Friday, May 14, 2021

HISTORY CORNER: Days of the Manila Galleon

| February 28, 2021 1:00 AM

It took six to nine months for the huge Spanish galleons to sail from Manila to Acapulco, and it was not unusual for 100 on board to die on the journey because of bad weather, food and health.

The heavy cargoes paid for by silver from Mexico, included exquisite gold jewelry, gemstones, ivory, silk and damask fabrics, China porcelain, East Indies spices, Japanese lacquerware, Philippine hardwoods and even beeswax — found washed ashore in Oregon centuries later from an ancient shipwreck.

And like hungry sharks, English government-commissioned privateers and ordinary pirates with swift well-armed ships waited off the American West Coast and Caribbean to capture it all.

The Manila galleons were remarkable vessels. They were originally designed as warships but merchants were clamoring for bigger ships that could carry cargo. The converted Manila galleon became the workhorse of the sea.

Most of the galleons were built in shipyards in Cavite near the entrance of Manila Bay. Eight others were built in Mexico.

Their purpose was to carry as much cargo as possible and be stable in the open sea — not necessarily to be fast or maneuverable.

At first, galleon size was restricted to 300 tons, but over time that rose to 2,000 tons and could carry up to 500 passengers.

Each ship required lumber from at least 2,000 trees, and the Philippines was rich in hardwoods — teak being especially good for maritime use.

The age of crewmembers ranged from 28 to 50, with children as young as 8 also serving as pages. “Many orphans or poor taken from the streets of Seville, Mexico and Manila,” one report said. “Apprentices were older than the pages and if successful would be certified a sailor at age 20.

“Because mortality rates were high with ships arriving in Manila with a majority of their crew often dead from starvation, disease and scurvy, especially in the early years, Spanish officials in Manila found it difficult to find men to crew their ships to return to Acapulco.”

Most crewmembers were Asians, along with criminals from Spain and the colonies.

Conditions on board the Manila galleons were horrendous. In addition to the boredom from months at sea, the voyages were commonly awash with problems. An Italian passenger traveling from Manila to Acapulco wrote, “There is hunger, thirst, sickness, cold, continual watching, and other sufferings…Abundance of flies fall into the dishes of broth, in which there also swim worms of several sorts…

“On fish days the common diet was old rank fish boil’d in fair water and salt; at noon we had mongos — something like kidney beans, in which here were so many maggots, that they swam at the top of the broth, and the quantity was so great, that besides the loathing they caus’d, I doubted whether the dinner was fish or flesh.”

The Manila galleon trade marked a huge change in world commerce, and was the only communication with Spain for the Spaniards living in Manila, and when ships were lost at sea or captured by pirates, the economy in the Philippines plummeted.

“Globalization started with trade in Asia, in Spanish America,” according to Peter Gordon, co-author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the birth of globalization, 1565-1815. The Manila galleon trade linked Asia, the Americas and Europe. The Spanish made it a monopoly by closing Manila to shipping by other nations except those bringing goods to sell.

Asian countries had little interest in European goods, so the Spanish balanced the trade deficit by paying for Asian products with silver mined in Central and South America.

Much of that silver was taken by drafting indigenous people to work the mines, a system called the “mita.” Some African slave labor was also used.

Despite all the dark side to the Manila galleon trade, it lasted 250 years — ending in 1815 with the start of Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain.

It all began with Portuguese explorer Hernan Magellan who in 1519 led five ships under Spanish sponsorship on a round-the-world voyage to find a western sea route to the Spice Islands (part of today’s Indonesia) — travels that took him to the Philippines after discovering the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America leading into the Pacific Ocean.

He was the first European to cross the Pacific, but he never made it back to Spain.

Magellan was killed on April 27, 1521, in a battle with a local Philippine chieftain named Lapu-Lapu on Mactan Island near Cebu in the Visayas.

Magellan began the Spanish presence in the Philippines on that voyage and introduced Christianity there with the first Catholic baptism and church.

The next step leading to the birth of the Manila galleon trade was taken by a Spanish Basque army officer named Andrés de Urdaneta, born in 1508 into a prominent family in the Castilian town of Ordizia in northern Spain near the French border.

When only 17, he was invited to join the seven-ship Loaísa Expedition to secure a Spanish foothold in the Spice Islands where explorers Magellan and Ruy López de Villalobos had landed decades earlier, and to also look for one of Magellan’s missing ships.

The Loaísa ships left La Coruña, Spain, in 1525 and sailed around South America to the Pacific.

Tragedy struck all along the way and only one ship, named the Santa Maria de la Victoria made it to the Spice islands — with just Urdaneta and 24 others left on board — staying there for years laboring to win over locals for Spain rather than the Portuguese who were already there.

They never found Magellan’s missing ship.

During those years, Spain and Portugal had ongoing battles for control of the islands.

In one battle with the Portuguese, a keg of gunpowder exploded, severely burning and permanently disfiguring Urdaneta.

In 1534, the Portuguese finally agreed to repatriate the few members left of the Loaísa expedition. More than a year later, Urdaneta arrived in Lisbon and then fled to Spain — bringing with him an impressive knowledge of all he learned overseas.

He was thanked for his 11 years of service to the Spanish Crown and was rewarded with only 60 gold ducats.

Then he went to New Spain and settled in Mexico where he renounced the secular world and joined the St. Augustine Order monks.

In 1564, Spain was planning an expedition for the conquest and colonization of the Philippines, ordered by King Phillip II several years earlier. Urdaneta was invited to command the operation because of his navigation skills and knowledge of the region, but turned it down.

He did however agree to join as navigator under the appointed commander, Don Miguel López de Legazpi — the third of the Manila galleon trade’s Founding Fathers.

In April 1565, Legazpi’s fleet of five ships arrived at Cebu where he founded the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines, serving as the governor until he died.

He sent an expedition to Luzon, the main island in the Philippines and deposed the local Muslim ruler and then founded the city of Manila that became the new colony’s capital and Spain’s major trading port in East Asia.

Meanwhile, Fr. Urdaneta was establishing churches in the Philippines and served as the prelate of the first church in Cebu, founded by Magellan.

Then Legazpi called Urdaneta back to duty — to find a better eastbound route across the Pacific to Acapulco — the westward route to Manila was easy with the trade winds.

Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón, a relative of Hernán Cortés searched for such a route in 1529 but couldn’t find an eastward wind.

Urdaneta however had a hunch that there would be favorable westerly winds in the north Pacific latitudes. He found them between 30 and 40 degrees, north latitude and rode the winds and the Kuroshio Japanese current across the North Pacific to California, and then south to Mexico.

The sailing was easy but the voyage was a nightmare, with 14 crewmembers dying, forcing Urdaneta to take command of the ship, care for the sick, administer last rights, take navigation observations and make a chart for future Manila galleons.

They reached Acapulco on Oct. 8, 1565, after traveling 12,000 miles in 130 days, and only Urdaneta and Legazpi’s nephew Felipe de Salcedo had enough strength to drop the anchor — giving birth to the Manila galleon trade.

Too bad Magellan didn’t get to see it.

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Contact Syd Albright at

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The Spanish selected Acapulco 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. Goods were then transferred to Havana for transshipment to Europe.

Funny Story…

“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.”

— Facts and Details

Food on the Manila galleons…

Hundreds of storage jars of fresh water were dangled from hemp cords below deck. Food supplies included salted meats, biscuits, wine, honey, garbanzo beans, chickens, hogs, garlic and olive oil. Cargo was tightly packed to conserve space. Cannons were stored below deck to make room for cargo, but that left the ship unable to shoot back at raiding ships.

Galleons also carried immigrants…

The Manila galleon trade dealt not only with goods, but also people. A Manila Times report says that maybe as many as 100,000 Filipinos and Chinese migrated aboard the galleons and settled in Mexico, Louisiana and other places in the New World. Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata’s ancestors may have been among them.

Treacherous waters…

The Philippines has 7,641 islands, and the surrounding waters are laced with dangerous reefs and hidden rocks. Many of the Manila galleons were destroyed hitting those obstacles, with loss of cargo and lives. Seasonal typhoons and piracy also took their toll.



A full-scale wooden replica of the Manila galleon Andalucía, based in Seville, Spain, is 170 feet long, 125 feet tall, with a 30-foot beam, and those size ships could carry 500 tons of cargo (big load in those days) and up to 400 people that included passengers, soldiers, sailors, gunners and crew, the ship shown here with replica Nao Victoria in the distance.



Painting of the three Founding Fathers of the Manila galleon trade route, from left: Fr. Andrés de Urdaneta who plotted the trade route across the Pacific, Miguel López Legazpi, the first Governor-General of Spanish East Indies (now the Philippines) and Hernando Magellan who opened up the Philippines to Spain with his round-the-world expedition.



The Manila trade by Spanish galleons sailing roundtrip between Acapulco and Manila started in 1565 and ended with the start of the Mexican war of independence in 1815 when Spain began losing control of Mexican ports — including Acapulco.



Spanish and Portuguese trade routes of the 16th century, with the Portuguese routes in blue and the Spanish in white linking the Philippines with Mexico, West Indies and South America and Spain.



Manila galleons carried goods brought to the Philippines by merchants from many Asian countries, this photo showing modern copies of porcelain from China for sale in Mexico City.



The original Fort San Diego in Acapulco was built in 1616 for protection against English and Dutch pirates prowling for the Manila galleons with their lucrative cargoes that included silver and gold; today’s fort rebuilt in 1778, following a destructive earthquake.



Cross-section of Spanish armed galleon La Galga that was supposed to escort a fleet of merchant ships carrying Manila trade goods and treasure from Mexico to Spain but was destroyed by a hurricane off Virginia, at no loss of life.



Acapulco in 1628, Mexican destination for Manila Galleon route across the Pacific from Manila carrying luxury goods from Asia, paid for by Mexican silver.



English and Dutch privateers were the scourge of Spain’s Manila Galleon trade, capturing Spanish ships carrying silver to Manila or luxury goods to Acapulco, this painting by John Cleveley (1747-1786) depicting the capture of Nuestra Señora de Covadonga in 1743 carrying silver.



English privateer Thomas Cavendish (1560-1592) served the British Crown by capturing Manila Galleons and their cargoes of silver and luxury goods.



The Cerro Rico Mine in Potosi, Bolivia, was the richest silver mine in the world and provided much of the silver used in the Manila galleon trade to pay for Asian goods destined for the European market.



Mountain of silver looking down on today’s mining town of Potosi, Bolivia, still producing silver as it did in the Manila galleon days.