From 1571 to 1814, the richly laden Manila galleons sailed across the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Manila in the Philippines. This trade route linked America with Asia, and more particularly, the Viceroyalty of New Spain with its farthest province, the Philippine Islands. The galleon trade was noted for the length and duration of its voyages—over 6,000 miles and six to nine months' sail from Manila to Acapulco. It was also notable for the enormous size of many of the galleons (up to 2,000 tons, comparable only to the largest of the Portuguese East Indiamen) and the mystique of the Asian luxuries it made available.
In 1571, after gaining control of the Malay trading center of Manila for Spain, Miguel López De Legazpi sent two ships back to Mexico laden with Chinese silks and porcelains, to be exchanged for needed provisions. In this way the Manila galleon trade was established. Spain was uniquely well prepared to conduct this commerce because of the convenient geographical location of Manila and America's large supply of silver. Chinese merchants, eager for silver, carried to Manila fine silks, damasks and other fabrics, gemstones, finely worked gold jewelry, and porcelain. Other products shipped aboard the galleons were brought from India (cottons and other fabrics); Japan (lacquerware and screens); the islands of the Indonesian archipelago (aromatic substances, pepper, cloves, nutmegs, mace); Indochina (gemstones and hard woods); and the Philippine Islands themselves (cinnamon, coconut products, beeswax, and fabrics).
Merchants in Spain found that inexpensive, high-quality merchandise from Asia competed too successfully with Spanish exports to America, and argued for severe restrictions on the volume of the trade—over the loud complaints of Mexican and Philippines advocates. This purposeful limitation after 1593 led to the proliferation of contraband trading.
Precise estimates of the extent of illegal trade are elusive for obvious reasons, but scattered information gleaned from official records, secondhand commentary, testimony from English captors of galleons, and accounts of infrequent inspections suggest that as much as ten times the permitted amount of cargo was being shipped. Contraband trading was fairly common throughout the Spanish Empire, but that on the Pacific galleons was notorious.
The westbound galleons rode the trade winds, and typically reached Manila without incident in three months. Eastbound galleons faced the harder challenge. Oversized, with decks piled high and provisions frequently foregone in order to carry additional merchandise, the unwieldy galleons sailed from Cavite, in Manila Bay. It took a month for the galleons to clear the Philippine archipelago and sail out into the open water of the Pacific. This leg of the journey needed to be completed before the onset of the typhoon season, which required that the galleons depart Manila by the end of June. This feat was rarely achieved, however, and many ended their journeys wrecked in fierce typhoons—as many as forty-four are known to have been lost—or by making the return (arribada) to Manila.
Even a successful voyage from Manila to Acapulco could be trying, lasting from six to nine months. This made the problems of provisions and health daunting. It was not unusual for more than 100 persons to die en route.
When first news arrived of the approach of the galleons to Acapulco—usually in January or February—plans were made for a festive trade fair. The ships were met by officials who came from Mexico City for the occasion. The sick were disembarked, ships' manifest and cargo cursorily examined, and merchandise unloaded to be sold at the fair. Residents of the Spanish colonies, both Spaniards and Amerindians, festooned themselves and their homes with Oriental goods.
The Manila galleon trade made significant contributions to colonial Spanish culture. It helped to fashion the very society of the Philippines, which relied upon its income, its merchandise, and the services of Chinese, Malay, and other participants. In Mexico, the infusion of Chinese goods and art forms into Hispanic and Native American material culture remains visible today.
The economy of the whole empire was affected by the trade. From the Spanish (and official Mexican) point of view, the Philippine colony and its commerce were liabilities, even though much sought-after Chinese products were acquired. Manila and the galleons cost enormous sums to maintain and succeeded in directing vast quantities of American silver away from the imperial treasury. Many individual merchants risked and lost their lives, but sizable fortunes were accrued. Upon arrival at Acapulco in 1634, the traveler Fray Sebastián Manrique noted, "this profit made all hardships and dangers appear as nothing."
William Lytle Schurz, The Manila Galleon (1939).
Pierre Chaunu, Les Philippines et le Pacifique des Ibériques (1960).
Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri, A Voyage to the Philippines, 1696–1697 (1963).
Nicholas Cushner, Spain in the Philippines (1971).
Robert R. Reed, Colonial Manila: The Context of Hispanic Urbanism and Process of Morphogenesis (1978).
O. H. K. Spate, The Spanish Lake (1979).
Carmen Yuste López, El comercio de la Nueva España con Filipinas, 1590–1785 (1984).
Louisa Schell Hoberman, Mexico's Merchant Elite, 1590–1660 (1991), esp. pp. 183-222.
Díaz-Trechuelo Spínola, María Lourdes. Filipinas: la gran desconocida, 1565–1898. Pamplona: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 2001.
Lang, M.F. Las flotas de la Nueva España (1630–1710): despacho, azogue, comercio. Sevilla: Muñoz Moya, 1998.