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September 03, 2010


With a record of more than 250 years, the Galleon Trade was the longest running shipping line of its time. Carrying   silver, gold, spices, silk and objects that were fashionable between 1565- 1815, it was, as Nick Joaquin noted, “…the first medium to reduce the world to a village”.  Items from all over the globe docked in Manila Bay,  and were stored in the Almacenes Reales which you will still find in Fort Santiago, Intramuros.  Using the route discovered by Fray Andres de Urdaneta, a well-known circumnavigator before his stint as an Augustinian priest, the galleons, (one galleon at a time) plied the trans-pacific from the Philippines to Mexico. Not known to everyone, the San Lucas, the smallest tender of the expedition party, arrived Mexico itwo months before the arrival of Urdaneta. With no notes to show for the route taken however, it was a mere side-note in maritime history and never contributed to nautical science. On the other hand, Fray Andres de Urdaneta had an established plan to return with detailed notes about the entire trip, diseases and all. 

King Philip II of Spain invited Urdaneta to be part of the expedition to the Philippines as he was familiar with Southeast Asia and its culture.  There has been a rumor that he fathered a child somewhere in Indonesia during his previous trip. During the expedition, he was to join Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, whose remains can be found in the UNESCO proclaimed World Heritage Site, the San Agustin Church.   When the British arrived in 1762, they looted the Church and unearthed and scattered the bones, including Legazpi’s. So in his tomb, the bones underneath, might be or might not be his.  On a side note, you will find another great Filipino buried there, with the name Juan Luna.  San Agustin is acknowledged for having one of the best collections of church memorabilia in the country and its architecture is a mix of European, Mexican, Chinese and Filipino elements.  Curiously, there are fu dogs or lion guards in front of the church and you will find dragon-like creatures carved into the choir loft chairs. Another interesting feature of the church are carvings of double-headed eagles all around, the emblem or seal of the Habsburg Dyanasty.  When Spain was in its apex of power, it was under the rule of the Habsburgs, and it was at the same time that the Philippines was colonized.

According to  Gemma Cruz-Araneta, Vice-Chair of the Manila Historical and Heritage Commission, Urdaneta possibly learned from our great seafaring ancestors about our habagat or southwest monsoon , an important piece of information that could have helped him return Mexico. The habagat  lasts from June till September and Urdaneta left July and arrived Mexico in October. With no knowledge of our brand of wind and coral reefs, many a European ship sank in the Pacific, but thanks to the Filipinos and their wisdom of the seas and shipbuilding, European navigational skills broadened and the designs of the Galleons were formulated to our island specifications.  Today, our vast knowledge of the seas are greatly valued, from cruise ships to freight vessels, there will always be a group of Filipinos on board.

On November 21, 1564 the San Pedro along with the San Pablo and two smaller boats, the San Lucas and San Juan left Mexico. And as they first set foot in our islands, they noticed something about our country and our people, we had a really fantastic trading system. Ferdinand Magellan and his cohorts had the same experience when they arrived in 1521.  We were trading not only with our Southeast Asian neighbours but also with China. Junks would arrive with boatloads of rich silk, damask and goods from the Orient, and it was further divided and traded around the islands.  According to Senor Guillermo Gómez Rivera, Philippine Honorary President of Asociación Cultural Galeón de Manila, there is an account of Juan De Salcedo, grandson of Legazpi, rescuing the Chinese from a brawl with Filipinos in Taal, Batangas.  He and his grandfather, refitted the boats and sent it off to China, the Chinese soon came back with riches of the Orient which proved to be precious in the European Market. 

In  his book, After the Galleons, Benito Legarda sites that during the galleon trade, ninety percent of goods arriving the Philippines were Mexican silver headed for China. In those times, a piece of gold in China was equivalent to six to eight pieces of silver, while in Europe, a piece of gold was equivalent to thirteen pieces of silver. If one does the math, a very large profit can be made from China. Silver was king, and it was also the main source of payment around the globe, in the form of silver pesos.  The bulk of items leaving the Philippines were mostly silk, damask, and porcelain of Chinese origin, and ten percent was sourced from the Philippines such as gold, pearls and plants.  And that is why today, when we find bits of the Galleons, such as the San Diego in Nasugbu, you will find not one but hundreds of porcelain jars that were supposed to be headed for Europe but is now in the hands or our parents, grandparents, and antique dealers.

The Philippines role in the Galleon Trade is a story that needs to be told.   Last year in the UNESCO General Meeting in Paris, October 8 was deemed Day of the Galleon or Dia Del Galeon.  It commemorates the Galleon Trade and the route found by Fray Andres de Urdaneta.  The Philippines is the first country in the entire world to commemorate this day with a festival—the good, the bad and everything in between. It will be about the Galleon Trade plus more interesting tidbits that history fails to cover, such as the Philippine influence on the Trade. A multi-media play will be held from October 6-8 entitled, Juana La Loca, about the supposedly mad queen of Spain, who really wasn’t mad at all.   And remember the Habsburg Dynasty? Queen Juana was the first Castillan queen to marry into the great dynasty.  And of course he has a name—Philip the Handsome. You might know some of her children too, Carlos I of Spain or Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who oversaw the colonization of the Americas.   And the son of Charles the V is another famous character,  his name was Philip II and ruled one of the world’s largest empires. Our country, the Philippines, was named after him.
(Charissse Aquino-Tugade August 16, 2010)

*The Philippines spearheads the celebrations of the International Día del Galeón Festival 2010 with a string of activities including workshops, conferences, exhibits, national competitions, and a Viaje del Galeón. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Baler 400 Steering Committee has organized the program with National and International Agencies. For updates and additional information, please call 527-2192 local 616.