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The Story of the Nao de China Galleons

by Bob Brooke

Since Marco Polo returned to Europe with tales of the riches of the East, Europeans longed for a passage to Asia. Spain’s obsession to find a shorter route to the Asian wealth motivated expeditions for many years.

In the year of 1521, two events happened that made a route between Spain and Asia possible—Sebastián Elcano, sailing with Fernando de Magellan, Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain, discovered the Philippines, and Hernan Cortes conquered Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs. Fifty years later, these two remote lands would be connected by inter-oceanic commerce and the commercial dream of Spain would be fulfilled.

The First Expeditions to the Orient
Spanish king, Charles I, yearned so much for a route to the Orient that he sent two expeditions, one in 1520 and the other in 1525, around Africa and through the Indian Ocean to India. Aside being immensely expensive trips, both ended in failure.

Trade with New Spain through the port of Veracruz in New Spain had begun soon after Cortes’ conquest. But as a result of the wars between Spain and France, so had privateering and piracy against Spanish galleons. In June, 1522, the Spanish Crown adopted Royal Provision 13, establishing protection for the ships, with costs being shared among retailers on both sides of the Atlantic. As of 1524, Spanish galleons sailed the Atlantic in fleets under the protection of four armed galleons.

The slowest ships determined the speed of the fleet. The flagship sailed at the head of the convoy formed by about 30 ships. At night it ignited to stern a great light that served as a guide to the rest of the ships to form a column behind the flagship. The artillery ships sailed to windward of the fleet. Captains and pilots, who deliberately allowed their vessels to lose sight of the flagship or went off course, incurred punishment, at first capital punishment that later was reduced to a heavy fine, immediate loss of position and suspension from navigating galleons for two years.

The number of ships crossing the Atlantic fleet differed from one year to the next, depending on the necessities of commerce with New Spain and the tonnage of the ships, as well as of the security of navigation as a result of attacks by privateers. In 1522, only 18 ships left Seville, Spain, but by 1549, 101 ships left that port bound for the Americas. Though most were Spanish galleons, the Spanish Crown granted licenses to particular foreign ships on an occasional basis. The galleons carried 100 tons of merchandise in the early years, with some carrying as much as 200 tons. After 1548, most carried 200 tons, although there were larger ships carrying 300, 400 and even 600 tons.

In return for the exotic goods, Spain sent food, materials for farming, cattle for ranching, and raw materials for manufacturing to New Spain. Ships also carried cloth, clothes, glasses, cutlery, tools, and books. Products shipped back to Spain included tobacco, cacao, chocolate, indigo, Brazilian hardwoods, and leathers, and, of course, silver for the king’s coffers.

Between 1521 and 1600 silver brought "legally" to Spain by the Spanish fleets amounted to 17,000 tons, along with 181 tons of gold. The galleons transported nearly 567 tons of silver and 87 tons of gold from 1521 to1560. Most of this went to pay for the enormous costs of the wars of Charles I.

Establishing a Trade Route
So in 1542, he called on Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco to try to establish a trade route to Asia from New Spain. The Viceroyalty of New Spain paid for the construction of four great ships under the control of Ruy Lopez de Villalobos with 370 crew on board.

The ships weighed anchor from Acapulco, taking advantage of the Ecuadorian current that took them to Guam and on to the Marianas Islands, where they took on food and water before continuing their trip to the Philippines. But the problem was the return trip which took much too long.

Thus, the expeditions departed sporadically from Acapulco, until, in 1564, Philip II ordered Viceroy Velasco to prepare a new sailing armada led by Don Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and the monk Agustino Andrés de Urdaneta Legazpi stayed on in the Phillipines and founded Manila, establishing the Philippines as a dependent territory of New Spain, while Urdaneta established a viable return route to New Spain. With the arrival of Urdaneta’s galleon, San Pedro, in Acapulco, Europe and the Far East would finally be commercially connected by New Spain.

Urdaneta found the marine currents which allowed his return to the American continent by following the coast of Japan until he reached it, then following it across the Pacific to the coast of California where he turned south towards the Bay of Acapulco. Urdenata arrived on October 8, 1565, marking the beginning of the Philippine commercial route with Acapulco that lasted more than 250 years.

From all parts of Mexico people of all social classes came to the port of Acapulco to welcome the Galleon of Manila which they called the Nao de China, and to buy or to trade silver for the wonderful silks, fabrics, spices, jewels and other articles that the ship brought back from the Orient.

Most of the ships that did this long passage were constructed in the Philippines by Chinese carpenters, directed by European technicians, using wood obtained in the forests of the islands. The shipbuilders had metal parts, like ironworks, anchors, nails and chains forged in Japan, China and India. Though these ships were expensive to build, they were worth their high cost for the benefits they brought to the retailers in both ports.

But the arduous trip presented many dangers—stormy seas, shipwrecks or, if the passage were extended beyond the predicted length of four to seven months, the possibility of dying of hunger and thirst. In fact, many of the crew died from disease in the attempts. The fabulous treasures that these ships transported also made them prey of English, French and Dutch pirates. Queen Elizabeth I of England supported these robberies because the crown obtained a considerable portion of the booty. After being sacked, the ships were left, some burned. There are also accounts of crew being taken prisoner, mutilated, even the raping of women on board and the sacrificing of children, so that often the once yearly Nao never reached Manila.

But investors forgot all the dangers when thinking of the wealth that traveled in these ships. From Acapulco, the galleons carried silver bars and currencies from Acapulco, sweet potatoes, tobacco, chick-peas, chocolate and cacao, watermelon, grapevines and fig trees from New Spain, and barrels of wine and olive oil from Spain.

The Return Trip
From Manila, the ships carried silk and porcelain from China, Persian carpets of the Middle East, cotton fabric from India, lacquered fans, large chests, coffers and jewelry boxes, combs and bells, and screens. From the islands of Java and Ceylon, the sailors brought spices, mainly nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon. The East also provided camel wool, wax, raw and carved ivory from Cambodia, camphor from Borneo, rattans for baskets, jade, amber, precious stones from Burma, wood and cork, shells, iron, tin, powder, and fruits of China.

Once delivered, the merchants transferred the merchandise to the commercial centers to be sold. In Manila, they went to the Parián or Fair of the Sangleyes, the center of the Asian market. In New Spain, the Parian of Acapulco and, during the 18th century, the Parián of the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City.

A good many of the Eastern products traveled overland by mule train towards Veracruz for their voyage to Spain, with stops at markets in Puebla and Jalapa, Veracruz. Some were distributed inland, towards the silver mining centers and the important cities of the Bajio region north of Mexico City. However, most of the Asian products were luxury goods and only the wealthy families of New Spain had access to them. For common people, the arrival of the exotic objects that "Nao de China" brought became curiosities and often they went to the Parián to admire precious lacquers, pieces of tortoise shell or silver, and large chests. Nevertheless, in the 18th century, factories in New Spain began copying the designs of Asian crafts, enabling more people to have access to them.

Cultural Exchange
The Nao de China not only transported goods, but also enabled a cultural interchange. New Spain soon adopted the use of the silk in rebozos (shawls), fans and screens, the making of porcelain, the enamels in dinner services and customs of Eastern origin such as cock fights.

Also, some Eastern people, mostly Filipinos, arrived as slaves of the Spaniards. Unlike the black slaves from Africa, the Spanish brought them to New Spain because of their aptitudes for certain artisan work and other service occupations. The Spaniards defined them as "Chinese Indians", and gave them the same rights as the indigenous population. In New Spanish society, the Asians sold fabrics, candles, grass, brandy and many were barbers.

The trip from Spain to the Orient and vice versa did not take place freely. The management of all commercial traffic with America concentrated in Seville, Spain, establishing a monopoly controlled by the Consulate of Merchants of Seville, which managed the fleet offices, controlled marine insurance, and rescued the merchandise from shipwrecked ships. And in an attempt to prevent pirates from unloading their booty illegally in New Spain, the Spanish Crown imposed a tax on each foreign ship and each ton of merchandise that tried to enter the province in an attempt to control the commerce of the zone.

Due to the Mexican War of Independence, Ferdinand VII of Spain halted the trade route of the Pacific. In March of 1815, the Galleon Magellan, the last Nao de China, weighed anchor for Manila, ending 250 years of uninterrupted marine commerce between New Spain and the distant East.

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