Filipinos In Cape Town—A Valuable Presence Since The 19th Century

 Capetown, South Africa (Photo by Greg Lumley)

Capetown, South Africa (Photo by Greg Lumley)

“A strong and happy community” of a Filipino fishing village in South Africa

Cape Town is the jewel in the crown of South Africa. It is the legislative capital of this country, the other two being Pretoria, its executive seat, and Bloomfontein, its judicial center. This was brought about by a peculiar quirk of history because, after the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1901, a settlement was reached with the British to establish a Union in 1910, which evenly distributed the administration to three of four provinces then — the Cape Colony, the Transvaal (with Pretoria) and Free State (Bloomfontein). Only Natal (with Durban as its biggest city) did not get this concession.

During my assignment as Philippine Ambassador to South Africa (2003-2009), I had the experience of traveling each year in February for the opening of Parliament to hear the President deliver his State of the Nation address. This was a grand occasion when government bigwigs and the diplomatic corps convened at the historic Parliament building in Cape Town (now modified to adapt to the new government structure of 1994).

 Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

British, Afrikaner and native ceremony coalesced to make it a coruscating occasion with the women clad either in garments and hats that would not have been out of place in Ascot, or colorful African wear, which brilliantly reflected Nkoza, Zulu or Nedebele traditions.

This was the occasion to see and even meet the President himself (during my term, Thabo Mbeki from 2003 to 2007, Kglalema Mothlante in 2008 and finally, Jacob Zuma in 2009) as well as former President Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel; former President FW de Klerk (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela) or Bishop Desmond Tutu.

 Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr. with son, Paul Philippe Reyes, at presentation of credentials to President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa,  2003 (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr. with son, Paul Philippe Reyes, at presentation of credentials to President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa,  2003 (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

Cape Town’s more laidback style than Pretoria lent itself to more casual encounters with government ministers and opinion-makers. Ambassadors of countries with second residences in this capital, such as the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany and the United States used this time to invite their colleagues to cocktails and dinners al fresco. It was thus possible to do business in a more relaxed setting.

The Premier of the Western Cape, the Mayor of Cape Town and the Foreign Minister made it their custom to invite the Diplomatic Corps as well to historic sites such as the Vergelegen Wine Estate or the Cape Town Art Centre.

But it was the President’s reception at the Tuinhys (the Presidential quarters near the Parliament) or on the grounds of Groote Schoor (Cecil Rhodes’ former estate) that was the stellar attraction.

The Tuinhys (Afrikaner for Garden House) had the magnificent Cape Mountain in the background while the Groote Schoor bordered the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. The Cape Dutch style popularized by Cecil Rhodes and his favored architect, Herbert Baker, was reflected in both presidential buildings.

I appreciated Cape Town for many reasons, aside from its major role as legislative capital. It has many picturesque villages, vineyards, art galleries and museums, more relaxed relations between the races, and there’s the intellectual stimulus given by a world-class university (indeed, the South African 2003 Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee had taught at the University of Cape Town before moving to Australia).

Filipinos in Kalk Bay

But as Philippine Ambassador, it was my special privilege to meet the descendants of the Cape Town Filipinos, who had been around since the 1860s. By a coincidence, we had an Honorary Consulate in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, headed by the very able former Ambassador Allan Harvey, not far away from where the first Filipinos landed and established a fishing settlement. In fact (although this is getting ahead of the story), the Catholic Church in Kalk Bay had been established for them.


Today, it is said that there is Filipino blood among at least 80 percent of Kalk Bay’s fishing families.

As recounted by Michael J. Walker of the Kalk Bay Association, Kalk Bay had been a mini-port for the Dutch as well as a whaling station that had waned with the decline of that industry. It was the arrival of the Filipinos that revitalized Kalk Bay once more in the 1860s as a fishing village and a tourist spot.

There are several theories on how the Filipinos came to Cape Town around 1860. It may be recalled that during the Manila Galleon Trade (1565-1815), the nexus of the Philippines to Europe would have been through Mexico. The alternative route would have been the long one going around the Cape of Good Hope and skirting Africa to finally arrive in Spain. This would have been before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which considerably shortened this distance.

One theory is that around 1860, a ship from the Philippines was wrecked in a place called False Bay in the vicinity of Kalk Bay. The seamen found the place so attractive and so abundant with fish that they decided to stay and thus founded a fishing village there. Among the fish that they caught were the ones locally known as kabeljou, Steenbras, geelbek and snoek. It was a natural fit between the natives of an archipelago and the marine abundance that teemed in Kalk Bay near Cape Town.

The second theory, although still not proven and perhaps more fanciful, is that the first Filipino came on board the American Confederate raider ship, the Alabama, in 1873. His name was Felix Florez and he was to play a major role in the settlement of Filipinos in the Cape Town area. Florez was a Filipino-Spanish mestizo from Panay who later married a local lass called Maria Chapman.

The South Africans theorize the following: “Barques carrying sugar from the East Indies to America and ploughing their way through the Roaring Forties in the teeth of fierce Atlantic gales often sought shelter and provisions at Cape Town or Simon’s Town. Among their crew were men from the Philippine Islands.”

Although it has been proved that Filipinos had settled in such places as Acapulco in Mexico as well as in California and New Orleans in the United States (where they were called “Manila Men”), no documentation has yet been found on Filipinos crewing on sugar barques plying the route from the East Indies to Cape Town and further on, to Europe.

What is more probable is that the Filipinos were on board Spanish ships that docked in Kalk Bay or Cape Point and this is where the stories of Felix Florez and other Filipino compatriots coincide. As recounted by Michael Walker in “Kalk Bay: a place of character”

The main influx of Filipinos seems to have come from ship deserters
And Filipinos who fled their homeland after the rise of national sentiment
against the Spanish rule …Felix Florez was more or less the headman of the
Filipino community. He had a shop in Kalk Bay and supplied those deserters
Who heeded his call with fishing gear and with quarters. He was greatly
Respected and feared, but was a source of security for all Filipinos, be they
Ship deserters or refugees fleeing from their homeland. (P.15)

Today, it is said that there is Filipino blood among at least 80 percent of Kalk Bay’s fishing families. Among the settlers were, besides Felix Florez, the Torres brothers, Pasqual de Marcio, Pascual Dolmazio, Estoquir, Francisco Eduard, Aguilan, Lucas Macranus, Juan Granz, Juan Manuel, Francisco Santiago and Heronimina Fernandez.

Besides Felix Florez the headman, another dominant personality in the Filipino settlement was the Reverend Father Duignam, the Catholic priest who worked for five decades serving the Filipinos and who spearheaded the building of the Roman Catholic Church and Convent at St. James in Muizenberg in Kalk Bay. This was constructed on a piece of land granted by the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir George Grey, in St. James.

It was Father Duignam who noted how the Filipinos had to struggle to attend Mass since they had to sail their boats to attend services in Simon’s Town. They also had language difficulties as they spoke Spanish and their native tongues among themselves. Father Duignam, who spoke Spanish, had a natural gift for languages and could easily communicate with them. Although originally sent to attend to the Filipino flock for only six months, he ended up being their Pastor from 1874 to 1925. He is credited for welding them into “a strong and happy community.”

Father Duignam had the strong support of the Venerable Archdeacon Richard Brooke of the Holy Trinity Church in Kalk Bay (1901-22), who was an advocate for the Filipino fishermen’s rights via-a-vis the government and assisted them in times of disaster and during the flu epidemic of 1918.

Although they had long been gone from their homeland, these Filipino descendants never forgot their roots. In the 1960s, they contributed towards the upkeep of a sanitary facility in Manila, where there were hospital beds bearing the sign “Donated by the descendants and friends of the original settlers of Kalk Bay in South Africa.”

They were also known for exotic dishes such as fish frikkadel (similar to hamburger but with fish); porpoise steak, whale steak, octopus stew, periwinkle soup, mussel stew and seaweed jelly. It is said that the particular fishermen’s vocabulary which prevailed in Kalk Bay stemmed from the Filhispanic patois that was spoken there.

In the natural course of time, the “Manillas”(as the Filipinos were called) became assimilated with the Cape Town ”coloreds”(people of mixed race). Being Christians (as opposed to the Cape Town Malays, who were descended from the Muslim slaves who had migrated from Dutch Batavia (Indonesia), they easily married into the local Christian populace. Their Catholic background cushioned their integration into this society.

They were also part of the unhappy episode of apartheid in South Africa. Cape Town had had a liberal tradition of allowing people to mix that dated back to its earlier origins of being a port open to all influences. Its people had been allowed not only to intermarry, but also to coexist side by side and to vote in elections, a privilege that had been reversed in the times of apartheid. To this day, Cape Town maintains this liberal following, to which the Filipino South Africans hew.

On November 21 and 22, 2009, I had the honor of joining the Filipino descendants Community Association of Cape Town in celebrating 150 years of the Filipino presence in this storied area of South Africa. Among the activities for this commemoration were the blessing of the Plaque and Remembrance Wall and Cross at the St. James Catholic Church. Present were the Honorary Consul Allan and Mrs. Ina Harvey, Monsignor John Baird and descendants of the Filipinos headed by Mr. and Mrs. Gerard and Shirley Assam.

 Filipino Descendants of Capetown

Filipino Descendants of Capetown

 Pinay descendants of Capetown at memorial service (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

Pinay descendants of Capetown at memorial service (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

 Gerard and Shirley Assam, heads of the descendants of the Filipinos in Cape Town (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

Gerard and Shirley Assam, heads of the descendants of the Filipinos in Cape Town (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

We also actually sailed out to sea in a small boat in order to throw a wreath onto the waves as part of the ceremonies. Though I had not thought of it then, I now think it also fittingly paid tribute to the Filipino fishermen who had died at sea in their endeavors. They were among the first OFWs who showed the world the worth of their country and people.

It was the feast day of Christ the King and just four days away from my departure from South Africa after a six-year assignment, on November 26, 2009. Coincidentally, too, my projected arrival back in the Philippines, November 30, was the feast day of Manila’s patron, Saint Andrew, and the birthday of Andres Bonifacio.

Having made a gift of a replica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Parish of St. James Catholic Church, I mentioned to the assembly that she was the patron of both Mexico and the Philippines, stating: “How appropriate that we now unite Our Lady of Guadalupe with the Church of St. James! As you know, St. James is Santiago in Spanish and he is the patron saint of Spain, as in Santiago of Compostela!”

 Our Lady of Guadalupe (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

Our Lady of Guadalupe (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes, Jr.)

How the threads of history united in Cape Town--this bit of heaven and earth where two oceans meet, with Filipinos at its confluence!


 Virgilio A. Reyes, Jr.

Virgilio A. Reyes, Jr.

A career diplomat of 35 years, Ambassador Virgilio A. Reyes, Jr. served as Philippine Ambassador to South Africa (2003-2009) and Italy(2011-2014), his last posting before he retired. He is now engaged in writing, travelling and is dedicated towards cultural heritage projects.