‘Pulex irritans’, ‘Ectobia Germanica’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

‘Pulex irritans’, ‘Ectobia Germanica’

FILIPINO-AMERICAN Friendship Day is celebrated every year on the fourth of July, the same date that we used to celebrate Philippine Independence Day from 1946 until Diosdado Macapagal moved it to June 12. US Independence Day is celebrated in the US Embassy ballroom on Roxas  Boulevard, a wonderfully designed place with large windows overlooking Manila Bay. The windows in this hall resemble a room in the White House everyone is familiar with from photos or movies. So there is a crowd that comes in and enjoys the hospitality of the Embassy while others who have a different way of showing their affection attempt demonstrations, pickets, and flag burning outside the Embassy and are thus treated to the hospitality of Manila’s Finest, the first line of defense outside the high walls that enclose US territory in the Philippines.

Filipino history has a soft spot for the first group of American teachers who traveled to the Philippines aboard the transport SS Thomas in 1901, laying the groundwork for a public school system we enjoy to this day. This pioneering group of men and women are collectively known as the “Thomasites”  in memory of the boat that brought them here. Some of them are buried in a special spot in the Manila North Cemetery where they are still remembered and honored 110 years since they set foot on the archipelago.


The teachers came from all over the US. It cost the government, on average, $90 to bring each teacher to San Francisco. It took 30 days to travel from San Francisco to Manila, and at $2,000 a day the trip cost $60,000, broken down as follows: wages $15,000; coal and water $25,000; provisions and ice $20,000. They seemed to have an ice machine on board, but that was not enough to meet demand so when they had a stopover in Honolulu 100 tons of ice was loaded on the Thomas. The route from SFO to Honolulu to Manila is very much the same route followed by people who take airplanes.

Food seemed all right and based on a typical menu. For breakfast they had: stewed prunes, corn meal mush, cod fish cakes, broiled rump steak and mushroom sauce, mutton chops, fried liver and bacon, parsley omelet,  sauteed potatoes, bread, jelly, coffee, tea or chocolate. They had games on board, socialization, etc. It must have been a great adventure for many of these young men and women to go half the world away on a mission to teach a distant and different people.


Reading the papers and memories gathered by the US Public Affairs Office to celebrate the centennial of the arrival of the Thomasites in 2011, I came across “Scientific Notes”  by Charles S. Banks  who used the boredom of the long sea voyage from San Francisco to Manila to note “incidents of scientific value.” He began with the fish he saw in the water and the birds that flew overhead. He noted their  sizes, colors, etc. On board they had two cats and three dogs he did not write home about, but he wrote quite a bit on the few insects that accompanied life at sea:

“The ever present house fly, Musca domestica, whose persistent alighting upon one’s nose in the early morn aroused him from his  peaceful and dreamy slumbers only to make him wish the pesky fly was miles away. The fly was certainly very much absent from the mess table, and I opined that his equal scarcity on deck was due largely to a feeling  that if he would have safe passage to the Orient he must not venture where a stray gust of wind might blow him to sea.

“The German cockroach, erstwhile the croton bug, Ectobia germanica, may be said to be in full possession of the ship, above master and crew,  above the scruples of the passengers, above the vigil of the chief steward and his assistants, and above the vicissitudes of climate. His is the privilege of walking abroad at noonday among the stores, the fruits, the candies, and wheresoever he wished. Even the office of  the quartermaster is not sacred from the intrusion of this little pest, for he will frequently be seen walking over written pages upon the desk, stopping occasionally and moving his antennae in a way to suggest the wise and appreciative interest he takes in the literary   efforts of man.

“One of the most insidious and annoying of the insect travelers is the flea, Pulex irritans, the significance of whose name is perfectly obvious. The favorite place of attack of his fleaship is around the ankles of those wearing low shoes and the fact of his elusiveness when attempts are made to capture him makes him the cause of uneasiness to   many who otherwise might have ended their voyage without a single pang of discomfort, seasickness not excepted.

“We did not object to the flies awakening us in the morning. At home the indomitable canticler performs that early matutinal. We could overlook the inquisitive politeness of the croton bug, but we say, all of is, with loud acclaim, ‘We’d just as soon the flea would stay ashore.”’

The above scientific notes opens another avenue of historical research. The SS Thomas did not just bring teachers but also flies, cockroaches, fleas, rats and other vermin that enriched the  Philippines. Then there were diseases unknown to the Filipinos until they were brought in by the Thomasites.

Over a century since their  arrival, there is still much we have to learn from the  Philippine-American experience.

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