Sex, a sledgehammer, and a suitcase filled with money

Mata: Memoirs of a Master Mariner
Published by the Mata family, 2011
200 pages
A book review by Jovidel R. Tabuena

Published in 2011, the book is about the life and times of sailor and businessman Benjamin Mata. (JRT)

Benjamin P. Mata had spunk.

In the 1950s, decades before he established the company that now bears his name, he worked as the chief officer of the M/V Rose Pearl, a foreign vessel that regularly docked in Manila.

Once, while onboard, he threatened to break down the door of the captain’s cabin with a sledgehammer after the latter — a Caucasian — locked himself in due to humiliation: the engineers he brought in — all white — left the engines in a pretty bad shape, which were later fixed by their Filipino counterparts (who then discovered that their salaries for the last three months weren’t sent to their families).

“Since we left Osaka, he had kept disparaging the Filipino contingent of his crew in front of the two British engineers. I was silently smoldering in rage. The crew became agitated because of news from home: our families had not received their allotments for three months,” he said in his autobiography entitled Mata: Memoirs of a Master Mariner, which was published by his family in 2011.

Even though the captain accused him of launching a mutiny, the dispute was settled amicably, thanks to the intervention of an ambassador at the nearest port.

Both captain and chief officer would later get along famously, capping off just one among Mata’s several exploits, including but not limited to taking the helm of the Floretta, a yacht owned by American businessman and World War II hero Chick Parsons.

At sea with suitcases filled with cash

During the 1957 national elections, the Floretta was used by presidential candidate Jose Yulo and his running mate Diosdado Macapagal to campaign across the islands.

Before one sortie, Mata “took delivery of some 50 heavy suitcases accompanied by armed guards” and “a retinue of clowns with bloated egos,” some of whom even asked Mata to iron their shirts.

He then discovered that the suitcases contained money, covering “preparations at the town plaza…the entablado and the sound system, the lights, the colorful buntings, and the streamer strung across the main thoroughfares announcing the miting de avance” which would cost up to Php 100,000.

Years later, he founded B. P. Mata and Co. Inc. and while he isn’t exactly a household name, he nevertheless deserves to be remembered.

After all, Mata isn’t just an experienced captain and an accomplished shipping executive. He is also a driven, business-savvy entrepreneur, later establishing, among others, a logistics company involved in the Philippines’ first attempt to explore for oil in the Calavite passage in Occidental Mindoro in the 1970s.

Way before he became what he is now, Mata started out as a seafarer, just like the thousands of Filipinos that now comprise one-fourth of the world’s shipping fleet crew.

But the similarity ends there.

At the beginning of their careers, Mata and his contemporaries were unable to enjoy the various forms of social protection now taken for granted by workers in the shipping industry.

This issue is close to his heart, prompting him to mention it several times in his autobiography.
Shortly after the second World War, local shipping companies — including the Madrigal Steamship Co. that he once worked for — “deducted the full value of alleged cargo losses that occurred in the cargo hold where one was assigned,” Mata said.

At one point, while unloading shipments in Basco, Batanes, “stevedores lost control and dropped a load of 50 bags of Portland cement and a bundle of GI sheets and assorted hardware items worth more than a thousand pesos,” Mata narrated. “On our return to Manila, I received a pay envelope with nothing in it except a receipt covering partial payment of the equivalent to my monthly pay of 240 pesos! I was outraged! The rest of the crew…seeing no alternative on the horizon accepted such treatment as if it was a part of their fate. I walked off the ship and never looked back.”

These financial and racial iniquities would later drive Mata to improve the lot of the Filipino seafarer.

As a result, much later, when he headed a company that provided crew management services to a Japanese shipowner, he introduced 13th month pay to its Filipino employees, coupled with higher wages on rehire, medical benefits for immediately family members, among others.

Derring-do, desire, and Dorothy

More than helping enhance workers’ welfare, Mata — when he was younger — was also something of a risk-taker and a romantic himself.

While approaching the port of Morroco, Mata — then captain of the TSS Awoshima — docked the ship without the aid of a harbor pilot, a dangerous move since a slight miscalculation could cause the ship to collide with the harbor, which may be damaging and deadly.

As the ship sped to the port, “the harbor pilot was making ready to board his launch to meet us,” Mata said. “He looked at the ship that seemed to be inexorably heading towards him. Would it stop? Could it stop? In his excitement, he missed his step, falling into the water instead of landing on the pilot boat. He was fuming mad but he could not help admire the feat that he had just witnessed.”

Mata’s adventures — including a falling-out with a big-spending, womanizing shipping executive — also involved romantic, if close encounters with a Hildegard in Zamboanga, a Dorothy in Bangkok, and a Muslim princess in Malangas (who wore a tight dress that “enhanced the cleavage of her proud bosom.”)

“The princess was all mine as she responded warmly to my embrace,” Mata said, referring to an affair that began, strangely enough, inside a car.

Although he may not have a girl on every port, Mata admitted to having lived the life of a sailor to the utmost, even remembering the names of the three famous cabarets in Singapore (New World, Happy World, and Great World).

At the same time, he recognized the dedication of his wife, Librada who stayed the course and kept the family together, especially during his long absence while at sea.

“Only a strong willed woman could have done what she had to preserve the family during these long separations,” Mata said in the latter part of the book.

Never pretentious, this memoir — despite being self-published — is devoid of self-importance and self-promotion and deserves a wider audience, if only for its honesty and candor about life of a seafarer.

Packed with details and colorful anecdotes, the book is a fresh and decent read for practically everyone — seafarers, shipping executives, and students — both of history and of life.

As previously mentioned, the memoir is refreshing. However, it contains at least two historical oversights that were overlooked. Page 87, which discusses his stint with the Floretta, said that Yulo and Macapagal of the Liberal Party were up against [Ferdinand] Marcos during the 1957 elections. The tandem was running against Carlos P. Garcia and Jose P. Laurel. Marcos ran for president — and won — in 1965.
On page 173, Mata recounted road trips he took with his family when he finally bought a car in the mid-1970s. He mentioned going to “McDonald’s for cheeseburgers and milk shakes or at Shakey’s for pizzas.” The first McDonald’s branch in the Philippines was built in 1981 in Morayta Avenue where it still stands to this day.

Jovidel R. Tabuena (@_ourdailybrad on Instagram) works part-time, reads books full-time, and is half-asleep most of the time.

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