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                                                THE MANILLA GALLEONS

(The following is part of the article by Steven D. Singer, originally published in the Spring 1995 issue of Treasure Quest Magazine)  


     The Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, had reached the Philippines from Europe in 1521 during his circumnavigation of the world, though the Philippines were already a well-known trading center with the merchants and sailors of the far East. The Spanish were the first Europeans to attempt to colonize the Philippines.    

     Though the Spanish had reached the Philippines from Mexico prior to 1564, they could never find a return route back eastward. It was a small fleet of four ships, under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who finally found a route in 1565. Don Luis de Velasco sent this expedition under the direction of Phillip II, and accompanying this fleet was Andres de Urdaneta, who had previously sailed with Loaysa to those seas in 1525. This fleet left Mexico on November 21, 1564 to begin the 9,000 nautical mile trek to the Philippines. They sighted the island of Samar on February 13, 1565 and anchored off the island of Cebu on April 27, 1565. The fleet split up, and some went south as far as New Guinea looking for a route back. Urdaneta believed the route back would be found to the north. The San Lucas of only 40 tons, went far to the north near Japan, where she found the westerly trade winds and favorable currents, which bore her back to the California coast near Cape Mendocino, which she then followed south, arriving back at Acapulco, October of 1565. Oddly enough, it was the San Pedro of the same fleet, which followed the San Lucas shortly thereafter, which received the credit for discovering the route back. One source says that one of the galleons had deserted (probably the San Lucas) and discovered the route back arriving in Acapulco in July of 1565. It also states that Urdaneta (on another vessel) went as far north as 38 degrees off Japan and then headed on a southerly course in which no land was encountered and most of the crew died before reaching Acapulco.

     Thus started the trading route of the Manila galleon or "nao de la China", which meant "the ship of China." Legazpi's own ship, the San Pablo of 300 tons, was the first Manila galleon to wreck in 1568, enroute back to Mexico. Over the years, over forty Manila galleons were lost, many carrying some of the richest cargoes ever transported on the high seas. Many others were captured or destroyed by vessels of Spain's enemies, such as the British and Dutch. A few vessels sailed from Manila directly to Spain rounding the cape of Good Hope, but these voyages were soon stopped by their enemy the Dutch, who controlled this sea route.

      Though the Philippines provided some products, it was spices and other items from the "Spice Islands", and silk, porcelain, gold, ivory, gemstones, jade, mercury, and other valuables from China which made the Manila galleon trade so lucrative. In 1571, the crew of a Chinese vessel which had wrecked in the Philippines, was rescued by the Spanish, and the next year a Chinese vessel arrived in Manila carrying trade goods in gratitude thus starting a direct trade route with China. Goods from India and elsewhere in Southeast Asia also made their way to Manila. Some trading was also done with Japan, though Japan closed herself off from the West in 1638, though some small amount of trading continued with the Dutch. Europe and the New World's appetite for these products from the Far East became insatiable, and the huge profit margin made the perilous journey worthwhile. There was a great demand in China for silver from the mines of the New World, and the westbound Manila Galleons were loaded with this silver. Coinage from the New World was also used by the Chinese for their own monetary system.

     The voyage from Acapulco to the Philippines was a relatively easy one. By 1570, Acapulco became the trading port of the Manila galleons in the Americas, due to its excellent harbor, and overland accessibility to Vera Cruz on the Caribbean side of Mexico. Many treasure laden vessels brought silver from the New World mines such as the one at Potosi, Peru (now part of Bolivia), to Acapulco, and some of these vessels were also lost on the west coast of South and Central America. Leaving from Acapulco in January, the manila galleons would sail the usually calm seas to the Marianas using the favorable trade winds, and then on to the Philippines, which took a total of about three months’ time, though some of these Philippine bound vessels did wreck due to storms or other mishap. Until 1593, three or more ships would sail each year from both ports. Because the Manila trade was becoming so lucrative, Spanish merchants back home complained of lost profits and a law was passed in 1593 allowing only two ships to sail each year from either port, with one in reserve in both Acapulco and Manila. Even the tonnage of the vessels and their cargo was restricted under this new law, but these restrictions were largely ignored and were not enforced. These ships were the largest the Spanish built. In the 16th century, they averaged about 300 to 700 tons and carried three hundred to four hundred or more people, but by the 18th century, they averaged from 1,700 to 2,000 tons and seven hundred to over one thousand people would take passage back to Acapulco on these vessels. Though the Spanish tried to send two ships each year after 1593, many years saw only one ship making the voyage each way. It was the voyage back to Acapulco, which became known as the longest and most dangerous voyages one could make. Though ideally it could take four months to reach Acapulco, seven months or more was more often the case. Often, a great number of people would die during one of these voyages from disease or malnutrition, sometimes numbering over half the people on board, One example of the perilous voyage was that of the Manila galleon San Jose, which was found drifting off the Mexican coast during the mid-17th century, over a year after she left manila. Not one person was left alive, all having died from disease and starvation. Another example is that of the Santa Margarita. She left Manila in 1600, and battled the elements for eight months, until she wrecked off Rota in the Marianas, with few survivors (one group claimed to have found this wreck in 2008).

     After leaving the port of Cavite on Manila Bay, usually in July, a Manila Galleon would have to thread its way through the many islands and reefs toward the northern Marianas, which could take weeks. Many a galleon was lost on these reefs. They would then head to the northern latitudes near Japan and hope favorable winds and currents would take them eastward. With no landfall for the next three, four, or more months, life on board could become unbearable. Eventually they would come into site of Cape Mendocino or nearby, off the northern California coast, and follow this coastline south to Acapulco. A number of these Manila Galleons were also lost along this coastline.

     Once at Acapulco, goods were traded among merchants from all over the New World, and most of the goods ended up being transported overland to Vera Cruz, where they would then be loaded onto ships of the Nueva España Fleet, which in turn headed to Havana, and then back to Spain. Many of these vessels also wrecked, and much of these Far East treasures have been salvaged from these shipwrecks. The 1715 and 1733 Plate Fleet wrecks off Florida have yielded many artifacts from the Orient, such as porcelain and jewelry. A Spanish wreck found in the western hemisphere with cargo from the Far East would most surely have to have wrecked after 1565, though goods from China didn't start to arrive in Acapulco until 1573.

     Most of the Manila galleons were eventually built in the Philippines at the Cavite shipyards and also at Palantiau, and though they used the European design, they were sturdier, being built from the abundance of hardwoods available there, such as teak and mahogany. The planking was built of lanang wood, which was so strong, it repelled cannon ball shot.

     The ship Magallanes left Manila in 1811, and returned four years later, thus ending the last voyage of a Manila galleon.

     The Manila galleon wrecks are some of the richest in the world today. It should also be noted that along with any registered treasure carried by these ships, almost as much was being smuggled on a regular basis. Only a few have been found so far. These are:

The Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion - From Manila bound for Acapulco, she wrecked on the southwest tip of the island of Saipan, Sept. 20, 1638. She was the largest Spanish vessel built up to this time, displacing about 2,000 tons. William Mathers, an American, located the wreck in 1987, and has since salvaged many priceless treasures from the site. The site is now overlooked by a golf course, and Ming dynasty porcelain shards are scattered along the coastline, which helped to pinpoint the wreck.

Nuestra Senora del Pilar - Wrecked in 1690 on the southwest tip of Guam. This wreck has also been located within the last few years and has been actively worked by divers.

San Agustin - World renown archaeologist/treasure hunter, Robert Marx, has located the wreck of the San Agustin, which was one of a fleet of four galleons from Manila bound for Acapulco, which wrecked in Drake's Bay north of San Francisco, in 1690, and now lies in part of the Point Reyes National Seashore Park. I've read of his attempts to get permission to do some excavation on the site, but legal restrictions have so far prevented any attempt.

San Diego - This wreck was discovered in Manila Bay in 1991. It is presently being excavated by divers, and has yielded over 28,000 items to date. I've also heard of other Manila galleons having been discovered in the Philippines by local fishermen and divers, though I'm not sure if any of these are being actively worked under a government lease.

A number of undiscovered wrecks also lie off the California and Mexican coast.

Santa Marta - Ran aground on Santa Catalina Island in 1528. Crew and some cargo was saved. Unknown if further salvage was attempted.

Nuestra Senora de Ayuda - 320 tons, wrecked on a rock, west of Catalina Island in 1641. Some crew survived, but cargo was lost.

San Sebastian - attacked by English pirate George Compton, Jan. 7, 1754, she was run aground just west of Santa Catalina Island, and soon sunk in about 170' of water.

Santa Maria de los Valles - 1,500 tons, left Manila in 1668 with 778 people and a very valuable cargo. After much hardship, she arrived at Acapulco two days before Christmas, and dropped anchor. Two hours later she caught fire and sank within an hour, taking with her all the treasure valued at over 3,000,000 pesos and more than 330 people.

A number of other areas along Oregon and California have yielded artifacts from the Far East, and could belong to a wrecked Manila galleon.

The majority of Manila galleons sank in the Philippines and surrounding areas, including China and Japan. I'll mention a few of these.

San Martin - Patache, wrecked off the coast of China near Canton in 1578, with much silver on board. Two more vessels were also lost near Canton in 1598.

San Francisco - Wrecked off eastern Kyushu, Japan, in 1608, with a large amount of gold and silver.

Santissima Trinidad - Left Manila in 1616 with a cargo valued at over 3,000,000 pesos. A typhoon hit and she wrecked on Cape Satano, at the southern end of Japan.

Jesus Maria and the Santa Ana - Both these vessels sank in the San Bernardino Straight with over 2,000,000 silver pesos, after doing battle with a superior Dutch fleet, which ambushed them there in 1620.

San Ambrosio and another ship - Coming from Acapulco, both vessels were lost during a typhoon on the coast of Cagayan in 1639, along with 2,000,000 silver pesos.

Santo Cristo de Burgos - She grounded offshore of Ticao Island, Philippines, in 1726. Crew was saved, but the ship and very valuable cargo were lost due to fire. Another vessel, the San Andres, wrecked on Naranjos shoals near Ticao, October 1797, and part of her valuable cargo was lost.

Santa Maria Madalena - Crammed with so much cargo as to make her unsafe, she left Cavite in 1734, and capsized and sank within a few hundred yards of her anchorage.

These are just a few of the many ships which wrecked on the perilous Manila galleon route. As time goes on, and technology improves, many more of these galleons will be found.

Source: 1. Bunge, Frederica M. (Editor). Philippines a country study. Washington D.C. : Dept. of the Army, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983. 2. Lyon, Eugene. National Geographic Magazine, September 1990, pages 5-37, "Track of the Manila Galleons". 3. Mathers, William M. Ibid, pages 39-52, "Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion". 4. Marx, Robert. Shipwrecks in Mexican Waters. Deportes Acuaticos de Mexico, Juarez, Mexico, 1971. 5. Marx, Robert. Skin Diver Magazine, March 1993, pages 49 and 166, "Ten Richest Wrecks in Latin America". 6. Marx, Robert. Ibid, April 1992, page 44, "The 10 Richest Undiscovered Wrecks". 7. Potter, John S. The Treasure Diver's Guide. Port Salerno: Florida Classics Library, 1988. 8. Treasure Quest Magazine. Vol. IV-4, Fall 1993, page 15. 9. Winsor, Justin (Editor), Narrative and Critical History of America, Vol. II, Discoveries of the Pacific Coast of North America. Cambridge, Mass.: Haughton, Mifflin and Co., 1886

Manila Galleon 2.jpg

Acapulco Harbor

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