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 close to 100 of them sank from 1570 to 1815, leaving a trail of treasure across the globe, while enhancing the image of adventure on the high seas aboard the MANILA GALLEONS.
Before the Spaniards colonized the Philippines in the 16th century, Manila already had trade relations between China, Japan, India, Siam, Cambodia, Borneo and the Moluccas. After the Spaniards claimed the Philippine islands for the the crown, it soon became a highly profitable port as Spain maintained trade relations with the same countries.
When Andres de Urdaneta discovered a return trade route from the Acapulco-New Spain (present-day Mexico) which avoided the much-feared trade winds, the Galleon Trade was born. The Spaniards brought silver from Mexico, which was then used to purchase Asian goods such as silk from China, spices from the Moluccas, lacquer ware from Japan and Philippine cotton textiles. It is estimated that as much as one-third of the silver mined in New Spain and Peru went to the Far East.
The annual voyage generally began in July, and involved transporting between 500 and 1,500 tons of silver between Acapulco and Manila. The transpacific voyage lasted on average about five months from the Philippines to Mexico and four months from Mexico to the Philippines. There is a good possibility one or more of the Spanish galleons made contact with the Hawaiian Islands during the 16th and/or 17th centuries long before the English explorer Captain James Cook “discovered” them in 1778.
In the Philippine archipelago, the galleons had to avoid Chinese, Japanese and Malayan pirates, as well as the Dutch and English pirates that waited for them in the open waters. In the early 1600s, the Dutch attempted to take this valuable transpacific route away from the Spanish, but were unsuccessful.
According to Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, in their article, “Born with a Silver Spoon”: The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History 6 (1995):201, “Manila had no other purpose other than the trade in silver and silk…The Pacific route of silver to China was Spain’s only avenue for entry into the lucrative Asian marketplace because the trade out of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was controlled first by the Portugues and later by the Dutch. Spain’s Manila galleons initiated the birth of Pacific rim trade more than 420 years ago.”
Eventually Spain would close off all trading relations with other countries except Mexico, establishing a government monopoly that involved ships that would sail one or two times a year between Manila and Acapulco until the Mexican War of Independence put an end to the Galleon Trade.
Due to the route’s high profitability but long voyage time, it was essential to build the largest possible galleons, which were the largest class of ships known to have been built. In the 16th century, they averaged from 1,700 to 2,000 tons, were built of Philippine hardwoods and could carry a thousand passengers. The Concepción, wrecked in 1638, was 43 to 49 m (140–160 feet) long and displacing some 2,000 tons. The Santísima Trinidad was 51.5 m long. Most of the ships were built in the Philippines and only eight in Mexico. The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade ended in 1815, a few years before Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. After this, the Spanish Crown took direct control of the Philippines, and was governed directly from Madrid. This became manageable in the mid-19th century upon the invention of steam power ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, which reduced the travel time from Spain to the Philippines to 40 days.
In 1887, many items brought over by the Galleon trade were exhibited at the Madrid expo.
Between both countries, more than just goods and spices were traded between its peoples. Many of the Spaniards in the local government, the military, the Church and the merchants were either in Mexico or had lived there for a few years before settling in the Philippines.
Along with loads of silver, the galleons also brought supplies from America, such as horses, books and new kinds of plants and foods. Fruits and vegetables are probably the largest contributors of Latin American words to the Filipino vocabulary. It is estimated that there are about 250 Nahuatl words in the Filipino language.
Some Latin American foods became so popular that their Nahuatl names have entered languages around the world – xocolatl (chocolate), xitomatl (tomato), potatl (potato), ahuacamolli (guacamole) and mizquitl (mesquite). Even the name of the popular American chewing gum, Chiclets, is rooted in the Nahuatl word tzictli, which means “sticky”. And of course, corn or mais and tobacco were originally grown in the Americas. Their names can be traced back to the Arawak people of the Caribbean. Other fruits and vegetables such as the pineapple, the peanut, papaya, lima beans, cassava, chico/zapote and balimbing came from Central and South America, too.
Many traditional Filipino melodies and dances such as La Paloma and Sandunga Mia also originated in Mexico.
The galleon trade saw its demise when Mexico gained its independence and in 1834, free trade was formally recognized. With its excellent harbor, Manila became an open port for Asian, European, and North American traders. In 1873 additional ports were opened to foreign commerce, and by the late nineteenth century, three crops—tobacco, abaca, and sugar—dominated Philippine exports.
These days, maritime archaeologists study the underwater wrecks of the many galleons that sank along the Galleon trade route, often complete with all their treasures. You can learn more about the ancient trade routes from maritime archaeologist Frank Goddio here, and view pictures and even videos of their efforts to catalog their underwater findings.