Manila Galleon

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The Manila Galleons were Spanish galleons (a type of ship) that travelled once or twice per year between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in New Spain (now Mexico). Service was inaugurated in 1565 and continued into the early 19th century, when Mexico's war of independence and the Napoleonic Wars put a permanent stop to the galleons. Though service was not innaugurated until almost 60 years after Christopher Columbus's death, the Manila Galleons consitute the fulfillment of Columbus's dream of sailing West to go East to bring the riches of the Indies to Spain and the rest of Europe.

The Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade began when Father Andres de Urdaneta, sailing in convoy under Miguel López de Legaspi discovered a return route from Cebu 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, he reasoned that by sailing far to the north before heading east, he would pick up trade winds to bring him back to the west coast of the New World. Though he sailed to 38 degrees North before turning east, his hunch paid off, and he hit the coast near Cape Mendocino Alta 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.

The 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 both ports. 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 both Acapulco and Manila, to control the trade with the exception of an armada, an armed escort. With such limitations, it was essential to build the largest possible galleons, which were the largest wooden ships ever built in Spain. In the 16th 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 the largest Spanish ship built up to her time - between 140 and 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 which became manageable in the mid 1800's upon the invention of steam power ships and the opening of the Suez Canal that reduced the travel time from Spain to the Philippines to a 40 day period.

The galleon carried spices transshipped from the Spice Islands to the south and porcelain, ivory and lacquerware 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 Vera Cruz on the Caribbean 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 than 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 Panamian isthmus than across Mexico. They tried to establish a regular land crossing there, but the thick jungle and malarial infection 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 transshipped 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 closest Hispanic culture is that of the Mexican and Filipinos for, even when Mexico finally gained its independence, the two nations still continued to do trade except for a brief lull during the Spanish-American war. The Manila galleon continued to build the economy of Spain in the Pacific region continuously bringing its rich culture and diverse knowledge in Latin America and other parts of the world (notably Portugal and Spain) which was possible through the Manila galleon sailing across the Pacific for almost three centuries.

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.

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