The Manila Galleon

By the time Rey Lopez de Villalobos landed in Leyte and declared the Philippines to be Spanish in 1542, Spain should have known only too well of the immense distance and perilous journey between Sevilla Spain and Philippines and the difficulties that this would present for communication and provisioning of Spanish settlers in the years to come.

More than 20 years before his landing, in 1521 Magellan had landed in Philippines having left Europe in 1519 and sailed via Cape Horn and, although Magellan got killed, what was left of his fleet completed the circumnavigation of the globe arriving back in Spain to report the news almost three years later. Garcia Jofre de Loyasa’s expedition left Spain in 1525 and also took the long sea route via Cape Horn where three ships were lost to storms. Loyasa died before reaching Philippines. Saavedra’s expedition reached Philippines in 1527 having sailed from New Spain (Mexico) and was successful only in as much that it rescued  120 survivors of former expeditions.

No settlement had been established over a twenty year period and it looked fairly certain that the journey between Spain and its new colony would always be problematic. However by 1540s Spain had become well established in Mexico and essentially it was logical for the administration in ‘New Spain’ to handle further journeys to the Philippinas vicariously on behalf of the mother land. Legazpi’s expedition sailed from Navidad New Spain (Mexico) in 1564 and Spaniards arrived at Cebu in numbers where long term plans were made. Later in 1571 his settlers transferred their base to Manila and thus began what has become to be known as the ‘Manila Galleon Trade’ which continued relentlessly for another two hundred and fifty years.

The 15,000 mile journey from Spain consisted of three separate parts. First a two month voyage from Sevilla on the Mediterranean coast via Havana to Veracruz on the eastern seaboard of Mexico. Then a months journey across land by mule train via Mexico city to Acapulco on the western seaboard.

Last and certainly not least there was massive unbroken sea journey across the pacific between New Spain and Manila Philippines this was at least three months on the way out to Manila but approximately six months for the return trip due to sailing against the trade winds.

To put this huge distance in perspective, London to Sydney Australia being the longest direct passenger service is only 11,000 miles and even now in the days of jet travel the flights still takes 23 hours! The Manila Galleon journey has the record as the longest distance trade route in history, it must also rank as the route with the longest journey time and probably the most complex and arduous. Given that it persisted for 250 years it also must be among the longest ongoing term for any unchanged trading route.

The route was necessary not only for provisioning of manufactured goods from Spain to the newly settled Philippinas but also for any communication in between. From Spain to Manila this would take six to eight months  however the return trip could take almost a year due to the direction of the Pacific trade winds.  Logistically this meant that a round trip for example to receive a response to a communication would be more likely to take three years due to mismatch between seasonal departure and arrival times of each leg of the journey. Clearly these time scales are based on successful voyages, but the reality was that significant risks were posed from bad weather, perilous seas, navigational error, piracy by the Portuguese, Dutch or British, mutiny of the crew and any other mis-hap that could beset a galleon.

Over the years many hundreds of these boats were lost to the seas along with passengers, crew and cargo. Most of the Manila Galleons were built in Philippines and crewed by Philippinos. These were huge ships that needed between three and four hundred crew in addition they would carry passengers and three hundred tons of cargo. Compared to modern ships, they were short and tall and the forty foot draft was a real hazard in shallow waters especially the coral reefs around the Philippines. Several galleons almost completed the voyage only to get wrecked just before arriving in Manila in the treacherous rip tides between the islands.

The “trade” was multi purpose and its economics are still poorly understood. Certainly there was a buoyant market for all sorts of Asian goods in Europe and also in New Spain.  Many goods were exported in this way including silks, fabrics and ceramics manufactured in China, local good and spices, together with products from other places in Asia including laquerware from Japan, jewels and cottons from Indochina etc.  Manila and some of the other Philippines islands had been trading with visiting ships from the surrounding places such as Fujian, Mallacca, Thailand and Japan since before the Spanish arrived.  Thus the additional outlet for the goods enhanced trade. Many of the goods would be sold to merchants in a huge fair just outside Acapulco after arriving in New Spain which was keenly attended from all around. On the return leg there were no doubt goods from Europe not obtainable locally, but the key ingredient was cash in the form of silver originating in the mines of Peru and other parts of South America which of course was used to pay for the return cargo. So Manila became something of a trading entre port in 16th and 17th Century South East Asia.

But irrespective of whether the trade was good or bad and there are conflicting opinions on this; Manila never turned into a Hong Kong, or at least there is little evidence now that the trade has added significantly to the long term wealth of Philippines. This seems to be for a variety of reasons including the following:

  • Most of the Spanish posted to Philippines had objectives other than to profit from trading. They were mainly either salaried bureaucrats responsible to government or otherwise missionaries interested in religious teaching and conversion.
  • There were relatively few Spanish settlers in Philippines, probably around 5,000 who remained relatively separate and unintegrated. This limited any growth of a home market for goods from a wealthy middle class.
  • There was no available skills base in Philippines that could be used to manufacture goods for export or to add value to goods being traded although later production of sugar, tobacco and coffee was started.
  • To some extent the trade was one way traffic. In the early years at least there was an insatiable demand for the Asian goods that were landed in New Spain together with a ready supply of silver. However there was no equivalent impetus for the return cargo given that gold or silver or any other means to pay in Philippines was limited to the wealth of individual traders.
  • The trade in silks and some other goods was not always profitable due to competition from elsewhere and volatility in the supply of silver.
  • Expansion of the trade both to New Spain and other parts of the Spanish Empire was limited by the Spanish government probably to protect industry in New Spain and Peru. The number of sailings in a year was limited to one in 1587.
  • Philipinnes never became a separate Viceroyalty under the Spanish Empire but was administered by the Viceroy of New Spain whose interests of course were principally for the betterment of New Spain and this to some extent, conflicted with the interests of both Spain and Philippines.
  • Other trading partners also adopted protectionist and restrictive trade policies especially Japan and China.
  • Many Chinese settled in Manila in order to profit from the trade. Although they were tolerated and well utilised by the Spanish they were not considered to have equal resident status and therefore much of their wealth ended up in China.
  • Many of the merchants from New Spain would travel to Philippines in order to make their trade directly with the foreign merchant, thus the Philippinos were effectively cut out of the trade.
  • Manila as a port began to get a reputation for being overly bureaucratic and risky in terms of piracy, theft and corruption.

That said the Manila Galleon played a crucial role in establishing Spanish dominion in the late 16th and early 17th Century as well as in supporting growth of Philippines by supplying sought after goods from Europe and the outside.

Strangely when in Philippines it is still easy to sense that there is a distance from the outside world. Maybe its due to modern day restrictions on imported goods both legislative and to some extent contrived by the still uncontrolled customs authorities. Or possibly due to the fact that Manila has never become a transportation hub either by air or sea, and remains a destination port.  Most likely its because Philippinos up and down the place are quite content with the way they are and are in no hurry to emulate any other place in the world. Bravo them!

But there are other modern day carry overs from this story….. One is that Philippinos make up a big proportion of officers and crew in the merchant navies and cruise ships all around the world after the sea faring tradition was well and truly embedded all those years ago. Another one could be the fact that as a result of its sea faring exploits, over the years Philippines more than any other country, has been supported by its overseas workers often to the tune of between 10 and 20% of GDP. Also Philippino overseas workers everywhere, to a man (and woman), make a point of sending home to the family a box of goods at least once a year usually for Christmas. The famous Balikbayan Box, legendary throughout Philippines. Is this out of necessity or tradition? Well I’m sure there are plenty of cases of necessity and of course as part of the spirit of Christmas, but although I’m not a Philippino I’m sure its not easy to forget that Philippines throughout its history has been reliant on provisions being put on board for that once yearly voyage and deep down somewhere in that culture there is still a belief that it continues to be necessary.


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