It is clear that the forces which shaped what ultimately we understand today as kostumbren CHamoru, as lina’la’ CHamoru as the CHamoru way of life were introduced by ships carrying the label of Manila galleon. The CHamoru way of life as a people tied to ranching rather than fishing, as a people planting vegetables and fruits and not just root crops like taro, the infusion of Catholicism into the very soul of CHamoru identity are all a legacy of the Manila Galleon.

Robert Underwood, US Congressman, 1998

First Global Trade Route in the Pacific

From 1565 to 1815, Spanish galleons sailed the Pacific Ocean between Acapulco in New Spain (now Mexico) and Manila in the Philippine islands. In between these two far flung colonies lay the Mariana Islands, known then as Las Islas de Los Ladrones, which became a stepping stone between the Americas and Asia. The Manila Galleon Trade Route, as this maritime route was called, represented one of the earliest examples of global trade in the Pacific. Gold and silver were transported west to Manila in exchange for fine porcelains, spices and other luxury goods from the Far East. The galleons leaving Manila, heavily laden with their precious cargo, would make their way back to Acapulco in a four-month long journey where the goods were off-loaded and transported across land to ships on the other Mexican coast at Veracruz, and eventually, sent to European markets and customers eager for these exotic wares.

The return trip of the Spanish galleons from Acapulco to the Philippines sporadically included stopovers in Guam and the Marianas. Traveling through the relatively less dangerous, 30-mile wide Rota Channel, the ships would pass several miles off Guam’s northwest coast. The CHamorus were eager to trade during these visits, anticipating the galleons’ arrival which usually occurred in June, and preparing goods in advance for trade with the Europeans. Spanish accounts describe these encounters involving hundreds of canoes which the CHamorus launched as soon as the galleons came into view.

The seafaring CHamorus were no strangers to trade—they traded with each other and established trading networks with other Micronesian islanders that extended hundreds of miles off of the shores of the Marianas. But the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan and his crew in 1521 on their way to find a viable western route to Asia opened the Marianas and the Philippines to a new, larger, more expansive system of trade than had ever been seen before.

For the CHamoru people, the early encounters with Europeans were violent, but provided opportunities for material benefit. Frank Quimby has called this the matao iron trade, where members of the matao or highest-ranking members in CHamoru society, carried on the first sustained cultural interaction and commercial exchange between Pacific Islanders and Europeans. Traders from Guam and Rota bartered food, water and other provisions in exchange for iron goods such as nails, knives, hatchets, scissors and cask hoop iron from Spanish and Dutch exploration and trade vessels, as well as from British privateers. The CHamorus would paddle their canoes out to the ships, choosing to conduct their business away from their islands. Few would dare board the ships, wary from previous encounters with Magellan and the Garcia Jofre de Loyasa expedition in 1526, where 11 CHamorus were taken away as slaves to work the galleon’s water pumps.

In 1565 the Manila Galleon Trade route officially was established when Miguel López de Legazpi successfully found a route back, across the Pacific, to New Spain. Subsequently, the Ladrones and the Philippines were claimed by the Spanish Crown. Guam was recognized as a valuable stop for provisioning ships, and the Spanish began to sporadically visit the island for the next 100 years.

Cultural Encounters

More extensive cultural encounters became possible when foreigners began to have extended stays in the Marianas–willingly or not–among the CHamoru people. In 1568, the San Pablo was the first trade galleon to be wrecked on the southern coast of Guam. Other wrecks in the Marianas include the Santa Margarita (Rota, 1601) and the Concepción (Saipan, 1638). Castaways were sometimes killed and other times, protected until they could be transported back to the Philippines on a passing galleon. Twice, in 1596 and again in 1602, Catholic missionaries jumped ship, lived among the CHamoru people for a period of time and wrote about their stay. Their accounts provided the first comprehensive descriptions of the CHamoru people, their lifestyle and customs for European audiences back home.

In 1662, Jesuit missionary Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, passed Guam on his way to the Philippines, and became so enamored with the idea of bringing Christianity to the CHamoru people that he worked for the next six years to secure funding and royal support to establish the first Catholic mission in the Marianas. In 1668 San Vitores returned to Guam and that same year, because of the mission, a royal decree ordered that Guam should be an official stop along the galleon trade route from Acapulco to the Philippines. The establishment of fairly regular stops to Guam over the next 150 years would have a profound effect on the CHamoru people.

The galleons not only transported precious metals and luxury goods, but also people who brought with them ideas and traditions of their cultures back home. Soldiers, missionaries, traders and skilled laborers traveled to the Mariana Islands and back and forth between Mexico and the Philippines by way of the galleon trade route.

The galleons that plied the waters of the Pacific also introduced new products, plants and animals to the CHamoru people, such as carabao, pigs, corn, tobacco, cloth and alcohol, to name a few. After the forceful displacement of the CHamorus from their villages on the northern islands to Guam (known as the reducción), the Spanish introduced a new political and social system in order to control the indigenous people. Spanish gobernadors (governors) administered the islands, and gobenadorcillos (“little governors”) and Spanish, Filipino and Mexican soldiers kept the peace.

A new religion replaced traditional practices of ancestor worship and the Catholic Church became the center of village life. No longer allowed to construct or sail their magnificent and agile outrigger canoes, the CHamorus continued to fish, but also to cultivate new food items like corn, achote and hot peppers on their lanchos or ranches located on their ancestral lands outside the main villages. Architectural styles began to change as well, as stone forts, bridges and houses made from a technique known as mampostería were built around the island, and roads were constructed connecting the different villages to the administrative center in Hagåtña.

The intermarriage of CHamoru women with men from Spain, the Philippines and Mexico also impacted the islanders’ customs, traditions, language and social organization. The power of matrilineal clans was diminished and replaced with patrilineal lines of inheritance while lands were taken by the Spanish government for public use.

Traditional healers and spiritual specialists known as makahna lost their influence in the face of Christian conversions, but reemerged as the herbal healers suruhanu and suruhana. Ancestral worship and the keeping of skulls was discouraged and replaced with Catholic icons, imagery and beliefs. This litany of changes imposed on the CHamoru people by their Spanish colonizers, however, did not force them to completely abandon their ways. CHamorus continued to fish and gather resources from the sea. They held on to the cultural values of respect, cooperation and reciprocity and maintain important social networks and familial relationships. Women continued to hold significant power in CHamoru society. And they continued to speak their native CHamoru language.

Nevertheless the CHamorus adapted to the changes brought on by years of colonization and over the years, began to reflect a mix of indigenous and foreign cultural influences that collectively became known as kostumbren CHamoru, or CHamoru custom or way of life.

Uprisings in Acapulco caused routes to change

By 1813, uprisings in Acapulco caused Spain to lose control of Mexico, which affected the movement of the Manila galleons. By then, alternate routes had been found and private ships were used to transport mail and cargo. The Marianas, however, were not on these new trade routes and became more isolated from the rest of the world. The last galleons to pass through the Mariana Islands were the Ray Fernando in May 1815 and later, in an interesting twist, the Magallanes–a galleon named after the first European to arrive on Guam.

From 1810 to 1817, there was no financial subsidy sent to the Marianas to support the colony or the Catholic mission. Without financial support, the Augustinian Recollects had left in 1814, and the CHamorus were left with two priests, and faced drastic food shortages. By the 1820s, American whaling ships looking for water and provisions began to regularly stop in Sumay, Guam, spend money in Hagåtña and slowly helped rebuild the economy. They also introduced new ideas, new customs, new influences (and new challenges) to a resilient CHamoru people.

The Voices of Our Elders project

By the time the Manila Galleon Trade ended with the last galleon arriving in 1815, so much about Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands had changed that they were almost unrecognizable from the accounts first presented by the two ship-jumping missionaries in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  In 1819 when the Freycinet expedition arrived on Guam, there were a few CHamoru informants who were able to describe for Louis Freycinet what life on Guam was like prior to the arrival of the Spanish—descriptions which the French explorer included in his book about his visit to the Marianas. But Freycinet also wrote critically about the economic depression and poverty in contemporary CHamoru society while describing the people and noting the mixing of customs and social attitudes of the CHamoru people with influences from Spain and the Philippines.

Years later in the 1930s, American anthropologist Laura Thompson wrote about the CHamoru people in a similar way, reflecting again on all the outside cultural influences that had impacted the CHamorus throughout their history as a colony of Spain but also as a recently acquired territory of the United States. Although the US Navy had introduced English, American culture, holidays and lifestyles, Thompson tried to make connections between the ancient character of the CHamoru with the largely hispanicized people she was observing during her fieldwork–to see what remained, what “survived” the onslaught of Spanish colonialism, such as belief in taotaomo’na or the role of traditional healers.

Even today, it is hard not to mention in any description of CHamoru culture the deep influences Spanish colonization has had on the CHamoru people. It has become part of the history and heritage of the CHamoru people and what they will pass on to their children. But Spanish colonization of the Pacific might not have been possible without the Manila Galleon Trade Route. Today’s society seems far removed from the 200 years since the last galleon left Guam, but it is still worth studying the galleon trade route if we want to truly understand CHamoru culture and the voices of our elders.

In 2014, Guampedia took part in correspondence between CHamoru historian Toni “Malia” Ramirez from the Historic Resources Division of the Department of Parks and Recreation and Clark Limtiaco, a CHamoru foreign language professor in Mexico City, who relayed information about the yearly festival of La Nao de China in Acapulco. The festival is a celebration of the cross-cultural influences and exchanges that occurred between Mexico, the Philippines and China through the Manila Galleon Trade Route. With the 200th anniversary of the end of the Manila Galleon Trade in 2015, Ramirez expressed a desire to have Guam participate in the festival. Guampedia wanted to assist Ramirez with some research that could help him eventually develop some kind of exhibit about the Manila Galleon Trade Route/La Nao de China on Guam for this festival. Limtiaco believed that Guam-Mariana Islands’ participation in the festival could renew interest in Mexico about the Marianas or open new areas of research into Marianas history. Guampedia would also be able to generate new entries about the Manila galleons and the Spanish era in Guam’s history.

With a grant from the Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency, the research on the Manila galleons became part of a larger Guampedia project known as Voices of Our Elders, which was aimed at exploring and sharing stories and perspectives of Guam’s elders through folktales, religious beliefs, and events in Guam history. Through this grant, a few new entries on the specifics of the trade route, crew members, cargo, and the Spanish forced labor system (forzado) were added to Guampedia’s other entries of Spanish era influences including food, governance, education, religious practices, and architecture.

The La Nao de China aspect of the Voices of Our Elders project has been enriched by working with the project’s scholar Toni Ramirez. In addition to the entries, Guampedia produced a short video interview of Ramirez, who, as an oral historian, has spoken with and learned the stories of many CHamoru elders. In this video available online, Ramirez shares some of his insights about the Mariana Islands as an important stepping stone along the Manila Galleon Trade Route, as well as the cultural influences in food, clothing, and other traditions that were adopted from the Philippines and Mexico as CHamorus interacted with travelers on the Manila galleons. Ramirez also touches on how to talk about the persistence of CHamoru language and culture despite, or in spite of, years of colonial rule under four different colonial administrations. Ramirez’s recollections and personal reflections can help audiences understand a little better not only the impact of the galleon trade in the Marianas, but also how identity, culture and history affect and are affected by each other.

Rethinking CHamoru contributions and colonial experience

A quick search on Guampedia and numerous other sources documenting the history of the Manila Galleon Trade Route in the Mariana Islands readily pulls up information about the Spanish era and how outside influences carried to the Marianas by way of the trade route impacted CHamoru culture. However, there is little mention of what specific contributions the CHamorus made to the galleon trade. It is fairly easy to see the different ways the people of the Marianas changed under Spanish colonization, but how did the CHamoru people themselves participate in the Manila Galleon Trade? Did CHamoru culture have any visible impact on Spanish, Filipino or Mexican cultures in return?

The first question is easier to address than the second. Historical accounts show CHamorus did actively trade with the Spanish, as mentioned above, actually preparing goods to be used in transactions with the the galleons. There were also times the CHamorus would try to maximize profit, so to speak, by tricking the Europeans–for example, by loading down sacks of rice with rocks. Later, as galleons made regular stops to Guam, CHamorus continued to provide food and water, but also traded with woven items and and other crafts that made their way to the Philippines and possibly beyond.

Historian Lawrence Cunningham has also suggested that CHamorus contributed, in addition to foodstuffs, a particular kind of unusually large caper (Capparis spinosa var. mariana) that grows on the limestone cliffs and are not easy to harvest. Spanish officers, including gobernador Damian Esplaña, may have forced CHamorus to climb the cliffs to gather the capers to be sold to the passing galleons for a profit. The capers could also be pickled and may have been sold in market places in the Far East. According to Ramirez, the CHamorus also provided dried beef from cattle in Tinian, a skill they probably learned from the Mexicans, but like other “borrowings” from other cultures, the CHamorus adapted them and made them uniquely their own.

CHamorus could also have provided labor by being taken aboard the galleons, though probably not many, which may help explain why there does not seem to be as much an impact of CHamoru culture on Filipino, Mexican or Spanish culture in their homelands. It may not be that CHamorus had nothing to offer, but rather, influence may have been on a much smaller scale or at an individual level. Clearly, this is an area that has not been fully studied or documented.

The inability to point to any broad influence or impact that CHamorus may have had on the Manila Galleon Trade Route in terms of reciprocal cultural exchange may play into the mindset that the CHamorus were merely recipients of culture, or victims of the cruel rule of Spanish colonialism, which itself is both problematic and contradictory. While we can celebrate the changes that have since become integral to our understanding of CHamoru culture, we cannot forget the other stories of violence, theft and decimation of CHamoru people that took place during the Spanish era as a direct result of the trade route’s 250-year history of opening the islands to foreign visitors or invaders. We might be tempted to see the CHamorus, again, as merely recipients, absorbers, or victims of this cultural encounter.

As a way to reconcile this notion of helplessness, victimization and lack of agency during the Spanish era, it may be useful to consider how the CHamoru people did participate actively in these cultural exchanges–after all, exchanges or any kind of transaction requires some aspect of giving and taking. We know the CHamorus were introduced to a whole slew of cultural influences and customs—some of which were adopted as well as adapted by the CHamoru people.

This adaptation and indigenization, for example, is evident in food. If we look at dishes like tamales, or titiyas (tortillas), or atuli (corn soup), it is clear that these are adaptations of dishes from Mexico, but if you were to taste these dishes as they are made in the Marianas you would find they are quite different from their Mexican counterpart. CHamorus further modified these dishes to make them their own–for example, tamales on Guam are not just from ground corn, but there are also tamales gisu, tamales suni and tamales mandioca—all made with local ingredients and flavored for CHamoru palettes. The CHamorus were creating fusion food even before it became popular!

Hope for the future

Perhaps one of the more important take-aways from examining the influences of the Manila galleon trade on the CHamoru people is for our young people to see that CHamoru culture is alive—it has not died, it has not been abandoned. This is probably most evident in the CHamoru language, which continues to be spoken today. The CHamoru language may have lots of loan words—as many modern languages do—but these same Spanish loan words are still subject to the pronunciation and the same grammatical rules applied to indigenous words in spoken CHamoru.

The Spanish left Guam over a century ago, but CHamorus are still around. We can look to our ancestors, witness and be inspired by their resilience in the face of colonialism and globalizing forces. If we look at the overall picture of the Spanish era of Guam, we see the CHamorus sang Spanish songs, danced Filipino dances, prayed in Latin, cooked corn tamales and tortillas, but in all these, they still maintained their identities as CHamorus.

CHamoru scholar Dr. Robert Underwood, in an address to his colleagues in the US Congress in 1998 about US-Philippine relations, asserted that we should look at the Manila galleon as more then just a vessel or extension of Spanish colonial power and might over the peoples of the Americas, the Marianas or the Philippines. He said,

The galleon trade was not just a one-way stream of goods and beliefs; it also meant a steady stream of products and ideas from Asia to Spain and its colonies…[and provides] a metaphor of the meeting of the East and the West. This cannot be better symbolized than by the Spanish-speaking Filipinos and Chamorros or the silk-clad Spaniards in Mexico and Spain. The Spanish colonies in the Philippines, Mexico and the Marianas reflected mixed populations, mixed cultures and mixed social norms which evolved on their own to form unique peoples with various mannerisms and speech harking back to their Asian-Pacific-European roots.

We embrace this part of our history because it is the legacy that has been given to us by our elders. But we are always reminded and mindful of the struggles and challenges they faced such that they have been able to pass their stories down to us. As Toni Ramirez learned from his mother, we just need to ask: After falling under the colonial rule of different nations—Spain, Japan, Germany and the United States—who has remained in the Marianas? Each came and raised their flag, only to have it be lowered by the next nation. But it is the CHamoru people who have remained. They have adapted and changed, but they have kept what has always made them uniquely CHamoru.

La Nao de China entries

Forzado System and the Mariana Islands
La Nao de China: The Spanish Treasure Fleet System
Manila Galleon Crew Members
Navigation and Cargo of the Manila Galleons
Stops along the Manila Galleon Trade Route

Oral histories video

For further reading

de Viana, Augusto V. In the Far Islands: The Role of Natives from the Philippines in the Conquest, Colonization, and Repopulation of the Mariana Islands, 1668-1903. Manila: University of Santo Tomas, 2004.

Farrell, Don. History of the Mariana Islands to Partition. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Public School System, 2011.

Quimby, Frank. “The Matao Iron Trade Part I: Contact and Commerce.” In Guampedia. Last modified 19 March 2021.

Rogers, Robert. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.

Underwood, Robert. “Commerce and Culture of the Manila Galleon: Linking the Philippines, Guam, the Americas, and Spain.” Presentation at the Asian Pacific American Federal Foreign Affairs Council Conference on US-Philippine Relations, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 13 May 1998.