kevin to cook his Aboriginal Australian version of adobo and compare the result with his own local Marinduque version.

Kevin cooking adobo in Marinduque.jpgKevin’s Adobo: Aboriginal Broome version

The ‘cook-off’ test was judged by documentary film GMA I-Witness host, Howie Severino who with GMA film crew covered the Puertollano family reunion in Marinduque. It was a ‘tie’. Both versions were delicious but unique to the chefs. Australian Embassy staff members, Willa Santiago and Risa Rigets also went to Marinduque to witness this historic family event.

Willa Santiago,Roma Puertollano, Patricia Davidson & Nisa Rigets.jpg

L-R: Willa Santiago, Roma Puertollano, Patricia Davidson, Risa Rigets

New enquiries about Filipino family links from Torres Strait Islanders

Two Torres Strait Islanders – Peter Sabatino and Josephine David-Petero whose stories were featured in the book, also attended the book launch in Manila. After the launch, Peter went to Iloilo in the Visayas to look for clues about his forebear, Nicholas Sabatino who was born there in 1871. He needed more time to follow up leads so he planned to return and stay there for a month next year. Josephine also plans to return to the Philippines to find her paternal great grandfather’s relatives in Santos, Ilocos Sur. Agostin Cadawas, her Filipino forebear, was born in Santos in 1865 and arrived in Torres Strait in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

A brief historical background

Pearl divers from the Philippines came to work in Australia during the pearling industry boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Labour was scarce for the emerging pearling industry so some entrepreneurs engaged in blackbirding or kidnapping of Aboriginal workers and Pacific Islanders to fill their labour needs. This practice led to the passage of Pacific Islanders Protection Act 1872 – Imperial, Polynesian Labourers Act 1868 – Queensland, Pearlshell Fishing Regulation Act 1871, 1873 – Western Australia prohibiting the employment of Aboriginal women to protect them from gross abuses and  to regulate the industry more closely. Work opportunities opened for Asian workers who were recruited from the British ports of Singapore, Hong Kong and Colombo. Foreign shipping interests also recruited other men at ports in the Philippines.

At that time, the Philippines and Australia were not independent nations. Spanish Philippines and British Australia were in power. Until the first half of the 19th century, borders around the world were relatively porous and not centrally controlled. Between 1875 and 1882, ports along the northern coast of Australia were free ports and immigration policies were non-existent. Spain faced a serious challenge to its 300-year colonial rule over the islands. Some of the pearl diver recruits in Australia were likely self-exiled patriots or refugees fleeing the political turbulence in their country.

While overseas, there were those who provided support for the independence movement in the Philippines such as pearl divers, Valeriano Dalida and Albino Rabarta. Valeriano and Albino donated their savings of 1,000 pesos towards the purchase of a printing press in Hong Kong to be used for propaganda purposes. Two others: Candido Iban and Francisco del Castillo arrived in Australia to work as pearl divers in the late 1880s or early 1890s. Upon their return to the Philippines, Candido and Francisco became actively involved in the Filipino revolutionary struggle against Spain.


Our book preserved the descendants’ own voice, that is, their own style of storytelling. Subsequent sections in our book put these stories into a broader historical context.

A film crew from I-Witness, an award winning national TV program from GMA, a commercial Filipino TV network in the Philippines, followed the Puertollanos in Marinduque to film their homecoming (Balikbayan) and to document the realization of their dream of a reunion with family after one hundred twenty seven years. GMA continued filming in Australia after the Puertollanos returned home.

Interview with Howie Severino.jpg

Howie Severino interviews Deborah Ruiz Wall at the book launch

Kevin Puertollano and local Aboriginal media, Gollari Media Enterprises (GME) took the GMA film crew to Beagle Bay in the Kimberley, Western Australia where Tomás was buried and to Chile Creek, Lombadina. Tomás built one of the first churches in Lombadina and donated his own house to the Sisters of St John of God.

See GMA’s documentary web link:

Book launches completed in 2016

29 September  2016, St John of God Heritage Centre in Broome, Western Australia

18 October 2016, Cultural Center of the Philippines co-host with the Australian Embassy

10 November 2016,  Sydney University hosted by Sydney Southeast Asian Centre and the Philippine Consulate

28 November 2016, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra hosted by the Philippine Embassy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Book availability

The book sells for AUD $30 and can be purchased in Sydney from Gleebooks in Glebe, Sydney (Ph 02 95522526); UNSW Bookshop Quadrangle Building, College Road, Kensington NSW  (Ph 02 93856622) or from Deborah Ruiz Wall, Indigenous Australian Filipino Link in Sydney (; in Queensland, Keeaira Press online (; in Western Australia, New Edition Bookshop, 41 High St, Fremantle (Ph 08 93353272); in the Philippines, Solidaridad Bookshop, 531 Padre Faura, Ermita, Manila, and Loyola Schools Bookstore, Ateneo de Manila University, Loyola Heights Campus, Katipunan Ave, Quezon City.


One thought on “Indigenous Australians of Filipino descent trace their relatives across the seas

  1. We are one of the Puertollano’s here in the Philippines.. Our roots is from Zarraga Iloilo my great grand father was Juan Puertillano brother of Macario Puertollano an alteration of spelling letter o to i bcos of the war happened from the past Juan escape from Zarraga eloped his girlfriend named Patricia Javellana, hide and get married in Negros. and there they start to race a family with 7 siblings. Were going to celebrate our 1st degreeFamily Reunion this coming 8th of June 2019 here in Iloilo. The Puertollano clan reunion up to the last generation conducts a reunion celebration every 2nd weekend of April every year. And it happened just 2 days ago. To all the Puertollano’s around the world you are welcome to participate, to know your roots and family history to see your relatives and hear different stories about the Puertollanos.

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