Remembering the Impact of the Manila Galleons
Updated: Jan 22
Author: Adriana Hyun, Yale University
We have to remember history, including both the bright side and the dark side. The Manila galleons were ships that had a long-standing impact on trade and cultural exchanges between Latin America and Asia during the 16th and 19th centuries. Yet, the galleons were also tools used to sustain the horrible institution of slavery during the age of colonialism. In this period, the Philippines and Mexico were both under the viceroyalty of colonial Spain, and the two overseas colonies were placed under the common colonial governance of Mexico, laying the foundation for a trade relationship. The Magellan-Elcano voyage in 1521 provided the Spanish with valuable knowledge on the rich Asian trading scene, and Urdaneta’s discovery of a turnabout route between Acapulco and Manila would allow ships to travel across the Pacific in both directions. The galleons - often manufactured in Manila - were characterized by their large size, some weighing more than 2,000 tons, being the largest naval vessels of their day. They made one to two trips a year, going back and forth between the port of Acapulco in Mexico and the Manila port.
This trade exchange was extremely significant economically as silver was the global currency used by a majority of trading countries. The Ming Dynasty was making efforts to rebuild its economy by using silver coinage as a substitute for the weak paper currency, however, China was not a producer of silver. During this time, a large silver mine was found in Potosi, Bolivia, and other countries such as Peru and Mexico were producing large quantities of silver. It is estimated that one-third of Latin American silver ended up in China through La Ruta de Plata (the Silver Route). This wide reach of silver led to a common currency; the Spanish Dollar, which was used throughout most East Asian countries. In Asia, the coins were named ‘Buddha heads’ because of the resemblance of Spanish monarchs to Buddha.
In exchange for this resource, China sent luxury goods such as precious silks (much to the dismay of local Mexican textiles industries), opulent furniture and Christian artifacts to Latin America and Europe. The Mantón de Manila (Manila Shawl), an important piece of clothing in current day Mexican and Spanish folklore first came from Macau and Guangzhou, the name reflecting the route it took to arrive in Mexico. Chinese manufacturers adjusted the designs and size of the shawls to the taste of their western consumers. The spread of Christianity to Asia can also be traced back to the galleons, where Chinese artisans living mainly in Manila would carve religious figures out of ivory. The most prominent designs included figures of Christ and the Holy Infant: the carvings contain Oriental features or techniques reflecting their Eastern origins. Mexicans commissioned precious furniture to be made out of mother of pearl, lacquered wood, tortoiseshell and ivory, with nearly all households owning an object of lacquerware likely originating from China.
Spices from the Indonesian archipelago - such as ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg - gradually became household staples on Mexican shelves, forever transforming the way Latin Americans would eat. Rubies, Sapphires, and other precious gems came from Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Japanese ships brought gunpowder, knives, and swords. India imported cotton goods, rugs, carpets, muslins, and damasks. Such products were taken from Acapulco to Mexico City by mule to be sold and the remaining goods would be shipped to Spain. Many goods were sold either in the Acapulco fair or the El Parian market in Manila, which remains alive and well to this day. The galleons also allowed for an Asian diaspora to settle in Latin America: an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 people, mainly of Filipino and Chinese descent, migrated to Mexico. This community is still present in the Americas today. Festivals traveled from one continent to another with the trade, most notably the Catholic Moriones Festival in Quipo, Manila, which is of Mexican origin.
After Mexico won the war of independence against Spain in 1821, 250 years of trade between Acapulco and Manila ended. Despite being separated by the Pacific Ocean, the multicultural influence Asia has had on the rest of the world is undeniably strong.
The article represents the personal opinion of the author and not that of the Inclusion Advocate Editorial Committee.
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