The Manila galleons were Spanish trading ships that sailed once or twice per year across the Pacific Ocean between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico, which were all part of the New Spain. It was inaugurated in 1565 and continued into the early 19th century. The ships carried the trading goods of the Southeast Asia such as spice, cotton, indigo, porcelain, jade, ivory, lacquerware, sick cloth, and gold—in exchange for America's silver, cochineal, seeds, sweet potato, tobacco, chickpea, chocolate and cocoa, vine, fig trees, olive oil, wine, and other metal goods.
The Mexican War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars put a permanent stop to the galleons. Though service was not inaugurated until almost 60 years after the death of Christopher Columbus, the Manila galleons constitute the fulfilment of Columbus's dream of sailing west to go east to bring the riches of the Indies to Spain and the rest of Europe.
Galleons were large, full-rigged, multi-decked, blue-water sailing ships that was built primarily for war but became the mainstay of maritime commerce in the 16th century. Their most distinguishing features were the long, prominent beak or beak-head followed by a foremast and mainmast. In the 16th century, they averaged from 1,700 to 2,000 tons and were built from oak (for the keel), pine (for the masts) and various Philippine hardwoods. The ship could carry around 300 to 500 passengers.
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 History of 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 Acapulco. Most of his crew died on the long initial voyage, for which they had not sufficiently provisioned.
By the eighteenth 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; "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." (Shurz in SHQ)
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 eighteenth century several Manila galleons put in at Monterey, California.
Trade served as the fundamental income-generating business for Spanish colonists living in Manila. 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 the merchants of Seville petitioned Philip, complaining of their losses, and secured a law in 1593 that set a limit of only two ships to sail each year from either port, with one kept in reserve in Acapulco and one in Manila. An armada, an armed escort was also allowed.
With such limitations, it was essential to build the largest possible galleons, which were the largest ships built anywhere up to that time. In the sixteenth century, they averaged from 1,700 to 2,000 tons, were built of Philippine hardwoods and might carry a thousand passengers. The Concepcion, wrecked in 1638, was 43 to 49 m (140-160 feet) long and displacing some 2,000 tons. Most of the ships were built in the Philippines and only eight in Mexico. The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade ended when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, after which the Spanish crown took direct control of the Philippines. (This became manageable in the mid-1800s 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 galleon carried spices transhipped from the Spice Islands to the south and porcelain, ivory, lacquerware and processed silk cloth from China and Southeast Asia, to be sold in European markets. Until Japan closed its doors in 1638, there was some trade with Japan as well. The cargoes were transported by land across Mexico to the port of Veracruz, where they were loaded onto the Spanish treasure fleet bound for Spain. This route avoided the long and dangerous trip across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope, a route that was barred by the Dutch once they were in control of the Cape Colony. 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.
Europe longed for Chinese wares, but China was quite self-sufficient. The only product that Chinese markets really sought was the American silver from Zacatecas and even from Potosí which would be shipped to Acapulco to be transhipped to Manila. It is estimated that as much as a third of the New World silver was going directly to China by this route. It took four months to sail across the Pacific Ocean from Manila to Acapulco, and the galleon was the main link between the Philippines and the viceregal capital at Mexico City and thence to Spain itself. Many of the Spaniards in the Philippines were actually of Mexican descent. In fact the Hispanic culture of the Philippines is closer to Mexican culture than any other. 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 galleon 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, Legazpi's own ship, the San Pablo (300 tons), was the first Manila galleon to be wrecked en route to Mexico.
Other names: Acapulco Galleon, Nao de China.
- Álvaro de Bazán, 1st Marquis of Santa Cruz (Designer of the Manila galleons)
- Battle of Puerto de Cavite
- Chinatowns in Latin America
- Japanese warship San Juan Bautista
- History of the west coast of North America
- Steve Singer, "The Manila Galleons"
- Findings from the wreck of Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion in the Marianas, 1638
- Metropolitan Museum: Manila Galleon: illus. Spanish American arts influenced by the wares of China
- Manila Galleons along the Californian coasts
- Williams, Glyn. 1999. The Prize of All the Oceans. Viking, New York. ISBN 0-670-89197-5, p. 4
- William Lytle Schurz, "the Manila Galleon and California" from Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol 21.2
- Schurz, William Lytle, The Manila Galleon
- Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas 1500–1750. M. E. Sharpe, 1998.