Shipwrecks, Death Flags and Pirates


The Spanish Crown had a monopoly on the trade route between Manila and Mexico for nearly all the 300 years Spain ruled Mexico during the Inquisition. In fact, the Philippines were under the jurisdiction of Mexico (then New Spain) because sailing between Manila and Acapulco took only four months while getting from Spain to Manila consumed a year.

The ships that sailed the Philippines to Mexico route, called the Manila Galleon Trade, were the richest ships in all the oceans.  However, much of the wealth sank at sea and remains undiscovered. Ships that travelled the route allowed widespread bribe-taking leading to overloading and late ship departure, thereby increasing the probability of shipwrecks from pirate looting and monsoons.

In 2011 the remains of the San José, a galleon sunk off the Philippines in July 1694 were discovered. It was one of 788 galleons that sailed between Manila and Acapulco between 1565 and 1815 as part of the Manila Galleon Trade. The San José was laden with huge amounts of silks, spices, porcelain, jewelry, and art whose total value was recorded as more than $500 million in today’s money.

The sinking of the San José exemplifies the costs of corruption in the Manila Galleon Trade; the longest, most profitable, and most famous colonial-era trade route. Importantly, the galleon trade was a government monopoly. The Spanish Crown owned the ships and restricted the number of voyages to one per year between Mexico and Manila while also restricting the number of ships that could sail on each voyage. These restrictions made space on each galleon wildly valuable and subject to bribes and corruption.

It takes time to load the cargo, but if the ship leaves too late it will more likely run into the monsoon season and faster sailing pirates.  This was a harrowing decision particularly for smaller ships more likely to wreck due to their size and high tonnage.

Interestingly there is no such relationship for the reverse voyage between Acapulco and Manila as there was no incentive to overload those ships as they mostly carried silver as payment for the traded goods.

Along with an exchange of goods came an exchange of language and kinship.

The official language of the Philippines is Tagalog, along with English.  However, there are about 250 Nahuatl words from the Aztecs in the Filipino language including such every-day words for mother, father, chocolatetamale, tomato, potato, guacamole, and mesquite.

Named for the King of Spain, the Philippines were conquered by Spain in the same year, 1521, Cortez conquered the Aztecs.  Spain kept the Philippines isolated from their neighbors, but not from New Spain/Mexico.

Sidebar:  Chinese porcelain shipped from the Philippines to Mexico came wrapped in thin tissue paper still called paper from China.  The paper was collected and used to make the Day of the Dead flags in factories on the street of Barranca reminding Mexicans of the paper thin line between life and death.

The Mexican silver also helped to pay for the operation of the colony as the Philippines proved lackluster in producing the expected gold while Mexico had silver to spare.

There is a 1581 port town in the Philippines that has a surprising amount of similarities with Mexico, so many, it is actually named Mexico.  Similarities include:

Also, Mexico’s most popular mango variety, Manila mango, originated from Filipino seedlings carried on the galleons.

Obviously some Filipino sailors stayed here and married Mexican women under the caste called Chinos.  You don’t have to dig deep to find a Filipino man in many a Mexican family tree.

Statistics from the Manila Galleon Trade are used on today’s airlines. For instance, when cargo limits are not observed on smaller flights, a problem that is particularly acute in developing nations, there is a direct correlation between rate of former shipwrecks and today’s airline crashes.

by Joseph Toone

San Miguel Post