Trade in the Philippines centered around the “Manila galleons,” which sailed from Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico (New Spain) with shipments of silver bullion and minted coinage that were exchanged for return cargoes of Chinese goods, mainly silk textiles and porcelain. There was no direct trade with Spain and little exploitation of indigenous natural resources. Most investment was in the galleon trade. But, as this trade thrived, another unwelcome element was introduced—sojourning Chinese entrepreneurs and service providers.

For 250 years, from 1565 to 1815, Spanish galleons shuttled between Acapulco and Manila, exchanging treasures of the West for those the East, making huge profits for the Spaniards. The trade has been described as “one of the most persistent, perilous and profitable commercial enterprises in European colonial history.” For a long period of time it was the “most significant pathway for commerce and cultural interchange between Europe and Asia.” [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 ]

The galleons sailed once or twice. Sometimes they traveled in convoys but more often than not a single ship made the journey. A few vessels sailed from Manila directly to Spain rounding the cape of Good Hope, but these voyages were soon stopped by their enemy the Dutch, who controlled this sea route.

Acapulco began as Spanish port from which goods received from the Orient were transported overland by mule to present day Mexico City and then to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, where the goods were reloaded on ships bound for Spain that rendezvoused with other Spanish ships in Havana for the trip to Spain. A little further north of Acapulco is Puerto Navidad, where the Spanish launched their conquest of the Philippines. Acapulco was selected as the trading port of the Manila galleons in the Americas because of its excellent harbor, and overland accessibility to Vera Cruz on the Caribbean side of Mexico.

The trade route between the Philippines and Mexico was opened in 1564 when the eastward route was discovered from the Philippines to Mexico by Legazpi. Beginning with Magellan navigators had sailed from Mexico to the Philippines for decades but were unable to find the route back. Many of the first conquistadors to arrive in the Philippines gave themselves up to their enemies the Portuguese because it was their way only to make it back to Europe.

Ellsworth Boyd wrote in “The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”“: “Nowhere in the annals of the Spanish Empire’s colonial history did a treasure fleet attract so much intrigue and notoriety for its precious cargoes bound for the Far East. Maritime historians continue to pay homage to these vessels and their influence on international commerce. These were the largest ships afloat, plying long and risky routes. On an average, three to five million silver pesos were shipped annually from Mexican mints to Manila, the “Queen of the Orient.” The silver and gold was waggishly referred to as “silk money.” Silk stockings were prized by the fashionable Spanish gentry in Mexico and Spain. But the silver and gold bought other lavish exports as well. They came from all over the Far East: spices, Ming porcelain, opals, amethysts, pearls and jade. There were art treasures, ebony furniture, carved ivory and other exquisite rarities found only in China, Japan, India, Burma and Siam. [Source: Ellsworth Boyd, “The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”“, July 2, 2012]

China, Trade and the Philippines

The Spanish had initially hoped to turn the Philippines into another Spice Island but they soon found that the island’s soil, terrain and climate were not suited for growing spices. Mining opportunities did not present themselves as they did in Latin America. Trade was stubbled upon sort of by accident.

In 1571, the Spaniards rescued some Chinese sailors whose sampans sunk off the Philippines and helped them get back to China. The next year the grateful Chinese returned the favor in the form of a trading vessel filled with gifts of silk, porcelain and other Chinese goods. This ship was sent eastward and arrived in Mexico in 1573, and its cargo ultimately made it to Spain, where people liked what they saw and a demand for Chinese goods was born.

Manila became the center of a major trade network that funneled goods from Southeast Asia, Japan, Indonesia, India and especially China to Europe. Spain developed and maintained a monopoly over the transpacific trade route. The trade became the primary reason for the existence of the Philippines. Development of the archipelago was largely neglected.

The most important source of goods for the Spanish in the Philippines was China. For a while the Spaniards maintained a trading post on China but for the most part they relied on Chinese intermediaries to bring goods to Manila. About 30 or 40 junks, laden with goods arrived in the Philippines from China a year. Over time the Chinese not only dominated trade but also dominated many of the trades, such as shipbuilding, on which trade was based, and outnumbered the Spanish.

The Chinese were very enterprising, sometimes too much for their own good. A Spanish trader named Diego de Bobadilla wrote: “A Spaniard who lost his nose through a certain illness, sent for a Chinaman to make him one wood, in order to hide the deformity. The workman made him so good a nose that the Spaniard in great delight paid him munificently, giving him 20 escudos. The Chinaman, attracted by the ease with which he made that gain, loaded a fine boatload of wooden noses the next year and returned to Manila.”

Manila Galleon Ships and Crew

The Manila galleons were owned and sailed by the Spanish crown. Most were built from strong tropical hardwoods in the port of Cavite in Manila Bay using Spanish designs with oriental features. Over time the ships grew in size to accommodate the increase in trade. Early ships carried around 300 tons. By the late 1600s they were carrying more than a thousand tons. The giant “Santisima Trinidad”, captured by the English in 1792, carried 2,000 tons. [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 ]

Large galleon usually weighed 1,700 to 2,000 tons, were 140 to 160 feet long and could carry a thousand passengers. A typical galleon carried 300 people. Passengers included Chinese traders, Spanish priests, nuns, merchants, Filipino laborers and condemned prisoners. The crew was comprised of mostly Spanish officers, petty officers, gunners, seamen, apprentices and pages. The sails on the Manila galleons were made in Ilcos on Luzon. Anchor lines and rigging were woven from Manila hemp. Fastenings were forged by the Spanish. Chinese and Japanese smiths used iron imported from China and Japan.

Hundreds of storage jars with fresh water were secured below the deck and hung overhead, lashed with Manila hemp. Other stores included salted meats, biscuits, wine, honey, garbanzo beans, chickens, hogs, garlic and olive oil. Bundles were compressed and packed, usually by Chinese, and packed in such a way as reduce space. Cannons were stored in the hold to make more room on the decks for merchandise, but this left the ships vulnerable to attacks.

Ellsworth Boyd wrote in “The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”“: “Picture if you will, a four-deck, 100-gun, 2,500-ton vessel crossing the Pacific loaded with treasure and not making landfall for six months. Picture it as short and broad—with high fore and stern castles—carrying so much silver and gold, it draws 40 feet of water while skirting coral reefs 30 feet deep. It’s no wonder that dozens of them sank from 1570 to 1815, leaving a trail of treasure across the globe. [Source: Ellsworth Boyd, “The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”“, July 2, 2012]

Goods Carried on the Spanish Galleons

Ships from the Philippines to Mexico carried silk, woven rugs, jade, toys, furniture, chinaware and porcelain from China; cinnamon, cloves, pepper, nutmeg and other spices from the Spice Island; cotton goods, ivory, diamonds, topazes, other gemstones, fine textiles, woodcarvings and curry form India; ivory from Cambodia; camphor, ceramic ware and gemstones from Borneo; and ebony, ivory, civet musk, rubies, sapphires and jewelry set with precious gems from Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand and elsewhere in the Far East. [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 ]

Japanese ships arrived in Manila with amber, knives. samurai swords, cabinetwork, saltpeter to make gunpowder, bronze and copper. Some goods came from the Philippines, namely gold, copra, coconut shell products, cotton cloth from Ilocos on Luzon, cotton stockings and petticoats, gauze made in Cebu, and rope, burlap and hammocks made of hemp, and jewelry made by Chinese and Filipino artisans in Manila.

The most highly sought after good from China was silk. Mercury from China was essential for refining silver ore. Bezoar stones from Asia, taken from the stomachs of ruminant animals were also valued because it was believed the could indicate the presence fo poison in wine. The Chinese shipped porcelain in such large volumes they began designing products specifically for the European market.

Ships from Acapulco to Manila carried mostly silver and manufactured goods from Europe. Chinese and Asians became dependent on New World silver to conduct trade and accumulate wealth. Dependence on the metal became so strong it seemed that supply could never keep up with demand. The Chinese recast Mexican bullion into shoe-shaped ingots, called “sycees”, and incised Spanish coins with a chop mark that redefined their value in terms of tales, the Chinese currency.

Ellsworth Boyd wrote in “The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”“: “Manifests show that one third of all the silver and gold mined in the Spanish New World made its way to the Far East aboard the lumbering Manila Galleons. Ingots and heavy chests of coins were stored over the keel in the main hold, often the only ballast used for draft and stability. The ships also carried supplies to colonists in the Marianas and Philippines. [Source: Ellsworth Boyd, “The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”“, July 2, 2012]

Steve Singer wrote: “Goods from India and elsewhere in Southeast Asia also made their way to Manila. Some trading was also done with Japan, though Japan closed herself off from the West in 1638, though some small amount of trading continued with the Dutch. Europe and the New World's appetite for these products from the Far East became insatiable, and the huge profit margin made the perilous journey worthwhile. Many treasure laden vessels brought silver from the New World mines such as the one at Potosi, Peru (now part of Bolivia), to Acapulco, and some of these vessels were also lost on the west casts of South and Central America. [Source: Steve Singer, Manila Galleons, ]

Route of the Spanish Galleons to Mexico

On average a single Spanish galleon sailed eastward from Manila between April and July with treasures from the Orient and returned with from Acapulco with silver from Mexico, Peru and Bolivia between October and January. The journey each way was around 15,000 kilometers (about 9,000 miles), the world’s longest navigation route. Although one route went north of the Hawaiian island and the other went south of them, the islands were never discovered. [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 ]

The galleons heading to the Philippines traveled more or less in a straight line equidistance between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer and followed the North Equatorial Current and Northeast Trade Winds south of Hawaii. The journey was generally a piece of cake. The winds were steady and the seas were placid. Often the ship made it less than three months. The main object was to get to the Marianas (islands east of the Philippines) before the contrary winds of the autumn monsoon kicked up.

The galleon heading to Mexico followed the Kuroshio current to the same latitudes of Japan and then the took the North-Pacific Current and westerly winds eastward past Guam and the Marianas and north of Hawaii to California and then followed the coast down to Mexico. The route was discovered by one of Legazpi’s ships, the San Lucus, which sailed north as far as Japan and south as far as New Guinea before discovering a reliable west-to-east wind through trial and error.

The journey eastward was much more hazardous. It often took serval weeks just to get out of the dangerous waters of the Philippines and the whole journey could take almost a year. A traveler in 1697 wrote: “The voyage from the Philippine islands to America may be called the longest and most dreadful of any in the world, as well because of the vast ocean to be crossed, being almost one half the terraqueous globe, with the wind always a-head; as for the terrible tempest that happen there, one upon the back of another.”

Finding the Eastward Route to Mexico

Oliver M. Mendoza wrote in “The Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade started when Fray Andres de Urdaneta (who was Miguel Lopez de Legaspi’s pilot) discovered a return route from Cebu to Mexico in 1565. Fray Urdaneta theorized that the Pacific winds moved in a circular motion. He reasoned that if ships sailed far to the north before heading east, he would pick up the trade winds to bring him back west to Mexico. Urdaneta’s hunch paid off and his galleon hit the coast of Cape Mendocino in California. He then just followed the California coast going south to Acapulco.” [Source: Oliver M. Mendoza, June 5, 2006]

Steve Singer wrote: Though the Spanish had reached the Philippines from Mexico prior to 1564, they could never find a return route back eastward. It was a small fleet of four ships, under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who finally found a route in 1565. Don Luis de Velasco sent this expedition under the direction of Phillip II. and accompanying this fleet was Andres de Urdaneta, who had previously sailed with Loaysa to those seas in 1525. This fleet left Mexico on November 21, 1564 t begin the 9,000 nautical mile trek to the Philippines. They sighted the island of Samar on February 13, 1565 and anchored off the island of Cebu on April 27, 1565. The fleet split up, and some went south as far as New Guinea looking for a route back. Urdaneta believed the route back would be found to the north. The San Lucas of only 40 tons, went far to the north near Japan, where she found the westerly trade winds and favorable currents, which bore her back to the California coast near Cape Mendocino, which she then followed south, arriving back at Acapulco, October of 1565. Oddly enough, it was the San pablo of the same fleet, which followed the San Lucas shortly thereafter, which received the credit for discovering this route back. One source says that one of the galleons had deserted (probably the San Lucas) and discovered the route back arriving in Acapulco in July of 1565. It also states that Urdaneta (on another vessel) went as far north as 38 degrees off Japan and then headed on a southerly course in which no land was encountered and most of the crew had died before reaching Acapulco. Thus started the trading route of the Manila galleon or "nao de la China", which meant "the ship of China." Legazpi's own ship, the San Pablo of 300 tons, was the first Manila galleon to wreck in 1568, en route back to Mexico. [Source: Steve Singer, Manila Galleons, ]

Spanish Galleon Business

Almost every Spaniard and every enterprises and institution in the Philippines had its hand in the Manila galleon trade somehow. Even the church was involved. Priests, bishops and even archbishops controlled consignments. At first space on board the ship was divided according to a system of permits that were supposed to be in fair manner but quickly the system became poisoned by corruption and favoritism. [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 ]

If the ships got through and the goods found their way to their destination and the money or bartered goods found their way back, merchants often made profits between 100 and 300 percent. If something happened to the galleon and goods and money did not make it to their destinations the Philippines suffered through a year of hardship.

Sometimes a large portion of the cargo was contraband. Even though there were heavy penalties for carrying contraband (confiscation of the goods and four years chained to the oar of a galley for the offender) the rules were flagrantly violated. Bullion was routinely carried in hollowed-out timbers, cottons bails and even the rinds of cheeses. To avoid taxes and other restrictions, merchants undervalued their goods on records and documents.

Regulation and enforcement of the weight limits were lax and corruption was high. With the welfare of the entire Philippines colony and thousands of people dependent on a single shipment a year, there was a temptation to overload the vessel which made it vulnerable to sinking and attacks.

The Spaniards went through great lengths to make sure the trans-Pacific routes were only theirs. In 1600, when a Dutch fleet rounded South America and sailed across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines, Spaniards captured them, executed 25 of them with a garrote, and sent the captain back to the Netherlands with a message to the Dutch not come back.

Many of the so-called “Spaniards” in the Philippines were actually of Mexican descent. This is so because sea travel from Spain to the Philippines was very difficult before the advent of steam navigation and the opening of the Suez Canal.

Hardships on Board the Spanish Galleon

Disease and poor nutrition took their toll on the passengers and crew of the Manila galleons, especially if a voyage was considerably longer than expected. The journey from the Philippines to Mexico was particularly hazardous. Often water supplies would become contaminated or run out and the galleon had to depend on rainwater (Mats were set out to funnel water into jars). [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 ]

People were packed together like sardines and suffered under the stress of unbearable monotony. To pass the time, some people just say around like zombies. Other played endless games of cards and wagered on times of events. Many were ravaged by disease.

A 17th century Italian on the journey from Manila to Acapulco wrote: “there is hunger, thirst, sickness, cold, continual watching, and other sufferings...Abundance of flies fall into the dishes of broth, in which there also swim worms of several sorts...On fish days the common diet was old rank fish boil’d in fair water and salt; at noon we had “mongos”, something like kidney beans, in which here were so many maggots, that they swam at the top of the broth, and the quantity was so great, that besides the loathing they caus’d, I doubted whether the dinner was fish or flesh.”

Passengers and crew alike suffered from dysentery and beri-beri (severe Vitamin B1 deficiency). Particularly nasty was scurvy caused by a lack of Vitamin C. Known as the “Dutch disease,” it caused victims’s arms, legs and trunks to become covered with bruises and livid spots and caused the gums to swell up and bleed and teeth to fall out. Oranges and lemons were carried as a preventative measure against scurvy. Some of the first citrus groves planted by the Spaniards were to supply fruit for the galleon trade.

Problems Faced by the Trans-Pacific Spanish Galleons

The 15,000-kilometer voyage of the Manila galleons was plagued by pirates, storms and slack winds. In 1578 Drake’s fleet captured a merchant ships loaded with Oriental goods. In 1743, the overloaded and underarmed silver galleon “Covadonga” was attacked and easily taken by the British, who took possession of more than a million silver pesos, gold bullion and a host of valuable goods. The “Covadonga” took 159 shots and lost 70 men. the British lost only two. When the treasure was brought aback to Britain it took 32 wagons to transport it. In some cases pirates simply hung out near the ports where the ships departed from and attacked them after they left. [Source: Eugene Lyon, National Geographic, September 1990 ]

Many galleons never even made it out the Philippines, whose waters were made dangerous by typhoons, shoals and sunken rocks. San Bernardino Strait, also known as the Embocadero, or outlet, was narrow and full of obstacles and particularly fear by navigators. Ellsworth Boyd wrote in “The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”“: “ The Strait of San Bernardino, on the eastern end of Luzon in the Philippine Archipelago, separates the Pacific from the China Sea and remains one of the most treacherous passages ships must ply. Even the most seasoned mariners fear entering and exiting the shallow poorly marked waterway. Of the approximately 130 Manila Galleons lost, close to 100 sank within a 50-mile radius of the entrance to this dangerous strait. Some of the vessels simply ran aground on reefs or shoals, while others were lost in storms or sunk by British and Dutch privateers. [Sources: Ellsworth Boyd, “The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”“, July 2, 2012]

More obstacles lay in the open ocean, namely storms, that could arise without waning and toss a ship like “a pair of socks in the spin cycle of a washing machine.” For the eastbound ships the first land fall was often at Cape Mendocino in northern California, near San Francisco—a welcome sight indeed.

In some cases dozens died before the ship reached California. One 17th century galleon lost 92 in people in 15 days and 206 of its of original crew. But that wasn’t the worst case. The “San Jose” lost everyone aboard to starvation and disease. The ship was found floating with only cargo and corpses on board.

Westward Trade of the Manila Galleons

Steve Singer wrote: “ Leaving from Acapulco, in January, the Manila galleons would sail the usually calm seas to the Marianas using the favorable trade winds, and then on to the Philippines, which took a total of about three months time, though some of these Philippine bound vessels did wreck due to storms or other mishap, Until 1593, three or more ships would sail each year from both ports. Because the Manila trade was becoming so lucrative, Spanish merchants back home complained of lost profits and a law was passed in 1593 allowing only two ships to sail each year from either port, with one in reserve in both Acapulco and Manila. Even the tonnage of the vessels and their cargo was restricted under this new law, but these restrictions were largely ignored and were not enforced. These ships wee the largest the Spanish built. In the 16th century, they averaged from 1,700 to 2,000 tons and seven hundred to over one thousand people would take passage back to Acapulco on these vessels. [Source: Steve Singer, Manila Galleons, |=|]

“Though the Spanish tried to send two ships each year after 1593, many years saw only one ship making the voyage back to Acapulco, which became known as one of the longest and most dangerous voyages that one could make. Though ideally it could take four months to reach Acapulco, seven months or more was more often the case. Often a great number of people would die during these voyages from disease or malnutrition, sometimes numbering over half the people on board. One example of the perilous voyage was that of the Manila galleon San Jose, which was found drifting off the Mexican coast during the mid 17th century, over a year after she left Manila. Not one person was left alive, all having died from disease or starvation. Another example is that of the Santa Margarita. She left Manila in 1600, and battled the elements for eight months, until she wrecked on Carpana Island in the Marianas, with few survivors. |=|

Eastward Trade of the Manila Galleons

Steve Singer wrote: “After leaving the port of Cavite on Manila Bay, usually in July, a Manila Galleon would have to thread its way through the many islands and reefs toward the northern Marianas, which could take weeks. Many a galleon was lost on these reefs. They would then head to the northern latitudes near Japan and hope favorable winds and currents would take them eastward. With no landfall for the next three, four, or more months, life on board could become unbearable. Eventually they would come into site of Cape Mendocino or nearby, off the northern California coast, and follow this coastline south to Acapulco. A number of these Manila Galleons were also lost along this coastline. [Source: Steve Singer, Manila Galleons, |=|]

“Once at Acapulco, goods were traded among merchants from all over the New World, and most of the goods ended up being transported overland to Vera Cruz, where they would then be loaded onto ships of the Nueva Espana Fleet, which in turn headed to Havana, and then back to Spain. Many of these vessels also wrecked, and much of these Far East treasures have been salvaged from these shipwrecks. The 1715 and 1733 Plate Fleet wrecks off Florida have yielded many artifacts from the Orient, such as porcelain and jewelry. A Spanish wreck found in the western hemisphere with cargo from the Far East would most surely have to have wrecked after 1565, though goods from China didn't start to arrive in Acapulco until 1573. |=|

“Ming and Ching dynasty porcelain carried by Spanish vessels from the Philippines, and then the New World, are a very good tool in helping date a shipwreck, since these fine objects have been studied in great detail and are easily dateable. Most of the Manila galleons were eventually built in the Philippines at the Cavite shipyards and also at palantiau, and though they used the European design, they were sturdier, being built from the abundance of hardwoods available there, such as teak and mahogany. The Planking was built of lanang wood, which was so strong, it repelled cannon ball shot. This material could also help to identify a Manila galleon wreck. Manila hemp soon became known as some of the best rigging material available, and became another sought after commodity. |=|

Spanish Galleon Shipwrecks

More than 40 galleons did not make it. Most perished in bad weather and rough seas. More than 25 galleons wrecked off the Philippines. Others were lost around the Marianas. Often they were westbound silver galleons. In one three year period (1655-57) four galleons were lost. Five Manila Galleons are known to have sunk off the west coast of the United States. One, the San Agustin, sank in 1595, victim of a gale in Drakes Bay, northwest of San Francisco.

The “Pilar de Saragoza y Santiago” sunk after it struck Cocos reef off the southern coast of Guam on June 2, 1690. The ship sunk so quickly that only 5,000 pesos worth of silver coins was salvaged. The rest, an estimated 1 million to 2 million silver pesos, was lost. The crew of 120 and 43 soldiers and 22 missionaries on board were all saved. The estimated value of the cargo on the ship if found today is $1 billion. Thus far finding the shipwreck has been elusive. In May 1989 Philip Masters of the University of Florida found documents about the sinking in the archives at Seville. The documents, which Masters said had probably been looked at, described the location of the “Pilar de Saragoza y Santiago” shipwreck.

Steve Singer wrote: “The Manila galleon wrecks are some of the richest in the world today. Only a few have been found so far. These are: 1) The Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion - From Manila bound for Acapulco, she wrecked on the southwest tip of the island of Saipan, Sept. 20, 1638. She was the largest Spanish vessel built up to this time, displacing about 2,000 tons. 2) Nuestra Senora del Pilar - Wrecked in 1690 on the southwest tip of Guam. This wreck has also been located within the last few years and has been actively worked by divers. 3) San Agustin - World renown archaeologist/treasure hunter, Robert Marx, has located the wreck of the San Agustin, which was one of a fleet of four galleons from Manila bound for Acapulco, which wrecked in Drake's Bay north of San Francisco, in 1690, and now lies in part of the Point Reyes National Seashore Park. I've read of his attempts to get permission to do some excavation on the site, but legal restrictions have so far prevented any attempt. 4) San Diego - This wreck was discovered in Manila Bay in 1991. It is presently being excavated by divers, and has yielded over 28,000 items to date. I've also heard of other Manila galleons having been discovered in the Philippines by local fishermen and divers, though I'm not sure if any of these are being actively worked under a government lease. [Source: Steve Singer, Manila Galleons, |=|]

“A number of undiscovered wrecks also lie off the California and Mexican coast: 1) Santa Marta - Ran aground on Santa Catalina Island in 1528. Crew and some cargo was saved. Unknown if further salvage was attempted. 2) Nuestra Senora de Ayuda - 320 tons, wrecked on a rock, west of Catalina Island in 1641. Some crew survived, but cargo was lost. 3) San Sebastian - attacked by English pirate George Compton, Jan. 7, 1754, she was run aground just west of Santa Catalina Island, and soon sunk in about 170' of water. A number of other areas along Oregon and California have yielded artifacts from the Far East, and could belong to a wrecked Manila galleon. Santa Maria de los Valles - 1,500 tons, left Manila in 1668 with 778 people and a very valuable cargo. After much hardship, she arrived at Acapulco two days before Christmas, and dropped anchor. Two hours later she caught fire and sank within an hour, taking with her all the treasure valued at over 3,000,000 pesos and more than 330 people. |=|

“The majority of Manila galleons sank in the Philippines and surrounding areas, including China and Japan. I'll mention a few of these. 1) San Martin - Patache, wrecked off the coast of China near Canton in 1578, with much silver on board. Two more vessels were also lost near Canton in 1598. 2) San Francisco - Wrecked off eastern Kyushu, Japan, in 1608, with a large amount of gold and silver. 3) Santissima Trinidad - Left Manila in 1616 with a cargo valued at over 3,000,000 pesos. A typhoon hit and she wrecked on Cape Satano, at the southern end of Japan. 4) Jesus Maria and the Santa Ana - Both these vessels sank in the San Bernardino Straight with over 2,000,000 silver pesos, after doing battle with a superior Dutch fleet, which ambushed them there in 1620. 5) San Ambrosio and another ship - Coming from Acapulco, both vessels were lost during a typhoon on the coast of Cagayan in 1639, along with 2,000,000 silver pesos. 6) Santo Cristo de Burgos - She grounded offshore of Ticao Island, Philippines, in 1726. Crew was saved, but the ship and very valuable cargo were lost due to fire. Another vessel, the San Andres, wrecked on Naranjos shoals near Ticao, October 1797, and part of her valuable cargo was lost. 7) Santa Maria Madalena - Crammed with so much cargo as to make her unsafe, she left Cavite in 1734, and capsized and sank within a few hundred yards of her anchorage. |=|

Sources of Singers article: 1. Bunge, Frederica M. (Editor). Philippines a country study. Washington D.C. : Dept. of the Army, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983. 2. Lyon, Eugene. National Geographic Magazine, September 1990, pages 5-37, "Track of the Manila Galleons". 3. Mathers, William M. Ibid, pages 39-52, "Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion". 4 Marx, Robert. Shipwrecks in Mexican Waters. Deportes Acuaticos de Mexico, Juarez, Mexico, 1971. 5. Marx, Robert. Skin Diver Magazine, March 1993, pages 49 and 166, "Ten Richest Wrecks in Latin America". 6. Marx, Robert. Ibid, April 1992, page 44, "The 10 Richest Undiscovered Wrecks". 7. Potter, John S. The Treasure Diver's Guide. Port Salerno: Florida Classics Library, 1988. 8. Treasure Quest Magazine. Vol. IV-4, Fall 1993, page 15. 9. Winsor, Justin (Editor), Narrative and Critical History of America, Vol. II, Discoveries of the Pacific Coast of North America. Cambridge, Mass.: Haughton, Mifflin and Co., 1886. |=|

Nuestra de la Concepcion

On September 20, 1638, the “Nuestra de la Concepcion”, an Acapulco-bound Spanish galleon loaded with a cargo of oriental treasures sunk off the southern coast of Saipan after being pushed by a storm onto a reef. Most of the 400 people on board perished and her treasure was spilled in to the sea. The site is now overlooked by a golf course, and Ming dynasty porcelain shards are scattered along the coastline, which helped to pinpoint the wreck. [Source: Bill Mather, National Geographic, September 1990]

The “Nuestra de la Concepcion” was the largest European ship built up to her time. She was between 140 and 160 feet long and displaced 2,000 tons. The ship carried a cargo worth tens of millions of dollars. The wreck was blamed on an inexperienced commander—a nephew of the Manila governor—who mismanaged the ship, causing his officers to mutiny, and allowed the ship to pass into reef-strewn waters in bad weather. High winds snapped the mast and the overloaded ship was carried by currents and winds and driven it into the reef. People leapt into the sea. Many of those who made it to shore were killed with spears and slingstones by local Chamorro islanders. Six Spaniards escaped and made it to Guam and reached the Philippines in an open boat ten months later.

The “Nuestra de la Concepcion” was salvaged over a two year period in the late 1980s by a team led by William Mathers of the Pacific Sea Recovery Group. After combing a half square mile area off the southwestern coast of Saipan the salvagers found 1,500 pieces of gold jewelry, 156 storage jars and few hundred cannonballs. Many of the items had become embedded in coral after drifting eastward from the original wreck site. Perhaps the greatest treasure was solid gold plate and ewer set thought have been intended as a gift from the King of Spain to the Emperor of Japan. A solid gold cross imbedded with diamonds was also found. Other items had been salvaged soon after the wreck by Spaniards and over time by local islanders.

Sunken Galleon Discovered Off the Capiz Coast of the Philippines

Oliver M. Mendoza wrote in In May 2006 “a Capiceño scuba diver discovered an "ancient-looking vessel" off the coast of Sitio Tabai in Barangay Barra, Roxas City. Ronilo Lorenzo, a seasoned diver and local resident, accidentally spotted the ship while he was diving for seahorses. Roxas City Mayor Tony del Rosario immediately ordered the site secured and the sunken ship salvaged. Mayor Tony Del is quite excited over the possibility that the ship might be a Spanish Galleon. He intends to eventually display the ship at the Roxas City Museum where it can be viewed by the public. [Source: Oliver M. Mendoza, June 5, 2006 ]

“It is, to my knowledge, the first time that a Spanish galleon was discovered in Western Visayas. While news reports about the sunken vessel are still murky, the discovery has sparked the interest of local historians and "Spanish treasure" aficionados. If subsequent investigation by experts should prove that the sunken ship is indeed a galleon, the discovery will create more questions. Since Capiz is not along the usual route of galleons traveling from Manila to Acapulco, what is it doing there?

“The discovery of the sunken galleon off the coast of Capiz is quite puzzling because it is not along the route of the galleons traveling from Manila to Mexico. The Spanish galleons usually set sail from the port of Manila and then make a brief stop-over in Taytay, Palawan before heading off to open sea. I visited Taytay, a sleepy town in northern Palawan, several years back and indeed there was a small but beautiful Spanish fort there. Locals there say that crewmen of Spanish galleons used to purchase last-minute provisions for their long four-month voyage across the Pacific Ocean to Mexico. Once in a while, it is said that local fishermen would find old coins and artifacts in the area surrounding the old Spanish fort.

With “the “Capiz galleon,” “one is led to assume that it might have been blown off-course by a typhoon (which hits the Philippines regularly). It may also be that the sunken ship is not really a Spanish galleon but a Chinese junk or an ancient inter-island vessel. The Chinese have been known to trade with Ilonggos long before the Spaniards and there are some historical records showing that inter-island ships regularly plied the seas off Capiz. But whatever the result of subsequent investigations, the discovery of the ship augurs well for our region because we will know more about our history as a people.”

End of the Spanish Galleon Trade

The Spanish galleon trade was hurt by: 1) corruption, smuggling and competition; 2) disputes over shares and profits; and 3) problems back in Spain. Over time the power and wealth of the British, French and Dutch grew and challenged Spain and exploited the Asian trade in their own way. Spain’s monopoly began t unravel in the late 1700s and early 1800s under restrictive Spanish trade practices, disruptions caused by the Napoleonic wars and the independence movement in Mexico and Latin America. The legacy of the Spanish galleons lives on. In Acapulco, dancer still wear “China poblana” dresses. In Cavite, Filipinos honors the patron of the galleons to Mexico, Our Lady of Porta Vaga, with a feast and the transportation of a shrine with an icon across Manila Bay.

The “Magallanes”, the last Manila galleon, left Manila in 1811, and returned four years later. The end of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade was sealed when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. As long as the Spanish empire on the eastern rim of the Pacific remained intact and the galleons sailed to and from Acapulco, there was little incentive on the part of colonial authorities to promote the development of the Philippines, despite the initiatives of José Basco y Vargas during his career as governor in Manila. After his departure, the Economic Society was allowed to fall on hard times, and the Royal Company showed decreasing profits. The independence of Spain's Latin American colonies, particularly Mexico in 1821, forced a fundamental reorientation of policy. Cut off from the Mexican subsidies and protected Latin American markets, the islands had to pay for themselves. As a result, in the late eighteenth century commercial isolation became less feasible. [Source: Library of Congress, *]

Growing numbers of foreign merchants in Manila spurred the integration of the Philippines into an international commercial system linking industrialized Europe and North America with sources of raw materials and markets in the Americas and Asia. In principle, non-Spanish Europeans were not allowed to reside in Manila or elsewhere in the islands, but in fact British, American, French, and other foreign merchants circumvented this prohibition by flying the flags of Asian states or conniving with local officials. In 1834 the crown abolished the Royal Company of the Philippines and formally recognized free trade, opening the port of Manila to unrestricted foreign commerce. *

By 1856 there were thirteen foreign trading firms in Manila, of which seven were British and two American; between 1855 and 1873 the Spanish opened new ports to foreign trade, including Iloilo on Panay, Zamboanga in the western portion of Mindanao, Cebu on Cebu, and Legaspi in the Bicol area of southern Luzon. The growing prominence of steam over sail navigation and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 contributed to spectacular increases in the volume of trade. In 1851 exports and imports totaled some US$8.2 million; ten years later, they had risen to US$18.9 million and by 1870 were US$53.3 million. Exports alone grew by US$20 million between 1861 and 1870. British and United States merchants dominated Philippine commerce, the former in an especially favored position because of their bases in Singapore, Hong Kong, and the island of Borneo. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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