“Portuguese Intervention in the Manila Galleon Trade” by Etsuko Miyata

The Manila-Acapulco trade route from a 1748 map The Manila-Acapulco trade route from a 1748 map

The so-called “Manila galleon”—more than a trade route but in its structure and organization what we would consider today a shipping line—connected Asia with the Americas for 250 years through the latter quarter of the 16th century to the first quarter of the 19th. By being the final bi-directional piece of the global trade puzzle, and by delivering the American silver needed for the China’s money supply, this “Silver Way” arguably ushered in globalization itself.

Miyata packs a great deal of detail on goods and markets into just a few pages. For those new to the subject, these passages should serve very well.

But the Manila galleon, running as it did between Acapulco in the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain to and from Manila, itself also under the jurisdiction of New Spain, has been usually been seen—as far as the European powers are concerned—as an almost exclusively Spanish affair.

In Portuguese Intervention in the Manila Galleon Trade, Etsuko Miyata argues for

 

… the importance of the participation of Portuguese merchants in the Manila Galleon trade in Asia …

 

Portuguese Intervention in the Manila Galleon Trade probably qualifies more as a “monograph” than a book for the general reader: almost A4 in format, dual-column and heavily footnoted. Although academic in purpose and style, the prose is however clear and readable and is no impediment to understanding—although those relatively uninformed about Chinese ceramic typologies might find themselves skimming the detailed comparisons.

Miyata begins with a good potted history of the development of European-Asian trade and the Manila galleon in particular. She packs a great deal of detail on goods and markets into just a few pages. For those new to the subject, these passages should serve very well.

 

 Portuguese Intervention in the Manila Galleon Trade: The structure and networks of trade between Asia and America in the 16th and 17th centuries as revealed by Chinese Ceramics and Spanish archives, Etsuko Miyata (Archaeopress Archaeology, March 2017)

Portuguese Intervention in the Manila Galleon Trade: The structure and networks of trade between Asia and America in the 16th and 17th centuries as revealed by Chinese Ceramics and Spanish archives
, Etsuko Miyata (Archaeopress Archaeology, March 2017)

Portuguese Intervention in the Manila Galleon Trade has several intertwined lines of argument, the most innovative—at least to me—is the use of the physical, archaeological evidence of Chinese ceramics found in excavations in Mexico and the Iberian peninsula.

These sections are more than a little technical, but one striking result is that Chinese ceramics reached the Americas very early: excavations in Mexico City’s Zócalo (main plaza) have turned up pieces dating from mid-16th century to 1575. Miyata includes a discussion of how these pieces are dated using, on the whole, comparative techniques and pieces (often from shipwrecks) of known date. The historical interest is that, given that the “tornaviaje”—the actual discovery of the route back from Manila to Acapulco—was only in 1565, this dating doesn’t leave a lot of time for the pieces to get to Mexico.

That the Portuguese in Macau were supplying Manila at least by the early 17th century is cited by a number of historians. Miyata argues that this involvement dates from the earliest days of the Manila galleon. She deduces this both logically:

 

… supply from Macao, especially from early dealings until the prosperous period of the Manila galleon trade, was very important to the Spanish because of their lack of commercial and political knowledge and their connections to other Asian and Southeast Asian countries…

 

and from the early dates of archaeological evidence from Mexico. In addition to the early date, she further notes that some of these pieces are “identical to finds among the heirloom pieces in Lisbon” (i.e. early pieces that had reached there through Portuguese-controlled routes around the Cape of Good Hope) which in turn, she says—perhaps pushing the evidentiary envelope a bit—indicates “the distinct possibility that the Portuguese were the agents who actually pushed the business forward.”

 

A discussion of the American end of this trade brings in a different thread. The “Mexican merchants” were, she writes, a cosmopolitan lot: “individuals of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and other European backgrounds”. Miyata identifies the Portuguese as conversos—former Jews that had, usually under considerable duress, converted to Christianity. The question of the converso diaspora and their ostensible commercial and social networks is larger than the Manila galleon per se; in discussing it at such length, the book loses some of its focus. Miyata herself notes that converso “links to the Asian market are very difficult to trace”. She nevertheless notes elsewhere that

 

The decline of the porcelain trade towards the middle of the 17th century may be explained in relation to the Inquisition in Mexico and the persecution of some wealthy converso merchants, who fled Mexico, and causing Spain to lose its strong tie with Macao.

 

The “intervention” in the title is not just the involvement of Portuguese merchants at both ends of the Manila galleon but also in Portuguese competition for good and markets. Portugal did in fact send a ship directly to Mexico in 1590: the cargo was seized and the experiment aborted.

In a further extension beyond the strict confines of the book’s title, Miyata discusses Chinese porcelain in Spain itself, and includes a study of Chinese ceramics excavated in Galicia. These probably came, she argues, via Portuguese westward trades routes rather having been transhipped from the Americas.

 

Portuguese Intervention in the Manila Galleon Trade is positioned as a somewhat specialist monograph. This is a pity, since the introductions and overviews are useful and accessible. The middle section on the ceramics themselves is a bit dense, as one might expect, but even then, the pictures and captions tell a narrative whose outlines are not hard to discern.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books and co-author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815 (2017).