1751 Anson Map
Trade Routes from Acapulco to Manila by George Anson, 1751. File provided to the Wikimedia Commons by Geographicus Rare Antique Maps.

When Miguel López de Legazpi’s expedition departed Mexico in 1564 with four ships across the Pacific to claim Guam and the Philippines for King Philip II of Spain, only one ship would return homeward from Manila, the San Pablo. Under the command of Legazpi’s grandson, Felipe de Salcedo, and navigated by Andrés de Urdaneta, the San Pablo was the first Spanish galleon to successfully return from Manila across the Pacific carrying mainly spices in 1565, thus beginning the 250-year long galleon trade.

The Manila Galleon Trade Route was an economically powerful system of linking Spain with the commodities of Asia via Mexico. It consisted of two separate routes – westward from Acapulco to Manila and eastward on the return, following two separate belts of trade winds across the Pacific.

The westward route to the Philippines from Acapulco began in February or March between 10-15 degrees latitude, where the belt of the northeasterly trade winds would rapidly take the galleons across the Pacific with infrequent storms. The westward route could take ships as far north as 30 degrees, but at above 13 degrees, they would pass through Guam and the Mariana Islands. A royal order in 1668 required that the Acapulco galleons made Guam a port of call with the establishment of the Roman Catholic mission established by Jesuit priest Father Diego Luis de San Vitores.

The galleons carried supplies and the situado (subsidy) from Mexico for the governor, Jesuit mission, and colonial management, while trading metal objects, cloth and other items for water, fruit and other fresh provisions with the CHamoru people. These transactions mostly took place just outside the reef because Guam’s waters were too shallow. Having sailed for approximately 60 days from Mexico, the galleons had another month of travel before reaching the Philippines.

While the westward passage across the Pacific from Acapulco was generally considered easy, the difficulties traveling eastward on the return began with the simple leaving of Manila. The eastern route took the ship from Manila to the waters off Taiwan and Japan, then across to California and down the coast to Acapulco. Galleons had to pass through the Strait of San Bernardino, usually in June since it was considered the best time of year, and the passage out of the Philippine archipelago could take two to four weeks to clear before reaching the open sea.

Of the 30 galleons that were lost in the entire history of the Manila Galleon Trade, many were lost during the treacherous navigation out of the Philippines around rocks and islands, and through channels with dangerous currents and storms.

Once clear of the strait, the galleon would follow closely the route established by Urdaneta in the first San Pedro voyage (1565) with little variation. Galleons traveled between 30-45 degrees latitude in the belt of the westerly winds, passing Japan, and then were without sight of land for several months until the coast of California. The first San Pablo galleon made landfall at San Miguel, one of the Santa Barbara islands near Los Angeles.

Later galleons would demarcate their position along the upper California coast at Cape Mendocino, Point Reyes, the Farallon Islands, Point Pinos and through the Santa Barbara Channel along the lower California coast. Navigators were anxious to keep their distance from land and were constantly mindful of treacherous rocks, islands and fog.

After months of travel, the galleons might stop at the mission of San José del Cabo on the Baja California peninsula, or at Navidad on the Guadalajara coast for water and provisions. Nearly out of supplies, commander Gerónimo Monteiro in 1734 stopped at the Bay of Bernabé and the San José del Cabo mission and took on sheep, hogs, cattle and game birds, as well as fruits and vegetables. It was not until the latter part of the 18th century when the coast of California was becoming more colonized that the galleons would stop at San Francisco, Monterey, and Santa Barbara.

Other times, a galleon would not touch land at all since leaving the Philippines until arrival at the port of Acapulco. The dangerous and often fatal eastward passage from the Philippines would take no less than five to six months, although some galleons were surprisingly able to make the eastward crossing in less time.

Due to a royal law of 1593, the galleons were technically restricted to 300 tons in weight, yet one galleon weighed as much as 2,000 tons before setting off from the Philippines. Actually, 1,500 tons was most usually the average galleon weight. Most galleons were built in the Philippines; coming from Cebu, the ships might carry gold, silk, ivory, sandalwood, copper, porcelain, musk, camphor, spices and other products from China and Japan.

Much of the cargo on the galleons were illegal and smuggled by the ship’s commander and junior officers, which gave them immense profits above their normal pay. On the return from Mexico, the galleons would be filled with silver in the form of coins and bullion as well as gems, lace, drugs and other items from Mexico and Spain.

Commanding officers and their troops of soldiers were sent westward from Mexico to fill garrisons in the Philippines, Guam and the Moluccas (island archipelago in Indonesia) and were the most numerous passengers alongside priests and new administrators to replace the old administrators making their voyage eastward back to Mexico and Spain. While the ships’ commanding officers were usually Spanish, the majority of the galleon crews was Malaysian and Filipino who were underpaid in comparison to their Spanish counterparts. Slaves, including CHamorus from the Marianas, were also carried along the trade route from either direction.

The last galleon from Manila arrived in Acapulco in 1811, and the galleon Magellan was the last to sail from Acapulco for Manila in 1815. The Mexican War of Independence ended Spanish control of Mexico and with it, the Manila Galleon trade and the annual port of call of galleon ships in the Marianas on their way to the Philippines.

By Leiana SA Naholowa’a

For further reading

Anson, George. Voyage Round the World in the Years 1740-44. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Doty, Richard G. “The Manila Galleons.” Guam Recorder 2, no. 2-3 (April-September 1972): 53-57.

Schurz, William Lytle. The Manila Galleon. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1959.

Searles, P.J., USN Commander. “Spanish Galleons.” Guam Recorder, 1940.