The Manila Galleons
Colorado Heights University
The Manila Galleons
(1565 – 1815)
There were extremely valuable ships called the “the manila galleons”, traveling between the Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico. As they describe the galleon at the Denver Art Museum “The salt cellar has a cut crystal base, a ship’s pearl-studded rigging, enamel sails, and flags bearing the coats-of-arms of several noble houses, as well as tiny metal figures of seamen in various activities on deck and in the rigging.” This elaborate salt cellar replicates the shape of the Manila Galleon. The ships, usually armed, were the work horses of the commercial activity that united three continents. Their holds were meticulously subdivided for the precious cargo according to strictly enforced contracts.
According to Flynn (1995), the great treasure ships were “the birth of world trade” (p.201). The Manila Galleons were carrying silver to China and luxury goods as silks, spices, and other precious merchandise to New Spain. On the return leg, the precious Asian wares traveled across the Pacific, via the Philippines (colonized by Spain in the late sixteenth century), to Acapulco on Mexico’s west coast. They then crossed Mexico overland for shipment to Spain. Initially the galleon trade consisted of two to three ships a year going across the Pacific. Eventually, it became only one larger ship that linked the continents of Asia, Europe and the Americas continuously for 250 years until in 1815 when the Mexican Independence War put a permanent stop to the galleon trade route. The Europeans from the Middle Ages and even from the Roman period wanted the luxury goods of Asia: the silks, the spices. The Spanish people were fortunate to find huge amounts of silver in a New World. According to the description of Exotic Cargo at the Denver Art Museum “The coins, minted of Mexican and Peruvian silver, had a high silver content (91.7%) and were the primary instrument of exchange between Acapulco and the markets of Asia. Chinese and other Asian merchants frequently re-stamped the coins with chopped marks to attest to their value. So great was the quantity of Mexican silver pesos entered China and eastern coastal Asia that the coins became the general standard of monetary value until the 1800s.” There were also coins with the Pillars of Hercules, a symbol of Spain’s overseas empire, had been manufactured since the early 1500s. In 1772, busts of Spanish monarchs were added to the reverse side. The two piles show how coins were found in huge chests, with as many as 3000 coins, buried by Chinese businessmen. The owners were merchants who exchanged their wares in Manila for Mexican silver that the galleon carried back main land China.
The silver was a need for China. There were very few things the Chinese wanted from rest of the world, but silver to satisfy general obligations such as tax. This is what drove the Manila trade in the beginning. However, the desire for Asian luxury goods also drove the trade.
In the conclusion, the fact is that silver is the cause of early-modern period. Silk was China’s dominant export. Chinese people swapped their silk for foreign silver. Global silver trade with silk was dramatically changed the path of global trade and generate new form of trade and development between continents. China dominated supply-side of the silk and demand-side for the silvers. On the other Spanish American nations dominated supply-side of the silver and played big role in demand-side of the produced silk.
The manila galleon [Exotic Cargo]. (n.d.). Denver, Co: denver art museum. Dennis O.Flynn, Arturo Giraldez, “Born with a “Silver Spoon”: The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History 6 (1995):201 Flynn, D. O. (n.d.). Phillippine studies. In D. O. Flynn (Author), Silk for silver: manila-macao trade in...
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