SPANISH GALLEON TRADE BETWEEN THE PHILIPPINES AND MEXICO
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Trade in the Philippines centered around the “Manila galleons,” which sailed from Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico (New Spain) with shipments of silver bullion and minted coin that were exchanged for return cargoes of Chinese goods, mainly silk textiles and porcelain. There was no direct trade with Spain and little exploitation of indigenous natural resources. Most investment was in the galleon trade. But, as this trade thrived, another unwelcome element was introduced—sojourning Chinese entrepreneurs and service providers.
For 250 years, from 1565 to 1815, Spanish galleons shuttled between Acapulco and Manila, exchanging treasures of the West for those the East, making huge profits for the Spaniards. The trade has been described as “one of the most persistent, perilous and profitable commercial enterprises in European colonial history.” For a long period of time it was the “most significant pathway for commerce and cultural interchange between Europe and Asia.” [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 <>]
The galleons sailed once or twice. Sometimes they traveled in convoys but more often than not a single ship made the journey. A few vessels sailed from Manila directly to Spain rounding the cape of Good Hope, but these voyages were soon stopped by their enemy the Dutch, who controlled this sea route.
Acapulco began as Spanish port from which goods received from the Orient were transported overland by mule to present day Mexico City and then to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, where the goods were reloaded on ships bound for Spain that rendezvoused with other Spanish ships in Havana for the trip to Spain. A little further north of Acapulco is Puerto Navidad, where the Spanish launched their conquest of the Philippines. Acapulco was selected as the trading port of the Manila galleons in the Americas because of its excellent harbor, and overland accessibility to Vera Cruz on the Caribbean side of Mexico.<>
The trade route between the Philippines and Mexico was opened in 1564 when the eastward route was discovered from the Philippines to Mexico by Legazpi. Beginning with Magellan navigators had sailed from Mexico to the Philippines for decades but were unable to find the route back. Many of the first conquistadors to arrive in the Philippines gave themselves up to their enemies the Portuguese because it was their way only to make it back to Europe. <>
Ellsworth Boyd wrote in The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”: “Nowhere in the annals of the Spanish Empire’s colonial history did a treasure fleet attract so much intrigue and notoriety for its precious cargoes bound for the Far East. Maritime historians continue to pay homage to these vessels and their influence on international commerce. These were the largest ships afloat, plying long and risky routes. On an average, three to five million silver pesos were shipped annually from Mexican mints to Manila, the “Queen of the Orient.” The silver and gold was waggishly referred to as “silk money.” Silk stockings were prized by the fashionable Spanish gentry in Mexico and Spain. But the silver and gold bought other lavish exports as well. They came from all over the Far East: spices, Ming porcelain, opals, amethysts, pearls and jade. There were art treasures, ebony furniture, carved ivory and other exquisite rarities found only in China, Japan, India, Burma and Siam. [Source: Ellsworth Boyd, The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”, July 2, 2012]
China, Trade and the Philippines
The Spanish had initially hoped to turn the Philippines into another Spice Island but they soon found that the island’s soil, terrain and climate were not suited for growing spices. Mining opportunities did not present themselves as they did in Latin America. Trade was stubbled upon sort of by accident.
In 1571, the Spaniards rescued some Chinese sailors whose sampans sunk off the Philippines and helped them get back to China. The next year the grateful Chinese returned the favor in the form of a trading vessel filled with gifts of silk, porcelain and other Chinese goods. This ship was sent eastward and arrived in Mexico in 1573, and its cargo ultimately made it to Spain, where people liked what they saw and a demand for Chinese goods was born.
Manila became the center of a major trade network that funneled goods from Southeast Asia, Japan, Indonesia, India and especially China to Europe. Spain developed and maintained a monopoly over the transpacific trade route. The trade became the primary reason for the existence of the Philippines. Development of the archipelago was largely neglected.
The most important source of goods for the Spanish in the Philippines was China. For a while the Spaniards maintained a trading post on China but for the most part they relied on Chinese intermediaries to bring goods to Manila. About 30 or 40 junks, laden with goods arrived in the Philippines from China a year. Over time the Chinese not only dominated trade but also dominated many of the trades, such as shipbuilding, on which trade was based, and outnumbered the Spanish.
The Chinese were very enterprising, sometimes too much for their own good. A Spanish trader named Diego de Bobadilla wrote: “A Spaniard who lost his nose through a certain illness, sent for a Chinaman to make him one wood, in order to hide the deformity. The workman made him so good a nose that the Spaniard in great delight paid him munificently, giving him 20 escudos. The Chinaman, attracted by the ease with which he made that gain, loaded a fine boatload of wooden noses the next year and returned to Manila.”
Manila Galleon Ships and Crew
The Manila galleons were owned and sailed by the Spanish crown. Most were built from strong tropical hardwoods in the port of Cavite in Manila Bay using Spanish designs with oriental features. Over time the ships grew in size to accommodate the increase in trade. Early ships carried around 300 tons. By the late 1600s they were carrying more than a thousand tons. The giant Santisima Trinidad, captured by the English in 1792, carried 2,000 tons. [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 <>]
Large galleon usually weighed 1,700 to 2,000 tons, were 140 to 160 feet long and could carry a thousand passengers. A typical galleon carried 300 people. Passengers included Chinese traders, Spanish priests, nuns, merchants, Filipino laborers and condemned prisoners. The crew was comprised of mostly Spanish officers, petty officers, gunners, seamen, apprentices and pages. The sails on the Manila galleons were made in Ilcos on Luzon. Anchor lines and rigging were woven from Manila hemp. Fastenings were forged by the Spanish. Chinese and Japanese smiths used iron imported from China and Japan. <>
Hundreds of storage jars with fresh water were secured below the deck and hung overhead, lashed with Manila hemp. Other stores included salted meats, biscuits, wine, honey, garbanzo beans, chickens, hogs, garlic and olive oil. Bundles were compressed and packed, usually by Chinese, and packed in such a way as reduce space. Cannons were stored in the hold to make more room on the decks for merchandise, but this left the ships vulnerable to attacks. <>
Ellsworth Boyd wrote in The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”: “Picture if you will, a four-deck, 100-gun, 2,500-ton vessel crossing the Pacific loaded with treasure and not making landfall for six months. Picture it as short and broad—with high fore and stern castles—carrying so much silver and gold, it draws 40 feet of water while skirting coral reefs 30 feet deep. It’s no wonder that dozens of them sank from 1570 to 1815, leaving a trail of treasure across the globe. [Source: Ellsworth Boyd, The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”, July 2, 2012]