Manila Galleon Trade, 1565 to 1815

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Manila galleon

The Manila galleons or Manila-Acapulco galleons (Spanish: Galeones de Manila-Acapulco) were Spanish trading ships that sailed once or twice per year across the Pacific Ocean between Manila in the Philippines, and Acapulco, New Spain (present-day Mexico). The name changed reflecting the city that the ship was sailing from. Service was inaugurated in  1565 with the discovery of the ocean passage by Andrés de Urdaneta, and continued until 1815 when the Mexican War of Independence put a permanent stop to the galleon trade route.

Though service was not inaugurated until almost 50 years after the death of Christopher Columbus, the Manila galleons constitute the fulfillment of Columbus’ dream of sailing west to go east to bring the riches of the Indies to Spain, and the rest of Europe.

Discovery of the route

The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade began when Andrés de Urdaneta, sailing in convoy under Miguel López de Legazpi, discovered a return route from Cebu City to Mexico in 1565. Attempting the return the fleet split up, some heading south. Urdaneta reasoned that the trade winds of the Pacific might move in a gyre as the Atlantic winds did. If in the Atlantic ships made a wide swing (the “volta”) to the west to pick up winds that would bring them back from Madeira, then, he reasoned, by sailing far to the north before heading east he would pick up trade winds to bring him back to the west coast of North America.

Though he sailed to 38 degrees North before turning east, his hunch paid off, and he hit the coast near Cape Mendocino, California, then followed the coast south to San Blas and later to Acapulco. Most of his crew died on the long initial voyage, for which they had not sufficiently provisioned.

By the 18th century it was understood that a less northerly track was sufficient, but galleon navigators steered well clear of the forbidding and rugged fogbound California coast; According to historian William Lytle Schurz, “They generally made their landfall well down the coast, somewhere between Point Conception and Cape San Lucas…After all, these were preeminently merchant ships, and the business of exploration lay outside their field, though chance discoveries were welcomed”.

The first motivation for exploration of Alta California was to scout out possible way-stations for the seaworn Manila galleons on the last leg of their journey. Early proposals came to little, but in the later 18th century

The Manila-Acapulco trade route started in 1568 and Spanish treasure fleets and its eastwards rivals, the Portuguese India Armadas routes of 1498-1640.

Trade served as the fundamental source of income for Spanish colonists in the Philippine Islands. A total of 110 Manila galleons set sail in the 250 years of the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade (1565 to 1815). Until 1593, three or more ships would set sail annually from each port. The Manila trade was becoming so lucrative that Seville merchants petitioned king Philip II of Spain to protect the monopoly of the Casa de Contratación based in Seville. This led to the passing of a decree in 1593 that set a limit of two ships sailing each year from either port, with one kept in reserve in Acapulco and one in Manila. An “armada” or armed escort of galleons, was also approved.

With such limitations it was essential to build the largest possible galleons, which were the largest class of ships known to have been built anywhere up to that time. 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.

The galleons carried spices, porcelain, ivory, lacquerware, processed silk cloth gathered from both the Spice Islands, and Asia-Pacific, to be sold in the Americas, namely New Spain and Peru as well as in European markets. East Asia trading was primarily on a silver standard; the goods were mostly bought by Mexican silver. The cargoes were transported by land across Mexico to the port of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, where they were loaded onto the Spanish treasure fleet bound for Spain. This route was the alternative to the trip west across the Indian Ocean, and around the Cape of Good Hope, which was reserved to Portugal according to the Treaty of Tordesillas. It also avoided stopping over at ports controlled by competing powers, such as Portugal and the Netherlands. From the early days of exploration, the Spanish knew that the American continent was much narrower across the Panamanian isthmus than across Mexico. They tried to establish a regular land crossing there, but the thick jungle, and malaria made it impractical.

It took four months to sail across the Pacific Ocean from Manila to Acapulco, and the galleons were the main link between the Philippines and the viceregal capital at Mexico City and thence to Spain itself. Many of the so-called “Kastilas” or Spaniards in the Philippines were actually of Mexican descent, and the Hispanic culture of the Philippines is somewhat close to Mexican culture. Even when Mexico finally gained its independence, the two nations still continued to trade, except for a brief lull during the Spanish-American War. The Manila galleons sailed the Pacific for nearly three centuries, bringing to Spain their cargoes of luxury goods, economic benefits, and cultural exchange.

The wrecks of the Manila galleons are legends second only to the wrecks of treasure ships in the Caribbean. In 1568, Miguel López de Legazpi’s own ship, the San Pablo (300 tons), was the first Manila galleon to be wrecked en route to Mexico.