Abacá or Manila Hemp Icon

January 18, 2022

One of the most interesting products of the Philippines is Manila hemp, so called by the French.

But it has few uses. Because of its silky appearance, the natives call it the bandála seed.

In commerce, abacá is the plant where it comes from. It is a wild species of banana known also as Arbol de Cáñamo (hemp-tree), Musa textilis, Lin.

It looks like the edible banana tree (Musa paradisiaca), one of the most important plants of the torrid zone.

The species Musaceæ are herbaceous plants only. The outer stem consists of crescentshaped petioles crossing one another alternately, and encircling the thin main stem.

These petioles contain a quantity of bast fibre, which is used as string, but otherwise is of no commercial value. The serviceable hemp fibre has, up to the present time, been exclusively obtained from the southern portion of the Philippines.

Abaca is grown in the following provinces:

Province Notes
Camarines and Albay
Sámar and Leyte and the adjacent islands
Cebú Some of its abaca come from Mindanáo
Negrós The best abaca thrives only in the south
Iloilo produces much of the weaving hemp (guinára), is obliged to import the raw material from the eastern district, as it does not flourish in the island of Panáy.
Cápiz has low value abaca

Hitherto all attempts, strenuous though the efforts were, to acclimatize the growth of hemp in the western and northern provinces have failed. The plants rarely grow as high as 2 feet, and the trouble and expense are simply unremunerative.

This failure may be accounted for by the extreme dryness prevailing during many months of the year, whereas in the eastern provinces plentiful showers fall the whole year round. The great profit which the Manila hemp has yielded in the few years since its production, however, has given encouragement to still further experiments; so that, indeed, it will shortly be shown whether the cultivation of abacá is to be confined to its present limited area, while the edible species of banana has spread itself over the whole surface of the earth within the tropics.

On the volcanic mountains of Western Java a species of the Musaceæ grows in great luxuriance. The Government has not, however, made any real effort to cultivate it, and what has been done in that respect has been effected, up to the present date, by private enterprise.

Various writers have stated that abacá can be obtained in the north of the Celebes.

Bickmore, however, says positively that the inhabitants having made great efforts in attempting its successful cultivation, have abandoned it again in favour of the cultivation of coffee which is far more profitable.*

According to previous statements, Guadaloupe appears to be able to produce abacá (fibre of the M. textilis ?) ;* and Pondicherry and Guadaloupe have produced fabrics woven from abaca, and French Guiana stuffs from the fibre of the edible banana ; †

All these, however, are only experiments. Royle affirms that the Manila hemp (abaca fibre) excels the Russian in firmness, lightness, and strength in tension, as well as in cheapness, and that rope prepared from the latter becomes stiff in wet weather, and continues so afterwards; which doubtless may be avoided by an improvement in the manner of spinning, and subsequent judicious treatment.

Through the better preparation of the raw material in Manila by means of adequate machinery, these difficulties have been overcome; but abacá no longer has the advantage of superior cheapness, as the demand has increased much faster than the supply. During the year 1859 it was worth from £22 to £25 per ton ; in 1868, £45 to £50 per ton ; while Russian hemp fetched £31 per ton. Thus in nine years it rose to double its value.

In Albáy, there are about 12 varieties of the best banana cultivated, which are particularly favoured by the qualities of the soil. The cultivation is extremely simple, and entirely independent of the seasons.

The plants thrive best on the slopes of the volcanic mountains (in which Albáy and Camarines abound), in open spaces of the woods protected by the trees, which cast their shadows to an extent of about 60 feet. In exposed level ground they do not thrive so well, and in marshy land not at all. In the laying out of a new plantation the young shoots are generally made use of, which sprout so abundantly from the roots that each individual

  • Report of the Commissioners, Exhibition 1867, iv. 102. The South American Indians have for a long time past employed the banana fibre in the manufacture of clothing material ;-(The Technologist, September, 1865, p. 89, from unauthenticated sources,) and in Lu-tschu the banana fibre is the only kind in use (“ Faits Commerciaux, No. 1514." p. 36).

Abacá not readily taking tar is, consequently, only used for running, and not standing, rigging:

one soon becomes a perfect plant. In favourable ground the custom is to allow a distance of about ten feet between each plant ; in poor ground 6 feet.

The only care necessary is the extermination of the weeds, and clearing away the underwood during the first season; later on, the plants grow so luxuriantly and strongly that they entirely prevent the growth of anything else in their vicinity.

The protection afforded by the shade of the trees at this period is no longer required, the young buds finding sufficient protection against the sun’s rays under cover of the fanlike leaves. Only in exceptional cases, contrary to the usual practice, are the plants raised from seed. The fruit, when ready, is cut off and dried, though care must be taken that it is not over ripe; otherwise the kernels are found to be in an unsuitable condition.

These latter are about the size of peppercorns; and the extraction of them in the edible species almost always brings about decay.

Two days before sowing, the kernels are taken out of the fruit, and steeped overnight in water ; on the following day they are dried in a shady place; and on the third day they are sown in holes an inch deep in fresh, unbroken, and well-shaded forest ground, allowing six inches distance between each plant and row.

After a year the seedlings, which are then about two feet high, are planted out, and tended in the same way as the suckers. While many of the edible bananas bear fruit after one year, and a few varieties even after six months, the abacá plant requires on an average three years to produce its fibre in a proper condition; when raised from suckers four years ; and when raised from yearold seedlings, even under the most favourable conditions, two years. On the first crop, only one stalk is cut from each bush; but later on the new branches grow so quickly that they can be cut every two months. *

• A plant in full growth produces annually 30 cwt. bandala to the acre, whereas from an acre of flax not more than from 2 to 4 cwt. of pure flax, and from 2 to 8 cwt. seed can be obtained.

After a few years the plants become so strong and dense that it is scarcely possible to push through them. Bast is in its best condition at the time of blossoming; but, when the price of the fibre happens to stand high in the market, this particular time is not always waited for.

Plants which have blossomed cease to be profitable in any way, by reason of the fibre becoming too weak-a matter of too great nicety for the unpractical consumers on the other side of the Atlantic to decide upon, and one in which, despite inquiries and careful inspections, they might be deceived.

There really is no perceptible reason why the fibre should become weaker through fructification, which simply consists in the fact of the contents of the vascular cells changing into soluble matter, and gradually oozing away, the consequence of which is that the cells of the fibre are not replenished.

These, on the contrary, acquire additional strength with the age of the plant, because the emptied cells cling so firmly together, by means of a certain resinous deposit, that it is impossible to obtain them unbroken without a great deal of trouble. The idea may have erroneously arisen from the circumstance that, previously to drying, as with hemp, the old plants were picked out, and allowed to be thrown away, though not without considerably increasing the rate of pay, which already consumed the greater part of the general expenses.*

In order to preserve the bast, the stalk above ground is closely pruned and freed from leaves and other encumbrances; each leaf is then singly divided into strips—a cross incision being made through the membrane on the inner or concave side, and connected by means of the pulpy parts (the parenchym) clinging together. In this manner as much as possible of the clear outer skin only remains behind.

  • As Dr. Wittmack communicated to me, only fibre or seed can be obtained from hemp, as when the hemp is ripe, i.e. run to seed, the fibre becomes then both brittle and coarse. Possibly, in the flax cultivation, you may obtain frequently both seed and fibre ; but, after all, they are both of very little value.



Another method is to strip the bast from the undivided stem. To effect this the operator makes an oblique incision in the skin by the under part of the stalk, drawing the knife gradually to the tip, and stripping off the whole length as broad a piece as possible ; and the operation is repeated as many times as practicable.

This method of handling is more productive than the one previously described; but, on the other hand, it takes considerably more time, and for that reason is not often practised.

The strips of bast are then drawn under a knife, the blade of which is three inches broad by six long, fastened at one end to the extremity of a flexible stick so that it is suspended perpendicularly over a well-smoothed block, and at the other end to a handle connected by means of a cord to a treadle, which can be pressed firmly down, as occasion requires. The workman draws the bast, without any regard to quality, between the knife and block, commencing in the middle, and then from side to side. The knife must be free from notches, or all indentations, according to the direction of Father Blanco.* This work requires three men, whose pay generally is about 2 r. per day.

One worker cuts up the stalks, strips off the leaves, and attends to the supply; the second, frequently a boy, spreads out the strips; and the third draws them under the knife. A single plant has been known to yield as much as two pounds of fibre; but the most favourable average rarely affords more than one pound, and plants grown in indifferent soil scarcely a sixth of that quantity. The plantations are worked either by the owner or by day-labourers, who, when the market prices are very low, take half share of the crop harvested by them. In these cases an industrious workman may obtain as much as one pico in a week. During my stay exceptionally low prices ruled -165 r. per pico, undelivered. The workman could, therefore, in six days earn half the amount, viz., 8.25 r., at a rate of 1.375 r. per day.

The day’s pay at that time was 0-50 r., and board 0-25 r., making together 0.75 r.

By daily pay. The workman therefore earned daily.0.76 r. or Wages amounted to per pico …..12° 6r. or Profit of the planters, after deduction of the wages. 3. gr. or Half share.

The edges of the petioles, which contain much finer fibre than the middle parts, are separately divided into strips an inch wide, and with strong pressure are drawn several times under the knife. This substance, which is called lúpis, is in high request, being employed in the native weaving; while bandála is chiefly used for ships’ rigging. *

Lúpis, according to the fineness of the fibre, is sorted into four classes:

  1. Binani
  2. Totogna
  3. Sogotan
  4. Cadaclan

A bundle of these is then taken up in the left hand, and, while with the right the first three sorts are inserted between the fingers, the fourth is held between the thumb and forefinger. This last description is no longer used in fine weaving, and is therefore sold with bandála.

After the fine sorts have been pounded in a rice-mortar, in order to render the fibre soft and pliable, they are severally knotted into one another, and converted into web. Generally the first sort is worked as woof with the second as warp, and the third as warp with the second as woof.


The fabrics so woven are nearly as fine as pine-stuffs (Nipis de Piña), and almost equal the best quality of cambric; and, notwithstanding the many little nodules occasioned by the tangling of the fibre, which may be discerned on close inspection, are clearer and stouter, and possess a warmer yellowish tint.

In 1868, £100 per ton was paid for lúpis. It was only imported in small quantities of about 5 tons per annum. It was used at one time in France to make a particular kind of underclothing. The fashion soon, however, died out.

Quitol, a less valuable sort of lúpis, could be sold at $75 per ton.

In respect of these last three qualities—purity, flexibility, and colour—they stand in relation to cambric somewhat as cardboard to tissue-paper.

In weaving such stuffs the fibres frequently break on account of their having been twisted instead of spun; and the repair in these cases is exceedingly troublesome. The finest stuffs require so great an amount of dexterity, patience, and time in their preparation, and for that reason are so expensive, that they can find no purchasers when in competition with the cheap, machine-worked goods of Europe. Their fine, warm yellowish colour also is objected to by the European women, who are accustomed to linen and calicoes strongly blued in the washing. In the country, however, they are esteemed very highly by the rich half-castes, who understand the real goodness of their qualities.

The fibres of the inner petioles, which are softer but not so strong as the outer, are called tupus, and sold with bandála, or mixed with tapis and used in the native weaving. Bandála also serves for weaving purposes. In that portion of the Archipelago where the native abacá plantations are, the entire dress of both sexes is made of coarse guinára. Still coarser and stronger fabrics are prepared for the European market, such as crinoline and stiff muslin used by dressmakers.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the natives produced stuffs from abaca which became an important article of export only some few decades since.

This is in great measure due to the enterprising spirit of 2 American firms.

• Inflexibility is peculiar to all fibres of the Monokotyledons, because they consist of coursely rounded cells. On the other hand, the true bast fibres—the Dikotyledons (flax, for instance)–are the reverse.

The plants flourish without any care or attention, the only trouble being to collect the fibre; and, the bounteousness of Nature having provided them against want, the natives shirk even this trouble when the market price is not very enticing.

In general, low prices are scarcely to be reckoned on, on account of the utter indifference of the Indians, over whom the traders do not possess any influence to keep them at work. Advances to them are made both in goods and money, which the creditor must repay either by produce from his own plantation or by giving an equivalent in labour.*

As long as the produce has a high price, everything goes on smoothly. Sometimes, a considerable loss frequently ensues from:

  • the dishonesty of the natives
  • the laziness, extravagance, and mercantile incapacity of the middlemen

If prices fall greatly:

  • the Indians seek ways to get out of their uncomfortable position
  • the percentage of profit secured to the middle man is barely sufficient to cover the interest of his outlay.

Nevertheless, they must still continue the supplies, inasmuch as they possess no other means of securing payment of their debt in the future.

The natives bring bitter complaints against the agents, to the effect that they are forced to severe labour, unprofitable to themselves, through their acceptance of advances made to them at most exorbitant rates.

The agents (generally halfcastes or creoles) blame the crafty, greedy, extortionate foreigners, who shamelessly tempt the landlords with false promises, and effectuate their utter ruin.

As a general rule, the capital of the “crafty foreigner” diminishes. This is how one of the most important firms lost a very large sum.

In the end, however, the Americans succeeded in ending the custom of advances. They erected stores and presses on their own account and bought directly from the growers.

All earlier efforts like these were effectively thwarted by the Spaniards and creoles, who considered those profits to be their own by prescriptive right.

They are particularly jealous of the foreign intruders, who enrich themselves at their expense. Consequently, they place every obstacle in their way. They want to eject all foreigners from the Philippines with only the Chinese to remain as coolie labor.

The half-castes and natives secure the work of their countrymen by making these advances in agriculture, and renewing them before the old ones are paid off.

These thoughtless people consequently fall deeper and deeper into debt, and become virtually the slaves of their creditors, it being impossible for them to escape in any way from their position.

The “part-share contract” has much the same effects.

The landlord supplies:

  • agricultural tools and draught-cattle for the farmer
  • clothing and provisions to the farmer’s family

On division of the earnings, the revenue is unable to cover his debt. Natives are responsible legally up to 5 dollars because of a special enactment prohibiting these usurious bargains. But these are generally ignored.

The natives hated the Chinese for being industrious and trustworthy workers.

All attempts to carry out great undertakings by means of Chinese labour were frustrated by the native workers by:

  • intimidating them
  • driving them away either by open violence or by secret persecution.

The Colonial authorities were reproached for not protecting the Chinese.

As a rule, these caused great undertakings to:

  • not succeed in the Philippines, or
  • not yield a profit commensurate with the outlay and trouble

There are those, however, who explain these mishaps in other ways, and insist upon the fact that the Indians work well enough when they are punctually and sufficiently paid. The Government, at any rate, appear gradually to have come to the conclusion that the resources of the country cannot be properly opened up without the assistance of the capital and enterprise of the foreigners.

Therefore, recently they have not in any way interfered with their establishment.

In 1869, their right of establishment was tardily conceded to them by law.

At this period, the prospects of the abacá cultivation seemed very promising. Since the close of the American war, which had the effect of causing a considerable fall in the value of this article in America, the prices have been steadily increasing.

In 1840, 136,034 picos of abaca, to the value of 397,995 dollars, were exported, the value per pico being reckoned at about 2 dollars 9 cents.

The rate gradually rose between 4-5 dollars. During the US civil war, reached to $9 per pico. The export of Russian hemp prevented a further rise.

This state of affairs occasioned the laying out of many new plantations, the produce of which, when it came on the market, after 3 years, was valued at 3.50 dollars per pico, in consequence of the prices having returned to their normal condition.

Even then, it paid to take up an existing plantation, but not to lay out a new one. This rate continued until 1860, since which time it has gradually risen (only during the American war was there any stoppage), and it now stands once more as high as during the civil war. There is no apparent prospect of a fall so long as the Philippines have no competitors in the trade.

In 1866, the pico in Manila never cost less than $7, which two years previously was the maximum value. It rose gradually, until 9.50 dollars was asked for ordinary qualities.

The production in many provinces had reached the extreme limit; and a further increase, in the former at least, is impossible, as the work of cultivation occupies the whole of the male population-an evidence surely that a suitable recompense will overcome the natural laziness of the natives.*

An examination of the following table will confirm the accuracy of these views :

Total …

273,260 | 493,352 | 406,682 | 460,558 | 488,570 | 463,752 Commer-Prussian Belgian English cial Consular Consular Consular

The consumption in the country is not contained in the above schedule, and is difficult to ascertain ; but it must certainly be very considerable, as the natives throughout entire provinces are clothed in guinára, the weaving of which for the family requirements generally is done at home.