Esther profile2


Esther P. Martínez is a journalist. She holds a Licenciatura in Information Science and Journalism and a Master’s degree in International Relations and Communication from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. At present she is head of the Cultural Section of the Revista Española de la Defense [Spanish Defense Journal], a monthly publication of the Ministry of Defense.


Esther P. Martínez
On 8 October 1565, Spain finally fulfilled a dream that had been pursued for a long time. The goal since the time of Isabella I of Castile, Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the New World  was to find a safe Spanish route for trade with the East in spices, a commodity that at certain times in history was more valuable than gold itself.
This route was known by the name “Manila Galleon” (or “Chinese galleon”) and covered the journey Manila-Acapulco-Manila, from the Philippines to New Spain (present-day Mexico) and back. Yet the undertaking did not end there, for it had a connection with Seville and later Cádiz, in Spain, through the Spanish empire in the Americas and its Atlantic port, Veracruz. The route thus brought together three of the four continents known to exist at the time and inaugurated a unique pattern of exchange at all levels between the territories of the Spanish Crown, which were as distant as they were different from each other.
Between 1565 and 1815, the year of the route’s closure, 200 years ago this year, galleons and vessels of the Royal Armada regularly sailed the Southern Sea, later renamed the Pacific Ocean, for commercial and strategic purposes. The Manila Galleon was a maritime link with an uninterrupted existence of 250 years, covering 110 to 120 expeditions.


It was not just commodities that made the journey, it was also people, ideas and customs. Most expeditions arrived safely at their destination. “One may find manuscripts, which are copies of originals, about expenses for travel arrangements and losses of vessels, although few were lost,” comments Carmen Torres, head of the Cultural and Educational Department of the Naval Archives Subsystem, which is part of the History and Naval Culture Institute.

Among the vessels lost was the San Diego; part of its wreckage, which was recovered in waters off the Philippine capital, Manila, is exhibited in the Museo Naval de Madrid (Madrid Naval Museum). Another vessel that was lost was the Santa Margarita, which “was going from the Philippines to New Spain in the year 1600,” as indicated in the title of the corresponding manuscript. This chronicle reports the vessel’s departure from Cavite on 13 July and gives us glimpses of the exchange described above. It was not just Spaniards who were travelling on board the vessel. The author also mentions the presence on board of “yndios”, as the inhabitants of the colony were then called. The author also mentions that the locals who gave assistance to the survivors of the ill-fated vessel asked about “a Franciscan friar who had lived among them in the preceding years.”


The Catholic religion was precisely one of the hallmarks of the expeditions of the Discoverers and the Conquistadors; subsequently it served as a unifying force. To this day this faith is still shared by countries that used to be part of the Spanish Empire on both sides of the Pacific. One can still find living evidence of this linkage. Examples are  “the choir walls of the cathedral of Mexico, which were forged in Macao,” notes Rubén Carrillo, a researcher with the Universidad “Oberta” de Cataluña, in an article entitled “Asia llega a América” (Asia arrives in the Americas).

Moreover, many still share the language of Cervantes, who was a soldier and universal writer. To religion and language we might add common usages and customs, some in areas that may (not) appear to be far from language and spirituality, such as stoves and food. Anyone who goes to Peru and wishes to sample its increasingly famous cuisine should try ceviche, seafood marinated in lemon that originally came from the other side of the Pacific and was brought to the Americas by Chinese immigrants, as tourist guides in Lima will tell you as soon as you ask them for tips on what to eat.

These are only a few examples that demonstrate that the galleons and the vessels, which were simultaneously naval vessels and trading ships, chosen for these long voyages by the Spanish Royal Armada for their cargo capacity and military potential, transported more than commodities. From Philippines to New Spain they carried spices (mainly cinnamon, cloves, and pepper), silks and furniture; and from Acapulco to Asia, they brought silver, crimson dyes, indigo, soap and cloths.
Vivid manifestations of the fact that the Pacific route continued on to Spain and Europe also exist. For example, one of the most frequent items in the traditional wardrobe of Hispanic women and in many Spanish cities is the Manila shawl. It is a typical garment in Madrid, where it is worn on important dates, such as the feast of the city’s patron saint. Moreover, one of the typical Madrid melodies, chotis, even reminds us of the shawl’s origin: “a shawl from China, I will offer to you as a gift”.


The raw material of the shawl, silk, was imported into Spain from the great empire of China through the Philippines, which explains its name. Then the shawl would be made in Spain, mainly in Seville, where the cargo from the Americas arrived until the draft of vessels increased and they started to berth in Cádiz. The taste for furniture, figures and porcelain in the Asian tradition also made the journey from the Philippines.

While the fleet heading to Veracruz for the linkup with the Manila Galleon left ports in Andalucia in May to take advantage of the trade winds, the trans-Pacific expeditions relied on the monsoon forecast, in summer and winter. At first, the trans-Pacific expeditions did not have a fixed schedule but soon two voyages a year were decided on. In any case, in order to take advantage of the winds, the fleets had to leave the Philippines during the first week of July, if they wished to arrive in Acapulco at the end of the December. The departure from Acapulco had to take place in April, so that they could arrive in the Philippines towards July or August.

There were two voyages a year until the mid-18th century. From that time onwards and until the end of the galleon trade, only one made the journey every year, in part because the depth of the vessels and cargo capacity had increased thanks to progress in naval construction.


In the same way that the target destination in Spain had shifted from Seville to Cádiz, the port of destination in the Philippines moved from Manila to Lampon, an enclave that was easier to access from the Pacific Ocean. However, the pilot voyage had sailed from Cebu, south of Manila, which was at the time the center for trade in the region and the settlement site of the first Spaniards in the Spice Islands. The generic name was applied to these territories because they were close to the Moluccas Islands, which were located further south, within the Portuguese sphere of influence, and had been the first to be known by that name.

The hero of that first voyage, which marked an unparalleled advance in oceanic navigation in the Pacific, was the seafarer from the province of Guipozcoa, Andrés de Urdaneta. He was an exceptional man, for he was also a soldier, cosmographer, explorer, and Augustinian friar. His return voyage from the Philippines in 1565 was not the first. On another occasion, he had returned from the Philippines, where he had lived for almost a decade. He made the most of his time there in order to study the tides, winds, and currents.


For the second expedition, under the command of Miguel López de Legazpi, King Philip II had called on Urdaneta for his advice and expertise. As in the preceding attempt, the voyage left from New Spain, but this time the port of Acapulco was chosen because its bay was sheltered. On 21 November 1564, four vessels set sail for the Philippines, where they arrived 74 days later. But the most important was still to come: on 1 June 1565, they departed on the return trip to Acapulco, where they arrived safely on 8 October of the same year.

The return route from the Philippines to Spain, called “tornaviaje”, was a feat. The route, keenly awaited since the time of the Catholic Monarchs, ceased to be an almost mythical objective and became reality, the reality of the Manila Galleon (Chinese Galleon) until 1815. It was an aspiration to which history has linked discovery of new lands, continents, seas and oceans; of new people and customs; of milestones in navigation and technical advances, as well as of unique adventures, like the first circumnavigation of the world, led by Ferdinand Magellan and completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano

Esther foot