The Manila Galleons were Spanish trading ships which linked the Philippines with Mexico when both were part of the New Spain. Until 1821, the Philippines was administered by the Viceroy of Mexico; direct rule by Spain only started in 1821.
The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade began when Spanish navigators Andres de Urdaneta and Alonso de Arellano discovered the eastward return route from the Philippines to Mexico in 1565. The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade lasted until 1815 when the Mexican War of Independence broke out.
Sailing as part of the expedition commanded by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to conquer the Philippines in 1565, Urdaneta and Arellano were given the task of finding a return route. Reasoning that the trade winds of the Pacific might move in a gyre as the Atlantic winds did, they had to sail north to the 38th parallel north, off the east coast of Japan, before catching the eastward-blowing winds (“westerlies”) that would take them back across the Pacific.
Reaching the west coast of North America, Urdaneta’s ship the San Pedro hit the coast near Cape Mendocino, California, then followed the coast south to San Blas and later to Acapulco, arriving on October 8, 1565. Most of his crew died on the long initial voyage, for which they had not sufficiently provisioned. Arellano, who had taken a more southerly route, had already arrived.
From 1575 to 1815, the main Spanish economic activity was a lucrative galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco. A great fleet of Chinese junks converged here each year, carrying porcelain, silk, textiles, tea, lacquer and enamel wares, paintings and a wealth of other products – Persian carpets, Indian cotton and perfume, Siamese ivory, Ceylonese gems, Cambodian sandalwood, Moluccan spices, and Japanese lacquerware and cutlery. The Spanish colonists eagerly bought this merchandise for re-export to Mexico on the Manila Galleon; they received payment in Mexican silver carried by the vessel on its return. Each year, one or two huge galleons began their 14,500-km voyage from Manila, carrying cargo worth millions, in which each Spaniard had equity.
The total amounts were limited to control the influx of Oriental textiles and other goods into Mexico, since they competed with those supplied by the merchants of Cadiz and Seville, and to stem the corresponding flow of Mexican silver to China in payment. Though it was a government monopoly, privileged officials illegally sold trading rights to merchants, and some Spaniards, institutions, and Chinese traders made fortunes.
The importance of the Philippines was only as a transshipment port because the Spaniards found that the islands had little gold or spices. Galleons brought gold and silver from Acapulco. With no local products being exported, and since it was much more profitable for the wealthy to invest in a galleon voyage than in the economic development of the islands, the latter remained neglected.
The galleon trade swelled the coffers of both church and crown, and supported the colonial government in Manila but the bureaucrats of Manila shared nothing of their lucrative trade with the provinces.
Between 1609 and 1616, 9 galleons and 6 galleys were constructed in Philippine shipyards. The average cost was 78,000 pesos and at least 2,000 trees. Fron 1729 to 1739, the main purpose of the Cavite shipyard was the construction and outfitting of the galleons for the Manila to Acapulco trade run. Due to the route’s high profitability but long voyage time (four to five months), it was essential to build the largest possible galleons, which were the largest class of ships known to have been built until then. In the 16th century, they averaged from 1700 to 2000 tons, were built of Philippine hardwoods and could carry 300-500 passengers. Most of the ships were built in the Philippines and only eight in Mexico.
The wrecks of the Manila galleons are legends second only to the wrecks of treasure ships in the Caribbean. In 1568, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi’s own ship, the San Pablo was the first Manila galleon to be wrecked en route to Mexico. Between 1565 and 1815, Spanish owned 108 galleons, of which 26 were lost at sea for various reasons.
In 2015, the Philippines and Mexico began preparations for the nomination of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade Route in the UNESCO World Heritage List, with backing from Spain. Spain has also suggested the tri-national nomination of the Archives on the Manila-Acapulco Galleons in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. In 2017, the Philippines established the Manila – Acapulco Galleon Museum in Metro Manila, one of the necessary steps in nominating the trade route to UNESCO.
Sources: Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes, Insight Guide Philippines by Discovery Channel and Wikipedia