W.A. Maritime Museum, Fremantle speech, Deborah Ruiz Wall, 1 February 2019

WA exhibit ad, 2018-19Re-imagining Australia: Voices of Indigenous Australians of Filipino descent

  • Deborah Ruiz Wall, PhD OAM

Acknowledgment of Country

I would like to acknowledge the Whadjuk people of the Noongar Nation, past and present, the traditional owners of the greater Fremantle area, the land where we stand today. Its Nyoongar name is Walyalup, a place that has strong social, spiritual, cultural and historic significance. We thank the Walyalup for allowing us to hold this gathering on their land. I’d like to acknowledge the WA Museum Director, Mr Jason Fair; the Philippine Honourary Consul, Mr Michael Gillis, and members of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network who are here today.


Good morning and thank you for your interest in coming over this morning to hear what I have to say about the exhibit and my work. I began my research about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Manilamen descent when I found out that people from my country of birth, the Philippines, have a shared history with Indigenous Australian people dating back from the nineteenth century. My own emotional sense of “belonging to Country” (thiscountry) as an Australian has been fortified by recognising Filipino people’s ancestral connection with “First Nations” people in Australia. Stories are what connects us because they are personal; they are local; they are close to the ground of experience, figuratively and materially. Like digging archaeologically, I have found remnants of cultural experience that enable re-imagining what life was like for them.

“Bipo taim” was a phrase used by a narrator from Torres Strait. When I asked what she meant, she explained that “Bipo” was a marker before colonial life took hold of their lives.  I associate “Bipo taim” to “Taim belong tambuna” (ancestors) in Papua New Guinea where I lived for a time in 1972-1973.

That is why the phrase “Re-imagining Australia” strikes a chord for me. In my own “re-imagining”, I felt the need to dig deeper from the stories that I heard and from the old family photographs and personal documents Manilamen descendants shared with me to discover their connection with Australian colonial administration that transformed their lives. Questions that came to my mind were: Who were the ‘Manilamen’? How did they end up in Australia?  In relation to “Bipo taim”, what was it like “aftertaim”?

Two stories connect— “before” and “after”.

My first clue was the publication in 1993 of Reynaldo C. Ileto and Rodney Sullivan’s book, Discovering Australasia: Essays on Philippine-Australian Interactions. Their book cover featured Manilaman, Heriberto Zarcal’s impressive two-storey building on Thursday Island in Torres Strait with the massive sign “Noli Me Tangere”[1](Touch Me Not – in Latin). This book aroused much interest within the academic and diplomatic circles at that time. Ileto suggested that Zarcal might be the “first Filipino-Australian.”[2]

Zarcal, a pearl diver recruit in Australia’s booming pearling industry in the 19th century, was mentioned in Philippine textbooks as “the 1898 Philippine Revolutionary government’s ‘diplomatic agent’ in Australia.” Around that time, challenges to Spanish colonial rule impelled some natives in the Philippines to leave their country to escape the political upheaval. The “push-pull” notion of emigration explains from a “push” factor what drove Zarcal and his compatriots to leave Spanish Philippines, a country experiencing political turmoil. In British Northern Australia, meanwhile, the ‘pull’ factor — economic opportunities — were opening up. Abuses of Aboriginal divers by their employers led to the passage of the Polynesian Labourers Act (Queensland)1868, which banned their employment in the pearling industry. This ban resulted in a shortage of labour that encouraged employers to recruit Japanese, Malays, Filipinos, Chinese and others to work in the industry. As early as 1869, Manilamen recruits already found work as “swimming divers” and later as “dress divers” (diving with corselet, helmet and air hose).[3]

The seafarer recruits from the Philippines were called Manilamen although they did not necessarily originate from Manila. Manilamen were part of a global class of workers who crewed vessels that linked the Philippines to Asia, Africa, the Americas, Australia and Oceania. From this point of view, “globalisation” is actually an old phenomenon. Historian, Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. referred to Manilamen seafarers who served as mercenaries in 1818, when a Frenchman, Hypolite Bouchard, led two ships in a siege of Monterey, California in a bid to liberate California, then a possession of Spain ruled through Mexico. Bouchard’s crew included Hawaiians, Americans, Spaniards, Portuguese, Creoles (Mexicans), Malays, Englishmen and Manilamen.[4] In 1763, Manilamen sailors plying the Manila Acapulco trade route jumped ship and settled in Louisiana’s Bayou country.[5]Years later in 1790, the US Naturalization Act granted the right of US citizenship only to all “free white persons”.[6]

In 1819, British Singapore was founded as a free port. It served as an important node in the global maritime network in which Manilamen circulated. In the 1891 census, Manilamen, Chinese, Boyanese Bugis, Dyaks and Javanese fell under the broad classification of “Malays and other Natives of the Archipelago.” Between 1800-1850, trade routes between Australia and Asia brought hundreds of sailing ships from Brisbane and Sydney through the Torres Strait and to ports in India and other parts of Asia. Goods from the Philippines made their way to Australia through the British colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong when the Philippines opened to international trade in 1834. Trade connection between the colonies of Australia and the Philippines began in the early part of the 19th century. Why inhabitants from the Philippines were called “Manilamen” and not Filipinos can be explained. During the Spanish regime, the term “Filipino” referred to creoles[7]born in the Philippines to distinguish them from Spaniards born in Europe. In Spanish Philippines, the original inhabitants were called indios.Theilustrados, or Filipino educated class in the late 19th century, only began to appropriate “Filipino” as a badge of national identity from the 1880s. Outside the Philippines, the inhabitants from the Philippines were called Manilamen, a term that geographically identified their origin. Otherwise they might have been classified under the generic term, “Malay.”

At the time of the Manilamen’s arrival in Australia, the political climate was not conducive to giving Asians and Aborigines equal rights with European settlers. Equal rights with the Spaniards were what the Ilustrados from the Spanish Philippines were also seeking. When Zarcal arrived on Thursday Island in 1892, he was only 28 years old. His desire to become naturalized as a British subject was part what Aguilar calls “instrumental citizenship.” Without becoming a British subject, Zarcal would not have been able to own luggers and schooners and would have been restricted to being a diver or a member of an Asian crew. Zarcal was 33 when on 8 May 1897, he became a British subject. His lawyer stated that under Section 5 of the Aliens Act of 1867, “Any Alien being a native of an European or North American state and not being an alien enemy who shall attend before one or more justices of the peace in petty sessions assembled and take and subscribe the oath of allegiance to Her Majesty contained in the schedule to this Act annexed shall henceforth be a naturalized British subject.”

Zarcal’s lawyer argued that the Philippine Islands, the birthplace of Zarcal, was a Spanish possession and could be said to be part of a European state. Upon hearing of Zarcal’s naturalization, an irate letter writer to the local press who identified as “Torres Strait for the Whites” posed a rhetorical question: “Shall we suffer the men who ought to be our servants to become our masters?’’

The political climate deteriorated for Asians and Aborigines. A law was passed, the Aborigines Protection Act, WA 1886, which appointed Protectors of Aborigines and given wide powers to intervene in the lives of Aboriginal people with respect to the care, custody and education of their children. Magistrates were empowered by the Act to apprentice Aboriginal children to work to the age of 21 years. In the same year, the Sharks Bay Shell Fishing Act was passed, giving the Governor discretionary power to refuse Asian applicants a pearling licence, effectively excluding them from the lucrative industry from becoming lugger owners and entrepreneurs.

In 1901 when Australian British colonies became one nation, the Immigration Restriction Act was passed introducing the “dictation test” and stringent criteria for the entry of immigrants into the country. In 1901, the Aboriginals Protection Act 1901 placed restrictions on marriages between Indigenous women and non-Indigenous men. The local European settlers called for even more stringent legislation to limit “alien” employment of Aboriginal people. In 1905, the Aborigines Act barred Aboriginal people’s access to towns between sunset and sunrise, forcing them to live in reserves outside towns, and giving the Chief Protector the right to remove Aboriginal adults to any district if he believed it was in their interest to do so. This Act also prohibited co-habitation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

These laws affected Manilamen descendants and their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Before Federation, some Manilamen were more easily able to obtain naturalization. After Federation, the descendants had a much harder time. Thomas Puertollano’s application for naturalization was denied because he was ineligible to apply being “an Aboriginal native of Asia.” Thomas, a Manilaman recruited from Singapore, was the great grandfather of Kevin Puertollano. Despite the high regard for Thomas in the community in Broome and the positive references he was given by European leaders of high standing, Thomas still failed to obtain naturalization. He died an alien in 1942.

Another Manilaman, Agostin Cadawas, the paternal great grandfather of Josephine Petero-David from Hammond Island, was issued a Certificate of Registration of Alien. This certificate enabled authorities to track down aliens’ change of residence.[8]Perhaps because Manilamen like Agostin were known to authorities as having families with locals in remote regions, the state had not bothered with deportation orders. National belonging under the construct of citizenship was not reflected in the narrators’ concept of self and collective identification. One of our narrators from Broome, Kevin Puertollano stated, “I know I have been asked many times if I am a Filipino or an Aboriginal. Well, I can’t help myself. The Filipinos came here and they had an influence in the place, and I’m me. I can only be me.”

Before Federation, naturalization was race-based. The development of a state policy on naturalisation and border protection continues to evolve. In 2017, it was discovered that some sitting members of Parliament held dual citizenship that, according to sec 44 of the Australia Constitution, would render them incapable of holding office as a Senator or as a member of the House of Representatives. In The Australiannews commentary yesterday (31 January 2019, p.12), George Williams, Dean of Law at the University of NSW, warned that a government bill aimed at expanding the grounds on which citizenship may be stripped from dual nationals was “unworkable”.


The stories that the descendants shared about their forebears’ travel from a Spanish territory acrossto a British colony and withinAustralia’s borders were set in times that marked Australia’s emergence into nationhood. Some men who left the Philippines for Torres Strait and Broome were effectively political refugees. They left for political and economic reasons to escape the political unrest in their country and to find a better life. Within Australia, they faced internal borders of a different kind. Europeans involved in the pearling industry were hostile to competition from Asian or coloured entrepreneurs. Zarcal’s business rivals accused him of using naturalisation as a way to circumvent immigration regulations against coloured people in the pearling industry.

Two phrases come to my mind when reflecting on the experience of Manilamen — “double exile”[9]and “the outsiders within”[10]. I would like to conclude my presentation with a poem I wrote borrowing Peta Stephenson’s book title, The Outsiders within.

The Outsiders within

Bones lay buried forty fathoms deep,

Oh if only the turquoise ocean can speak!

The wizard wind carries lonesome melodies

Echoing memories of the past hundred years

Of schooners, luggers, pearl shells

And waves of settlers called Manilamen

Washed ashore in Torres Strait and Broome,

Their descendants and offsprings

Of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

With new arrivals on their trail

Sing songs that graft new tunes into old,

The ancient songlines with tracks on rocks and soils

Of mixed identities fused.

The red sandy soil stirs up old memories

That honour forebears who dived

In the depths of the continent’s soul

With black women who took the lead,

Embracing mixed traditions,

Their gaze never quite turned away

From their roots, the distant islands of their Dreamtime

From where their ships had sailed away.

© Deborah Ruiz Wall



Bilateral relations

Note about the reaction of diplomats from Australia and the Philippines to the book, Ileto, R. & Sullivan, R., eds. 1993. Discovering Australasia: Essays on Philippine-Australian Interactions, Department of History & Politics, Townsville, James Cook University:

Former Ambassador to the Philippines, Mack Williams wrote in the Preface that he was inspired by a paper presented by Rodney Sullivan at a university in the Northern Territory in 1990, “What Might a History of Australian-Philippine Relations Be?” to see how his Embassy “might lend its support to the dedicated efforts of Rodney and Reynaldo and their associates in Australia to unravel some of the previously unwritten history of the relationship.”

Former Ambassador to Australia, Rora Navarro-Tolentino wrote in the Foreword:

“…while it was only fairly recently that Australia officially identified and asserted itself as an Asia-Pacific country, the book attests to the early engagements between Australia and the Philippines far longer than is widely known. She noted that in 1974, Australia began a formal dialogue with ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations and both are members of APEC – Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

 PowerPoint Slide headings:

  • TITLE: Re-imagining…
  • Map of Broome & Torres Strait
  • Ileto & Sullivan’s book cover
  • Photo of Broome Manilamen descendants, 2008
  • Photo of Torres Strait Manilamen descendants, 2015
  • Thomas Puertollano’s application for Naturalisation, 1908
  • Alien certificate of Agostin Cadawas, 1917
  • Photo of Broome book launch, 2016
  • Photo of Manila book launch, 2016
  • Manila media reaction, 2016
  • Photo of Puertollanos reconnecting with family, 2016
  • Photo of GMA’s Manilamen documentary, 2016
  • Photo of 1stexhibit launch, Canberra, 2016
  • Photo of 2ndexhibit, Broome 2017
  • Photo of 3rdexhibit, WA Maritime Museum, 8 Dec-18 Feb 2019
  • Summary of book reviews & feedback



[1]Noli Me Tangere(published in 1887 and 1889) was the title of Jose Rizal’s novel that inspired the Philippine revolution against Spain.

[2]Ileto, R. & Sullivan, R. eds. 1993.Discovering Australasia: Essays on Philippine-Australian Interactions, Department of History & Politics, Townsville, James Cook University, p.22

[3]Aguilar Jr, F.V.Jr. 2014. Migration Revolution: Philippine Nationhood & Class Relations in a Globalized Age, NUS Press Singapore in association with Kyoto University Press, Japan, p.41

[4]ibid, p.37.

[5]The presence of Louisiana Manilamen was recorded as early as 1763. Louisiana Manilamen would likely be the oldest continuous Asian American settler community in North America and would be party to the keystone issue of American national identity in terms of the question:“Were Louisiana Manilamen Americans”? https://www.pbs.org/ancestorsintheamericas/time_06.html(accessed 7 February 2019).

[6]The first statute in the United States to codify naturalization lawwas known as “The Nationality Act” —the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricing citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the U.S. for two years. This law, in effect, left out indentured servants, slaves, and most women. http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Naturalization_Act_of_1790/(accessed 7 February, 2019).

[7]The term “creole” was originally used by French settlers in Louisiana during the period of French and Spanish rule to distinguish those born in Louisiana from those born in the mother country.

[8]Josephine Petero-David interviewed by Wall, July 2015, tape and transcript held by author. See Wall, D. 2017. “Movement across and within borders: Stories of Indigenous Australians of Filipino descent from Torres Strait and Broome” in Moving Memories: Oral Histories in a Global World, Oral History Australia, Journal No. 39, p. 5.

[9]Shnukal, A. 2011. “A double exile: Filipino settlers in the outer Torres Strait islands, 1870s-1940s” in Konishi, S. and Nugent, M. eds, Aboriginal History, Vol. 35, p. 4

[10]Stephenson,P. 2007.The Outsiders within: Telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian story, Sydney, UNSW Press.


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