The Manila Galleons

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Podcast Transcript

Globalization consists of a system of interlinked markets and economies. Most people think of this as a modern phenomenon, however, its roots go back much further. 

One of the earliest examples of globalization took place as early as the 16th century. 

The Spanish empire had a global spanning operation that linked together three continents and several of the world’s greatest civilizations.

Learn more about the Manila Galleons and the Spanish system of globalization on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you wanted to encapsulate the system of globalization in a single image, it would probably be a picture of a container ship carrying thousands of prebuilt containers, each filled with items intended for a separate destination.

While the current globalization of trade has become highly specialized and efficient, it is simply the current iteration of a system that began almost 500 years ago. 

The Silk Road could be considered an ancient form of Globalization, but it had nothing to do with anything in the entire Western Hemisphere. 

What I’ll be talking about in this episode is usually considered to be the first true system of globalization in that it was truly global.

It began in the early 16th century as European naval powers, in this case, Spain, sent out voyages of discovery to claim territory around the world. 

In the Americas, they claimed an enormous amount of land extending from the southernmost point of South America all the way up to modern-day Canada. 

Of particular interest for this episode is the area they called New Spain. This included all of Central America, Mexico, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and most of the Southern and Middle United States.

However, in 1521, the Spanish also funded an expedition by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who sailed around South America and then west across the Pacific Ocean. 

He died during the journey, but some of his Spanish crew, led by Juan Sebastián Elcano, the subject of a previous episode, managed to sail back to Europe, becoming the first people to travel around the world.

Along the way, they claimed for Spain an archipelago of islands off the coast of Southeast Asia that was named after King Philip of Spain. We know these islands today as the Philippines.

The Philippines was in a very strategic position. From there, you could access Asian markets which had desirable luxury goods.

The Philippines, however, was really far away from Spain. The closest Spanish territory was now New Spain, in the Americas. 

The simple solution was to sail goods from the Philippines to New Spain, but there was a problem. 

Magellan’s voyage found that the prevailing winds at that latitude went from east to west. For decades, Spanish sailors tried to find a corresponding route that allowed for travel from west to east. Several ships were lost trying to find this route.

It wasn’t until 1565, forty-five years after the voyage of Magellan across the Pacific, that two Spanish navigators, Alonso de Arellano, and Andrés de Urdaneta, solved the problem. 

They reasoned that the trade winds in the Pacific Ocean probably moved in the same way as the winds in the Atlantic Ocean, in a gyre. They sailed all the way up to 38 degrees north, off the coast of Japan, until they found winds that blew eastward. 

They managed to sail east across the Pacific Ocean, the first expedition to do so, until they arrived off the coast of Southern California. From there, they followed the coast down to the main Spanish port on the Pacific Ocean, Acapulco. 

This was the beginning of the Manila Galleon. 

Here I should note that Manila Galleon refers both to the ship and to the trade route. A Manila galleon refers to one of the ships which traveled the route from Manila to Acapulco. The Manila Galleon refers to the route and system of trade between the two ports. 

The Manila Galleon proved to be one of the most lucrative parts of the entire Spanish Empire. 

The main reason it was so successful had to do with China.

For the most part, the Ming Dynasty had no real desire to trade with Europe. The Europeans didn’t have anything that the Chinese wanted. 

However, there was one major exception, and that was something that Spain was producing in large amounts: Silver. 

The entire Chinese monetary system at this point in time was based on silver, and Spain was the largest producer of silver in the world via their mines in the New World, especially those in Peru, Mexico, and Bolivia. 

Chinese merchants sailed to Manila from Southern China, bringing with them a host of luxury products which were found only in Asia. This included Chines produced items such as silk, porcelain, and jade. However, items from all over Asia found their way to Manila, including lacquerware from Japan, spices from Indonesia, cotton and rugs from India, and a host of other products. 

Ships laden with goods from Asia would make the trip only once or twice a year across the Pacific. 

These ships were prime targets for pirates, given the value of what they were carrying, so they were heavily protected. During the entire 250-year history of the Manila Galleon, only four ships were ever captured.

The entire trip from Manila to Acapulco took about four months. Much of the early exploration of California was in support of the Manila Galleon. 

The port of Monterey was established in California as the first port Galleons reached after crossing the Pacific. It took about two months and three weeks in the open ocean to reach Monterey from Manila. There, ships could get provisions before beginning the journey south. 

Another port established to support the Manila Galleon was San Diego. 

The galleon ships would return to Manila with goods that mostly originated from the Americas. Silver was the most important product, but they also shipped back tobacco, coca, corn, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, as well as some products from Europe and Africa, including olive oil and wine. 

Because the Spanish government limited the number of ships that could travel the route every year, and because the voyage was so long, there was an incentive to make the ships as large as possible. The Spanish Galleons were the largest wooden European ships of the era.

The Manila Galleons were all constructed in Manila. Each ship required approximately 2,000 trees for construction. 

The crews of the ships consisted of a mix of Spanish, Mexican, and Filipino sailors. 

Once goods got to Acapulco, then what?

For the most part, the journey was only halfway complete. From Acapulco, products would travel overland by mule train to Spain’s primary port on the Atlantic, Vera Cruz. 

Once in Vera Cruz, they would once again be loaded onto galleons, and they would repeat the process, this time sailing to Spain. On the Atlantic side, these were known as treasure fleets. 

As with the Manila Galleon, the treasure fleets would only sail once or twice per year in a heavily armed armada. Goods from all the Spanish colonies would be sent to Vera Cruz or Havana, where they would join the treasure fleet to sail to, usually the port of Cadiz.

If you ever wonder why treasure hunters search for lost Spanish galleons, it is because they carried so much stuff, not the least of which was gold and silver. 

Collectively, the Pacific Manila Galleon and the Atlantic Treasure Fleet served as one of the greatest conveyor belts of goods from Europe to the Americas, to Asia, and back for a period of two-hundred and fifty years.

You might be wondering, wouldn’t it have been easier to just sail around Africa? You could avoid the entire land crossing in Mexico.

The reason had to do with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which was signed in 1494 between Spain and Portugal. The treaty divided the world outside of Europe between Portugal and Spain and reserved the trade route around Africa for Portugal. 

For the most part, Spain and Portugal both honored the treaty, but the rest of Europe, particularly France, England, and the Netherlands, completely ignored it.

There were several things that led to the end of the Manila Galleon system. 

The first of which was part of a series of reforms of the Bourbon Dynasty in Spain in the 18th century. This allowed registered ships to sail the route outside of the once or twice annual armada. This opened up the trading route to more competition.

The big thing that led to the downfall of the system was the dissolution of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. In the early 19th century, revolutions took place all over the Americas, including Mexico. 

The loss of ports in the Americas made the route impossible, and as such, the last Manila Galleon took place in 1815. 

Even if Spain had somehow kept control of its colonies in the Americas, the Manila Galleon would have ended anyhow. 19th-century advances in sailing, in particular the steamship and the creation of the Suez Canal, reduced the time it took to sail from Manila to Spain to just 40 days. 

The Manila Galleon has had a lasting legacy. 

For starters, there was a very direct cultural connection between Mexico and the Philippines. If you’ve been to both countries, you will notice similarities between the two cultures. Much of that comes from having been colonized by the same country, but there were personal connections between them as well. 

The first community of Asians in the Americas was created in the late 18th century in Louisiana by former Filipino sailors from Spanish Ships.

Researchers have found higher rates of genetic markets found in Asian populations amongst people in Acapulco and the state of Gurrero than anywhere else in Mexico.

The captains of the galleons kept detailed records of their voyages across the Pacific, most of which have survived to the present day. These logs have provided an insight into the general climate of the Pacific during this era. 

One mystery surrounding the Manila Galleons was that their route would have taken them past Hawaii for almost 250 years. Yet, there was no recorded contact between the Spanish and Hawaiians during that entire time. 

The Spanish recorded finding Guam, the Marianas Islands, Micronesia, and a host of other, much smaller islands in the Pacific. How was it that they never managed to come across the biggest island chain?

One theory is that they did have contact with Hawaii, but they didn’t find anything of value, so they never settled there. This was what they did with other islands in the Pacific. 

Also, they had a vested interest in keeping their trade routes secret, so they wouldn’t have necessarily documented having found the islands, even if they did. 

There is a ship’s log from 1542 by Captain Ruy López de Villalobos, which describes islands that could be Hawaii. Also, there were stories amongst native Hawaiians that were recorded in the 19th century about foreigners who arrived in Hawaii eight generations before Captain Cook did in 1778. 

These foreigners supposedly had a large covered ship, had yellow and white clothes, feathers in the caps, wore swords on their sides, and knelt when they arrived on shore. 

There is no hard evidence of Spanish contact with Hawaiians, but if a Spanish shipwreck were to be found in the waters of Hawaii, it would change our understanding of history. 

Currently, the governments of both the Philippines and Mexico are proposing locations in both countries as part of a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Manila-Acapulco Galleon Museum is scheduled to open soon near the Mall of Asia in Manila. 

The Manila Galleon was the beginning of a truly global trading system. It linked together goods produced on all of the major populated continents on the planet, and for over 250 years, creating a lasting legacy of trade and cultural exchange that can still be seen today.