Steps to honour Filipinos

A view of the steps which could be named The Manila Steps in honour of the Filipino fishermen who first settled in Kalk Bay in the 1800s.

There is a single concrete tombstone in Kalk Bay that overlooks the last resting place of many Philippine settlers.

The Kalk Bay Historical Association now wants to name some nearby steps the “Manila Steps” to honour the settlers. It has submitted a proposal to do this to the City of Cape Town naming and nomination committee.

“It is believed that sailors from the Philippines first settled in Kalk Bay in the mid-1800s, whereafter they integrated with the local fishing community,” said Brett Herron, the naming committee’s chairman. The steps lead from Boyes Drive to a Filipino graveyard at the cul-de-sac on the corner of Quarterdeck and Kimberley roads.

The Kalk Bay community, at the time, referred to the Filipino fishermen as “Manilas” after the capital of the Philippines.

Michael Walker, a member of the historical association, described the Manilas as “real characters”.

Mr Walker, author of 22 books, has researched their arrival in the Cape and how they brought their own vibrancy and life to the cultural hodgepodge of early life in Kalk Bay.

His stories paint a vivid picture of the community’s Catholic priest Father John Duignam, who was appointed to serve them for six months and ended up staying for 50 years, from 1874 to 1925.

“He was the inspiration who brought the Catholic Church to St James in 1900 and built the convent in 1908 for the nuns at the Roman Catholic Mission School.

“The nuns I spoke with claim that he told them that he had hewn the steps out of the mountain, personally,” Mr Walker said.

“Today, there are children in the school who still bear Filipino surnames. These children, the direct descendants of the early settlers, will particularly enjoy the honour bestowed upon their forefathers with the proposed naming of the steps.”

Father Duignam was known to have stood on a large flat rock off to one side of the steps, where he would give his sermons to the people, one week in English, the next week in Spanish, Mr Walker said.

Mr Walker’s father actually met with the retired Father Duignam when he first arrived in Kalk Bay as a boy. He remembered the man as being dearly loved in the community, with long wavy hair.

The Filipinos who arrived in the early days did so under various guises. Some claimed dramatic stories of shipwrecks, which were never proven by fact. The main story was that they were shipwrecked off a sugar barge travelling from America, Mr Walker said, and search though he has, he has never found evidence of the barge or any reports of it.

Others deserted ships docked in the bay, while some fled political struggle.

Mr Walker said it was well known at the time that there was a man who would paddle out to the moored ships and entice the fishermen to settle in Kalk Bay.

He would do so by promising them safe hiding until their ships were gone, and then shelter and fishing gear would be provided after, to encourage them to settle and grow the community.

“Fishing was their livelihood, they could see the abundance in Kalk Bay, and the promise of an idyllic or freer life,” he said.

In 1872 and 1874, there was an uprising in the Philippines against Spanish rule, and 200 families chose to make Kalk Bay their home. Many had visited, or simply heard of the area as a haven.

When order was restored in 1898, some of these families returned to Manila, but a good number who had lived in Kalk Bay for nearly 30 years chose to remain in the coastal village.

“By then, they had their own church, their lives, families and friends were based here. Their first church was built in 1874, then it became too small. It was demolished in 1900 and the Railways paid the Catholics out, and this sum of R2000 was used to build a new church.”

Mr Walker said many of the early fishermen settlers once buried at the original grave site in Kalk Bay had been exhumed and moved to Muizenberg cemetery, but their descendants still lived in the area.

The property surrounding the steps is one of the finest in the area but because it is a cemetery it cannot be built on.

The association’s Tony Trimmel made the proposal to name the steps after the Filipino fishermen. It had taken two years to get to this point and there was now much excitement about it, said Mr Walker.

Mr Herron said if mayor Patricia de Lille approved the recommendation, the proposal would go out for public comemnt.