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The Manila Galleon

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Portuguese and Spanish Empires.

The longest and most ambitious trading route opened up by the Spanish in the 16th century was the passage across the Pacific between the Philippines and America.

Following Magellan’s discovery of the Philippines in 1521, Madrid gained control of the whole archipelago. However, the sea route from Europe across the Indian Ocean was blocked, as this region had been allocated to Portugal under the Treaties of Tordesillas and Saragossa. 

For this reason, Madrid decided to administer the Philippines as part of the vice-royalty of New Spain.

Sailing to the Philippines from Acapulco was a relatively simple affair. In the equatorial zone, sea currents and trade winds were favorable, and the Spanish ships could make the journey in about three months. However, finding the route for the return journey was more difficult and was not discovered until 1564 by the navigator Andrés de Urdaneta.

On leaving the Philippines, de Urdaneta set a northeasterly course towards and along the Japanese archipelago. Then he picked up the prevailing west winds and favorable currents near the 40th parallel in the temperate zone. These allowed him to sail across to northern California and, from there, he could sail southwards to Acapulco.

Still, the route was very long, about 15,000 km, and dangerous because of cyclones between the Philippines and Japan. During the crossing, which could last as long as 5 months, crews suffered from scurvy and many died.

This sea route led to the development of new commercial opportunities linking China, America and Europe across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Two or three times a year, Manila Galleons left Acapulco laden with silver from the mines in Mexico and Peru.

In Manila, the silver was exchanged for luxury goods including spices, together with silk and porcelain brought by junks from China.

These goods were then taken across the Pacific Ocean to Acapulco. From there, they were carried overland to Veracruz and, once again, loaded onto ships for Seville in Spain.

Trade in American silver and Chinese silk was very lucrative and reached its height at the middle of the 17th century. However, in Spain there were worries about the rapid decline in the delivery of silver from the New World to Seville.

The Manila Galleons continued regular journeys until the early 19th century, but then their cargo was destined to satisfy the American market for Chinese products.