The Manila Galleon Trade: Events, effects, lessons

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

THE Manila Galleon Trade lasted for 250 years and ended in 1815 with Mexico’s war of independence. In terms of longevity alone, plus the trade that it engendered between Asia, Spanish America and onward to Europe and Africa, it brought in its wake events and movement of people among the various continents that are still apparent and in place today.

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It made Mexico a world city. The Philippines, ostensibly a Spanish colony, was governed from Mexico which gave it an Asian extension. Population flows between Asia and Spanish America via Acapulco were, in terms of the times, huge. About 40,000 to 60,000, maybe 100,000, mostly Chinese and in particular Filipinos, made up that flow. There is an existing Filipino presence in Louisiana and definitely in Mexico from those times. Some of the founders of California seem to be of Filipino descent. Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary, was said to have Filipino ancestry.

The migrants came as servants, slaves, sailors, barbers, vendors, harp players, dancers, scribes, tailors, cobblers, silversmiths and coachmen. Mexico’s Plaza Mayor, known as the Zocalo, became a place of stalls and shops selling the Asian imports where the city’s myriad populations mixed in buying and selling. They called it the Parian after the Chinese district of Manila known as such. Manila’s Chinatown is considered the oldest in the world. In Mexico, the Parian began in the late 16th century and by the 18th century was a permanent edifice. Items sold or traded were spices from the Orient, ivory, diamonds, Chinese porcelain, Indian fabrics, Siamese ebony, rubies and emeralds from India. From the Philippines, I would guess, ivory religious images, our indigenous fabrics in cotton, indigo and wooden furniture.

Asian arts found a market in Mexico and beyond. They were eventually emulated and adapted locally. Thus, Japanese lacquer desks, Chinese wall hangings and Chinese porcelain were imitated and reproduced in Mexico. For example, the folding screens called “biombo” in Spanish were originally from the Japanese word for them “byobu.” Eventually, these biombos showed images of Mexico City’s best known places.

Mexico became a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan nation in urbanization and sophistication. At the time of the Manila Galleon, it was one of the richest cities in the world with leading cultural and intellectual aspects to its urban life. It had a printing press as early as 1535. Its native costumes had an Oriental influence acknowledging its opening to the world. It introduced chocolate and other crops (sweet potato, vegetables, fruits) not only to the world but particularly to the Orient because of trade. Mexico and the rest of Spanish America (also grown rich from trading and silver mines) had the first universities in the American continent, long before those of North America. Mexico was then a city of books, writers, students, with influences from Asian cultures. A historian, Juan Gonzales de Mendoza published in Mexico Historia de las Cosas Mas Notables, Ritos y Costumbres del Gran Reyno de la China in 1583. It became the first popular book on China in the West. Antonio de Morga who wrote Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas in 1609 (not only about relations with the Philippines but with China, Japan and Southeast Asia) published it in Mexico in 1609. Here was a city on the cutting edge of world knowledge, trade and diplomacy.

Potosi in Bolivia began mining a mountain of silver in 1545 and soon produced half of the world’s silver, which during the Manila Galleon trade was coveted by the Chinese economy in exchange for its goods. As a result, Potosi’s population was larger than that of any other city in the Americas at the end of the 16th century. It had more than a dozen dancehalls, 80 churches, and fountains (?) of wine and chicha (Andean corn beer). It is estimated that one-third of its silver production ended up in China. By that time Mexican silver mines had made an industrial innovation – the use of mercury to extract silver from ore as against smelting. This was certainly in the light of today and its consequences, an unhealthy and anti-environmental industrial innovation but at that time it made things easier – more silver could be extracted from ore. Potosi was so famous it was mentioned in Don Quijote and Mateo Ricci placed it in the Chinese world map of 1602.

Manila ranked just below Mexico in urbanization and sophistication. It was not quite a world city compared to Mexico, being more a regional trading hub where China, India, Japan and Southeast Asia sent their goods to be consolidated for shipping. Those who ran the hub and did most of the work were Chinese. They packed the goods (no one could pack better than them, putting more merchandise in the limited spaces and chests on the galleon than anyone else could). They came in junks yearly, bringing goods that not only competed in price but in quality and innovation with the rest of the world. The Chinese served as part of the galleon crews together with Filipinos and other nationalities (the galleon crews were mostly East Asian with a sprinkling of various European nationalities). They most probably clandestinely participated in the galleon trade which no one but Spaniards were allowed to do. Many Chinese became very wealthy through hard work. Manila was almost a Chinese city with the huge migration of Chinese due to the Manila Galleon trade as against the few Spaniards and Filipino natives. So much so that the Spaniards feared them, taxed them, sent them out to the Parian and eventually, when tensions rose, massacred them. Such massacres were at their height in the 17th century from suspicion, unease and fear, until the Spaniards and the Chinese learned to live with each other in the next few centuries.

Manila was the gateway to China not only for being the entrepot where Chinese goods along with those of Japan, India, Southeast Asia were assembled for re-export to the West, but for its role in mediating information about China. Martin de Rada acquired Chinese books in Manila in 1575. The first translation of classical Chinese texts into a European language took place in Manila when Mingxin Borojiau was translated into Espejo Rico de Claro Corazon in 1593 and published in Manila by Juan Cobo who also translated Seneca into Chinese.

Manila was so widely famed as the galleon trade hub that it attracted predators who dreamed of or imagined the riches it had. For example, the Dutch East India Company believed trade could not be maintained without war. It proved it in the Dutch East Indies. The British East India Company led the way (with the British Navy in complicity) to take Manila in 1762, using the Seven Years’ War in Europe as an excuse. But when it came to larger longstanding nations in the East like China and Japan and Thailand, European colonizers could not project much force. Spain did not, but it was able to run the Manila Galleon trade for years despite its problems with the Chinese in Manila and the fact that both sides were breaking the rules along the way. There was an equilibrium between China and Spain (the Sinic-Spanish global trade) that brought on trade understanding, diplomatic relations, enduring relationships. Much different from the Anglo-American and Dutch events in Asia with colonization, trade with colonies, industrialization and gunboat diplomacy, the opium wars, oppressive demand for cash crops, taking advantage of the chaos in China, and the weakness of the East Indies.

In the above trade relations, China is the other, the hostile, the dangerous. There must be a lesson to be learned from the Sinic-Spanish Manila Galleon Trade which could be applicable today for better relations in the modern world. The authors of The Silver Way have interesting insights and recommendations along this line.

There is much more to be said and learned about the initial globalization chapter of history that was the Manila Galleon Trade. Indeed, it was the first established world trade relationship that can only be recognized as global for its influence on not only those directly involved but by diffusion, the rest of the world.

I highly recommend The Silver Way by Peter Gordon and Juan Jose Morales (Penguin Books, 2017), on which I have based this review. I thank Peter Geldart of the Philippine Map Collectors Society for bringing me an autographed copy from the book launch last week in Hong Kong.

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3 Comments

  1. Xavier Peralta on

    As a student in Mexican history here in the States, I for one is confused whether Ms. Ongpin is trying to put her Chinese ancestry first. In reading her column its more focused on the Chinese in Mexico than the Filipinos, I thought it is the Manila Galleon trade topic. The people in Mexico (thru the century) calls everyone that came from the Orient as Chinese or Chino, they don’t call people from India, Indians but Hindus, the Asian Indians came much further almost in the 19th century.
    According to Mexican citizen ancestry, Mexicans who are actually of Filipino ancestry comprises 2M of the whole Mexican population as of today. So, if there were 100K Chinese that came to Mexico from the 16th century onward, why is it that the Chinese only comprises only 70K today, that is one weird accounting.
    Looking further, the Mexican culture has absorbed some of the Filipino culture and so does the people from the Philippines with the Mexican culture in them. +++ I am a Mexipino+++ Dad is Filipino and Mom is Mexican.

  2. On a recent trip to Mexico, our tour guide (a History teacher who moonlights in the tourism industry on weekends) informed us that the Philippines’ national fruit was introduced to “Mexico and the rest of Spanish America” during the galleon trade.

    Thanks to the galleon trade, we (Filipino-Canadians living in Toronto, Ontario) are able to enjoy different varieties of mangoes from Mexico, such as piko, kinalabaw, etc., that are just as good as mangoes from Cebu, Zambales, etc. In fact, Chinese immigrants from Hongkong call them “Manila” mangoes.

  3. Interesting article, informative and an exciting portion of history about the old Philippines. In this world of globalization, the Filipino millennial must learn the old trading history of the Philippines whether you’re living in the country or outside like the USA