The Galleon Trade

From 1565 to 1815, the galleon trade contributed to the change of culture, language and environment for both Philippines and Mexico

The Galleon Trade

When the remarkable navigator-priest Andres de Urdaneta figured out how to get back to Mexico from the Philippines in 1565—where previous navigators failed to recognize the Kuroshio Current, a nautical highway in the northern Pacific Ocean, moving from Japan to California’s Monterrey coastline, and thus to Acapulco—the world was reborn.

From that point onwards, the extraordinarily luxurious artisanal material from China and the rest of Asia, would travel by water to the New and Old Worlds. The New World (the Americas) and the Old World (Europe) had an almost inexhaustible yearning for silks and damasks, medicinal concoctions, exotic animals and exotic animal parts, rare woods and hard wood furniture, spices, minerals, planting materials, tools, and, indeed, information.

No longer passing through the arduous Silk Road to Europe, via caravans that remained vulnerable, through centuries, to sandstorms and thieves, the traders of 15th century Manila and Acapulco embarked on a novel trading concept. The goods were, to be sure, vulnerable to fierce storms and perhaps even fiercer pirates; but would, with luck and through the intercession of the Christian Virgin Mary, ride the waves towards buyers for European, or European-style aristocratic salons.

The spaces in the cargo holds of these ships were divided amongst holders of tickets called boletas. Charitable institutions as well as legitimate traders held these boletas which were spaces they were entitled to in the galleon holds. For 250 years, these represented real measures of wealth.

Should these shipments fall to pirates or inclement weather, not only fortunes were lost. Family honor and individual lives met unhappy ends. But the history of the trade produced the first banks (from the charitable institutions that undertook pious work, obras pias) and commodity markets with global breadth.

The galleon trade persisted—and persisted with gumption!—within its theater of economic hopes, knavery, prayer, bravura risk-taking, political shenanigans, exchange of vital ideas and fluids. Residents of Las Islas Filipinas took the pineapple of the Americas and wove its leaves into the finest cloth imaginable. Residents of Mexico took to the fighting cock, apparently brought on board by the men from the Philippines. Music, of course, was to weave together from melodies spun on both sides of the Pacific.

The wealth built cities. The earliest walls of Intramuros were paid for by galleon profit. The markets built distribution networks through deep parts of Mexico. The galleons left Manila to the ringing of the bells of the Manila Cathedral and choirs singing the Te Deum. Upon arrival in Acapulco, a gargantuan feria was held to sell the goods.

Through those two centuries and a half, Cavite boat builders created almost all the galleons that sailed. Ilocano weavers provided the sails. The Philippines was governed from Acapulco, so far were these islands from the seat of the Spanish Crown.

The demise of the trade in the Pacific coincided with the War of Independence. This is not regarded as mere coincidence, because the death knell for the period of colonization was also the arrival bells for a modern world built on sovereign nations. The galleon trade itself ended as it yielded to faster ships, new routes opened up by the newly built Suez Canal, and liberalization of politics in centers such as Madrid.

But the galleon remains a vivid shadow of the present and the future of commerce and cultural exchange in the Pacific. The Filipinos and the Mexicans apparently created a mutually intelligible common culture; and they are determined to participate in global exchange, simply on the basis of this common heritage.