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.
In his magisterial A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee, recognised that the Iberian pioneers “expanded the horizon, and thereby potentially the domain, of the society they represented (Western Christendom) until it came to embrace all the habitable lands and navigable seas of the globe” adding that “it is owing in the first instance to this Iberian energy that Western Christendom has grown, until it has become the ‘Great Society’: a tree in whose branches all the nations of the Earth have come and lodged”.
Well, we are now in a different age and the Western tree Toynbee was referring to seems considerably less imposing than many other arboreal manifestations of civilisation, that grow to the East and to the South.
But the Iberians actually did something far more important than expanding the physical and mental range of the West. They connected worlds that had previously remained apart and in the process they literally made globalisation possible. For sure, dislocated regional networks had existed before the arrival of the Iberians, partially linking centres of civilisation with one another. The overland Silk Roads, the Tea Road between Russia and China, the trading networks of Western Africa, or the maritime routes between the Muslim world and East Asia were examples of a proto-globalisation in the making. On the other side of the world, China had spearheaded efforts from the East to stitch together some of those fragmented networks. Travellers like Zhang Qian, Fa Hsien and Xuanzang were daring trailblazers whose exploits enlarged the reach of the early Asian regional system encompassing China at its core, the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and the near East—with branches in peripheral areas, such as western Europe. However, the truncated maritime expeditions of Zheng He (between 1405 and 1433) under the Ming dynasty represented the great hiatus in Chinese overseas expansion. Though there were internal reasons to explain why the rulers of the Middle Kingdom took such a momentous decision, from a wider perspective, halting those voyages and dismantling their fleet was a grave mistake. According to the predominant Western narrative, the failure to push forward on the path of further explorations placed China on the road to irreversible decline and facilitated the rise of the West.
Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk and pilgrim who in the eighth century traversed China, Central Asia and India in his search for religious texts.
In reality, as we know now, the Ming renunciation of overseas empire- building did not entail the end of Chinese predominance in the nascent world economic system. On the contrary, until the late eighteenth century China remained the most dynamic centre of production and the biggest market worldwide. This feat was possible, to a large extent, due to an extraordinary convergence of apparently disparate trends. In fact, as China was turning its back on the sea, the world was about to reconnect with China by maritime means. When the Iberian navigators appeared on the Far Eastern horizon, it seemed that they would be submerged in the immensity of Asia, becoming nothing more than redundant intermediaries in the existing channels of intra-Asian trade. But as the first permanent Portuguese and Spanish trading posts and cities were established in places like Macao, Nagasaki or Manila, a different and more complex pattern emerged. At the core of this new relationship was money—great amounts of it flowing from the Hispanic world to the emerging world market.
By the time the Iberians started infiltrating the Far East, Spain had already conquered the pre-Columbian Empires of the Incas and the Aztecs.
By putting into circulation the massive quantities of gold and silver found in its new possessions, Spain together with its New World territories revolutionised the global economy and became the world’s mint. As even Adam Smith recognised in 1776, Spanish-American silver was the main means by which “distant parts of the world are connected with each other”.
The Spanish crown’s control over the flow of precious metals from the New World was dependent on its Armada doing what the Royal Navy did for British trade in the nineteenth century and what the U.S. Navy does today—protecting the trans-oceanic trade routes. Over a period of three long centuries, the Spanish Armada was the primary custodian and conveyor of massive quantities of silver and gold coins: the lifeblood of the first global economy. That massive accomplishment, either ignored or curiously dismissed as inconsequential by many historians of the international economic system, was the result neither of serendipity nor of the willing collaboration of the Spanish crown’s enemies, as historians like Henry Kamen would have it, but of a conscientious policy decision made by Philip II and sustained by his successors under two different dynasties.
The mastermind charged with putting into practice the king’s plans to protect the ships that carried the treasures from America was the great naval commander Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, whose name merits being included among the greatest strategists ever. As a conquistador, he successfully and ruthlessly dislodged a French Huguenot colony in Florida, founding in 1565 the village of St Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the current territory of the United States, thus forging a buffer zone between the Hispanic territories and the Anglo-American colonies.
As a supreme commander overseeing the defence of an expanding overseas empire and its main maritime routes, Menéndez de Avilés envisioned and implemented a defensive system of massive trans-oceanic fleets and a chain of fortified bases along key strategic posts, which was without equal in military history until the nineteenth century.
Furthermore, together with another great admiral, Álvaro de Bazán, he actually contributed to the design and building of the formidable Spanish galleons, those sailing fortresses that would constitute the core of Spain’s global naval might for more than two-and-a-half centuries.
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, engraving by Francisco De Paula Martí, 1791. He was the architect of the Spanish system of armed fleets and fortified ports that would protect the core of the Spanish overseas Empire and its trans-oceanic routes for two centuries and a half.
The myth of the English and Dutch seadogs preying on undefended Spanish ships and plundering at will Spanish forts in the Caribbean or the Pacific is precisely that: a well-publicised tale. As a matter of fact, the likes of Drake, Hawkins or Raleigh failed to capture any complete treasure fleet and only managed sporadically to seize some isolated ships and to conduct occasional raids on some scarcely defended ports in mainland Spanish America or on the Caribbean islands. Actually, the three English seadogs died either during or as a result of failed expeditions against their Spanish archenemies. As to the other great rival of the Spanish monarchy in the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic—supposedly at the height of its power, particularly in Asia, with Spain in a process of irreversible decline—suffered defeat not once, but three times, in its attempt at invading the Philippines: at the First and Second Battles of Playa Honda (1609 and 1617) and, more decisively, at the Battle of La Naval de Manila, in 1646, when just three Spanish galleons and five minor warships smashed three Dutch squadrons of eighteen warships which had attempted to conquer Manila. The Dutch never tried again.
Even more tellingly, in all the 250 years history of the Spanish trans-Pacific fleets, the English only managed to capture four Manila galleons. As to the Atlantic fleets not even one was captured on the open seas in their entire existence. On the only four occasions when the Dutch or the English were able to disrupt an Atlantic fleet, they did it when their prey was close to a port and only once, in the case of the Dutch admiral Piet Hein in 1628, were they able to seize an entire cargo with its treasure intact, an exceptional occasion that was triumphantly celebrated by North Atlantic propagandists but was never to be repeated.
Seizure of a Spanish fleet by the Dutch admiral Piet Hein in 1628 off the Bay of Matanzas, Cuba. The author was the well-known Protestant propagandist Theodore de Bry.
The overall success of the Spanish Armadas in protecting the core of the Hispanic world and its vital sea lanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific had important consequences for the emergence of a global economy, even once the peak of Spain’s power had passed.
For a long time, the Spanish American silver peso—rather than the pound or the guilder—was the currency of choice for merchants in China, North America and parts of Europe. When the Founding Fathers tried to find a model for the currency of the new and mostly bankrupt United States, they ended up choosing the Spanish “piece of eight”.
As the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Alexander Hamilton ensured the adoption of the 1792 Coinage Act, which set the value of the U.S. dollar equal to “the value of a Spanish milled dollar”. Thus, the currency that was a testimony to the Hispanic origins of the first international monetary system was transmuted into an instrument of U.S. economic hegemony.
For Ming China in particular, the formation of the Spanish Empire and its essential role in the emerging financial networks were an unexpected bonus. From the earlier Song dynasty, China had relied on paper money as a means of exchange. After a succession of fiscal crises, trust in the value of paper money decreased.
As the Chinese economy under the Ming continued manufacturing huge amounts of goods, the only way to avoid a collapse was to find alternative means to finance trade. American silver was the solution. Under Spanish rule, from 1500 to 1800, the mines of Mexico and Peru produced around 85% of the world’s available silver. It is estimated that over 40% of that silver ended up in China. So by an extraordinary twist of history, the exploits of the Spanish conquistadors in America contributed to the survival of the Chinese Empire for the next two centuries.
The twin questions are: why, and how, did this happen? Exploring the answer will give us an unexpected perspective on the origins of early modern globalisation.
Bay of Manila with Spanish and Chinese ships
Since 1522, when Juan Sebastián Elcano completed the first circumnavigation of the globe initiated by Magellan in 1519, an insoluble problem had confronted the Spanish crown. Even though the Pacific Ocean was navigable towards the west, there was no apparent way back towards the east. For three decades, the Spanish monarchy launched expedition after expedition to find a practical way to get from America to the Philippines and back, to no avail… until a remarkable character entered the story: the sailing monk Andrés de Urdaneta.
Andrés de Urdaneta, by Víctor Villán de Aza, 1890.
Andrés de Urdaneta is not a celebrated figure. Actually, he hardly appears in standard books of world history. Nevertheless, in the hidden history of civilisation, he is one of its most prominent heroes. His biography is a compendium of an entire era and deserves to be far more popular than it is at the moment. In the hands of a good scriptwriter and translated into cinematic language by a competent filmmaker, it would certainly be a smashing blockbuster. Just imagine this dramatic storyline: A young man, just fourteen years old, living in a remote village in the Basque country hears the astonishing news of the first circumnavigation of the globe by Juan Sebastián Elcano, the early modern equivalent to the moon landing. Adventurous by nature, he dreams of taking to the sea and emulating his compatriot. Quite naturally, his parents want nothing of it. Three years later, by a fortuitous chain of events, Elcano, on a tour of northern Spain aimed at enlisting willing sailors for a new maritime adventure, sets eyes on the intelligent youngster and chooses him to be his personal attendant. This time Urdaneta’s parents give in—how could they object to a decision made by the greatest hero, the Neil Armstrong of those times?— and let their child go.
In 1525 Urdaneta finally fulfilled his dream and went to sea. He did so as a junior member in an expedition intended to reach the Pacific and the Spice Islands by navigating westward, thus trying to avoid the Portuguese claims on those regions. Commanded by Loaisa and benefiting from Elcano’s skills as main pilot, the party of seven ships set sail on the route previously taken by Magellan along the shores of Patagonia and through the Strait named after the famed explorer. There, confronted by powerful winds, extreme weather and treacherous tides, the members of the expedition suffered all kind of misfortunes. Many perished, deserted or got lost. Trying to rescue some of his companions who had been cast ashore, Urdaneta, who just a few months before had never ventured away from his native Basque valleys, had to survive among the native Patagonians, learnt to hunt seals, buried himself by night in the sand to fight against the biting cold and overcame a powder explosion, which almost put a premature end to his life. Back on board, he joined his surviving compatriots and the four remaining ships to reach the end of the Straits. No sooner had they started on the Pacific leg of their voyage, than a devastating storm scattered the fleet. Three of the ships were lost and only the flagship could continue on its way to the Moluccas. Further tragedy stroke when Elcano—the man who had received from Emperor Charles V the fitting coat of arms of a globe with the legend Primus Circumdedisti Me, You were the first to encircle me—passed away in the presence of Urdaneta, who became one of the seven witnesses to his will and would never forget the lessons learnt from one of the greatest sailors in a century of formidable navigators.
Thus reduced to a ragtag band aboard a single, badly damaged ship, the remaining Spaniards miraculously sailed across the Pacific, made some landings for victuals in Guam and Mindanao and finally reached the archipelago of the Moluccas, the legendary Spice Islands. There they were well received by the ruler of the island of Tidore, with whom Elcano, on his previous voyage back to Spain while circumnavigating the earth, had struck an alliance. Besides, the rajah of Tidore was the sworn enemy both of the Portuguese who had settled in the neighbouring island of Ternate and of their local allies. So the Spaniards found themselves entangled in a regional conflict with international repercussions. The Portuguese of course were determined not to let their Iberian rivals encroach on what they considered to be their exclusive sphere of influence and used their superior force to convince the Spaniards to surrender. With characteristic pride, Urdaneta and his companions refused to give in. Though reduced to a pitiful condition, theirs proved to be more than an empty bravado. For the next nine years, completely isolated and with no possible reinforcements at hand, they were able to resist the attacks of their Iberian adversaries and their native associates. Hopping from island to island, using guile here, resorting to arms there, surviving poisoning and betrayal, serving as trading and diplomatic intermediaries among the different native fiefdoms, always tailed closely by the Portuguese, Urdaneta and his fellow countrymen, just a few dozen of them, became supreme masters at the arts of surviving. Only when the Portuguese produced irrefutable proof that, in the context of tangled European diplomacy, Emperor Charles V had renounced any claim to the Spice Islands already occupied by the Portuguese, did the Spaniards surrender.
Together with his companions, Urdaneta was taken to Lisbon as a prisoner. By his own confession, we know that during his time in the Portuguese gaols he had to abandon a natural daughter, most probably the fruit of a love affair with a Pacific islander.
His heart was broken by the separation but, fortunately for him, thanks to a plan devised by the Spanish ambassador in Lisbon, he managed to escape and make his way back to Spain, a country he had left eleven eventful years before. By the time he arrived in the Imperial capital of Valladolid, news about his exploits and capacity as a pilot and cosmographer had already reached the Court and he was invited to make a presentation of his journey across the Pacific in the presence of the Emperor and his closer advisers. Always a man of courage, even in the presence of such exalted dignitaries, he did not mince his words when it came to reproaching the Emperor for his betrayal of those loyal Spaniards who had risked, and in many cases given their lives while trying to expand His Majesty’s domains across the Pacific. The Emperor was not amused, it seems, and so Urdaneta fell on hard times. As with so many countrymen in similar circumstances, in 1538 he decided to enlist in one of the numerous expeditions sent to New Spain, and thus he found himself back to a world of adventure and hardship, battling rebellious Indians along the northern borders of Mexico. But the years were passing by and he was no longer young. After several attempts at fulfilling administrative and judicial responsibilities in the viceroyalty, in 1552 he finally decided to give up everything, became an Augustinian monk and entered a monastery on the outskirts of Mexico City where he was determined to spend the rest of his life, forgotten by and forgetting about the rest of the world.
But it was to be otherwise. The passage of time did not diminish his fame as one of the surviving members of the dramatic expedition that had tried to reach the farther confines of the Pacific. Memories of his sailing skills and undaunted courage became legendary. In vain the authorities of New Spain tried to convince him to help them in their renewed attempts at establishing a route between Mexico and Asia: the reclusive monk always refused. And then, the unexpected happened.
One day he received a letter from none other than King Philip II urging him to join an expedition aimed at establishing a base in the Philippines and thus challenging the Portuguese monopoly in Asia. This time, it was a call that was difficult to refuse. And so, on the condition that he would not accept the command of the ships but only act as a pilot, Urdaneta took to the sea for a last time on November 1564.
The expedition, under the captainship of Miguel López de Legazpi was to reach the Philippines, there to set up a permanent outpost, but the secret instructions under which it was dispatched went beyond that, since their true purpose was to find a return route to New Spain from the Islands of the West. And to that end, the message was explicit that the man who should try to find the way back was to be Urdaneta.
And so he did, reluctantly. Starting his trip in 1565 from the island of Cebu, Urdaneta defied conventional wisdom from the beginning. Instead of sailing across the trodden path, he decided to head north towards Japan in order to link up with the Kuro-Shiwo current. He then proceeded east towards California and Acapulco.
Four months later he had completed the first tornaviaje or round trip between the Philippines and America: he had just opened the first regular trans-oceanic route between Asia and America, and by extension between America and Europe in human history. Far from accepting the glory accorded to the great pioneers, he returned to his monastery in Mexico, to die quietly after having fulfilled in maturity the dreams of his early childhood. In doing so, he had made the current wave of globalisation possible.
A Spanish Galleon
Apart from constituting the longest maritime trading enterprise known in pre-industrial times, the Manila Galleon sea route was also the longest lasting: it operated almost uninterruptedly for more than two-and-a-half centuries, from 1565 to 1815. Its endurance was due to two basic facts. First, it was profitable for all sides involved: the Chinese received a constant flow of silver and the Americans and Europeans had access to Asian staples and luxury products, from spices to porcelain and silk. Second, despite frequent wrecks provoked by rough seas and uncharted coasts, it was quite secure by the standards of the times. The galleons were formidable ships, sometimes reaching over 1,500 tonnes of cargo capacity. The size, frequency and overall reliability of the Manila Galleons explain why in the seventeenth century China received more silver from the Hispanic world than from its trade with the English, Dutch and Portuguese combined.
The economic success of the Manila Galleon can also be examined in terms of orthodox economic theory. Spanish settlers in New Spain were constantly complaining about the cost of silk products manufactured in America. Since the Laws of the Indies forbade the enslavement of native Indians, encomenderos had to provide them with a salary. Minimum as this remuneration might be, it was enough to make silk production in America uncompetitive. So, contrary to received wisdom, the Spanish crown’s moral qualms over the treatment of the Indians constituted one of the factors behind the trans-Pacific trade. Since Chinese silk was cheaper, it made sense to buy it in exchange for lower-cost American products. American silver was available in more than sufficient quantities, so the terms of the trade were clear from the beginning. The Manila Galleon did all the rest.
For the Chinese, the Manila Galleon presented two obvious advantages. First, it provided a regular channel, financed and defended by foreigners, through which it could export part of its excess production to a wider market without incurring the cost of running an overseas empire. Secondly, the Galleon was a reliable source of much needed money in times of financial distress. The Spanish-American silver was so much in demand that even after Spain had lost control of America in the nineteenth century, Spanish colonial dollars were widely used among merchant communities in coastal China. “Pillar dollars” with the effigy of Charles IV, of Goya fame, were called the “fatty Buddhas”.
As to the Spanish Empire, the Nao de China represented the main way to turn a profit from the Philippines, thus helping to secure a permanent presence for Spain in Asia. The trade route was also vital for lubricating the commercial wheels of the vibrant Viceroyalty of New Spain (as Mexico was then known). Many trading communities there were dependent on the timely arrival of the Manila ships with their cargo. Furthermore, as the German traveller Alexander von Humboldt witnessed in his travels through Spanish America around 1803, Far Eastern spices and textiles became part of the Indian and Mestizo populations’ daily life thus contributing to a quintessentially Hispanic mixing of habits and customs. More luxurious goods were purchased by the Spanish American elite, or found their way to Spanish and European markets via Seville.
Finally, for the global economy, the unsung Manila Galleons were the link between two of the largest geopolitical entities until the beginning of the nineteenth century: the Chinese Empire and the Hispanic Monarchy. Thanks to their respective roles, it was possible to create and sustain the first global economic network encompassing more or less the same actors—the Americas, Asia and Europe—that constitute the three main pillars of the current wave of globalisation.
1812 Spanish-American pieces of eight incised with Chinese characters. The pieces of eight were the first global currency.
Jar with Chinese figures and Islamic ornamental motifs made in Puebla, Mexico, seventeenth century.
But early modern globalisation was not only about bread and butter (or silver). As the history of the Manila Galleon demonstrates, from its very inception it had also an important cultural dimension. Most accounts of modern cultural exchanges between China and Europe start with a reference to the Italian, Spanish and French Jesuits in the Ming Court—Mateo Ricci prominent among them. Allegedly, the first “reliable” news about Chinese civilisation in Europe had to wait until the comparative studies of French encyclopaedists and philosophers later in the eighteenth century.
Yet in reality, the first post-Marco Polo European best- seller about China was written as early as 1585 by a Spanish author. Juan González de Mendoza’s Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del Reino de la China became a pan-European hit with more than 38 editions in Spanish, Italian, French, German, Dutch and English before the end of the sixteenth century. It was also the first Western book where Chinese characters were depicted in a chapter devoted to explaining the nature of the Chinese language.
Mendoza’s best- seller on China depicting Chinese ideograms, published in 1585.
Mendoza was just one of a number of Spaniards, many of them friars, who came into contact with China thanks to the connection made possible by the Manila Galleon. The principal locus of that contact was Manila itself. A sizable Chinese community was established around the city’s Parian, the main market where Chinese and other Asian products were exchanged for silver. Coexistence between Chinese merchants and Spanish settlers was not always easy, but that fact did not preclude a fruitful cultural exchange between representatives of both nations. If we consider the Hispanic world primarily as a civilisational mediator, mixer and disseminator, then the Parian market in Manila deserves to occupy a place of honour together with Cordova, the monasteries of Liébana and Ripoll, Toledo, El Escorial and the Imperial College of Tlaxcala, in Mexico City, as one of the main centres where that mediating, mixing and disseminating took place.
The Manila market, or Parian, drawing by Juan Francisco de Ravenet y Bunel, a painter on the Malaspina expedition, 1789-1794.
The conversion and care of the restive Chinese community in Manila, known as the sangleyes in Spanish chronicles, were entrusted to the Dominican friars by the Spanish crown. Though less reputed for their intellectual leanings than that other renowned Spanish order, the Jesuits, the Dominicans were nevertheless men of profound learning. They also had a penchant for foreign cultures. No wonder that many of them were second to none in mastering Oriental languages. For instance, in 1703 a Dominican friar from Seville, Francisco Varo, published the first dated grammar book of Chinese published in a European vernacular, the Arte de la Lengua Mandarina or “Grammar of the Mandarin Language”.
Francisco Varo’s Grammar of the Chinese Language, published in Canton in 1703. It offered the first systematic study of the tonal system.
It was not the only Spanish contribution to early Western sinology. Even before Varo, his compatriots Juan Cobo and Juan Bautista de Morales had also written Chinese grammars or bilingual dictionaries that were not published. More importantly,
Juan Cobo was the first translator of a Chinese book into a European language, the Beng Sim Po Cam, beautifully rendered in Spanish as the Espejo Claro del Claro Corazón or “The Luminous Mirror of the Luminous Heart”, a collection of maxims and aphorisms of classical Chinese philosophers, published in 1592. The translation was presented to King Philip III in 1595 with the following words: “The Chinese take to be their great and true wealth not gold, nor silver, nor silk, but books, wisdom, virtues and just government”.
Conversely, the first European work to be translated into Chinese, by Tomás Mayor in 1607, was “The Introduction to the Symbol of Faith”, a Spanish encyclopaedic work of natural theology written by Luis de Granada.
Juan Cobo’s translation of Chinese classics, 1592.
Manila did not only serve as a meeting point between the Hispanic world and China. It also became a privileged and turbulent place of encounter with the mythical land that Columbus, Elcano, Urdaneta and so many other Western explorers had fixed their eyes and dreams on without ever being able to set foot there: Cipango. But this story belongs to another chapter in the extraordinary history of the early modern meeting of East and West.
 Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946.
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