Chinese traders in Manila and Chinese trade ships that traveled around the Philippines formed the basis for the Manila-Acapulco Trade or Manila Galleon Trade. Since trade with Ming dynasty China via the Philippines was so lucrative for Spain, Spanish leaders decided to bring Chinese and Asian goods to the Americas. For 250 years (1565-1815), large Spanish multilevel ships, called galleons, would make round trips between Manila and Acapulco via the Pacific Ocean to trade.
Filipino artisans crafted most of the galleons from Philippine hardwoods in local shipyards. 16th century galleons averaged between 1,700-2,000 tons and could carry 300-500 passengers.
Asian goods that often made these trips to Acapulco were jade, wax, gunpowder and silk from China; amber, cotton and rugs from India; spices from Indonesia and Malaysia; and fans, chests, screens and porcelain from Japan. Piña goods, Mantones de Manila (shawls) and other Philippine textiles also were traded. Much of this cargo traveled across Mexico to be loaded on Spanish ships going to Spain.
Most of the goods traded and shipped back to Manila were from the Americas: silver, dye, seeds, sweet potato, tobacco, chickpeas, cocoa, watermelon, vine and fig trees. Products from Europe and North Africa also were shipped back, like wine, olive oil, weapons, metal knobs and spurs.
Sailing from Manila to Acapulco would take at least four months, and trips were very dangerous with many crew members dying. Hazards came from weather conditions, pirates, shipwrecks, starvation and disease. It was difficult to recruit crew members, so crews were mostly comprised of native Filipinos. Other crew members were deportees and criminals from Spain and its colonies. There were also younger apprentices and pages that were orphans and poor from the streets of Seville, Mexico and Manila. Slaves were also transported on galleons.
Not only was there a trade of goods on these voyages, there was also an exchange of culture. Native Filipino crewmen brought the Barong Tagalog to the Americas and inspired clothing worn by many Latin Americans.
A colorized version of Simeon Abaya’s concept of a galleon (ship) en route to Acapulco circa 1670