The history of Kalk Bay’s Filipino community

The Poortermans engraving, dated 1844, shows fish-drying sheds at Fishery Beach, as Kalk Bay was known at the time. Picture: Library of Parliament

By Steve Herbert from the Kalk Bay Historical Association

When did the first Filipinos arrive at Kalk Bay? An article published in The Pictorial magazine of April 1939 may give us the most accurate information.

There is a long interview with the then 91-year-old daughter of Staggie Fernandez.

Among other interesting details of early Kalk Bay, she said that Staggie Fernandez swam ashore from a ship moored at Simon’s Town and walked from Simon’s Town “100 years ago” with another Filipino.

This would have been in 1839.

Another important question is what was Kalk Bay like at this time, and how did these new arrivals settle into this community and earn a living?

The Poortermans engraving dated circa 1844 is the earliest known picture of Fishery Beach as it was known. It depicts fish-drying sheds on the beach.

The Filipinos with their exceptional skills would have blended into an established small fishing community. Fishing (and later whaling) had been the reason Kalk Bay became a settlement.

It is known that Muslim fishermen applied for the use of land on the beach around the time of the final emancipation of slaves in 1838. The Muslims have always formed a significant part of the Kalk Bay fishing community.

The Filipinos were renowned seamen and known for their fishing skills.

The first arrivals and those following them would have to be exceptionally hardy to successfully find their feet as strangers in a strange country where they couldn’t speak the language.

And always there was the struggle with the unforgiving sea.

The foundation stone of the first building of what became St James Church was laid in 1858 to cater to the growing Catholic community at Kalk Bay.

Filipino numbers must have increased significantly for the Catholic Diocese to take the step of building another church. One hundred and twenty people attended the laying of the foundation stone – certainly, most were Filipino families.

From the earliest arrivals, these young men married mostly local women, some of whose names can be seen in the baptismal records from 1861 to 1874.

Many of these couples had large families so today it’s likely that their descendants number in the thousands.

Of course, with life came death and the need to bury people. What is shown on some early maps as “space occupied by graves”, at the end of Quarterdeck Road (where the Manila Steps end), was in use by 1854. Many more were almost certainly buried here before 1896.

In a 1946 article, Cape Times journalist Maxwell Price described a funeral procession to the Quarterdeck Road cemetery:

They attended funerals in black suits, silk top hats, starched shirts and white gloves. The procession was always in a double line with the coffin bearers in front.

The entire community attended and many of the older people in Kalk Bay and St James will tell you that it was a most impressive sight to see 200 people walking in solemn dignity.

The fishing community at Kalk Bay continued to grow. It seems by all accounts to have been a true melting pot – among them Filipinos, Muslims, English, Afrikaners, Portuguese even at least one Russian.

A person who became a legend and was a leader in the community was Felix Florez (Flores). It is believed that he arrived at either Cape Town or Simon’s Town on board the Confederate raider CSS Alabama.

Twenty sailors jumped ship from the Alabama at Simon’s Town in 1863, of whom six were found by the police and returned to the ship.

Felix may have been one of the ones that got away.

The Menigo family, of Kalk Bay, maintain that their ancestor, Nicholas “Clas” Menigo left the CSS Tuscaloosa, which returned to Simon’s Town from Brazil, with Felix Florez and walked to Kalk Bay where they knew there was already a large community of their countrymen.

The biggest and longest lasting impact on the Kalk Bay Filipinos was the arrival in June 1874 of the newly ordained Father John Duignam who ministered to and was much loved by his flock for more than 50 years. It was Father Duignam who had the original small chapel built. It was named St James, the patron saint of Spain.

In the late 1800s and early 20th century, the fishing community came under increasing pressure.

The railway line to Simon’s Town was built across Fishery Beach, reducing its width and exposing the boats that were beached there to damage in bad weather. There was a crying need for a harbour. The community were living in increasingly crowded and unhealthy conditions.

It is significant that in many instances, in the endless discussions and meetings that took place with Cape Town city council, the Kalk Bay fishermen were represented by among others the only three property-owning Filipino families: Menigo, Quimpo and Fernandez.

On the face of it, these meetings seem to have been conducted in a cordial manner. But there is no doubt that there was an underlying discrimination in terms of economic, social and racial class.

Very few of the needs of the fishing community were met unless the hand of the Cape Town council was forced by circumstances – the building of the Fishermen’s Flats is a prime example.

The community was strong and resilient. Bound together by their shared heritage and faced with the daily perils of the sea, they seem, in the main, to have shrugged their broad shoulders and carried on despite all of the difficulties.

History needs to record the vital role played by the women in the Kalk Bay Filipino community. No better summing up of the importance of the women in the community can be found than in a 1988 thesis by Alan Kirkaldy.

“The unsung heroes of the Kalk Bay fishing community have always been the fishermen’s wives. Women had few options open to them.

“The usual pattern was for a girl to become a domestic servant for a few years after which she would be expected to devote herself almost wholly to her domestic duties.

“These included (apart from having numerous children) filleting, salting, pickling and drying of fish, baking and cooking, making clothes for her family and oilskin trousers and sou’westers for her menfolk and tending the livestock and garden.

“Lastly, they carried the responsibility of bearing and rearing the children, a task made doubly difficult by the nature of the routine imposed by their husbands’ occupation. A fisherman’s wife was ‘both mother and father’ to her children.”

By 1904, a remarkable transformation had taken place on the part of Kalk Bay known as Die Land. Slum landlords had bought most of the land and built cheap housing.

In 1938 a decision was finally made by the city council, at which time there were 449 people in the fishing community of whom 394 lived on Die Land. Work began on the Fishermen’s Flats in 1941 and the last flats were handed over in June 1945.

Through all of the many trials and tribulations, the Filipino community remained strong and resolute. The hardship of making a life from the sea, their strong faith and community bonds made it possible to survive almost anything.

Shipwrecks and disasters at sea, months of poor catches, and difficult living conditions – the community stood strong.

The role of the Filipinos and their descendants in the life of Kalk Bay was officially recognised in 2017 when the City of Cape Town named the steps running from Boyes Drive to Quarterdeck Road the Manila Steps.

A multi-faith gathering was attended by the Philippines ambassador, the deputy mayor of Cape Town and hundreds of Filipino descendants.

Felix Florez
Die Land circa 1902. Picture: Fish Hoek Valley Museum
Seen at the Manila Steps celebration, from left, are the Philippines ambassador Joseph Angeles, Father Wilfred Meyer, Father Rico Talisic, Filipino descendant Tony Trimmel, deputy mayor Ian Nielson, Imam Shafiek Ariefdien and Father Mark Pothier. Picture: Steve Herbert