Buried somewhere, possibly in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum or the Royal collection, among thousands of undisplayed items, are three dresses made of the finest Piña lace, made from a type of pineapple. They were among the most expensive dresses ever made, certainly the most expensive without precious metals or gemstones. They are part of some of the surprising links between Queen Victoria, British Royalty, and Manila.
Way back in 1842, Queen Victoria knighted the leading Indian merchant in Bombay, by the name of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. He was a Parsee, a member of the Indian business elite, who made his fortune in cotton trading and selling opium to China. and clearly rich. Very rich.
At that time India was a British colony, Victoria was its Empress and the now-Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy wanted to impress his empress with a fine gift. It was still the talk of Manila several months later when a Captain Arthur Cunynghame arrived in the Pearl of the Orient.
The Captain was impressed by Filipino craftsmanship but even he was
“…unprepared to meet among these rude people, a fabric which as much surpasses in its texture the finest French cambric as the latter does the commonest piece of Manchester cotton-cloth.”
Do bear in mind that in those days ‘rude’ meant simple and unsophisticated rather than the Presidential expletive and didn’t have the negative connotation it does today, but people were a lot politer then.
That fabric was piña, derived from a species of pineapple and hardly seen today outside the Philippines, although once an item of high-class export.
It was, says the Captain:
“…made of the finest fibres of the pine, beaten out, combed, and wove with a delicacy that it is impossible to rival, possessing at the same time an incredible durability.”
Sir J was entranced by it, too and decided that a dress of piña was fit for a queen, plus another couple for the Queen’s two daughters.
Apart from the cost of the cloth itself, the grateful knight spent $3,000 in labour alone to have it made. Let’ put that into context: you could live splendidly in Manila on just three or four dollars a month. Each of the handkerchiefs for the ensemble cost $60 apiece, enough to keep a reasonably well-off family fed, watered and clothed for a year and a half.
In today’s prices, it would be the equivalent of almost $100,000.
We don’t know the name of the lace factory, nor the names of the seamstresses but Austin Craig visited the place:
The web of the piña is so fine, that they arc obliged to prevent all currents of air from passing through the rooms where it is manufactured, for which purpose there are gauze screens in the windows.
After the article is brought to Manila, it is then embroidered by girls; this last operation adds greatly to its value. We visited one of the houses where this was in progress, and whtre the most skilful workwomen are employed.
On mounting the stairs of bamboos, every step we took produced its creak; but, although the whole seemed but a crazy affair, yet it did not want for strength, being well and firmly bound together. There were two apartments, each about thirteen by twenty-five feet, which could be divided by screens, if required. At the end of it were seen about forty females, all busily plying their needles, and so closely seated as apparently to incommode each other.
The mistress of the manufactory, who was quite young, gave us a friendly reception, and showed us the whole process of drawing the threads and working the patterns, which, in many cases, were elegant.
A great variety of dresses, scarfs, caps, collars, cuffs, and pocket-handkerchiefs, were shown us. These were mostly in the rough state, and did not strike us with that degree of admiration which was expected. They, however, had been in hand for six months, and were soiled by much handling; but when others were shown us in the finished state, washed and put up, they were such as to claim our admiration.
I was soon attracted by a very different sight at the other end of the apartment. This was a dancing-master and his scholar, of six years old, the daughter of the woman of the house. It was exceedingly amusing to see the airs and graces of this child. For music they had a guitar; and I never witnessed a ballet that gave me more amusement, or saw a dancer that evinced more grace, case, confidence, and decided talent, than did this little girl. She was prettily formed, and was exceedingly admired and applauded by us all. Her mother considered her education as finished, and looked on with all the admiration and fondness of parental affection.
On inquiry, I found that the idea of teaching her to read and write had not yet been entertained. Yet every expense is incurred to teach them to use their feet and arms, and to assume the expression of countenance that will enable them to play a part in the after-scenes of life.
This manufactory had work engaged for nine months or a year in advance. The fabric is extremely expensive, and none but the wealthy can afford it. It is also much sought after by foreigners. Even orders for Queen Victoria and many of the English nobility were then in hand; at least I so heard at Manila.
Those who are actually present have, notwithstanding, the privilege of selecting what they wish to purchase; for, with the inhabitants here, as else-where, ready money has too much attraction for them to forego the temptation.
Up to forty seamstresses worked on the dresses every day for nine months. To ensure that they didn’t sneak off, disappear or have babies, the women were put into what the Captain called ‘honorable confinement’ to finish the job.
And what a job it was! Captain Cunynhame was one of the few to see the dress before it was dispatched to its Royal giftee in 1844. He was among those, according to his account, who had
“…the satisfaction of knowing that they have seen the handsomest as well as the most expensive ever worked in Manila, perhaps the world.”
As far as can be determined, there were no jewels, gold or silver on the dress, so it can hardly be dubbed ‘imeldific’. Its magnificence came from its superb Filipina craftsmanship and embroidery.
The Queen Victoria of 1844 was not the dour lola in Widows Weeds of common imagination but a strikingly good-looking and vibrant young woman who thoroughly enjoyed her marital duties with her husband, Prince Albert. . To use a British term, she was quite a ‘cracker’, just look at a Penny Black stamp.
Intriguingly, Captain C. had his British imperial eye on the Philippines and believed the French coveted the archipelago. Indeed, as the nascent Philippine government of 1898 tried desperately to find international friends as war with the Americans became increasingly inevitable, a British lawyer was asked by one of Aguinaldo’s sidekicks whether it was worth asking the British whether they would accept the newly, if momentarily, independent country as part of the empire.
Later, another Philippine president, was to cover the same ground, with a similar lack of success.
Queen Victoria was probably the first and only British monarch ever to actually be left a fortune by a Filipino in his Will as part of a riches-to-rags-to riches story.
An insulares, someone born in the Philippines of Spanish parents, called Francisco Rodriguez, one of the richest Filipinos of his day, got caught up in the 1823 revolt by Captain Andres Novales. The rebels were executed and was sent to Cadiz, from where he escaped and fled to England.
There, totally poor, ignored by his family in Manila, he fetched up with a Protestant group called the Quakers who shivered in excitement when they prayed.
Rodriguez became a Quaker himself, frugal and simple, and returned to the Philippines in 1828 when an amnesty was given for those involved in the Novales unpleasantness.
His Quaker clothing led to derision, no-one had seen anything like it before. The friars tried to persuade him to leave the islands but, as now a British citizen, he was under the protection of the British Consul. Rodriguez refused to speak Spanish and would only talk to those who understood English.
He proceeded to take his revenge on the Spanish by setting up a bank, the first Filipino to do so, associated with British and European banks and one of the first two commercial banks in the islands, to service American, European and British traders. This put Spanish businesses at a disadvantage because they wrre stuck with paying up to 50 per cent interest on loans from the confraternities which had previously got a monopoly on the banking business.
He rebuilt his fortune and acquired extensive property in Manila which he insisted should only be occupied by Englishmen.
When he died, it is said that he bequeathed his entire fortune to Queen Victoria, to be kept in trust for widows and orphans of British soldiers who died in the Crimean War that ended theyear before he died.
Victoria might not have been the sole British monarch to so benefit if the rumoured plans of Imelda Marcos to marry off one of her daughters to Prince Charles had been realized. It was, of course, an unlikely match. Not because it would have made a Filipina the future Queen of England, after all, it isn’t long since a Filipino boy inherited a title and a seat in the House Of Lords, but because she was a Catholic.
Not only did Britain have rather unfortunate experiences with Catholic monarchs in the past, but should he ascend to the throne Prince Charles will become the titular head of Catholicism’s traditional arch-rival, the Anglican Church. Since the Catholic Church demands that children of a mixed-faith union be brought up as Catholics, it would have meant that a future head of the Anglican Church would be a Catholic, a Constitutional impossibility.
Be that as it may, Prince Chuck is now spliced to the charming Camilla and his children will inherit that most expensive dress in the world. Certainly, Manila lace handkerchiefs at $60 a pop are not to be sneezed at.