The Manila Galleons (Spanish: Galeón de Manila, Filipino: Kalakalang Galyon ng Maynila at Acapulco) were Spanish trading ships which made round-trip voyages once or twice per year across the Pacific Ocean from the port of Acapulco (present-day Mexico) to Manila in the Philippines which were both part of New Spain. The name of the galleon changed to reflect the city that the ship sailed from. The term Manila Galleons is also used to refer to the trade route between Acapulco and Manila, which lasted from 1565 to 1815.
The Manila Galleons were also known in New Spain as "La Nao de la China" (The China Ship) because it carried largely Chinese goods, shipped from Manila.
The Manila Galleon trade route was inaugurated in 1565 after Augustinian friar and navigator Andrés de Urdaneta discovered the tornaviaje or return route from the Philippines to Mexico. The first successful round trips were made by Urdaneta and by Alonso de Arellano that year. The route lasted until 1815 when the Mexican War of Independence ended Spanish control of Mexican ports. The Manila galleons sailed the Pacific for 250 years, bringing to Spain their cargoes of luxury goods, economic benefits, and cultural exchange.
Discovery of the route
In 1521, a Spanish expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan sailed west across the Pacific using the westward trade winds. The expedition discovered the Mariana Islands and the Philippines and claimed them for Spain. Although Magellan died there, one of his ships made it back to Spain by continuing westward.
In order to settle and trade with these islands from the Americas, an eastward maritime return path was necessary. The first ship to try this a few years later failed. In 1529, Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón also tried sailing east from the Philippines, but could not find the eastward winds across the Pacific. In 1543, Bernardo de la Torre also failed. In 1542, however, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo helped pave the way by sailing north from Mexico to explore the Pacific coast, reaching as far north as the Russian River, just north of the 38th parallel.
The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade finally began when Spanish navigators Alonso de Arellano and Andrés de Urdaneta discovered the eastward return route in 1565. Sailing as part of the expedition commanded by Miguel López de Legazpi to conquer the Philippines in 1565, Arellano and Urdaneta were given the task of finding a return route. Reasoning that the trade winds of the Pacific might move in a gyre as the Atlantic winds did, they had to sail north to the 38th parallel north, off the east coast of Japan, before catching the eastward-blowing winds ("westerlies") that would take them back across the Pacific.
Reaching the west coast of North America, Urdaneta's ship the San Pedro hit the coast near Cape Mendocino, California, then followed the coast south to San Blas and later to Acapulco, arriving on October 8, 1565. Most of his crew died on the long initial voyage, for which they had not sufficiently provisioned. Arellano, who had taken a more southerly route, had already arrived.
The English privateer Francis Drake also reached the California coast, in 1579. After capturing a Spanish ship heading for Manila, Drake turned north, hoping to meet another Spanish treasure ship coming south on its return from Manila to Acapulco. He failed in that regard, but staked an English claim somewhere on the northern California coast. Although the ship's log and other records were lost, the officially-accepted location is now called Drakes Bay, on Point Reyes south of Cape Mendocino.
By the 18th century, it was understood that a less northerly track was sufficient when nearing the North American coast, and galleon navigators steered well clear of the rocky and often fogbound northern and central California coast. According to historian William Lytle Schurz, "They generally made their landfall well down the coast, somewhere between Point Conception and Cape San Lucas...After all, these were preeminently merchant ships, and the business of exploration lay outside their field, though chance discoveries were welcomed".
The first motivation for land exploration of present-day California was to scout out possible way-stations for the seaworn Manila galleons on the last leg of their journey. Early proposals came to little, but in 1769, the Portola expedition established Alta California ports at San Diego and Monterey, providing safe harbors for returning Manila galleons.
In Manila, the safety of ocean crossings was commended to the virgin Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga in masses held by the Archbishop of Manila. If the expedition was successful the voyagers would go to the La Ermita (church) to pay homage, and offer gold and other precious gems or jewelries from Hispanic countries, to the image of the virgin. So it came to be that the Virgin was named the "Queen of the Galleons".
Trade with Ming China via Manila served a major source of revenue for the Spanish Empire and as a fundamental source of income for Spanish colonists in the Philippine Islands. Until 1593, two or more ships would set sail annually from each port. The Manila trade became so lucrative that Seville merchants petitioned king Philip II of Spain to protect the monopoly of the Casa de Contratación based in Seville. This led to the passing of a decree in 1593 that set a limit of two ships sailing each year from either port, with one kept in reserve in Acapulco and one in Manila. An "armada" or armed escort of galleons, was also approved. Due to official attempts at controlling the galleon trade, contraband and understating of ships' cargo became widespread.
Between 1609 and 1616, 9 galleons and 6 galleys were constructed in Philippine shipyards. The average cost was 78,000 pesos per galleon and at least 2,000 trees. The galleons constructed included the San Juan Bautista, San Marcos, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Angel de la Guardia, San Felipe, Santiago, Salbador, Espiritu Santo, and San Miguel. "From 1729 to 1739, the main purpose of the Cavite shipyard was the construction and outfitting of the galleons for the Manila to Acapulco trade run."
Due to the route's high profitability but long voyage time, it was essential to build the largest possible galleons, which were the largest class of ships known to have been built. In the 16th century, they averaged from 1,700 to 2,000 tons, were built of Philippine hardwoods and could carry a thousand passengers. The Concepción, wrecked in 1638, was 43 to 49 m (141 to 161 ft) long and displacing some 2,000 tons. The Santísima Trinidad was 51.5 m long. Most of the ships were built in the Philippines and only eight in Mexico. The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade ended in 1815, a few years before Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. After this, the Spanish Crown took direct control of the Philippines, and was governed directly from Madrid. This became manageable in the mid-19th century upon the invention of steam power ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, which reduced the travel time from Spain to the Philippines to 40 days.
The galleon trade was nourished by merchants largely from port areas of Fujian who traveled to Manila to sell Spaniards spices, porcelain, ivory, lacquerware, processed silk cloth and other valuable commodities. Galleons transported the goods to be sold in the Americas, namely in New Spain and Peru as well as in European markets. East Asia trading primarily functioned on a silver standard due to Ming China's use of silver ingots as a medium of exchange. As such, goods were mostly bought by silver mined from Mexico and Potosí. In addition, slaves from various origins were transported from Manila. The cargoes arrived in Acapulco and were transported by land across Mexico to the port of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, where they were loaded onto the Spanish treasure fleet bound for Spain. This route was the alternative to the trip west across the Indian Ocean, and around the Cape of Good Hope, which was reserved to Portugal according to the Treaty of Tordesillas. It also avoided stopping over at ports controlled by competing powers, such as Portugal and the Netherlands. From the early days of exploration, the Spanish knew that the American continent was much narrower across the Panamanian isthmus than across Mexico. They tried to establish a regular land crossing there, but the thick jungle, and malaria made it impractical.
It took at least four months to sail across the Pacific Ocean from Manila to Acapulco, and the galleons were the main link between the Philippines and the viceregal capital at Mexico City and thence to Spain itself. Many of the so-called "Kastilas" or Spaniards in the Philippines were actually of Mexican descent, and the Hispanic culture of the Philippines is somewhat close to Mexican culture. Even after the galleon era, and at the time when Mexico finally gained its independence, the two nations still continued to trade, except for a brief lull during the Spanish–American War.
The wrecks of the Manila galleons are legends second only to the wrecks of treasure ships in the Caribbean. In 1568, Miguel López de Legazpi's own ship, the San Pablo (300 tons), was the first Manila galleon to be wrecked en route to Mexico. Between the years 1576 when the Espiritu Santo was lost and 1798 when the San Cristobal (2) was lost there were twenty Manila galleons wrecked within the Philippine archipelago.
Between 1565 and 1815, Spain owned 108 galleons of which 26 were lost at sea for various reasons. Significant galleon captures by the British occurred in 1587 when the Santa Anna was captured by Thomas Cavendish, in 1709 with the Encarnacion, in 1743 when the Nuestra Senora de la Covadonga was taken by George Anson, on his voyage around the world, and in 1762 with the Nuestra Senora de la Santisima Trinidad. Up until 1593, four galleons travelled at the same time, before that was reduced to two.
Possible discovery of Hawaii
For 250 years, hundreds of Manila galleons traveled from present-day Mexico to the Philippines, with their route taking them south of the Hawaiian Islands. And yet, no historical records of any contact between the two cultures exist. British historian Henry Kamen maintains that the Spanish did not have the ability to properly explore the Pacific Ocean, and were not capable of finding the islands which lay at a latitude 20° north of the galleon route and their currents. However, Spanish activity in the Pacific was paramount until the late 18th century. Andrés de Urdaneta was the first to sail the Pacific from west to east, establishing the maritime route from Asia to America in 1565, that lasted until 1815. Spanish expeditions discovered Guam, the Marianas, the Carolines and the Philippines in the North Pacific, as well as Tuvalu, the Marquesas, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea in the South Pacific. Spanish navigators also discovered the Pitcairn and Vanuatu archipelagos during their search for Terra Australis in the 17th century.
This navigational activity poses questions as to whether Spanish explorers did arrive in the Hawaiian Islands two centuries before Captain James Cook's first visit in 1778. Ruy López de Villalobos commanded a fleet of six ships that left Acapulco in 1542 with a Spanish sailor named Ivan Gaetan or Juan Gaetano aboard as pilot. Depending on the interpretation, Gaetano's reports seem to describe either the discovery of Hawaii or the Marshall Islands in 1555. If it was Hawaii, Gaetano would have been one of the first Europeans to find the islands.
After 1565, Urdaneta's new route allowed Manila galleons to sail regularly between Mexico and the Philippines for two and a half centuries, ending in 1815. The westward route from Mexico passed south of Hawaii, making a short stopover in Guam before heading for Manila. The exact route was kept secret to protect the Spanish trade monopoly against competing powers, and to avoid Dutch and English pirates. Due to this policy of discretion, if the Spanish did find Hawaii during their voyages, they would not have published their findings and the discovery would have remained unknown. From Gaetano's account, the Hawaiian islands were not known to have any valuable resources, so the Spanish would not have made an effort to settle them. This happened in the case of the Mariana and Caroline Islands, which were not effectively settled until the second half of the 17th century. Spanish archives contain a chart that depicts islands in the latitude of Hawaii but with the longitude ten degrees east of the Islands. In this manuscript, the Island of Maui is named "La Desgraciada" (the unhappy, or unfortunate), and what appears to be the Island of Hawaii is named "La Mesa" (the table). Islands resembling Kahoolawe, Lanai, and Molokai are named "Los Monjes" (the monks).
The theory that Hawaii was discovered by the Spanish is reinforced by the findings of William Ellis, a writer and missionary who lived in early 19th century Hawaii, and recorded several folk stories about foreigners who had visited Hawaii prior to first contact with Cook. According to Hawaiian writer Herb Kawainui Kane, one of these stories:
concerned seven foreigners who landed eight generations earlier at Kealakekua Bay in a painted boat with an awning or canopy over the stern. They were dressed in clothing of white and yellow, and one wore a sword at his side and a feather in his hat. On landing, they kneeled down in prayer. The Hawaiians, most helpful to those who were most helpless, received them kindly. The strangers ultimately married into the families of chiefs, but their names could not be included in genealogies".
Some scholars, particularly American, have dismissed these claims as lacking credibility. Debate continues as to whether the Hawaiian Islands were actually visited by the Spanish in the 16th century with researchers like Richard W. Rogers looking for evidence of Spanish shipwrecks.