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Oct 02nd
Home Sections History Letters from an American Old-timer (Pioneer) in the Philippines (Part IV)
Letters from an American Old-timer (Pioneer) in the Philippines (Part IV) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 23 September 2007 02:13

The presents the fourth of a series of letters written by an American settler in Palawan, Philippines. His name was John Clark, the great-grandfather of our webmaster, Allan Albert. Most of the letters were written in the early 1900s. The letters were transcribed by the Albert Siblings who are in Southern California. Eventually, this online publication will print more data about the person of John Clark and his experiences in the Philippines and Asia. This fourth letter is undated.



            Hillmen avoid my place at night, for 30-30's carry far and buckshot never hesitate. These leaden missiles, though meant only for wild hogs and porcupines, might find a human target, however well-intentioned be the marksman.
Nor do Hillmen waken one who slumbers, unless their need be great or danger presses, for during sleep the soul is away from  the body (a. w. o. l), rambling in Elysian fields, and if the sleeper is roused too suddenly, said soul doesn't have time to click back into its proper place. Thus shut out, it ever afterwards wanders-another addition to the many homeless, seeking, accusing "hants" that make miserable the night life of the poor Hillmen.

So when soft, insistent voices kept calling, and calling me that morning, I knew there must be something untoward. But that is such a satisfying hour for sleeping-that last hour, just before dawn.

The night had been muggy, with low-hanging clouds that promised, but did not bring, the needed rain.

I had kept the copra fires burning until past twelve, then taken a midnight swim in the black waters of the Sulu Sea-black, except in the shallows, where phosphorescent lights glinted and splintered.

After the swim came the usual five grains of quinine, convoyed by a nightcap. "Sleep" was very busy then knitting "up the raveled sleeve of care" until my Hillmen, after no telling how long an effort, had succeeded in arousing me.

Ill-humoredly, from the overhanging balcony I raked their faces with the flashlight's beam, ready to give tongue to the choicest of the scalding words with which their lingo is so abundantly equipped.

But I didn't.

They were too near panic for that….big, soft eyes roving wildly heads turning uneasily from side to side hands, white-knuckled, clutching the hilts of their work bolos.

They needed me…would I come?

They led me through the palm grove down to the beach where they had made temporary camp that night.

It was still dark, the air chill, with a slight mist.

Huddling there, my Hillmen bade me listen…faintly, from over the waters of the sea, came a doleful wailing…an eerie sound, unearthly, in that lonely place and at such an hour.

And it was a wailing that betokens but the one thing-the dismal wailing of a mother over a babe newly dead, or dying! No matter in what tongue, or to what race the mother belongs, that wail once it heard, is never forgotten.

We oldsters recognize it instantly-having heard it often.

The keening of a woman over one of her grown-ups, lying dead on his bier, is different less hopeless perhaps, for in recalling his deeds and virtues she takes a tragic pride that gives her comfort of a sort.

But over the wee, silent one- so loved, so dependent on her, so sure of her care-the mother is inconsolable.

She, so lavish with all, finding herself powerless before an unappeasable Death, wails aloud in her helplessness.

From the sea, water borne, there came to us that unmistakable cry of maternal anguish.

Also at times came the feeble, fretful cries of young children that are sick unto death and impatiently expectant of the help that thus far has never failed  them…the help of her unto whom they have always called when in pain.

As I have said, it was an eerie sound that came from a seemingly sailless sea. In that uninhabited place it was enough to make the short hairs on the back of one's neck to stand on end. Mine did!

The Hillmen with me were becoming a bit panic- stricken, too, as they gazed, wide-eyed, at the sea.

To them strange shapes were hovering over the face of the waters… sea demons, banshees, spirits of the drowned, and the restless phantoms of unburied bodies!

They were almost of a mind to make a dash for the friendly, all-concealing jungle but I held them till daylight came. 

By then the troubled wailings had ceased the mist had dissolved into tatters of white vapor which lifted enough for us to see, a little way down the coast, a small Moro sailboat, stranded and over the gunwales of that craft, human forms tumbled into the water, crawled across the white beach in all fours- like gigantic black ants- and stretched themselves out on a grass plat under the palms.

Ten of them thus left the sailboat, but three remained therein- three little ones, quite dead and covered with palm leaf matting…thirteen in all.

Sweetened water and hot tea, measured by the spoonful, were given the survivors and my supply of "Sunkist" oranges portioned among them. 

Two small girls and a babe were past all helped- dying later.

The other sucked greedily at the sliced oranges-all except one mother who refused hers that her babe might have a double portion!

The only man there, woefully ill, kept moping away the tears as he ate, I don't know why, because a fighting man of Sulu seldom weeps-and he was so shriveled up that I wondered where the tears could have come from! 

Mentally in torment perhaps, for that because of his disabling illness he had been too weak to sail the craft to safety-and an ugly DEATH had come  aboard.

Bit by bit came the story of why they had become cast adrift at sea without food or water:

Three weeks before they had left Borneo for their homes in Sulu-six men, four women, and eight children. 

The very first day out a storm beat them off their course.

prahusmThe craft, just an open boat without decking, had rolled wildly in the cross currents and rough waters of Balabac  Straits.  The water jars had been overturned, the boat half-filled with sea water, and their foodstuffs washed overboard or spoiled.

Calms followed the storm and they ate raw the molding rice that remained. 

Soon thirst was upon them. At last they made a small island-an atoll and deep water-the approach steepto with strong currents running.

The rude anchor was dropped and the rope of twisted bark made fast to some bushes on shore.  Four men hurriedly landed to search for the precious water so badly needed.

A sudden squall came up and tore the bark from its frail moorings. Gusts of wind, helped by a strong current, swept them swiftly away to the northward.

Of the two of men left aboard, one was delirious with fever and the other-father to one of the men who had gone ashore was broken with age.  But that old man was game-but unwise!

He fastened the broken end of the mooring line about his waist and tried desperately to tow the small craft back to land by swimming. a man-eating shark soon ended his futile efforts.

Faint shouts from the men ashore came to those in the fast rushing boat but their answering cries were lost in the wild winds and they could only waive a farewell to the men left standing on the receding shores of the atoll. 

The women aboard were unable to make sail and for endless days they were carried along on a coarse parallel to the coast of Palawan island.

Feeble efforts each day with improvised oars brought them just a little nearer the coveted beach, but at night the land breeze would waft them out to sea again; and always the current, aided by the southwest monsoon, set them steadily to the northward. 

At times they saw the bulky sand bars marking the mouths of fresh water rivers, and on the sides of distant mountains the white lace of waterfalls glittered in the morning sunlight, to still further torment the poor devil in that waterless boat.

A few minutes of strong rowing, a hoisted sail-properly slanted- and they cold have landed.  Though so aggravatingly near, those shores of Palawan were "long, long leagues" away for the emaciated ones in that drifting boat. 

At times a little rain fell but not a tithe of that needed to [water] quench their awful thirst. Thus for two hundred miles they drifted.

One of the many children got a coconut shell over the side and before his weakened mother could interfere, gulped down a lot of salt water, and that night he died.

A babe drank its fill of the dirty bilge water- and thirsted no more!

For days they drifted on…their unburied dead aboard. Then on the morning while we were listening to those moanings coming seemingly from an empty sea, a young girl, emaciated beyond belief, had made her last appeal to the mother could only answer, as she had answered so many times before: "Child of my heart, there is no water to give you!"

Then, seeing that the young life was going, the mother in her despair had set up that hopeless wailing; causing my hillmen to cringe with fear…sure that awesome forms were waking on the face of the deep.

For no craft afloat out there could have been as silent as that Moro "Prahu" unless manned (as it was) by dead, or dying men.

Sounds carry clear over open water…that thwacking of oars in rowlocks, the flapping of sails against the mast, the creaking of the gear. 


The unusual heat of the previous night had signaled the monsoon's breaking and the wind, by shifting slightly to the southeast, had wafted the ill-fated craft over the reef at high tide, and grounded it so gently that its thirst stricken-  to leave;  not while her unburied dead were yet lying in that stranded Prahu!

Those three wee bodies we brought ashore (that of the little girl was as light as a mummy!), a piece of wreckage serving as a bier, and laid them along side the open grave that my laborers had dug in the coconut grove. 

As a health officer examined them, that mother sat nearby with downcast eyes. Being a Moslem, it was not seemly that male eyes look upon her- still less meet if they were the eyes of  "Unbelievers."

But motherhood at last overrode all tenets of custom and religion. She raised her head to look upon the three small forms lying there so still under the sun's rays that now slanted through the palm fronds. No word escaped her- no cry.  (She was descended from the fighting man of Sulu) But her tears she could not check.

With fierce movements she flung them aside with the edges of her bare hands as they coursed down her hunger-ravished cheeks.  Sweeping our faces with a swift defiant glance she then turned her gaze downward and so remained until the bodies were lowered; when we lead her to her place in an open truck that was to carry her away. 

No longer needed, I walked away to take up the belated work of the day, but somehow I felt that Moro woman was gazing at my retreating back.  Turning, I found her eyes fixed on me with something of command in her glance…not that exactly, either; but something, of question of expectation, of imploration…

I hardly know just what it was in those big, liquid eyes of hers whose glances shifted from my face to the still open grave and then back again, directly into my eyes. 

I sensed that she was demanding something that could not be denied, or refused her. Involuntarily, I nodded an agreement…uncovered, and touched my forehead with an open hand- the Moro "salaam."

This I did from something that came, seemingly, from outside of myself- something compelling. The woman's gaze helped mine for along moment…Then she made a gesture as of  renunciation… both hands falling…slowly downward with the open palms held out toward me. Her head then lowered as though consciousness had left her and the truck rattled out of sight; leaving me there staring stupidly after it.

Silently, she had made me custodian of her children's grave.  If possible, she would have guarded it, night and day, for a lunar month.  I can hardly do that, but a good, strong, "bob-wire" fence will keep the wild hogs from trampling on it- which, to a Moslem, would be defilement.  

We have yet to learn the fate of the 4 men left on that atoll.  Did they find water? And for how long did they look for vain for the return of that small craft which carried all there loved ones, and all their worldly goods? A coast guard cutter is to look for them. If they perished there…

Well, their Moro brothers would say; "By Allah, it was so written on their foreheads at the time of their birth!"

Kismet- Sudah ("It is finished!")


buckshot - coarse lead shot used in shotgun shells
keening - lamentation for the dead uttered in a loud wailing voice or in a wordless cry
bier - a stand bearing a coffin or corpse
wee - small, tiny
borne - past participle of the verb bear
plat - a small plot of ground;
decking - floor-like platform
tithe - a tenth part paid or given for the support of a church
bilge - the part of a ship that lies between the bottom and the point where the sides go straight up
fronds -a usually large divided leaf especially of a fern

prahu - A swift Malayan sailboat with a triangular sail and single outrigger.


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Last Updated on Monday, 15 October 2007 02:52

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