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Wake of the Manila Galeons

By Bob Schulman
Imagine it’s the 16th century, and you’re on a 2,500-ton Spanish super-galleon sailing off the coast of Mexico. You’re on your way back from a long, dangerous voyage to Manila, where traders from New Spain (Mexico) swapped silver coins and ingots – looted from mines across Mexico and Peru – for silks, porcelain, spices and the other riches of Asia.
Winds on the return portion of the trip took you to Northern California, after which your ship lumbered down the California coastline to the tip of the Baja Peninsula, then skirted the Gulf of California to the Mexican mainland.
On the way to your home port at Acapulco are some of the most gorgeous bays in the world at Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Zihuatanejo. But your captain steers as far away from these spots as possible — because they’re known to shelter pirate fleets. And yours is the biggest prize of all.
The story goes back to 1565, forty-four years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In the Far East, silver rules. Emperors, pashas and shahs want to fill their palaces with the shiny stuff from across the sea.
Meanwhile, the viceroys, marquises and grandees of Mexico want to fill their sprawling haciendas with silks and porcelain from China and hot stuff from the Spice Islands.
So East and West made a deal to swap their goods. The trading post would be at Manila, a Spanish colony already serving as a commercial link between Europe and Asia. To get there from Mexico, the westerners came up with a new breed of huge, four-deck ships big enough to carry millions of silver pesos (coins about the size of a U.S. silver dollar) and as many as 1,000 traders, crewmen, soldiers, clergymen, settlers and others traveling to the Far East
The vessels went down in the Spanish history books as the “Naos de China” (ships of China), in the Chinese books as what translated to “the Silver Argosies,” and in the English books, “the Manila galleons.”
Setting sail for Manila
Their eastbound voyages started at Acapulco, Mexico’s chief western seaport, where the galleons were loaded with silver and supplies for Spain’s overseas colonies. They sailed out of the bay under protection of the five gun-studded bastions of Fort San Diego, then latched on to the westerly trade winds to arrive in Manila two to three months later.
It was a lot harder getting back. The ships, now re-loaded with Asian treasures along with returning passengers, frequently had to sail as far north as Japan and even the Aleutians to find winds and currents heading back across the Pacific. Usually, they ended up off the California coast near Cape Mendocino (170 miles north of modern-day San Jose); from there, they caught winds blowing off and on down the shorelines of California, Baja California and western Mexico.
The trip from Manila to Acapulco typically took five or six months, and it was fraught with perils. Not only did the sailors have to worry about storms, tricky currents, starvation, dehydration, scurvy, and rocky, fog-shrouded shorelines, but their exotic cargoes were the prize targets of pirates, privateers (a sort of legal piracy) and wartime enemies of Spain.
No wonder of all the galleons’ voyages – they trekked across the Pacific singly or in pairs for 250 years until Mexico booted its Spanish rulers out of the country in the early 1800s — around one out of five trips ended in some kind of disaster.
Pirates on the prowl
It didn’t take a galleon scientist to figure out when the homeward bound ships would show up off the coast of Mexico. They usually left Acapulco in January or February to take advantage of the season’s steady winds to the Philippines. They’d arrive in Manila in late spring, and after a few months of trading would start the homeward voyage around July – which would put them along the Mexican shoreline heading to Acapulco by mid-winter.
So all the pirates had to do – when they weren’t otherwise picking off coastal commerce — was to find a cozy harbor and sit around for a few months waiting for the galleons’ enormous sails to pop up on the horizon.
Among the brigands’ favorite hideaways were spots now enjoyed by visitors to modern-day luxury resorts dotting the “Mexican Riviera” from Mazatlan down to Zihuatanejo, the latter having the last sheltered bay before Acapulco. If the galleons could make it past there, the last 150 miles to their home port were usually a breeze.
Denver-based freelance writer Bob Schulman is a member of the Mexico Writers Alliance and the Society of American Travel Writers.

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