By Ana Valenzuela
“Manila was an important city for trading at that time because of the galleon trade,” said Dr. Vernon Totanes, director of Ateneo de Manila’s Rizal Library. “It was significant because there was not a lot of trans-Pacific trade, and the Manila-Acapulco route was made possible by the fact that the Spanish were in charge on both ends. Not many could afford to send ships back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.”
According to Totanes, the goods traded on the Manila galleons were the material equivalents of our Filipino caregivers and seafarers today. “Like those who go out with only their talent and skills—but return with dollars, yen, and more—the galleons left Manila with distinctly Eastern products, and returned with Western merchandise in exchange. While it could be viewed in purely economic terms, the galleon trade also had long-lasting cultural and social implications on Filipinos, just like the OFWs and their families.”
The Manila Galleon sailed from the Philippines to another Spanish colony, Mexico from 1571 to 1814. It was lauded for the length of its voyage, with ships traveling 6,000 miles for a duration of six to nine months, depending, of course, on the weather.
The trade between Manila and Acapulco was limited to the Spanish crown. Four galleons, with two trading vessels dispatched at a time, were all there were for successive years. The ships were heavy not only with goods and products, but also with soldiers as it was a loot that any pirate ship would want to have.
Between Acapulco and Manila, the Philippine capital acted as a direct trade link between Asia and America. Manila was one of the commercial centers in Asia where countries exchanged their goods. Silk, brocades, pieces of furniture, pearls and gems, fruits, nuts, tame, buffalo, geese, horses, mules, caged birds, and many more could be found in the city. From Manila, the galleons carried merchandise from all over Asia while from Acapulco, it would be of silver, soap, wine, cochineal, and ironware.
The success of the galleon trade attracted many merchants who knew that they could profit from this.
Shirley Fish wrote in her book The Manila-Acapulco Galleons: The Treasure Ships of the Pacific (2011) that in the 1580s Chinese vessels arriving to the port of Manila ranged from 20 to 60 in a year. These ships came from the ports of Canton and Amoy. Of course, one of our nearest neighbors came to the Philippines 300 years even before Ferdinand Magellan did. The Chinese referred to the country as Mayi, which was derived from Laguna de Bay. As early as the 13th century, the Chinese traded with locals to buy hemp cloth, cotton, wax, pearls, tortoise shells. This was in exchange for silk, porcelain, colored beads, ironware, among others. The Chinese beat their gongs to announce their arrivals in the port of Manila.
In 1603, about 18,000 Chinese were living in Manila. These were of course carried by Asian ships. Most of the immigrants came in groups of 200 to 300 Chinese who intended to live here, joining thousands of crew members and traders in a single vessel.
Apart from the Chinese, Japanese ships also traveled to Manila, which came between October to March, bearing wheat, silks, objects of arts, and weapons. They will often trade that for the raw silk of China, some gold, deer, horns, wood, honey, wax, palm wine, and the wine of Castille.
The trade in Manila was not limited to these two Asian countries, as ships from Malacca (in Malaysia) and India came as well with Portuguese effects such as spices, slaves, and the rich products of the Portuguese empire (India, Persia, and Turkey). Borneo, Siam (now Thailand), and Cambodia also came, although rarer, with trading ships.
Greed seems to have found a place in the country as early as then, as corruption was prevalent even in those times. According to Fish, Spanish officials sought bribes from Chinese merchants. Spanish custom officials even removed the tall upright posts or masts of Chinese vessels, and then replaced them with substandard low quality masts. This, in turn, made it impossible for the Chinese merchants to go back home, thus forcing them to pay the corrupt officials.
The route of the galleons of the Manila Galleons ended in 1815. The Spanish control of the Acapulco’s port was no more, due to the Mexican War for independence. Spain attempted to reestablish trade, this time between the Philippines and the European kingdom, through the Compania de Filipinas in the 1760s, but it was not much of a success.
“Did Manila decline as a center for trade when the galleons stopped coming?” Totanes asked. “Of course, without the galleon trade, the opportunities for investors, traders, and even ordinary seafarers to earn were greatly diminished.”
Totanes explained this further, giving another metaphor, “The galleon trade resulted in huge profits for all concerned. When it ended, it will be similar to losing the US as a trading partner today. All of a sudden, there will be no one left to buy our products. The businessmen will suffer enormous losses. If US President Donald Trump, for instance, orders US-based companies to close their BPOs in the Philippines, a lot of people will lose their jobs, even if companies from other countries have BPOs here. The loss of the US business will be catastrophic.”