Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Huge Manila galleons connected Spain’s far-flung empire by creating the first trade route across the Pacific Ocean. Painting by Cornelis Verbeeck, circa 1618

The Original Container Ships

Big ships plus lots of money equaled handy profits for Spain when it ran the world’s first trans-Pacific trading enterprise.

Authored by

by Stefan Slater

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Manila galleons were the economic lifeblood of Spain’s Pacific empire. From the 1560s to the early 1800s, fleets of these behemoth ships sailed between Spain’s colonies, swapping commodities for exorbitant profits and dominating trans-Pacific trade. But their influence went far beyond filling the coffers of the Spanish crown. Manila galleons helped lay the foundation for modern global trade and foreshadowed the giant container ships that navigate the Pacific today. Here are five ways Manila galleons stood out from the other ships plying the seas during the Age of Sail.

Global Traders

By the late 1500s, fleets of Manila galleons had helped Spain lock down lucrative trade routes between its Pacific colonies. Latin American silver mines—some of the richest and most productive in the world—provided Spain with wealth, and its Philippine colony of Manila gave ready access to valuable Asian markets. The fleet traded silver and gold for silk, spices, jewelry, and porcelain. By making just one or two trips a year, Spain tightly controlled supply, ensuring that the highly sought-after luxury goods turned a handy profit. The galleons were the first to forge these Pacific trade networks, and set the stage for future expansion of global trade.

Super-Sized Ships

Spain needed vessels massive enough to survive the six- to seven-month journey across the Pacific while carrying enough goods and guns to make the trip profitable and safe. A galleon sailing westbound in the 17th century, for instance, would haul in excess of 45 tonnes of silver. On the eastbound leg, it was loaded with all the finery that money could buy. Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, constructed in 1633, was roughly 49 meters long, 15 meters wide, and carried nearly 400 people including passengers, soldiers, sailors, and gunners. Some Manila galleons weighed over 1,800 tonnes, making them substantially larger than most ships sailing the Atlantic at the time. Only a few warships, such as the 60-meter-long, 2,200-tonne Swedish Kronan, were bigger.

Pricey Cargo, No Danger Pay

Grand they may have seemed, but working on a galleon was far from cushy. Profit-hungry merchants often overloaded the galleons with precious goods, usurping space that would normally hold food and water. This resulted in conditions where scurvy, thirst, and starvation crippled the undersupplied ships. The crew’s death rate on the Pacific route could reach 50 percent per voyage—whereas Spanish galleons crossing the Atlantic had mortality rates of 15 to 20 percent. The galleons’ pricey cargo also tempted pirates. In 1743, the English naval commodore George Anson captured Nuestra Señora de Covadonga and its cargo with more than a million silver pesos de ocho (pieces of eight). (For comparison, in 1750 the total gross revenue for all of Mexico was six million pesos.)

California Ports (and a Shipwreck)

Instead of sailing straight from Manila to Acapulco, Spain’s Latin American port of call, eastbound galleons rode prevailing westerly winds until they made landfall around California. With provisions running low, pirate attacks, disease, and starvation were real threats at this stage of the journey. A California port could be used to resupply the fatigued ships. So in 1595, the Spanish crown ordered Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño, captain of the San Agustín, to explore the coastline for such a port. Cermeño anchored in Drakes Bay, near present-day San Francisco, and conducted crucial surveys that helped to spur Spanish colonization of California. A November gale unfortunately sunk the galleon—making it the earliest recorded shipwreck off California—though Cermeño and his crew survived. Despite this first failed attempt, the Spanish went on to establish several ports in the region.

Adding Wealth to New Spain’s Economy

Between 1492 and 1830, historians estimate that the Spanish turned their New World silver and gold into a grand total of 4,035,156,000 silver and gold pesos. Much of this wealth went straight to Manila in the holds of galleons. If pirates or a storm felled a single galleon, the financial loss could send the entire Philippine colony into economic depression. Ultimately, the galleons comprised the only trans-Pacific trade route, which made it fragile: when one link in the trade chain failed, the fallout was devastating. When Mexico rebelled against the Spanish crown in 1810, it wouldn’t allow the galleons access to the port at Acapulco, and by the time Mexico won independence in 1821, the galleons were obsolete. The last one sailed in 1815.