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The Manila Galleon as harbinger of globalization |

Arts and Culture

The Manila Galleon as harbinger of globalization

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson - The Philippine Star
The Manila Galleon as harbinger of globalization

A little-regarded monument fronting Manila Hotel honors two maritime explorers of the 16th century, one of whom, Friar Andrés de Urdaneta, achieved the “second” world navigation in 1536, 15 years after Ferdinand Magellan’s historic feat.

His partner in the monument, Miguel López de Legazpi, had captained the expedition ordered by King Philip II of Spain, to sail westward from Mexico across the Pacific to the Philippine Islands “discovered” earlier by Magellan, thence to find a suitable route back. Urdaneta charted that route that would consequently be used for the galleon trade.

A fresh title in the Penguin Specials series now posits that it was the Manila Galleon that heralded globalization way back in the 16th century.

The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815, by Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales, relates how China was a principal player in this narrative. The account also gives credit to Manila as the entrepot that served as the start of the intercontinental chain of commerce. And it is Urdaneta who figures prominently in the Prologue and the first of seven brief chapters.

“… Urdaneta didn’t discover how to get anywhere, but rather less glamorously but no less importantly discovered how to get back. Until 1565, no fleet had succeeded in sailing east from Asia back across the Pacific to the Americas. It was Urdaneta, a survivor of earlier expeditions, who first worked out the right winds and currents across the uncharted waters of this vast ocean. His discovery was called the tornaviaje, or ‘return trip’.

“… The trading route that resulted from Urdaneta’s discovery — that of the Manila galleons — brought the silver from the Americas that underpinned China’s money supply and transformed the global economy. This Ruta de la Plata — or ‘Silver Way’ — characterised a period when commerce between China and Spanish America formed the lynchpin of trade routes spanning four continents. It also marked the first time the entire world had been knitted together with the global trade and financial networks that form the basis of our modern globalised world and ushered in the global economy that remains with us today…

“‘Urdaneta’s route’, as it was soon known, immediately became the basis for the annual deployment of trade vessels known as the Galeón de Manila, or Manila galleons, that sailed the Acapulco–Manila route for the next 250 years. That these were also known as the nao de China, or ‘China ship,’ indicates their actual purpose.

“Neither Urdaneta nor Legazpi lived long after their respective achievements. Urdaneta died in 1568 in Mexico, while Legazpi died in 1572, only a year after founding Manila. Legazpi left behind a new colony, but one that was itself subordinate to yet another: that of New Spain, based in Mexico. The affairs of a Southeast Asian territory were thus run from Mexico City: the Philippines were seen and treated as the westernmost part of the Americas.

“The colony’s only real justification was to act as a hub for the Asia, and particularly China, trade…. Neither Legazpi nor Urdaneta are much remembered outside of specific and specialist histories. Legazpi, the erstwhile governor, has a city named after him, the eponymous Legazpi City, capital of Albay province, located at the base of Mayon volcano and carrying the sobriquet ‘City of fun and adventure’. Urdaneta City in Pangasinan, actually a town of 120 000, only dates from the mid-nineteenth century but sports a large, modern monument to Urdaneta in front of the city hall.”

We might add that Legazpi (or Legaspi) and Urdaneta also have upscale villages named after them, commercial and residential, respectively, in the Central Business District of Makati City, Metro Manila.

 In this 100-page book of flowing prose and easy readability, while rife with fascinating historical details, what Urdaneta accomplished led to “The First Transoceanic Shipping Line.”

Filipino historian Benito Legarda, Jr. is cited as a source. 

Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, printed in Mexico in 1609, is quoted with regards the assorted merchandise that filled the galleons that “were the super-container ships of their day” — which had an entire shipping industry emerge in Cavite. 

“The galleons’ reputation for durability and sturdiness was built upon the local hardwoods: the ships were relatively impervious to both cannonfire and shiprot.

 “By 1587, single cargoes could be worth as much as 2 million pesos. …The profits were tremendous. (It was) estimated that merchants made 150 to 200 per cent; a single cargo could set one up for life.”

But more importantly, the authors point out, “The Manila galleon provided the missing link in the world’s global trade network: for the first time, all the maritime routes — Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean — were now operational in both directions, knitting Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa together.”

Interesting sidelights mention the manton de Manila that originally came from Guangdong, but other than textiles, ivory and spices, chocolate as return cargo soon had the Chinese redesigning porcelain vessels, which Mexican potters in turn emulated.

The Spain-Mexico-Manila axis also established a common world currency. ”Pre-dating both the pound and the greenback, it was a currency emanating from Mexico. Minted in the Americas, Spanish milled dollars became the currency of choice throughout most of East Asia.”

And it was silver that “became the main commodity of the Manila galleon trade,” so that the the trans-Pacific trade route could be called “la ruta de la plata — a silver, rather than silk, road that changed the global economy forever.”

The authors ask: “What might this narrative predict for a twenty-first century containing a China which has returned to its status quo ante?” In looking back at the past “to update our maps by making them older,” they suggest that “The Silver Way” offers the possibility of “globalisation with neither convergence nor major armed conflict, where… sides integrate but remain apart.”

The book will be officially out in the UK and US in June, but is currently available as an eBook from online retailers in the Asia-Pacific. Penguin Specials are concise, short enough to be read in a single sitting. They provide “a thought-provoking opinion, a primer to bring you up to date, or a striking piece of fiction.” To browse digital and print Penguin Specials titles, one may refer to

Here’s hoping that a future title may dwell on China’s claim of a nine-dash line that could also be an attempt to update maps by making them older.

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