Why March is Fire Prevention Month
Looking Back

Why March is Fire Prevention Month

Why March is Fire Prevention Month

Travel accounts of the Philippines are bread and butter for historians. Ranging from Antonio Pigafetta’s account of the Magellan expedition in the 16th century to racist ones posted in the early 20th century by Dean C. Worcester and John Foreman, one can find a lot to chew on. Vivid descriptions of the islands and their people are windows into the past, helping us imagine what Spanish Manila was like before it was turned into rubble during the 1945 Battle for Manila. Written by Westerners for Westerners, the accounts contain useful travel information: climate, food, customs, products, as well as tariffs. Travel accounts are written by men, with a small number by women whose count will not exceed the fingers of my left hand.

The earliest travel account of the Philippines by a woman, “A Lady’s Visit to Manilla and Japan,” was published in London in 1863. The title page gives only part of the author’s name as Anna D’A[lmeida], wife of a certain William Barrington D’Almeida. What makes this account significant, is that the author was not a trader, missionary, or soldier, she was but 26 years old, traveling in Asia with her husband and baby daughter. I wish that the book had more illustrations than the two engravings of Japan, based on sketches made by Anna’s husband. I also hope that his sketches of the Philippines and its people are extant and just waiting to be found in some European attic or library.

Ports of call were Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, Macau, Shanghai, Nagasaki, Yokohama, and Amoy covered in 12 short and charming chapters. A quarter of the book, three chapters, covers the Philippines. In March 1862, Anna and her family arrived in Manila, following a three-day voyage from Hong Kong in a filthy, disagreeable steamer. She was only too happy to disembark, only to find herself detained by Customs red tape in the port of Manila. Then as now, there were necessary clearances that had to be negotiated, and it was their good fortune to arrive on a Sunday when offices were closed. Anna remarked, “I strongly suspect that to this suspicious government all days are alike for giving trouble to foreigners.”


That experience didn’t dampen their enthusiasm and after unpacking, they made their way to the afternoon “paseo” at Luneta where four military bands played music for people enjoying the famous Manila Bay sunset. What makes them even more remarkable is that they didn’t just stay in the hotel, they explored the walled city, visited suburbs like Binondo, San Miguel, Santa Ana, and traveled even further south to Laguna, Biñan, Los Baños, Calamba, Tanauan, and Taal. They were just on a layover in Manila and if they had more time, I think they might have gone north to Bulacan and Pampanga, too.


Re-reading Anna D’Almeida for this column made me smile in parts where the past seems to mirror the present. In 2024, Presidential Proclamation No. 115-A declared March as Fire Prevention Month; when Anna arrived in Manila in March 1862, she was told that March was the proverbial month for fires. Traveling about the city, she noticed many ruins of houses destroyed by fire. When she inquired further about March being Fire Month, someone explained that the fires were done on purpose, that natives actually burned houses of the well-to-do so that “in the general confusion they may steal whatever valuables they can lay hands on.” Today, I am told that fires spike in March not because of the summer heat but because of the deadline for income taxes on April 15. People who want to skip or reduce their taxes can declare a loss by fire (not arson, of course).

Another explanation for March fires in Manila was provided by a gentleman who said: “Whenever these fires occur there is sure to be a quantity of bamboo on the hands of the wood-merchants, for which they can get little or nothing, owing to there being no demand… The day after the conflagration, the quantity of bamboo for which a merchant could only get 25 cents, is worth fully two dollars.” Anna could not tell which of the two reasons proposed was true but where there is smoke, there is fire, so she concluded that “there may be some probability in both of them.”

Anna was a Protestant and commented negatively on the unique brand of Roman Catholicism introduced to the Philippines by the friar orders. Her descriptions of the interior of churches, their architecture, miraculous images, and anachronistic paintings were quite apt for Lent. She compared the simplicity of Protestant worship with the gaudiness of Catholic pomp and ritual, concluding that Catholicism stimulated devotion in the imagination rather than the heart.

Anna was adventurous with food and tried carabao milk, which she found very sweet. Then she wrote, “Fortunately we were here during the mango season, and were able to feast upon this most delicious fruit. We also enjoyed the chocolate very much, preferring it, however, thinner [Chocolate Ah] than it is generally liked here [thick as in Chocolate Eh].”

A woman’s travel impressions are definitely different from that of a man. They see things differently and help contribute to the writing of her-story rather than the dominant his-tory.

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TAGS: Fire, Fire Prevention Month, opinion

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