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Manila Galleon Trade 1573-1811

Over a millennium before Magellan crossed the Pacific in the 15th century, the real Nomads of the Pacific sailed eastward almost the length of the ocean that covers half of the world from the opposite direction. The Spanish explorers found difficulty returning east because they would be facing the trade wind that pushed their sail earlier.

In 1565, Andres Urdaneta navigated the first European eastward passage by going north to Japan and catching the downward current to the southern coast of California. Later, the world's longest trading navigation started when the Spanish Galleon ship arrived in Acapulco, Mexico in 1573 laden with silk and other commodities from the 15th Century Chinese Dynasty. The marine silk road in the Pacific also carried gold, copra, clothing from the archipelago. Manila, endowed with a natural harbor, became the trading center of the Orient. The big-masted ships they used were called galleons, sometimes displacing almost 2000 tons. They were built in Cebu and in Cavite with strong hardwood from the tropical forest, manila hemp lines, and sails that were sewn in northern Ilocos. The old shipyard is still called Varadera de Manila near the former US Navy's Sangley Point in Cavite, probably named after the growing number of chinese traders know as Sangleys dealing in the lucrative galleon trade.

They carried almost 400 passengers and tons of cargoes that included contrabands. Due to the limited space (piezaz), boletas were allocated by the Governor General and a Spanish commission later. Corruption among the powerful high officials, Friars, and traders followed the wake. Custom duty for the oriental goods brought by small junk boats from China raised money. Silver from Mexico was carried on her way back. One ship bound for Mexico alone carried about gold decorated 100,000 combs.

The Spaniard tried to introduce Christianity to Japan on their brief stopover. The Christian missionaries, among them was the only Filipino religious martyr, were later persecuted when the Japanese military overheard a galleon pilot bragging. The ruler suspected the Spaniards were going to overthrow him. Japan who sent an ambassador to America onboard the galleon ship returned to her island isolation.

The United States was lurking the galleon trade passing through the coast of California. The official recognition of the Philippines was evident during the Philadelphia centennial congress meeting in 1786 when it mentioned by urging Spain to grant US trading privilege to Manila. It is interesting that with all the crisscrossing tracts the Spanish navigators laid in Pacific, Hawaii was never revealed in their chart.

The ship's crew was mixed bag of Indios, mostly Tagalogs. The entire round voyage took almost a year. Today in the floor of the ocean, modern day treasure hunters are still searching the over 40 ships that did not make it back to the harbor. San Jose was sighted drifting on the coast of Baja California over a year after it left Manila. No one onboard was found alive. They ships survived pirates, rival navy ships, and hurricanes but they all perished of disease and starvation. Accounts of hardship onboard were documented. One example was a Spanish noble woman jumping overboard during one of the trips.

Finally in 1811, Magellan, the galleon ship named in honor of the Portuguese navigator, would return to Manila. She was the last ship to sail the Galleon trade. The echoes of Napoleon's marching army in Europe and the gunshots of the War of 1812 abruptly ended the commercial exchange between two continents across the Pacific, almost ten thousand miles apart. The Philippines' contact to the Americas was temporarily suspended. During these voyages Manila-men jumped ship and ventured to other side of United Stares in St. Malo, Louisiana, later establishing the first Filipino settlement in this country.

A grave marker in Los Angeles reads "Antonio Rodriquez, buried this day May 26, 1784." He was one of the founders of the city one of the men who came from the Philippines riding the Galleon trade. Many more seafarers after him settled in Southern California. Nestor Palugod Enriquez

  This annual  trek to the  Antipolo shrine of  Our Lady of  Peace and  Good Voyage dates back to the days  of the Galleon Trade. It is said that the image  of the dark Virgin was brought  from Acapulco to the
  Philippines  by Spanish  sailors in  1626 on  a "miraculously"  calm voyage across turbulent Pacific waters.

Nestor Palugod Enriquez,
Reference and farther reading:
National Geographic, Sept 90