Navío Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, 50-guns 1732-1750. A Manila Galleon of the eighteenth century.

Pacific Routes-Manila Galleons

After the discovery of a sea route from the Philippines to Mexico in 1565, the Spanish began employing a highly profitable, though dangerous, trade route. Ships especially outfitted to carry large cargoes set sail from Acapulco, carrying silver mined in the Americas, and headed to Manila, where the metal was exchanged for Chinese silks, porcelains, and ivory, as well as for fragrant goods from the Spice Islands and jewels from Burma, Ceylon, and Siam. The galleons then returned the much sought-after Asian goods back to Acapulco, where they were carried overland to Mexico City and then sent across the Atlantic to Spain. The first Manila galleon set sail for Acapulco in 1573.

Twice each year the Spaniards dispatched the fabled Manila galleon from Acapulco with silver bullion bound across the Pacific to the Philippine Islands, claimed by Spain upon their discovery by Ferdinando Magellan in 1521. On its return passage the galleon found the favorable westerlies at the latitude of Japan and then sailed down the California coast with the current to Mexico, bringing back rich cargoes of silk goods. Spain’s Atlantic trade was also highly regulated. A fleet of vessels sailed from Spain to the Caribbean each spring and returned home the following winter. Spanish naval vessels protected the flota, as it was called, from the warships and privateers of European rivals as well as from the pirates who infested the Caribbean and Bahamian waters. Fortified harbors at Cartegena on the Spanish Main and Havana on the island of Cuba gave further shelter to the fleet. In 1565 Spain had also established a settlement in Florida at St. Augustine to protect the strategic Straits of Florida, through which its plate fleet sailed on its passage home late each winter.

Whereas the wind-aided passage from Acapulco to Manila took only eight to ten weeks, the return trip from Manila to Acapulco took between four and six months. Navigating the treacherous Philippine archipelago with an overloaded galleon often took over a month, and many ships that did not complete the journey before typhoon season began perished in the rough weather. Because the profits from the Manila galleon trade averaged 30 to 50 percent, adequate provisions were often rejected in favor of loading more goods on the galleons. Consequently, many ships saw 30 to 40 percent of their crews perish, with losses of 75 percent not uncommon in some years. Despite these risks, however, the Manila galleon trade continued for nearly 250 years, remaining an important source of income for Spanish merchants.

In the absence of any other centre of settlement in the whole Pacific, the Manila galleons were the only lifeline between New Spain and the Philippines. With the whole economy of Spanish Manila depending on them, they braved the winds and made the voyage once every year from Acapulco to Manila, and back again to Acapulco. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, as many as three or four ships might sail together. In 1593 the Spanish government, responding to years of protests from traders both in America and in the peninsula, restricted the sailings to two ships a year, with a limit on the amount of goods they could carry. Later, in 1720, a decree established that two ships should be the rule, though it remained normal for only one ship to do the crossing.

The sailings were unique in world history. The first galleon crossed the Pacific in 1565, the last sailed in 1815: for two and a half centuries the ships maintained, almost without a break, their perilous and lonely voyage across the vast ocean. Vessels sailed from Cavite in Manila Bay in June or July, helped by the monsoon winds out of the southwest. They drifted for five or more months across the Pacific. When they arrived in Acapulco a fair was held at which the goods were traded. At Acapulco they loaded up with silver and passengers, then returned in March to catch the northeast trade winds back across the Pacific.

The trip from Manila was the ‘longest continuous navigation in the world’, lasting an average of six months, though there were ships that did not make it in less than nine. The voyage was always accompanied by high mortality, without counting the extreme risk from storms. A witness in Mexico reported how one vessel, the Mora, ‘left China on the first of July 1588 and arrived in Acapulco on the third of February, after forty-three people had died on the voyage’. There were many terrible cases, like the Santa Margarita in 1600 which was beaten about by storms and in eight months was only able to reach the Marianas, by which time a mere fifty of the two hundred and sixty on board had survived; of the survivors all were killed by natives save one who escaped to tell the tale. In 1603 the San Antonio, which carried the richest cargo known till that date, as well as many of the Spanish élite fleeing from the Chinese uprising in Manila, was simply swallowed up by the sea somewhere out in the Pacific. In 1657 one ship reached Acapulco after more than twelve months at sea: all on board were dead. Laden with fabulous treasure and the coveted prey of all, the vessels succumbed to the enemy only four times and always to the English: in 1587, 1709, 1743 and 1762. Many more, unfortunately, to a total of well over thirty, fell foul of storms or simply disappeared at sea. The return from Acapulco was shorter, an average of four months.

The conditions of life on so long a crossing are fully documented by an Italian apothecary, Francesco Gemelli, who made the voyage in 1697:

There is hunger, thirst, sickness, cold, continual watching, and other sufferings, besides the terrible shocks from side to side caused by the furious beating of the waves. The ship swarms with little vermin bred in the biscuit, so swift that in a short time they not only run over cabins, beds and the very dishes the men eat upon, but fasten upon the body. Abundance of flies fall into the dishes of broth, in which there also swim worms of several sorts. In every mouthful of food there went down an abundance of maggots. On fish days the common diet was rank old fish boiled in water and salt; at noon we had kidney beans, in which there were so many maggots that they swam at the top of the broth.

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