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The Acapulco-Manila connection
by Louis Proyect
08 February 2002 01:14 UTC
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[Combining elements of the sort of dialectical anthropology found in 
Stanley Diamond's writings, world systems theory and first-person 
travel journalism, Jack Weatherford's "Savages and Civilization: Who 
will Survive?" is a must read for scholars or laypeople.

[Although it was written directly for the paperback market, the book 
is up-to-speed on scholarly sources, including Braudel and Eric Wolf 
among others. Weatherford's main purpose is to illustrate how every 
gain in "civilized" society has come at the expense of earlier bonds 
of solidarity and ecological sustainability. Perhaps the epigraph to 
chapter 14 by Herman Melville summarizes Weatherford's goal in barest 
terms: "Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a 
hundred evils in reserve…"

[The passage below concludes chapter 11, "The Silver Ship Across the 
Pacific". Writing from a hotel in Acapulco, whose seedy charm he 
captures vividly, Weatherford explains how the navigation routes 
between Spain, New Spain (Mexico) and the Philippines made the rise 
of Europe possible. Even more intriguingly, in light of 9/11, is the 
suggestion that by bypassing the Mideast, the new route essentially 
condemned the Arab and Central Asian world to a stagnant "back 

The trans-Pacific voyage of the Mexican galleon to Manila each year 
was the longest and probably the most dangerous voyage of any ship in 
the world. It covered the longest distance on the high seas without 
sight of land of any other route. Particularly the return voyage, 
which sailed far to the north in order to catch the North Pacific 
Current, passed through treacherous waters plagued by typhoons, 
Japanese pirates, and the constant threats of scurvy and beriberi.

The Manila galleon put the cities of Spain in direct and continued 
contact with the cities of China. By today's standards, the two years 
that it took to make a round trip from Cadiz to Canton seems long, 
but compared with the years that it took Marco Polo to make a similar 
trip by land, the Manila galleon made a new and fast connection. The 
sea route proved not only much faster and more secure than the land 
route, but it was considerably cheaper because the goods had to pass 
through fewer hands. From the time the goods were loaded onto the 
ship in Manila until they were unloaded in Spain, they were under a 
single authority, that of the king of Spain, who ruled not only Spain 
but Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Philippines.

In the Spanish imperial administration, the Philippines constituted a 
part of New Spain (Mexico), which lay much closer to the islands than 
did the mother country. The Spaniards even called the Filipinos 
indios, or Indians, the same name they used for the Mexicans and 
other Native Americans. A letter from the Spanish court left Madrid 
by land, sailed from Seville in the spring, and crossed the Atlantic 
and Caribbean by ship, landed at Veracruz on Mexico's eastern shore 
two months after leaving Europe, was transported by hand or horse 
across the mountains to Mexico City, then down the mountains to 
Acapulco, to wait for the Manila galleon in April.

Even though Spain and the Philippines lay on opposite sides of the 
same Eurasian landmass, the commercial and bureaucratic lines 
connecting them ran the other way around the world and across the 
Pacific. Madrid and Canton sat on opposite sides of Eurasia, 
separated by 6,500 miles of land, but connections between the two 
went in the opposite direction from Madrid, 5,600 miles across the 
Atlantic, a few hundred miles overland, and then 9,000 miles by water 
to Manila, and then another 775 miles to Canton, a total distance 
from Madrid to Canton of 16,000 miles, two-thirds of the way around 
the earth. Acapulco served as the key link between the two distant 
lands. A letter from the king took more than a year to travel to 
Manila via Acapulco, and the response to the letter might take even 
longer traveling eastward from the Philippines back to Spain. For a 
letter to go and return even within a decade must have seemed 
momentous to the people of that era because the Manila galleon made 
communication around the world quicker than it had ever been.

The fast new sea routes across the world meant the nomadic tribes who 
traded across Eurasia and the Middle East no longer played a 
significant role in global commerce. Once necessary, albeit slow and 
expensive, the cheaper, faster sea routes made them obsolete. Their 
crossroads of civilizations became the back roads, and often these 
atrophied into the niggling routes for a few local products such as 
metal pots, firearms, tea, and sugar, for which they sold their 
laboriously woven and knotted rugs and other handicrafts, and 
sometimes even their own children. To this day, the tribal merchants 
of central Asia have never recovered from this financial setback of 
the Manila galleon, and they have never again flourished as they did 
when they controlled the trade. They descended from being the 
conquerors and the arbiters of power to being the pawns of China, 
Russia, Persia, Turkey, and other invading armies.

The fleet across the much more heavily traveled Atlantic sea lanes 
from Spain numbered from eighty to a hundred ships each year. By 
contrast, the Manila galleon usually crossed the Pacific alone. The 
distance of nine thousand miles in each direction was far too great 
to risk more than one ship at a time. Accompanying ships would have 
required more water, food, and supplies than could be furnished, and 
even then they were little protection from a shipload of determined 
Chinese, Dutch, or Philippine pirates.

Most of the goods on the Manila galleon were not destined for Mexico 
or other parts of the Americas; they continued on across Mexico to 
Spain and other parts of Europe. Mexico was the stopping-off station 
for European-Asian trade, but relatively little of the goods or 
wealth of either continent stayed in America; instead, the American 
colonies had to work hard to produce inordinate amounts of gold, 
silver, and other precious materials for their European overlords.

In some years the Mexican merchants sent more silver across the 
Pacific to Asia than across the Atlantic to Spain. Scholars estimate 
that between one-third and one-half of the silver mined in America 
ended up in China (Braudel vol. 2, 1982, 198). The total amount of 
silver shipped over in a little more than two hundred years of 
commerce was approximately five thousand tons (Wolf 1982, 154). The 
silver added greatly to the wealth of the late Ming and the Qing 
dynasties, but it also made China a more visible target for colonial 
powers wanting to wrest that silver away from the Chinese.

The exact amount of the wealth that flowed from America to Europe and 
Asia will never be known. It included the accumulated wealth of 
virtually all the American Indian civilizations-all the gold, jade, 
and silver accumulated by the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Toltecs, and 
other now-forgotten people who preceded them. It included the great 
wealth of the Chibcha of Colombia as well as the Incas of Peru and 
Bolivia and all the pre-Incan civilizations that flourished there. 
Later it included the rich furs of North America, the pitch tar and 
lumber of the greatest forests of the world, American Indian cotton 
and dyes, and the world's widest assortment of plants, ranging from 
corn, potatoes, and beans to pumpkins, squash, and chocolate.

The transoceanic commerce enriched the Europeans above all others and 
the Asians secondarily. It cost native America and Africa a bitter 
price in property and lives, in return for which they received only a 
few crumbs from the lucrative trade that sucked out the interiors of 
their homes and their cultures.

So much Mexican silver crossed the Pacific in the galleons that the 
American coins minted in Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru became the 
standard currency throughout coastal China and the offshore islands. 
These coins, which had already become the general currency of North 
America and the Caribbean, quickly became that of the Pacific as 
well. "Dollars" of various weights and values eventually became the 
unit of currency for Pacific countries including Australia, Hong 
Kong, Fiji, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, and New Zealand, as well 
as for the North Pacific nations of the United States and Canada.

While the Spanish trade empire stretched across America and the 
Pacific to Asia, the Portuguese extended the long tentacles of their 
commerce around the African coast and north to India, Indonesia, and 
China. Even before Columbus crossed the Atlantic in a Spanish 
expedition bound for Asia, the Portuguese had set out to reach it by 
sailing south and around Africa. Bartolomeu Bias rounded the Cape of 
Good Hope in 1488, and ten years later Vasco da Gama rounded the cape 
and reached India in 1498. The Portuguese established a series of 
trading centers and forts along both African coasts and across India 
and Indonesia, terminating in the Portuguese colony of Macao, China, 
established in 1557 at the mouth of the Canton River. The 
Lisbon-Macao route served much the same place in Portuguese commerce 
that the Madrid-Manila route served for Spain.

The slender thread of trade created by the Manila galleon and by the 
Portuguese and then Dutch ships became the first completely global 
trade network. These were the last and longest parts of a journey 
around the world from east to west and from west to east. With the 
annual run of the Manila galleon, humans had spanned the widest ocean 
on earth, and with the ships around Africa, humans had created ties 
running in both directions around the world. Since the inauguration 
of these routes, we have intensified these ties, added more ships, 
built more highways, and added railway and finally airplane links, 
but basically the world has merely been elaborating on this 

The unification of the world into a single economic system, a truly 
world economy of global dimensions, took roughly eight thousand years 
from the settlement of the first agricultural villages until the 
completion of the first trans-Pacific route from Acapulco to Manila. 
The process required three major sets of technological and social 
breakthroughs: the unification of Asia and Europe via the horse, the 
connection of sub-Saharan Africa with the Mediterranean by means of 
the camel, and the voyages connecting Europe and Asia with America 
across the high seas of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Each of these 
three breakthroughs required a host of secondary technological 
innovations, such as the invention of stirrups, bridles, and saddles 
to maximize the energy of the horse; the digging of wells to provide 
water while crossing the Sahara; the use of paper to maintain contact 
over thousands of miles across Eurasia; and the mastery of celestial 
and compass navigation to cross the oceans.

The Manila galleon's annual crossing of the Pacific marked a major 
triumph in human technology and organization. With the inauguration 
of this route, humans had finally conquered the high seas and thereby 
moved from mere exploration to sustained commerce and communication. 
In the truest sense, the modern age began with those voyages. From 
the year of the Manila galleon's first round-trip crossing of the 
Pacific, the world had become a much smaller place; the commercial 
ties, stretched so thinly across the two great oceans, grew into 
religious, cultural, and political ties in the coming centuries. The 
modern global order had begun, and only a matter of time and effort 
remained to bring every country, island, nation, village, tribe, and 
band into that unified system.

Today, Acapulco is still Mexico's major Pacific port. Ships 
registered in Panama and Liberia bring in multimillion-dollar cargoes 
of Japanese cars and machines, Korean textiles and televisions, and 
Chinese toys and crafts. The modern ships, however, are bringing 
goods for Mexico and not for shipment on to Europe. That cargo now 
heads south, through the Panama Canal, and on across the Atlantic by 
an all-water route, without the need to pass near Mexico.

Acapulco has evolved from its former status as a major link in 
creating the modern world economic system to that of a bit player in 
world tourism. The ships that sail in and out of Acapulco harbor 
today are as likely to be cruise ships running the Mexican Riviera 
route as they are to be cargo ships from Asia. The young Filipino men 
and women who wear starched white uniforms and serve drinks on the 
promenade deck or by the poolserve as a faint reminder of the role 
that the Philippines and Mexico once played in world trade. The 
children and old women hawking tawdry souvenirs along the beach of 
Acapulco represent an ever-fainter version of the merchants who 
traveled down each year from Mexico City to trade with the merchants 
from the Philippines, Peru, and Japan for some of the most exotic and 
costly merchandise in die world. The tawdry trinkets made of silver 
and sold in modern Acapulco do not hint at the billions of dollars in 
silver bars and coins that once sailed out of this harbor to change 
forever the economy of Asia.

The merchants and their families still come down from Mexico City 
each weekend and holiday season, but they come to escape work and 
commerce, not to expand it. They come to stay in the luxury hotels 
scattered among the palms, and to board the luxury boats that pay 
their courtesy calls on the aged city. Like many of the visitors, the 
city of Acapulco has retired from its active role as a major player 
on the international stage of commerce and has settled into an easier 
routine of fun in the sun, golf, swimming, boating, touring, fishing, 
drinking, shopping, dining, and even some occasional snorkeling.

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 02/07/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

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