Navigation and Cargo of the Manila Galleons
The Manila Galleon Trade Route was the major route traveled by Spanish galleons from 1565 to 1815 across the Pacific connecting Acapulco in New Spain (Mexico) to the east and Manila, Philippines in the west. The galleons carried spices, porcelains and other luxury goods from Asia and gold and silver from the Americas in one of the largest complexes of global exchange of people and goods in human history. The Mariana Islands was one stop along the route. CHamorus participated in trade with the galleons and provided water and food to the passing ships. What follows is a description of the trade route and the cargo transported by the Spanish galleons as they plied across the often dangerous waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The westward voyage
The navigation from Acapulco to Manila was relatively easy. A few years after the first voyages a standard route was already well established. The ships would depart Acapulco, located at 17 degrees latitude, head toward the 18th latitude where they would catch the trade winds and stay between the 10th and 15th latitudes all the way to the Mariana Islands. This voyage took about two months. After a brief sojourn in the Mariana Islands it was another two to three-week trip to Manila. In 1732, Italian adventurer Dr. John Francis Gemelli Careri wrote, “They always run in a strait line, in a smooth sea as if they were in a canal, without any roughness or water.”
Of course, this was the case if the ships left Acapulco on time. In order to avoid the typhoon season which runs roughly from May to November in the northern Pacific, the King of Spain in 1620 ordered that the last day for leaving Acapulco was the 25th of March. While the navigation was easy, the voyage was arduous for the passengers and crew who sometimes succumbed to disease and illness.
Sojourn in the Mariana Islands
In 1668 a royal decree required the galleons to stop in Guam in the Mariana Islands on their westward voyage from Acapulco to Manila. This allowed ships to replenish supplies and was the only means for communication between Spain and the Marianas colony. The ship also brought the annual situado and Socorro (subsidy and relief) of about 34,000 pesos to support the mission and to pay the soldiers, administrators and whatever else was needed for the island. As soon as the ship was provisioned and the Governor and Commander of the ship exchanged pleasantries, the galleon would be on its way to Manila.
In 1749, Fray Juan Velarde, the Procurator General of the Philippines wrote to the Archbishop of Manila about the stopover in the Mariana Islands:
“It will be well to point out that a stopover has never been necessary at said islands, and that said galleons stop there only because they are obliged to do so, to leave the Royal subsidy there; indeed, it is a well-known fact that there is no safe port there, that upon passing by there they are forced at times, either to continue with the subsidy because it cannot be unloaded, or to cut the cable suddenly, even leaving behind the launch and the boat, with many of their men. And the risk and danger encountered by our ships at said island is so notorious that it became necessary to force the Generals, if they did not leave there the subsidy and other goods for the Mission, to pay a fine of 2000 ducats and to pay for damages.”
Even though it was mandated, there were numerous instances of ships passing the Mariana Islands without stopping. For example, in a 16-year period between 1710 and 1716, only eight ships put in at Guam.
The eastward voyage
The return voyage east to Acapulco was much more difficult. Careri wrote of this trip,
“The voyge [sic] from the Philippine islands to America may be call’d [sic] the longest, and most dreadful of any in the world; as well because of the vast ocean to be cross’d, [sic] being almost the one half of the terraqueous [sic] globe, with the wind always a-head; as for the terrible tempests that happen there, one upon the back of another, and for the desperate diseases that seize people, in seven or eight months lying at sea, sometimes near the line, sometimes cold, sometimes temperate, and sometimes hot, which is enough to destroy a man of steel, much more flesh and blood, which at sea had but indifferent food.”
In February 1565, after Miguel de López de Legazpi’s successful expedition crossing the Pacific from Acapulco, Andre de Urdaneta, an Augustinian friar and pilot who sailed with Legazpi was assigned to find a return route to Acapulco from Manila. He sailed north of the route that Ruy López de Villalobos had attempted in 1543 and caught the Kuroshio stream.
Although Asian seamen knew about the Kuroshio stream from ancient times, it is unsure if Urdaneta was knowledgeable about the current that ran from the waters off the coast of the Philippines past Taiwan and the Japanese Islands. Be that as it may, Urdaneta, traveling aboard the San Pedro, arrived in Mexico on 5 October 1565.
The eastern route took the ship from Manila to the waters off Taiwan and Japan, across to California and down the coast to Acapulco. It would take an average of six months. According to Jose Eugenio Borao Mateo of National Taiwan University, the trip could be divided into three parts. The first part from Manila to Japan was determined by the summer monsoon with its constant wind and huge waves. However, departure from Manila was difficult. The traditional Embocadero departure would take two months to reach the 20th parallel. Delays in departure often caused the ships to return to Manila due to bad weather. If they were successful, then it was usually a long and painful voyage. In 1620 the King of Spain decreed that the ships should leave Manila by the last day of June. This was very difficult because this was the same month that the galleons arrived from Acapulco.
The second part of the trip was more relaxed, with the ships following the 40th parallel. While there were no typhoons, strong winds toward the east made this part of the trip challenging. The last part of the trip along the California coast also was very difficult. It was known as the zona de torbelinos (whirlwind zone) and was a hunting ground for privateers and pirates who preyed on the galleons for their precious cargo.
Because the galleons had to carry everything necessary to support its passengers and crew, as well as arms and ammunition in case of attack–and the fact that owners and merchants wanted to make as much money as they could–the galleons often carried much more than they were allowed to by royal decree. In 1636, inspectors began to closely monitor galleons arriving in Acapulco and compare their cargo to their registers. This prompted angry merchants in Manila to refuse to supply manifests for the voyage. Such was the case of the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción that wrecked off the island of Saipan in 1638. She sailed without a register of her contents.
In 1987 a scientific expedition recovered a portion of the cargo of the Concepción. The underwater excavation yielded more than 1,300 pieces of 22.5-karat gold jewelry and 156 intact storage jars from kilns in China, Vietnam and Thailand.
Below is a list of other articles that were carried by the galleons:
Manila – Acapulco
A list of rations on the Manila galleon Santissima Trinidad included: water, wine biscuit, dried beef, honey fritters, lard, dried peas, vinegar, salt, chicken, onion and garlic. In addition to arms and weaponry and nautical equipment, cargo on the eastbound voyage typically included:
- Gold from the “East Indies”
- Chinese silks and gauzes, Cantonese crepes, velvets, taffetas, damask and brocades
- Stockings, cloaks, robes, skirts, bodices and kimonos
- Bed coverings and tapestries
- Chinese table linens and handkerchiefs
- Church vestments made in China
- Cotton and cotton goods from India
- Persian and Chinese rugs
- Jewelry of gold set with diamonds, rubies and pearls
- Jewel studded sword hilts
- Alligator teeth, some mounted with gold
- Women’s combs
- Fans, ivory castanets, copper cuspidors (spittoon)
- Articles of ivory, jade and jasper
- Earthenware and porcelain
- Manila cigars
- Chocolate from Mexico
- Tea from China
- Spices (clove, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg)
- Musk, borax red lead, camphor
Acapulco – Manila
In his book, Spain’s Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleet in the Sixteenth Century, Pablo E. Perez-Mallaina lists the provisions and estimated cargo on a galleon with a 300-ton capacity:
Provisions for 50 persons for three months included:
- 20 sacks of biscuits (100 kilos each)
- 15 pipas of wine (443.5 liters each)
- 6 botijas of oil (19 liters each)
- 4 botijas of vinegar ( 24 liters each)
- 30 pipas of water (443.5 liters each)
- 3 botas of salted meat (532.2 cubic decimeters each)
- 3 botas of salted fish (532.2 cubic decimeters each)
- 3 botas of garbonzos and rice (532.2 cubic decimeters each)
- 100 kilograms of salt
- 3 dozen cheeses
- 450 sacks of firewood (100 kilograms each)
- 52 pipas of wine (443.5 liters each)
- 40 botas of wine (532.2 liters each)
- 200 botijas of oil (19 liters each)
- 28 barrels of Mercury (7 liters each)
- 25 barrels of nails (507 kilograms each)
- 26 crates of iron bars (500 kilograms each)
- 150 cubic bales of cloth (60 centimeters on a side)
- 100 cubic bales of cloth (1 meter on a side)
- 80 crates of fine cloth (1.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 meters each)
- 147 botijas of vinegar (20 liters each)
- 45 barrels of olives (65 cubic decimeters each)
- 45 barrels of almonds (65 cubic decimeters each)
- 6 crates of wax (1.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 meters each)
- 6 crates of soap (1.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 meters each)
- 6 crates of glassware (1.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 meters each)
- 6 crates of books (1.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 meters each)
- 4 crates of weaponry (1.66 x 0.63 x 0.63 meters each)
In addition to the provisions for the voyage and silver from the Americas, cargo for the westbound voyage typically included, cacao, cochineal, oil, wines, Flemish laces, Spanish cloth and other Spanish goods for the colonies. Early voyages carried luxury goods from Europe to trade, but soon some of these luxury goods could be produced by skilled workers in Manila, Japan and China. Because there was so little bulk to the cargo going west, there was more human cargo on this trip. Royal officials with their entourage and family members, relatives of the ships officers, foreign seamen, merchants, friars and missionaries, soldiers and others seeking their fortune in the colony would travel by way of the galleons. Depending upon the situation, sometimes the numbers of soldiers were increased greatly to include friends and family of elite Spanish families, functionaries or merchants.
The galleons also served as vehicles of forced transportation for deportees, prisoners, undesirables and conscripts from Spain and her colonies.
For further reading
Blair, Emma H., James A. Robertson, and Edward G. Bourne, eds. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803. Vols. 1-55. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903-1909.
Careri, John F.G. A Voyage Round the World. London: J. Walthoe, 1732.
Driver, Marjorie G. The Spanish Governor of the Mariana Islands and the Saga of the Palacio. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 2005.
Lévesque, Rodrique. History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Vol. 20, Bibliography of Micronesia, Ships through Micronesia, Cumulative Index. Quebec: Lévesque Publications, 2002.
Mateo, José E.B. “The arrival of the Spanish galleons in Manila from the Pacific Ocean and their departure along the Kuroshio stream (16th and 17th centuries).” Journal of Geographical Research, no. 47 (2007): 17-38.
Pérez-Mallaìna, Pablo E. Spain’s Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleet in the Sixteenth Century. Translated by Carla Rahn Phillips. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Peterson, Andrew. “What Really Made the World go Around?: Indio Contributions to the Acapulco-Manila Galleon Trade.” Explorations a Graduate Student Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 11, no. 1 (2011): 3-18.
Schurz, William Lytle. The Manila Galleon. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1959.
Searles, P.J., USN Commander. “Spanish Galleons.” Guam Recorder, 1940.