Re-imagining Australia: Voices of Indigenous Australians of Filipino descent.

By Deborah Ruiz Wall with Christine Choo;
Southport, Queensland: Keeaira Press 2016

Telling the stories of Manilamen

Australia’s pearling industry boom in the 1880s drew many divers from the Philippines. They married into the indigenous population and settled in remote parts of Northern and Western Australia before the country federated in 1901.

Dr Deborah Ruiz Wall and Dr Christine Choo make use of oral histories and other primary sources, as well as the scholarship on early Australian-Philippine relations, to reconstruct the lives and histories of these “Manilamen” and their progeny.

These accounts date from a period of global migration and trade underpinned by intersections of colonial cultural assertion, foreign missionary endeavours and early infrastructure economic development before British Australia and Spanish Philippines became independent nations.

The pearl divers faced challenges to obtaining equal rights with British subjects and securing stable employment and settlement. Even after living in the country for decades with their indigenous families, most were disenfranchised and treated as “aliens”. Both indigenous and Asian people experienced the effects of laws that reinforced hierarchies based on race. These laws were indicative of the state’s effort to define and assert its sovereignty during periods that marked Australia’s emergence into nationhood, gradually incorporating people entering the country from diverse cultural backgrounds

The book contains the accounts of 21 descendants of the Manilamen from Broome, Western Australia and Torres Strait. Drawing on family stories and memory, they  reflect on their heritage and how it has shaped their lives.

They discuss what it is like to be both Aboriginal and Filipino, one culture enriching the other to create a uniqueness “that no one else has”, as one narrator, Mitch Torres, puts it. The stories reveal a more intimate connection between indigenous Australians and Asians than is presently recognized.

The rich narratives and well-chosen photographs fill a significant gap, given that few Australians or Filipinos are aware of the length, strength and depth of their intertwined history. This book will serve as an important historical resource for the narrators’ families and their communities as well as the nation.

A book launch will be held in the Philippines on Oct 18 with Wall and narrator Kevin Puertollano in attendance. The event, sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the Australian Embassy, commemorates the Indigenous People’s Month and the 70th anniversary of Philippine-Australian diplomatic relations.

Dr Wall OAM ( has done oral history projects featuring Redfern Aboriginal stories and Aboriginal and Filipino women in Sydney. Dr Choo, who has an interest in Western Australian history and the contributions of indigenous people, is an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Western Australia.


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