A translated extract from “Silver and the Pacific”


Since the English edition of this book first came into my possession, it seemed obvious to me that it should be published in Spanish. Fortunately, after some frustrated attempts, the ever-ready publisher Siruela saw fit to take it on. It is a small book and, therefore, doubly interesting, and not only because of what Baltasar Gracián summed up with the sparkling phrase: “Lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno” (“what is good, if brief, is good twice over”). There is another factor, or perhaps two, to take into account. The first is that La Plata y el Pacífico illuminates an essential chapter of universal history, that is, the first stage of economic globalization along the axis of the Pacific via the Manila Galleon or Nao de China, an episode largely unknown to the wider public, whether of English-, Spanish- or Chinese-speaking backgrounds.


La plata y el Pacífico China, Hispanoamérica y el nacimiento de la globalización, 1565-1815, Peter Gordon, Juan José Morales (Siruela, June 2022)
La plata y el Pacífico
China, Hispanoamérica y el nacimiento de la globalización, 1565-1815
, Peter Gordon, Juan José Morales (Siruela, June 2022)

Adapted (and translated) from the Foreword to La plata y el Pacífico: China, Hispanoamérica y el nacimiento de la globalización, 1565-1815 with the permission of the publisher.


We have, therefore, an essential period and facts about the evolution of the world of which the educated lay public—those interested in history, yet who are not specialist or professional historians—are for most part not aware of, although, in not the not-too-distant past, some might have known of the importance of the connection between the Habsburg and the Ming Empires across the Pacific. One of the benefits of this text, as readers will see, is that it explains the reasons why they have not been aware of what the book relates. Morales and Gordon offer some clues as to these developments, for which we must go back in time: the world in which we now live is the result of an evolution that began with the process of expansion of the Iberian kingdoms at the end of the 15th century, and not the 19th.

Spain and Portugal were the vanguard of the West in the globalization of the world, a complex and exciting process which began when the Spanish and Portuguese began to look for alternative routes to the traditional ones to access the strategic product of the time, the one that yielded the greatest benefits: spices. This, and no other, was Christopher Columbus’s objective. And contrary to what many people believe, this commercial project did not stop with the gigantic appearance (and huge obstacle!) of America between the other two continents. One decade after another, the search for the path to Asia continued, going to the East via the West, which is the only alternative that Spain had if it did not want (and it did not want) to collide with the Portuguese by making its way along the African coasts and the Indian Ocean.

Crashing again and again against the difficulties of geography, the Spaniards of that time would end up being the first to circumnavigate the world, which is, of course, a milestone in the history of humanity… and making fabulous commerce on the way. Do not forget that Elcano’s trip, with a single ship, not only paid all the expenses of Magellan’s expedition, which were enormous, but also provided the investors with huge profits: Juan Sebastián Elcano was attentive to business and “La Victoria” came loaded with spices, especially cloves, as many as she could carry.

Spanish-American silver will become an engine for development inside China.

Morales and Gordon’s book begins its adventure at the next step in the process of commercial globalization: the expedition of Andrés de Urdaneta, which resulted in the creation of a stable trade route across the Pacific in 1565, what we know as the tornaviaje. Urdaneta managed to overcome what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle to establish that long-sought and desired route. That obstacle was the Pacific, because it seemed impossible to cross it from Asia to America. It was relatively easy to go there, but then there was no way to return, with the winds and currents always against it. All the attempts that were made ended in failure or catastrophe, and it was not easy.

When Andrés de Urdaneta took charge of the project by direct order of Felipe II, it can be said that the crossing of the Pacific had become an impossible mission. That effort had already cost a lot of money and many lives, but we must never forget that Spanish trade was ever-aware of market fluctuations. Since 1545 the price of pepper had experienced a spectacular growth. It had already been expensive before, but in these years it had reached such a level that other powers were encouraged to try to challenge Portugal’s quasi-monopoly. Even the land routes, hardly active for a long time, were reactivated. They had been languishing for decades, since the maritime routes were opened. To understand this, we must always take into account the presence of the Ottomans, who demanded expensive tariffs.

Once Urdaneta proves that his return route is effective, a flow of commerce commences that will enable the exchange of very diverse goods and that will last more than two centuries. The changes that the Manila Galleon will produce are essential to an understanding of both the economic and cultural development of the Modern Age. New trade routes will be opened in Spanish America to connect with the Asian axis, and silver will become the essential product that will allow the birth of the first global currency: the real de a ocho or “piece of eight”. At the same time, Spanish-American silver will become an engine for development inside China.

Manila will become the fascinating city that will make all exchanges possible. Three or four days by boat from Chinese ports, the city witnesses a constant coming and going of junks that carry merchandise to and from the Philippines. The Spanish do not need a Macau. Soon between 10,000 and 20,000 sangleyes (Chinese merchants from the Philippines) come to live in the city and Manila’s Parian is transformed into the world’s first Chinatown. From there we receive combs, fans and “Manila shawls”, among other things. It is difficult today to assess the importance of these exchanges, largely because historical studies on them are scarce and for a long time they were almost abandoned. Morales and Gordon’s book opens a door (fortunately not the only one) to allow a large number of readers to understand that the phenomenon of globalization began much earlier than is usually thought and, of course, already had a solid trajectory before British colonial expansion and the emergence of the United States as a world power.

Some coincidences in the dates are perplexing, for example, the great crisis of the mid-17th century.

It is difficult to know exactly how far the symbiotic relationship between the Spanish Empire (especially the American viceroyalties) and China went, but some coincidences in the dates are perplexing, for example, the great crisis of the mid-17th century. It is becoming increasingly clear that this time of great conflict, widespread impoverishment and population decline is closely related to the climate and in particular terrible years of long, destructive winters and consequently poor harvests. Needless to say, storms and bad weather also affected trade routes. The fact is, and here it remains a matter for reflection, that the well-known battle of Rocroi, which, according to the usual historical account, marks a moment of profound decline of Spanish power in Europe, happens almost at the same time as the fall of the Ming Empire: Rocroi was in 1643 and the capture of Peking by the Manchus, and start of a new dynasty, the Qing, was in 1644. From Rocroi, we go directly to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and with it to the beginning of the balance of power, which had very little balance and was tremendously unstable, but of course in which Spain did not participate.

To get an idea of the importance of this connection through the Pacific, we must bear in mind that Ming China was the main economic power on the planet. Within it lived 25 percent of the world’s population which generated around 40 percent of its GDP. Its production capacity was unimaginable for Westerners. And the surprising thing about this story is that for almost two and a half centuries the relationship between these two giants, the Hispanic monarchy and China, was mutually beneficial. And when the power of one collapsed, so did the other, and for very similar reasons. But that is another story.

The consequences of what we are just pointing out here are many and varied. Morales and Gordon’s book explains to us not only what it meant in the past, but also what it still means today in order to understand the present and even the future of relations between East and West, and particularly the relationship between China and Latin America.

Elvira Roca Barea is an award-winning Spanish academic and writer.