Maritime Anthropology of the Manila Galleon Trade: a proposed investigation


1. Historical Introduction

The Philippine Islands were colonised from Mexico (New Spain) in 1564 (Hayes, 1934), and it was after Legazpi’s voyage that Mexico’s contribution to the Philippines became the Acapulco-Manila galleon trade (Perez, 1954), ships now described as veritable argosies of cargo and treasure.

Historically  what became known as the Sisterhood of Manila and Acapulco began in October 1565 when Andres de Urdeneta navigated Legazpi’s San Pedro safely back to Acapulco (Zaide, 1971). Thus “It was  New Spain or Mexico that contributed most directly to the extraordinarily rapid growth of Manila as the pearl of the Orient…” (Perez, 1954). Manila was best geographically suited for drawing together Chines and Japanese silk, Moluccan spices, Indian cottons and Cambodian ivory which were funnelled to the argentiferous Spanish colonies of the New World (Legarda, 1955).

The golden age of Manila and Acapulco, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was based on the famous galleon trade (Zaide, 1971). It has been said that (Rodriguez, 1941) during 250 years (1565-1815) of the Manila-Acapulco trade some 108 government owned galleons voyaged across the Pacific and ferried “…thousands of men and many millions of treasure.” The Manila-Acapulco service was as old as the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines and bound up with the very life of the islands – the galleon trade was the umbilical cord upon which the colony’s existence depended. The arrival of the galleons in Manila was met with rejoicing and meant a year of prosperity, whereas loss by shipwreck or piracy meant a year of economic depression (Perez, 1954). Thus “En los doscientos cincuenta anos de existiencia del galleon, solamente naufragarion 30, calculados en unos 1,600 hombres los desaparecidos y valorandose las perdidas de las mercancias en 6o millones de pesos.” (Lorente Rodriguez, 1944). Thus “The failure of the Philippine galleon to arrive causes a scarcity of many things in this country.” (Croix, 1749).

Annually the Manila galleons (Naos de China) crossed the Pacific with valuable cargoes (Zaide, 1971) and used to ship expensive luxury commodities in both directions, the monetary value of their cargoes was enormous (Ives, 1964). The vice-royalty of New Spain was the principal market for the Manila galleon cargoes (Schurz, 1918). A new era began in the islands history with the establishment of direct trading with China (Legarda, 1944) with Chinese traders from the Celestial Empire arriving in 1572 (though they had traded there for years before the Spanish arrival). Most important of all the Acapulco bound goods was Chinese silk (Schurz, 1939).

Ships from the Asian countries arrived and eventually increased the diversity of nationalities and ethnic groups in Manila (Legarda, 1944), the goods brought by these traders (and then eastward as galleon cargoes comprised Persian rugs, Indian cottons, ivory, jasper, jade, copper, brass, spices, musk, borax, japanned boxes, inlaid escritoires, lead, camphor, porcelain, earthenware, pearls, precious stones, etc. Philippine products were gold dust, wax, cordage, blankets, sail cloth, linen, etc. From Acapulco there came chests of Mexican and Peruvian silver, all the artefacts and necessities of the colonial administration, merchants, administrators, missionaries and clerics (Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians), soldiers and officials. This arrangement kept the Philippines tied to the apron strings of Mexico (Le Roy, 1905) with Spanish money in the earlier years not for the benefit of the islands but for the Spanish expansion into the far east. Manila was a jumping off point for expeditions. No permission was however given to legitimate emigrants unless they agreed to become a citizen of the colony (Schurz, 1918).

Numerous Chinese came yearly in junks and sampans and added to the burgeoning population of Manila (Lagarda, 1944) and the silver they received from the Manila galleons was taken back in large quantities to China. As Boxer (1970) pointed out “Many foreign merchants and travellers in Asia, Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, English and French alike, commented on the extraordinary demand for silver in India and China during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” especially the Chinese demand for Spanish pesos de ocho reales. This situation was also noted by Morga (1609) and Santos (1609) in Manila, and again recalled by Manrique (1649) after a visit there between 1637 and 1638. Mexican silver reaching Manila was just as eagerly sought by other neighbouring peoples (Diaz, 1890).

Attracted to the profits of the galleon trade the Spaniards in the Philippines neglected the agricultural and industrial development of the islands (Bourne, 1907) with the land remaining predominantly in the hands of the indigenous owners. Large tracts of land were held by religious orders and half-caste Chinese who achieved this via their control of internal trade and small credit (Schurz, 1918; Bourne, 1907). Internal trade therefore passed to the hands of non-Spaniards. Locally the “Filipinos’ were unprepared by their previous history for the whirligig of events into which Spain’s conquest plunged them.” (Legarda, 1944).

The cargo of the Manila galleon was distributed very widely throughout Spanish America with imports into Acapulco reaching as far as Peru, Guatemala, Campeche, Caracas, the Windwards and the Greater Antilles (Schurz, 1918). Even today “…Mexican senoritas during festive occasions wear the China poblana dress, whose red, green, and white colors have become the colors of Mexico’s national flg.” (Zaide, 1971), an echo of the ramifications and effects of the silk trade brought by the galleons from Manila.

2.  Context of the Research

The Manila “…galleon trade was the product of policies that have to be looked at from an overall point of view if they are to be understood in their proper perspective.”  The effects, successes and losses, of the galleon trade require a similar overall perspective, not just the successful voyages, but also the unsuccessful. The attitudes and problems that surround the galleon trade and the population of the islands provide a key to  unravelling the colonial history of the Philippines, the trans-pacific trade, the south east Asia commerce, and the population diversity of the Philippines. The galleon trade can be seen as a series of time-capsules whose documentary evidence contains an invaluable insight and means to understand the development of the population of the Philippines, as well as trans-Pacific population movements.

Ships do not sail in a cultural vacuum (Lenihan, 1986) which implies that the galleons were a material expression of a wider cultural dynamic. The galleon trade lasted 25o years and provides an enormous documentary resource for the study of human maritime and cross-cultural activity. Moreover, a galleon can be seen a “…a cultural component that shares some conventions with the parent culture, it is also a cultural entity in and of itself.” (Murphy, 1986). Manila-Acapulco galleons in this context can be seen as microcosms of inter-relating cultures, functioning not in the archaeological sense as time-capsules fixed in time, but anthropologically as vectors of human activity.An anthropological perspective of the galleons themselves must include recognition of their self-sufficiency as maintained shipboard communities which were at sea for months before landfall (Lenihan, 1986). In addition other aspects include on-board stress factors, diseases, malnutrition, hierarchical shipboard society, always composed of several nationalities and strata. A galleon and its material culture had a narrowly defined purpose. Whereas with regard to the effects of the galleon trade a wider maritime anthropological perspective would recognise the important implications for our “…knowledge of global communications dynamics.” (Watson, 1986), our knowledge of the networks formed and developed, how they functioned and “…especially what the mutual effects of contact were on the societies in question.”. The galleons not only carried out and represented aspects of their parent culture they also provide important perspectives on social processes, primary vectors in an exchange system (Murphy, 1986).

3.  Objectives of the Research

The research programme will investigate the effects of the galleon trade recognising that Manila and Acapulco “…from the later part of the 16th to the beginning of the 19th century…played a significant role in history…” (Zaide, 1971), especially that of the Philippines. The development of the peoples of the Philippines is underpinned by the galleon trade, and the history of the ethnic population structure of those islands was to a large extent moulded by the galleon trade and the commerce that it generated with south east Asia. The galleon trade suffered many shipwrecks and losses which because of their intrinsic value exerted some considerable effect on the well-being of the colony. The ships themselves were transporters of people, not just silver,  and in both directions. The investigation of the galleons and their losses and successes opens up avenues to explore the cultural and population changes that occurred in the islands during the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as illuminating the links between Mexico and the other side of the Pacific.

The object of the research and its written papers will be to investigate and disseminate knowledge of the Manila Galleon trade and its effects on the population dynamics of the Philippines, its ramifications with South East Asia (as shown by the movement of cargoes and people in the Introduction above). In so doing the aim will be to develop a perspective of historical maritime anthropology.

The analysis of documentation relating to cargo and people on board (crew, religious, merchants, soldiers, migrants, officials) will thus contribute much to the reconstruction of the rapidly changing social, cultural and population structures of the societies involved. The research will explore questions pertaining to the contrasts of maritime culture relating to point of origin and destination, e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch and the indigenous population. Much of the historical documentation to be studies was recorded by persons who were compelled by authority to do so. These materials often reflect attitudes of the authority group and attention will be paid to the conflicting views of the Spanish, Dutch and Chines. Study of documentary materials that surround the galleon trade will clarify the variability in human activities it engendered.

A maritime anthropological perspective of the galleon trade implies developing a cross-cultural framework which juxtaposes traits and trait complexes, or various aspects of cultural systems from widely separated geographical proveniences. The galleon trade and its effects can be seen as an anthropological phenomenon. The associated documentation provides a unique resource containing important information and ideas concerning human maritime, social and cultural behaviour. The main hypothesis to be tested is that the Manila galleon trade, as a maritime anthropological phenomenon, played a significant role in determining the population structure and dynamics if the Philippine Islands, and commercial development in South East Asia.

4.  Significance of the Research

The project will aim to develop a perspective of historical maritime anthropology with special reference to the effects of the galleon trade. Most of the archival material to be studies has not been analysed to date or referred to in previous literature. This will comprise an innovative and unique feature of the research.

The significance of the galleons is that they were integral aspects of their larger parent culture, the culture on board a galleon considered as a specialised statement of the way a society relates to other societies (Murphy, 1986). The galleons were closed communities which were opened at both ends of the voyages. The study of the galleon trade can significantly contribute much to our understanding of human activities in many areas. The trade and its associated documentation affords an insight into social and cultural relationships over space and time. The cargoes of the galleons were significant indicators of the parent culture’s priorities in view of overseas and home involvements. The galleon cargoes are also highly informative on the activities of the different populations and cultures involved in the trade.

The galleons in effect became vectors for the spread of people, technology, beliefs, with diffusion of social and cultural traits. A study of the trans-Pacific galleon trade and Spanish colonising process is significant in that it has great potential to improve our “…understanding of global communication networks.” (Watson, 1986), as well as the resulting cross-cultural exchanges that developed. The research will aim to identify consistent and reliable relationships between particular kinds of human activity with the galleon trade as the linking factor (Gould, 1986). This will make it possible to posit generalisations concerning past human maritime activities, to develop the field of historical maritime anthropology via the galleon trade.

5.  Research Methods

The research will entail obtaining, translating and analysing copies of original 1th, 17th and 18th century documents primarily held by the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, secondarily by Archives in Madrid, Manila, Amsterdam, Paris, and Barcelona. Other material sources are the Bodleian Library, British Library and numerous other archival resources. Such documents and materials will be recorded on a computer database. The senior researcher is a registered reader with Seville, Madrid (including the Museo Naval) Paris, and Amsterdam archives. The Seville research assistant is registered with the Archivo General there. The research will lead to the creation of and continuing maintenance of a large bibliographic database.

The research intends to write papers for publication and dissemination. Copies of all documents obtained so far and id in future will be held as a special collection in the designated Oxford college. The computer database and bibliographies will also be held in the library. Such materials to be made available for use by other scholars and researchers.

6.  References and Sources Consulted

Bourne, E. G.  (1907).  Discovery, Conquest and Early History of the Philippine Islands. Cleveland.

Boxer, C. R.  (1970).  Plate es Sangre: Sidelights on the Drain of Spanish-American Silver in the Far East 1550-1700.  Philippine Studies.  18 (3), July.

Croix, Marquis de.  (1769).  Correspondence de Marquis de Croix. Croix to Marquis de Henchin. June 20.

Diaz, C.  (1890).  Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas.  Valladolid.

Gould, R. A.  (1986).  Shipwreck Anthropology.  Santa Fe.

Gould, R. A.  1986).  Looking Below the Surface: Shipwreck Archaeology as Anthropology. Santa Fe.

Hayes, J. D.  (1934).  The Manila Galleons.  US Naval Institute Proceedings. 1690-96.

Ives, R. L.  (1964).  The Manila Galleons.  The Journal of Geography.  LXIII (1).

Lagarda, B.  (1955).  Two and a Half Centuries of the Galleon Trade.  Philippine Studies.  3 (4). December.

Lenihan, D. J.  (1974).  Shipwrecks as Archaeological Phenomena:. In: Underwater Archaeology in the National Park Service. Santa Fe.

Lenihan, D. J.  (1986).  Rethinking Shipwreck Archaeology. A History of Ideas and Considerations for New Directions.  In: Gould, R. A (1986).

Le Roy,  J. A. (1905).  The Philippine Situado… American Historical Review.  10 (4). July.

Manrique, S.  (1649).  Intinerario de las Misiones que hizo al Padre…  cap 43, 285.

Morga, A. de.  (1609).  Sucesos de las islas Filipinas.  Mexico.

Murphy, L.  (1986).  Shipwrecks as Database for Human Behavioral Studies.  In: Gould (1986).

Perez, G. S.  (1954).  Manila Galleons and Mexican Pieces of Eight.  Philippines Social Sciences and Humanities Review.

Santos, J de. (1609).  Ethiopia Oriental.  parte II, livro 4, cap 2.

Schurz, W. L. (1918).  Mexico, Peru, and the Manila Galleon.  The Hispanic American Historical review. 1 (4). November.

Schurz, W. L.  (1939).  The Manila Galleon.  Cleveland, USA.

Watson, P. J.  (1986).  Method and Theory in Shipwreck Archaeology.  In: Gould (1986).

Zaide, G. F.  (1971).  Manila and Acapulco.  Philippine Historical Review.   245-70.


A research proposal invited for consideration and discussed at a college of the University of Oxford, April 1995. Title of investigation was ‘An Historical Maritime Anthropological Perspective of the Manila Galleon Trade.’  Research Studentship and Junior Fellowship were eventually financially unavailable.


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