The Matao Iron Trade Part I: Contact and Commerce
Trade between Chamorros and Europeans
Members of the matao, the highest-ranking strata of Mariana Islands society in the 16th and 17th centuries, carried on the first sustained cultural interaction and commercial exchange between Pacific Islanders and Europeans. From Ferdinand Magellan’s 1521 visit through the establishment of the 1668 Spanish Jesuit mission, these island traders, primarily from Guam and Rota, regularly bartered food staples and craftwork for iron goods with Spanish exploration and trade vessels, Dutch expeditions and English privateers.
Major maritime crossroads
The Mariana Islands was the major maritime crossroads of the Pacific Ocean during this period. In 1565 the Spanish Galleon Trade Route between Manila, Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico, was established. More than 100 foreign ships stopped at the islands for food and water, to refit their storm damaged and weather-worn vessels and rest their weary and ailing crews after grueling months-long transits of the world’s largest ocean. Three Spanish trade galleons, crammed with the products of East Asia, were wrecked in the islands, stranding scores of castaways for extended stays. The first of these occurred in 1568 on the southwest coast of Guam; another in 1601 on the northwest coast of Rota; and the third in 1638, on the southwest coast of Saipan.
A number of crewmen and Spanish black slaves from these wrecks chose to remain in the Marianas, forming the Pacific’s first beachcomber community. In addition, a few priests and friars voluntarily sojourned in the islands for several months at a time in 1596 and 1602, attempting to win converts to Christianity.
Working relationship developed
Though violence accompanied many of the earliest contacts between Chamorros and Europeans, leading to the injury, abduction and death of many islanders, efforts by both the matao and the Spanish to avoid these clashes (while gaining the material benefits of exchange) helped to structure a working relationship in spite of their cultural differences.
Over several generations, the interactions created by these trade encounters allowed for the emergence of what Pacific historian Ian Campbell has called,“a culture of culture contact,” which occurs spontaneously when two distinct peoples with no prior norms of behavior or conduct find themselves having to interact with each other. The result is a kind of “medial culture” within which the two peoples conduct themselves to the benefit of both groups.
In the case of the Marianas, the interaction between the matao and the Spanish generated positive relationships for people previously unknown to each other. Furthermore, a corresponding group of values and attitudes, along with behavioral and social adaptations, enabled the islands’ ruling lineages and Spanish visitors to manage the iron exchange and other aspects of their relationship, including the return of castaways and clerics and the reception of the 1668 Jesuit Mission.
In key ways the matao encounter with Europeans can be viewed as a continuation of adaptive and dynamic traditions, rather than a rupture with the past. After all, the people of the Marianas had maintained trade relations with each other as well as with other people of Micronesia over the course of many generations.
Occupied by 2000 BC, probably from Island Southeast Asia, the Marianas were settled by Austronesian cultural groups, whose complex of maritime, horticultural and ceramic technologies was gradually modified in response to environmental and demographic challenges as well as contact with Island Southeast Asian and Oceanic societies.
The island’s extended matrilineal kin-groups controlled the land, offshore areas and other natural resources of largely autonomous villages; ruling lineages were occasionally allied in multi-village district confederations. Villages and districts competed for resources and status, using an array of social, economic and political strategies and tactics. Inter-village disputes often rose to the level of large-scale but short-lived conflict.
Matao controlled trade
Because they also were mariners and craftsmen (as well as kin-group leaders and warriors), the matao controlled intra-archipelago transport, trade and communication; reportedly traded with Caroline Islanders; and likely acquired iron and other goods from sporadic visits of Southeast Asian vessels.
The interaction with Magellan’s (March 6-9, 1521) expedition reflected the matao’s passion for trade. Several European eyewitness accounts recalled extensive peaceful exchange despite the violence initiated by Magellan’s men, noting that throughout the encounter scores of islanders came to the ships in their outrigger canoes. They brought fish, coconuts, plantains and yams as barter and gifts for the starving, scurvy-ridden crews.
Though a melee erupted when some islanders boarded the vessels and began taking items (from unknown voyagers who had entered offshore areas controlled by matao), islanders continued to bring food staples to the ships during the fighting. When Magellan saw that the number of canoes bringing food was increasing, he ordered his men to stop firing. An officer on the Trinidad, one of Magellan’s vessels, noted that:
“consequently, the hostile natives also stopped, so that eventually all of them turned once more to selling us food as they had begun in the first place – coconuts and fish in abundance in exchange for a few glass beads from Spain.”
After Magellan’s onshore attack to recover the ship’s skiff, during which he reportedly killed seven men and looted two villages, burning fifty houses and several canoes, islanders in forty to fifty canoes from nearby villages continued to barter with the visitors. Other eyewitnesses recalled that islanders “came many times to us” to trade during the three-day visit. When Magellan sailed away, an estimated 100 canoes followed the vessels several miles out to sea and the islanders held up fish, offering trade.
When the Trinidad returned to the Marianas the following year, stopping twice during the vessel’s unsuccessful attempt to find an eastward route across the North Pacific to the Americas, trading occurred in both brief encounters in the northernmost islands. The vessel also deposited the Pacific’s first European beachcomber, Gonzalo Alvarez de Vigo, who helped to launch the iron trade when his reports noted that the islanders were both familiar with iron and avidly desired to acquire as much as they could.
The 1526 ship that repatriated Vigo traded off Guam’s southwest coast for six days, as hundreds of villagers brought drinking water in gourds as well as fish, yams, coconuts, salt, rice, plantains and other fruit. “They did not wish anything other than iron, nails or things with metal tips in exchange for them,” reported Andres de Urdaneta, a Vittoria officer. Some of the islanders who boarded the vessel also grabbed machetes, knives and daggers from crewmen’s waistbands and fled to their canoes. The captain, whose decrepit ship was leaking badly, abducted eleven island men to work the pumps and sailed for Mindanao.
Strategies developed to reduce danger
Informed by these early encounters, matao traders’ interaction with the pivotal 1565 expedition of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi reflected strategies aimed at structuring interaction to reduce the inherent dangers of these intense cross-cultural encounters while gaining the material advantages.
For example, as many as 400 canoes carrying 1,200 islanders from southwest coastal villages came out on the first day to barter fish, coconuts, gourds of fresh water, yams, plantains and other fruit, but they refused to board the galleons and resisted subsequent Spanish onshore incursions. They were seeking to control the foreign visitors, to keep them as much as possible offshore and at arm’s length, while trading for iron in a more secure venue.
During the visit which lasted from 21 January to 3 February 1565, the Spanish attempted a peaceful approach by offering gifts, unusually strict officer and crew discipline, an experienced intermediary (Urdaneta) and copious amounts of iron goods to secure needed supplies. Urdaneta was chief navigator and senior Franciscan on the voyage that launched Spain’s Pacific galleon commerce by establishing a Philippine colony and charting a return route to New Spain. He also was designated “Protector of the Indians” and the expedition made a concerted but conflicted effort to avoid provoking violence.
Ropes and cords had to be used to lower and raise trade items because throughout the encounter, “not one of them [the islanders] would come on board or show us any trust,” an officer noted. Islanders asked specifically for iron through signs, gestures and the Spanish word hierro and traded everything they had brought when iron was offered. When nails were shown, the islanders bartered only for those.
“So great was their desire to obtain nails, in fact, that they gave every article they had for them,” one officer wrote, “clearly giving us to understand that they wanted them for the construction of canoes.”
Legazpi claims islands for Spain
Legazpi’s onshore actions, however, precipitated conflict. He claimed the islands for Spain, recognizing Guam’s value as a navigational checkpoint and provisioning stage on the three-month, trade-wind crossing from New Spain to the Philippines. He also sent armed parties ashore for water and firewood and conducted coastal surveys and inland searches for gold, silver and spices.
These incursions usually met spirited resistance. In one of the earliest, islanders tried to repulse a watering party supported by the expedition’s vessels, ringing the cove and attacking the ships’ crews and shore party with sling stones and lances. Survey parties met similar confrontations, one officer noting, “[a]t each village the frigate came to, islanders met them with the slings, hurling a shower of stones at us to prevent our landing.”
Despite this resistance, soldiers forced their way ashore at a few villages, where they skirmished with islanders who “attacked with such spirit” before arquebus (an early portable gun) fire “forced them to retreat in disorder.” More than 500 islanders reportedly were dispersed in these encounters and “a few of them lost their lives.” In a culminating episode, after a Spanish watering party had been ashore, a young crewman who missed the return boat was killed by islanders who mutilated his body. Legazpi retaliated with 150 soldiers who captured and killed several island men, hung their bodies from trees and burned nearby villages.
The Spanish noted the islanders traded during periods of conflict as well as peace, a practice also reported during Magellan’s visit. In one instance, while some islanders were fighting onshore with Legazpi’s men, others who were trading at the Spanish ships “after leaving aboard their canoes would go ashore to fight with our men, to be replaced in the canoes by those who had been fighting who then came alongside to trade. At all times, they kept their weapons in their hands.”
Elements of the strategies displayed during the Legazpi expedition became key practices between islanders and visitors in the coming years.
For further reading
Campbell, I.C. ‘The culture of culture contact: refractions from Polynesia’, Journal of World History, 14:1, 2003.
Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992.
Diaz, Vincent M. Repositioning the Missionary: rewriting the histories of colonialism, Native Catholicism, and Indigeneity in Guam (Honolulu 2010); and ‘Simply Chamorro: telling tales of demise and survival in Guam’, Contemporary Pacific, 6:1, 1994.
Driver, Marjorie G. ‘Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora and his account of the Mariana Islands’, Journal of Pacific History, 18 (1983). And Driver, Marjorie G. ‘Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora: hitherto unpublished accounts of his residence in the Mariana Islands’, Journal of Pacific History, 23, 1988.
Driver, Marjorie G. ‘The account of a discalced friar’s stay in the Islands of the Ladrones’, Guam Recorder, 7 (1977), 17–21. And Driver, Marjorie G. ‘Cross, sword and silver: the nascent Spanish colony in the Mariana Islands,’ Pacific Studies, 2:3, 1988.
Garcia, Francisco SJ. The Life and Martyrdom of Diego Luis de San Vitores, SJ, tr. Margaret M. Higgins, Felicia Plaza, MMB, and Juan M.H. Ledesma, SJ, ed. James A. McDonough, SJ, Guam 2004.
Hezel, Francis X. ‘From conversion to conquest: the early Spanish mission in the Marianas’, Journal of Pacific History, 17 (1982). And Hezel, Francis X. and Marjorie C. Driver, ‘From conquest to colonisation: Spain in the Mariana Islands 1690–1740’, Journal of Pacific History, 23, 1988.
Lévesque, Rodrigue. History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Vols. 1-5. Gatineau, Québec: Lévesque Publications, 1992-1995.
Quimby, Frank. “The Hierro Commerce: Culture Contact, Appropriation and Colonial Entanglement in the Marianas, 1521-1668.” The Journal of Pacific History Vol. 46, No. 1, June, 2011.
Thomas, Nicholas. Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific, Cambridge 1991.