Saint Malo and The Manila Men


In 1915 a hurricane raged across the vast marshy confines of Lake Borgne and wiped out Saint Malo in Louisiana, the first permanent Filipino and Asian-American settlement in the United States. After the onslaught, little remained to indicate that Saint-Malo ever existed.

It is unclear why and how the Filipinos settled in Saint Malo, but various sources would say that they were either castaway and marooned from the wrecked galleons they were in or they were deserters. The exact date of their arrival is also difficult to pinpoint, but the Filipino men started arriving in the area as early as 1765. They will then be known as the Manila Men or Tagalas.

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Oral accounts of the Manila Men narrate that they have participated in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 under the command of Major-General Andrew Jackson. The Manila Men joined Jackson's rag-tag army and were described as the Spanish speaking pirates from the delta swamps. With the aid of French buccaneer Jean Baptiste Lafitte, they reinforced the U.S. troops to defeat an invading 8,000 strong British Army. Though the War of 1812 was already on the end, the invading British forces were completely unaware and so the attacks continued. After the war, the Manila men would remain isolated and would later come to eventually develop their own culture. Nonetheless, they would still continue to retain their Filipino customs.

In 1883 an article was posted in Harper's weekly and introduced the Manila men to the American public. This would then become the first written account of the existence of Filipino settlers in the United States. The man credited for this is the writer-journalist Lafcadio Hearn who visited and documented the Manila men's way of life. Being a curious journalist, he visited the village and narrated his account. Hearn described the Manila Men's houses to be on stilts, and that the men had learned to improvise on anything that they need since living on the bayou would mean living alongside erratic weather and unforgiving wildlife.


According to Hearn's description, the Manila Men spoke Spanish and a Malay dialect. They had no furniture and slept at night among barrels of flour, folded sails and smoked fish, and although rice is the Filipino staple food, Manila Men rarely ate rice and their diet usually revolves around seafood. All of them are Roman Catholic. Since the area is so remote at that time, Manila Men have set their own rules and laws that inhabitants of the settlement have to obey. The oldest person in the community is the one who settles a dispute or mediate a certain disagreement. If a person refused a verdict then he is jailed in a makeshift cell. At the end of the day, the offender would change his mind and obey the rule since the jail's condition is harsh. 


Aside from Saint Malo, there are also other Filipino settlements in the area. The Manila Village on Barataria Bay in the Mississippi Delta, for instance, is one where houses were built on stilts on a 50-acre marshland. This was, however, destroyed by the 1965 Hurricane Betty. 

At present, the descendants of the Manila Men maintain a strong Filipino community, and despite widespread intermarriage, many Louisianans of Filipino descent have maintained strong ties to the Philippines, their language, and their culture.

Read Hearn's Full Report Here.


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