“Portuguese Merchants in the Manila Galleon System, 1565-1600” by Cuauhtémoc Villamar


Once a relatively obscure topic, the Manila Galleon—in essence a commercial shipping line that connected Asia to the Americas from the 16th to early 19th centuries and arguably the key building block in the development of what we have since recognized as “globalization”—is now the subject of an increasing number of studies. In the latest, Portuguese Merchants in the Manila Galleon System, 1565-1600, former Mexican diplomat Cuauhtémoc Villamar looks at the involvement of Portuguese merchants—and by extension Macau—in the Galleon’s first few decades.

This is not the first time this question has been looked at: Etsuko Miyata, for example, discussed it in Portuguese Intervention in the Manila Galleon Trade. While Miyata musters archaeological evidence to bolster a claim that


… 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…


Villamar bases his not dissimilar claim on studies of the actual merchants involved, in particular Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro (or Bartolomé Báez Landero as he was known in Spanish) and Diogo Fernándes Vitória (aka Diego Hernández Victoria).

Landeiro, who had been given the appellation “King of the Portuguese” not long after his death, and who reportedly went around Macau with a bodyguard of eighty, is quite well-known. Fernándes Vitória relocated to Manila where, as alderman, he became important in the administration. The two had close business contacts as well as, it seems, other bonds relating to the fact that were both so-called “New Christians” of Jewish ancestry; the potential significance (the evidence is by its nature somewhat oblique) of merchants of Jewish lineage, and the connections between their extended families, in the rise of global trade is something also noted by Miyata.


Portuguese Merchants in the Manila Galleon System, 1565-1600, Cuauhtémoc Villemar (Taylor & Francis, December 2020)
Portuguese Merchants in the Manila Galleon System, 1565-1600, Cuauhtémoc Villamar (Taylor & Francis, December 2020)

Villamar uses these examples to demonstrate that the Manila Galleon was not an exclusively intra-Spanish enterprise. For those unaware of the fact that it has sometimes been seen to be one, this may seem unremarkable. Trade tends to be run by merchants who are often more loyal to lucre than government policy; governments, regardless of policy, often need support of merchants and so often look the other way. Furthermore, at the time (from the 1580 on), the Spanish and Portuguese crowns were unified. While the countries remained separate, it nevertheless became that much harder to get players from either side to stick exclusively to their designated spheres.

The idea that the Manila Galleon was for the Spanish arose not just from the way narratives tend to develop along national lines, something Villamar takes aim at, but also because there were very visible attempts by Spain to portray it as such: Macau was forbidden from trading directly with the Americas (one ill-fated ship that tried had its cargo seized on arrival) and only merchants in Manila itself were supposed to be able to trade. But the Manila Galleon was no exception to the general rule: commerce usually took precedence and Government regulations were less honored than regularly breached.


The picture that emerges from Portuguese Merchants in the Manila Galleon System and other studies is of trade networks (or “system” as Villamar would call it) with multiple nodes. Manila acted as an aggregator: the Spanish were largely locked out of the Chinese market.


The people of Manila accused the Portuguese of Macao of influencing the Chinese authorities against the merchants of Manila and blocking the entrance to the Spaniards. On many occasions, merchants from Manila tried to enter China, raising complaints from the Portuguese, which claimed a violation of the royal rule separating the administrations.


Chinese merchants—and evidently Portuguese merchants sourcing Chinese goods—supplied the node in Manila. Acapulco was another node in the Americas; while Macau was involved in all kinds of intra-Asian trade and connected back to Europe via Goa. This is, again, probably what one would have expected: it only looks surprising when trade is seen as conducted between countries rather than businessmen. The system must have worked well: neither Manila nor Macau were seriously challenged, nor seriously challenged each other, in several centuries of co-existence. But as they had elsewhere in Asia, individual Portuguese merchants displayed the same skill of inserting themselves into existing trade networks. To parallel the complaints the Portuguese made about the Spanish:


The people of Manila as well complained about the presence of Portuguese in the trade routes supplying the galleon to Acapulco.


The latter seem to have had little effect, but success can lead to enmity.  Diego Hernández Victoria was later laid low by the Inquisition. He was subsequently (albeit posthumously) acquitted of practicing Judaism.


Portuguese Merchants in the Manila Galleon System goes through a lot of material as background that those familiar with the Manila Galleon will likely already be familiar with; those who aren’t should perhaps select a more general introduction. The book is unfortunately marred by rather poor editing with a number of grammatical and typographical errors slipping through.

Villamar’s entry to the still slowly increasing canon of works on the Manila Galleon nevertheless helps to flesh out the picture of how it developed and in practice operated. It is particularly valuable in shining light on the activities of individual merchants, putting a face, as it were, to this important stage in early globalization.

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