FAST BACKWARD: Abaca goes to 1915 US Expo

Not too many knew the proud abaca (Musa textilis), Davao’s contribution to the world of agriculture, was a hit in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, or ‘The Fair,’ held in San Francisco, California in 1915. For nine months, the Presidio’s bayfront and the Marina District hosted the celebration heralding the completion of the Panama Canal Project, which was first announced in 1903 by US President Theodore Roosevelt.

Showcased during the grand event were new farming and agricultural technologies with Luther Burbank, the American botanist, horticulturist and pioneer in agricultural science credited to creating the Burbank potato, Santa Rosa plum, Shasta daisy, and the fire poppy, as in charge of the Horticulture Palace.

Murad M. Saleeby, a Syrian-American chief of the Fiber Division, Bureau of Agriculture, in Manila, wrote an article titled ‘Abaca (Manila Hemp) in the Philippines,’ calling the fiber plant “the most important fiber but also the most important export product” of the country.

“Abaca is the premier cordage fiber of the world. It is a structural (hard) fiber obtained from the outer layers of the overlapping leaf sheaths which form the stalks of the abaca plant. It is very light, strong, and durable. When properly extracted and dried, it is also of a white, lustrous color. One particular feature of the abaca fiber which emphasizes its superiority over all other fibers of its class is its great strength and its resistance to the action of water, hence its particular adaptability for marine ropes.”

According to Saleeby’s research, the first time the abaca was appreciated for its fiber in the Philippines was in 1686, courtesy of William Dampier, an Englishman who lived in Mindanao. In 1820, a sample of the plant was brought to Salem, Massachusetts, USA, by John White, who was lieutenant in the US Navy. Presumably, the seedlings were propagated there that by 1824 up to 1827, according to the Bureau of Agriculture Bulletin, the fiber was already “used quite extensively in Salem and Boston.”

The abaca was first exported in the early part of the 18th century but it was only recognized as an important commodity in 1850. The production of the fiber for export did not start until 1818 when 541 tons of abaca were dispatched overseas. Until 1830, on an annual average, the export of abaca ranged from 100 to 500 tons. By 1940, the volume shot up to 8,502 tons, or a rise of 8,000 tons in a decade. By 1860, the export volume reached 30,388 tons, and two decades later hitting the 89,438-ton mark. (One metric ton is equivalent to 2,204.62 avoirdupois pounds.)

During American rule, particularly from 1900 to 1914, which is a 15-year span, the total quantity of abaca exported abroad reached 1,940,308 tons for an average annual export of 129,354 tons. The value of these exports amounted to roughly US$275 million.

By the 1920’s, the processing of abaca fiber was revolutionized by P.H. Frank, founder of Davao Light and Power company, who invented a hemp-stripping machine he started working on in 1907 and completed trial work on it in 1921. The machine, mounted on a four-wheel truck, weighed 680 kilograms and was easily drawn easily by carabao, tractor or automobile.

The propagation of the abaca, meanwhile, was fairly distributed throughout the islands due to the country’s tropical weather. Aside from Davao region, Surigao was also a major capital with Hinatuan town as the biggest producer. The 1915 statistics show that during this period the Surigao farms planted with Manila hemp reached 14,376 hectares.

The use of ‘hemp’ in the commercial world in reference to the abaca is considered “incorrect and misleading.” Saleeby said the sobriquet ‘Manila hemp’ was the creation of the Englishmen in the islands, but should be replaced by ‘abaca’, which is the most appropriate term.

In the missionary records, the import of abaca as currency is well highlighted. In the Caraga region, for instance, the Catholic Church “accepted abaca cloth as a tribute to the Spanish king.” Among the indigenous people of southeastern Mindanao, abaca is woven as ikat, a tie-dyed cloth, the equivalent of the tinalak produced by the T’boli tribe of South Cotabato.

Elizabeth Potter Sievert, in The Story of Abaca, wrote: “The Mndaya people of Davao Oriental call their abaca cloth dagmay. Dagmay is beaten to soften it and then pressed witgh a piece of seashell to bring out the fiber’s naural sheen. Both men and women wear dagmay shirts, while the men wear short baggy trousers and the women tubular skirts made of a single length of dagmay tied at the waist.”

For the Bagobo people, Sievert adds, “[they] weave a fabric similar to the dagmay. They call their abaca textile inabal. The Bagobo men and women typically decorate their costumes lavishly with tiny brass bells, a practice unique to the Bagobos, as well as with beads and embroidery.”

“Excluding the Philippines,” the Wikipedia posits, “abacá was first cultivated on a large scale in Sumatra in 1925 under the Dutch, who had observed its cultivation in the Philippines for cordage since the nineteenth century, followed up by plantings in Central America in 1929 sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It also was transplanted into India and Guam. Commercial planting began in 1930 in British North Borneo; with the commencement of World War II, the supply from the Philippines was eliminated by the Japanese.”