EAST MEETS WEST
THE MANILA GALLEONS AND THE ORIGINS OF GLOBALISATION
Luis Francisco Martínez Montes
The Boxer Codex, circa 1590, depicting a Spanish Galleon in the Philippines
The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once famously said that Spaniards are the Chinese of the Western world, since both nations have gone through many ups and downs (“las hemos visto de todos los colores”), though, he could have added, both have always managed to bounce back. There are other similarities apart from their rich historical experiences.
Both China and Spain were pioneers in the rise of the first modern wave of globalisation. The Manila Galleons, also known in Spanish as the “Naos de China”, and the Spanish Atlantic fleets were its most potent embodiments. In what constituted at their time an unprecedented feat in the annals of navigation, for more than 250 years they connected the Atlantic and the Pacific, Asia, America and Europe in a regular flow of goods, money, peoples and culture.
Mappamundi with the Spanish navigation routes by Battista Agnase, 1540, at the John Carter Brown Library. The map was commissioned by Emperor Charles V as a gift to his son, the future King Philip II
From a Eurocentric point of view, the Age of Exploration is considered to be the starting point of Modernity and the herald of Western supremacy over the rest of the world. Using their superior weapons, technology and organisational capacity the Europeans discovered, conquered and administered large parts of the globe. With characteristic arrogance, Hegel concluded in the nineteenth century that those regions that were not under European control were simply unworthy of attention. But as we move from a Eurocentric to a global perspective, there is another way of telling the story. The early European expansion pioneered by Portugal and Spain was part of a larger narrative. True, by encountering America, rounding Africa, reaching Asia and circumnavigating the globe, the Iberian seafarers, traders, missionaries and conquistadors extricated Europe from a long period of introspection and limited contacts with other cultures, except, as it was the case in al-Andalus, in those regions under the influence of Islam, where the exchange between East and West was not just occasional and limited to a handful of traders and diplomats, but took place on a daily basis and touched all echelons of society.
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