For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

WHO WAS NICHOLAS LONEY? by Gerry van der Linden

18 Jan 2020

There is a statue in Iloilo City of a man named Nicholas Loney and there is a Muelle Loney. However, when you ask Ilongos who Nicholas Loney was, some may remember they he had something to do with sugar, but most do not know who he was. This is the story of his life.

Before Iloilo. Nicholas Loney was an Englishman, born in 1826 in Plymouth, a bustling naval port. He was one of 10 children of a navy man, Robert Loney. Although the father eventually rose to the rank of admiral, the family was not particularly well-to-do. Nicholas’ formal education was limited to grammar school, but his later letters and consular reports show that he developed himself as an erudite man.

Nicholas was only 16 when he left his family in 1842 and worked for four years in Venezuela where he became fluent in Spanish. After a year back in England in 1846/1847, he left again, this time for Singapore, via New Zealand and Australia. In Singapore he heard of the growing Manila trade which was largely controlled by British commercial houses. Nicholas applied to Ker & Co, a British firm with offices in Singapore, Manila and Batavia (as well as Glasgow and Liverpool). In May 1851 Nicholas was appointed to the correspondence department of the firm in Manila and initially lived with the Ker cousins William and William Jr. at the Escolta.

Nicholas took an immediate liking to the country and undertook frequent travels outside Manila. He was also an avid reader of books and journals. Nicholas got along very well with his employers and already in 1855, he was left in charge of the Manila office together with Robert Jardine. Since he spoke Spanish, he had little difficulty making friends, and he particularly enjoyed the tertulla, an informal evening for pleasant talk over tea or chocolate.

Later that year, Nicholas Loney resigned from Ker to return to England. However, this plan was thwarted by a major local development. A royal order was issued in September of 1955, approving the opening of three more ports to foreign trade: Sual, Iloilo and Zamboanga. In anticipation of this decision, the British consul in Manila had asked British merchants in Manila to nominate candidates for the position of vice-consul in Iloilo. The unanimous favorite was Nicholas Loney, who had to abort his plan to return to England and, on 11 June 1856, was appointed British vice-consul to Iloilo. In his letters Nicholas never explained his decision of choosing Iloilo which, in a letter of February 1857, he refers to as “a forgotten dot of the universe”.

Sugar. By the time the Spanish came to the Philippines in the 16th century sugarcane was already widely known, although not raised on a commercial scale. Initially it was used for chewing or as animal feed. The manufacturing of sugar probably started in India and the Chinese sent emissaries to India in the 7th century to learn the process of extracting sugar from sugarcane. In the 12th century Chinese trade reports mention sugar as one of the products carried by Chinese junks to the Philippines. At first, the processes used to extract sugar were very primitive and inefficient. Different processes resulted in different types of sugar such as muscovado, panucha (in Luzon) and binagol in the Visayas. Sugarcane was also used to make wine (basi) although this was banned by the colonial government in 1714; a century later the ban was lifted, and sugarcane was declared a government monopoly.

In the early 19th century it was reported that the cultivation of sugar took place in almost all provinces, mostly for local consumption but with some export to China.

The end of the galleon trade in 1815 and a royal decree of 1834 declaring Manila open to foreign shipping, led to a rapid increase in European and American firms in Manila. It was the foreign firms, especially the British and American that tried to encourage the export of sugar. This led to an increase in sugar exports from 1,880 tons in the 1790s to 12,777 tons in 1835 and 29,090 tons in 1850. At the time Nicholas Loney moved to Iloilo, sugar was a rising industry in Luzon but still at a nascent stage in the Western Visayas.

Iloilo. The Spanish first came to Iloilo in 1565 when they landed at Jalaud, now a part of Dumangas. In 1570 they established Oton and in 1581 Arevalo. In 1616 a stone fort, Fort San Pedro, was built at Punta as a protection against Muslims and the Dutch. When Loney arrived, Iloilo had about 7,500 people, but other towns were much larger: Jaro (33,000), Molo (15,000) and Oton (20,000). The census of 1855 gives the population of Iloilo Province as 527,570. Contrary to Loney’s perception, it was a well-developed place producing rice, corn, sugar, abaca, cotton, livestock, tobacco and coffee, among others. It was referred to as the textile center of the country with over 50,000 looms. All this activity made the port of Iloilo a busy one. The opening of the port to foreign trade led to an influx of commercial people, including Chinese and Spanish merchants.

Nicholas Loney’s Early Years in Iloilo. Loney ordered the construction of a building for the vice consulate in Iloilo, but since that would take some time, he rented a house at Jaro, 4 km way. The house stood at the corner of the town plaza and his residency raised the number of Europeans in Jaro to six, all the others being Spanish. While Loney quickly befriended them he also made some trenchant observations: “Spanish and Anglo-Saxon ideas are so radically different… John Bull is too angular and insular in most cases, but the Don on the other hand has generally seen little of the world beyond his own exceptional country, and has grafted on his own original stock an undercurrent of French ideas about everything else” and “most of the Spaniards in Iloilo are, speaking from a social point of view, of a third or fourth rate sort, many of them ex-mates of vessels and that sort of thing…” Loney liked to take morning walks during which he also collected plants that he would ship to a friend in Edinburgh. On the side he did some business on his own account by bringing goods from Manila for sale in Iloilo but not with any great success.

One of Loney’s responsibilities was to promote the trade of British and other foreign commercial houses in Manila by giving them information about opportunities and acting as their agent. A specific challenge was to promote direct trade between Iloilo and foreign countries. He considered several products for export and finally settled on sugar, as there was a big demand for sugar in Europe. However, the scale of sugarcane cultivation was at that time still small and the manufacture of sugar defective and inefficient. In 1857 Loney visited the internal towns to see the situation for himself and was greatly impressed by the fertility of the soil. He believed that more capital and better technology could greatly increase the business. Moreover, the presence of huge, rich and practically virgin land in Negros added to the potential. Loney also envisioned Iloilo port as the center for sugar from the neighboring islands.

Loney wrote Russell and Sturgis, the biggest American trading house in Manila, and persuaded them to send a ship to Iloilo to load sugar for Australia via Manila. He also proposed the construction of a large stone warehouse, near where the river was deepest, and to give cash advances to planters. Russell and Sturgis had enough trust in him to give him an advance of $15,000. In 1857 the firm Loney & Co was born, the first foreign commercial company outside of Manila. Its first focus was on importing goods from Manila to sell locally and in the region and this business grew rapidly. Traders came from Antique, Leyte and Negros to buy supplies wholesale.

Transforming the Sugar Industry. Nicholas Loney now set about to modernize and grow the sugar industry. He focused on both cultivation and milling. Farmers still used wooden plows and Loney recognized that iron plows could raise production from 15-20 tons per acre to 25 tons per acre. In manufacturing Loney believed that better methods could increase the juice extracted from the cane from 40 to 70%, and the percentage of sugar from 10 to 16-20. He recommended iron plows, iron mills and European-built kettles, but most planters did not have the capital to buy these . Loney now offered to sell the machineries on installment basis and at cost hoping to make a profit from the enlarged volume of sugar that would be produced for export. This was a success and by 1861 there were already 30 iron mills operating in Iloilo and Negros.

Loney also introduced higher-yielding varieties of sugarcane which he imported from the East Indies. Loney now started to give crop loans for clearing and tilling the land, for buying seedlings and draft animals, and for hiring laborers. The loans were giving at 8% interest while the prevailing rate was 30 to 40% per year, but with the promise that the crop would be sold to Loney. At that time there were no banks yet in the Philippines and the funds came from commercial houses in Manila. As a result of these initiatives sugar exports from Iloilo rapidly grew from P82,000 in 1858 to P1 million in 1863 (12,000 piculs to 112,765 piculs). Loney even designed a remodeled lorcha to ship the sugar from Negros to Iloilo and set up a shipyard in Buenavista on Guimaras Island. Another consequence was the rise in the value of land and animals, as well as in wages (from 12.5 cents a day to 18.75 cents). Sugar plantations in Negros rapidly grew in size and number, resulting in large-scale migration from Panay to Negros. In 1860 Loney applied for a leave of absence to go to England. He wanted to pursue many business-related matters and also cited health reasons. On his one-man trade mission to Europe Loney took up many matters, such as direct exports from England to Iloilo, a telegraph line from Hong Kong to Manila and from Manila to the southern islands, a railway from Manila to Sual, and the setting up of an inter-island steamship company connecting Manila, Iloilo and Cebu. He also lobbied in Madrid for tariff reforms and to permit foreigners to own property in the Philippines. After 18 months in Europe Loney returned to the Philippines by the overland route via China in May 1863.

Marriage and Death. While in Spain , Nicholas Loney, aged 37, fell in love with the 27-year old Leontine Traschler. In 1865 Leontine and her mother traveled to Hong Kong where she probably married Nicholas. Loney built a new house for them in Tabucan, just across the river where the bridge connects Iloilo to what is now La Paz. Eleven months later a daughter was born and two years after that a son.

Some years earlier, while awaiting approval to travel to Europe, Nicholas Loney was joined in Iloilo by his brother Robert. With several partners Loney acquired a hacienda in Negros, about three km from Bacolod across the Matabang River. His brother Robert managed the hacienda. The hacienda used the most modern machineries and became a favorite visiting place of foreign businessmen. The hacienda was later acquired by the Lacson family whose descendants still own the property today. For a short while, from 1866 to 1867, Loney became acting British consul and lived with his family in Manila. During this time he proposed a series of reforms to the Spanish authorities to promote economic activity and encourage trade. Loney returned to Iloilo, but after their second child was born, he and his wife started to think about returning to Europe. These ideas slowly developed - he thought of applying for the position of vice consul in Spain – and Nicholas and Leontine decided to leave by the end of 1869. In the remaining time Loney worked as hard as ever.

While resting at home from a foot injury he conceived of the plan to once more go up Mount Canlaon to explore it for agricultural and scientific purposes. They climbed the volcano around 17 or 18 April 1869 even though Loney was not feeling well. Near the summit he suddenly developed a high fever. His companions rushed him down to Matabang, doctors were summoned but to no avail. On April 23 he expired, just 43 years old.

The burial site was by the seashore facing Point Bundolan on Guimaras. By voluntary subscription among the residents of Iloilo, Jaro and Molo, money was raised for a marble obelisk. The monument was destroyed in 1945 to expand Rizal Street and not reconstructed. In March 1981 a statue of him was unveiled at the end of (now) Muelle Loney. In March 2004 the municipal board passed a resolution naming the city front Muelle Loney.

(Source: Sugar is Sweet, The Story of Nicholas Loney by Demy P. Sonza, National Historical Institute, undated).


Gerry van der Linden is a former Vice President of ADB and is now active in microcredit and governance NGOs in the Philippines