Tribute to Catholic Filipino fishermen in SA
At least 80% of families in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, are believed to have traces of Filipino blood, and thus a Catholic heritage. This will be commemorated later this month when the 19th-century steps in the suburb which lead from Boye’s Drive to the old Filipino cemetery are renamed the Manila Steps.
The event will celebrate the legacy of the Filipino communities which settled in Kalk Bay, and who revitalised its fishing village legacy in the 1860s.
The Filipinos’ history in Kalk Bay dates back to early 1800s records. The first Filipino settler is believed to have been Staggie Fernandez.
More detailed records of Filipino settlers in Kalk Bay date to the 1860s, including Catholic baptism, marriage and burial registers.
At the time, Kalk Bay was a mini-port for Dutch settlers in Cape Town and a whaling station.
The Filipinos are believed to have come from either nearby ships which anchored in Simon’s Town, or sailors who jumped ship and swam to Kalk Bay because of the harsh conditions they suffered on board.
Expanding Community and Building a Church
The arrival and settlement of the Filipino community renewed Kalk Bay as a fishing village. They were known locally as “Manilas”, after the capital of the Philippines.
The fishing community in Kalk Bay also included Muslims, English, Afrikaners, Portuguese and Russians.
The immigration of Filipino communities continued into the 1900s, with settlers travelling from the Philippines and the island of Panay.
The nearest Catholic church was that of St Simon and St Jude in Simon’s Town, but Filipinos struggled to attend weekly Mass as the only way to get there was by sailing. They also had difficulty with the languages at Mass as they spoke only Spanish and their native tongue Tagalog.
One of the key figures in the life of the community was Fr John Duignam, who for five decades served the Filipinos, from 1874 to 1925.
Fr Duignam is credited with maintaining a “strong and happy community”. He could also communicate easily with the Filipino community as he spoke Spanish, and he often advocated on behalf of them.
St James Church Built
Fr Duignam spearheaded the building of the local church and convent of St James, between Muizenberg and Kalk Bay, and the Star of the Sea school.
Some 120 people reportedly attended the laying of the foundation stone of St James — named after the patron saint of Spain, under which the Philippines was then governed.
Settlers and their descendants formed the backbone of the parish for many years.
The Filipinos were renowned seamen, which linked back to their own maritime heritage. “Many of them owned their own fishing vessels and also owned their own properties,’’ explained Tony Trimmel, a descendant from the Erispe family.
Along with trading in fish they also grew vegetables and kept animals, which helped supplement their diet. When there were scarce fishing days, klipkous (abalone) would be collected off the rocks for local dishes such as frikkadels.
Today Kalk Bay’s harbour and fishing industry still operate, but at a low scale, with much of its attraction now centred on its antique and art shops, and restaurants.
Renaming the Steps
The renaming of the Kalk Bay steps event will take place on October 28, starting with a walk from the Anglican Holy Trinity church hall to the steps, where the Philippines’ ambassador will unveil an information board commemorating the Kalk Bay Filipinos. The renaming event initiative was led by the Kalk Bay Historical Association.
“I think it is quite something to know your heritage. And we still have the documentation,” says Filipino descendent Stephanie Eckardt.
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