Saint Malo, Louisiana
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Saint Malo was a small fishing village that existed in southeast Louisiana on the shore of Lake Borgne, from the mid-18th century colonial period into the early 20th century, when it was destroyed by a hurricane. It was the first settlement of Filipinos in the United States.
Folklore contends that Saint Malo may have the first Filipino settlement in Louisiana and possibly the first Asian settlement. Oral histories claim St. Malo was established in 1763 by deserters from Spanish ships during the Manila Galleon trade, in what became St. Bernard Parish (then part of Spanish Louisiana), on the shore of Lake Borgne. Unfortunately, there are no primary source materials available to back this claim up. The primary source material available from newspapers and ancestry records place the founding of the settlements in the 1830s and 1840s. Saint Malo persisted into the early 20th century, until it was destroyed by the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915. The people who settled in the bayous were called "Manilamen," "Manillians" and "Tagalas." They governed themselves and kept their community's existence separate from mainstream society. The diet in the village was mainly fish.
The area of St. Malo is named after the leader of a group of maroons. In 1784 a group of enslaved Africans led by Jean Saint Malo escaped to a marshy area of Lake Borgne, with weapons obtained from free people of color and plantation slaves. Jean Saint Malo was captured by Spanish forces. On June 19, 1784, he was hanged in front of St. Louis Cathedral in what is now called Jackson Square, New Orleans.
St. Malo was on a waterway called Saint Malo Bayou, about 5 miles (8.0 km) east of the fishing village of Shell Beach.
The Saint Malo settlement was established, by some accounts, as early as 1763 by Filipinos who deserted from Spanish ships during the Manila Galleon trade. (Other accounts suggest that the community was established sometime after 1812.) Reasons for their desertion from the ships varied; however their desire to escape the Spanish brutalities is generally regarded as the main reason. They settled in the marshlands of Louisiana where no Spaniards could reach them. The people who settled in the bayous were called Manilamen and later on Tagalas. Some scholars believe that they governed themselves and kept their existence a secret from mainstream society for over a hundred years. This belief came from the romanticized portrayal of St. Malo by journalist Lafcadio Hearn who published a famous article in Harper's Weekly in 1883. Primary source material from the Early American Republic demonstrates that the Manilamen were well known to the people of New Orleans and had families theres. In fact, these men would often have conflicts with Spanish fishermen from neighboring Proctorville.
Hearn was able to visit the village, and his account provided very detailed information regarding their dwellings. The Manilamen lived in small houses which were supported above the water by stilts. The palmetto and woven cane did not have the durability to withstand the violent climate of the bayous. Much of the wood needed to build the houses had to be shipped from various parts of Louisiana, as wood strong enough to support dwellings could not be easily found in the swamps. Since many creatures of all kinds lived in the swamps, the dwellers found it necessary to improvise their houses. They had every window closed with wire netting to protect themselves from mosquitos and other insects and also had to be vigilant for reptiles and other animals abound in the swamps. There was no furniture, no table, no chair and no bed in any of the dwellings. What could have been considered as mattresses were filled with what Hearn called "dry Spanish-beard, commonly known today as Spanish moss which is in fact not a moss but is an epiphytic plant that can be found hanging from trees." These were laid upon "tiers" of shelves faced against the walls. According to Hearn the fishermen slept at night "among barrels of flour and folded sails and smoked fish."
An article by Samuel A. Cartwright in the New Orleans Daily Delta entitled "The Piraeus of New Orleans - A Safe Retreat from Yellow Fever" argued that the physical location of St. Malo protected the dwellers from yellow fever. In his published letter to Colonel Claiborne, Cartwright noted that "many persons from the city, during the epidemic, fled to the lake [Borgne], and, those that could not get house-room, camped out, on its banks. Constant communication twice a day was kept up with the infected city; yet all those fishermen and other persons, who did not leave the lake, escaped the disease." Cartwright believed that the presence of guano-rich soil in the area might have protected the inhabitants of St. Malo and Proctorville.
The 1854 article by Cartwright differs somewhat from Hearn's characterization of St. Malo. Cartwright refers to the inhabitants of St. Malo as "aborigines who were doubtlessly better acquainted with the geography of that part of Louisiana than the moderns." He also admitted sending his whole family to the lake for protection against the epidemic. St. Malo does not appear to be as mysterious and exotic as Hearn portrayed. Little is mentioned about the interactions between citizens traveling from New Orleans and the Malays. Could this have been where many Malay men met their wives? Did some of the families that fled to St. Malo belong to the Malay fisherman?
Way of life
The predominant religion of the Manilamen was Roman Catholicism, although it was not known if a priest actually visited the settlement from nearby New Orleans to minister or perform any Christian rites and sacraments.
The Manilamen paid no taxes and had no policemen. They had set their own rules and laws that all those living in the village were bound to obey. In case of disputes, it was usually left to the oldest man currently living in the settlement to mediate the situation. If a man refused a given verdict or likewise became a problem, he was jailed in what was called a "fish-car", a makeshift jail cell. Due to the harsh conditions and lack of food, the offender would usually change his mind and obey any rule or decision. The village was never visited by any Louisiana government official or tax man even though it was within the jurisdiction of St. Bernard Parish.
Rarely did women live in the village. In fact there were no women in the village during Hearn's visit. Those fishermen who did have families had them live in New Orleans or in other localities. The reason for this can be attributed to the isolated and harsh conditions of the settlement. Since there were no Filipino women, the Manilamen often courted and married Cajun women, Indians, and others. Some of them enrolled their children in schools in New Orleans.
Whenever possible, if there were still the means of re-connecting with their families back in the Philippines, the Manilamen sent money to friends in Manila with the profits they made from fishing.
The Filipino inhabitants of St. Malo would sometimes have conflicts with the Spanish dominated Proctorville. Spanish men of Proctorville held a monopoly on the fishing industry during the late 1850s and early 1860s. This dominance would lead to many conflicts as the Filipino men of St. Malo where their main competition. The first such documented conflict appeared in 1858. The Daily Delta reported the stabbing of John Davis, a fisherman, by a Manillaman named Senerino.
On Friday, July 13, 1860, the Cincinnati Daily Press reported a bloody fight breaking out between a Manillian, a Spanish barkeeper named Ramon, and multiple Spanish fishermen. It appears that the Manillian struck the barkeeper during a dispute which caused the fishermen to attack. The Filipino drew a long knife and buried it into the first fisherman, killing him. He then wounded the other who later died at the hospital. As the Manillian fled, he wounded two more fishermen before he was shot dead by the pursuers.
The Daily Delta called it "The War of the Fishermen." On Wednesday, July 18, 1860, it was reported that the "controversy between the Spanish fishermen and those who are called Manillians, grows out of rivalry of trade, and the attempt of the Spaniards to maintain an odious monopoly, which has long been a great tax upon our people." Sabotage between the Spanish and Manillians became common as fishing ships are burnt, and nets are destroyed. The Daily Deltathen reiterated the accounting of the Cincinnati Daily Pressfrom July 13, 1860.
The Daily Deltatook the side of the Manillians, condemning the Spanish as a "disgrace to Christianity and civilization." It was reported that not only did the Spanish murder the Filipino, but they desecrated his body, allowing it to float to shore like a dead animal or fish. These attacks appear to be the result of economic frustration with the Spanish fishermen. The Spaniards had set out to intimidate these men, but the men were prepared.
Role in the War of 1812
According to oral history and later cited by Filipino historians, the Manilamen took part in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 during the War of 1812. These men signed up with the privateer Jean Lafitte to join the army of Major General Andrew Jackson. There is no primary source material to support this claim. In addition, a important distinction should be made between Jean Lafitte's headquarters at Barataria Bay and the fishing community at St. Malo. It should be noted that they are not in the same location. Even if the Filipino men were stationed at Barataria Bay during the War of 1812, they would not have been able to stay for long. In September 1814, American Forces overtook Barataria Bay, putting an end to Lafitte's base of operation. Lafitte managed to escape the attack, but many of his men were captured. A Federal district judge, Dominick Augustus Hall, agreed not to prosecute the pirates if they defend the city of New Orleans against the British. If Filipinos were part of this captured group, they might have fought in the War of 1812 to gain their freedom.
Destruction of Saint Malo
The community was destroyed by the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915 and the survivors assimilated with New Orleanians.
Other Filipino settlements
Saint Malo was only one of the Filipino settlements in the Southern United States. The other southern Louisiana settlements were Manila Village on Barataria Bay, in the Mississippi River Delta by the Gulf of Mexico; Alombro Canal and Camp Dewey in Plaquemines Parish; and Leon Rojas, Bayou Cholas, and Bassa Bassa in Jefferson Parish.
Manila Village on Barataria Bay was considered to be the largest and most popular; Saint Malo, however, was the oldest. Houses in Manila Village were built on stilts on a 50-acre (200,000 m2) marshland; this community survived until 1965, when Hurricane Betsy destroyed it. Part of the legacy of the Filipinos was the production of dried shrimp, known as "sea bob" from the French term "six barbe." Dried shrimp is still produced by the Cajuns of Louisiana.
- Manila Village, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
- Town of Jean Lafitte, in Jefferson Parish (History)
- Republic of the Philippines
- Dried shrimp
- Filipino Americans
- Lafcadio Hearn, 19th-century writer who penned the first-known published article about Filipino Americans
- List of fishing villages
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