Manila Acapulco Galleon Trade Route

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Mexico Series: Part 8

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The accounts of travels on the Chinese Galleon, the Manila Galleon, the Nao de China — the ships were called many things — were harrowing. It was a six month journey to cross over from the Phillipines to the coast of southern California always with the threat of running out of water or being caught in a typhoon. From California, the vessels sailed down the coast of Mexico to Acapulco where they stayed for many months until the winds were right for the three month voyage back.

Once anchored in Acapulco bay, the trading companies set up markets, and all the wealthy merchants from Mexico City descended on Acapulco to barter and haggle for goods to fill their shops.

And those shops were right here below us in the first floors of all the buildings you see here in the Zocolo in this painting of the Zocolo in the 1600s.

Just imagine wealthy silver mine barons and merchants and Spanish Lords wandering in and out of these arcades on their way to the Palacio Nacional of us, past all the overflowing shops. Imagine Marquesas, and Condesas — because royal titles were also something that could be bought by pure Spanish blood creoles — dressed in gowns made of these opulent silk brocades purchased in the Port of Acapulco. Here’s a a description from a visitor to Mexico in 1625.

“I am astounded by the thousands of horse drawn carriages that do exceed in cost the best of the Court of Madrid, for they spare no silver of gold, nor the best silks of China to enrich them. Both men and women are excessive in their apparel, using more silk than stuffs and cloth. A hat band of pearls is ordinary in a tradesman. And in the hat of a merchant you will find rosettes of diamonds.”

Remember this was at a time in our own country when the pilgrims were stomping around in the mud of Plymouth Colony.

The women would be wearing collars of convent-made lace from France purchased in Veracruz, their hair studded with pearls and quetzal feathers, as they were carried by liveried Indian servants on silk canopied sedans. Here’s one such young woman — Daughter of a Cacique. In their hands they would hold a coconut shell chocolate cup like this. These cups were part of every well-established household, a sign of status, and even bringing them to mass was such a common practice that the bishops complained about it to Rome! What I love about this little household object is that it is absolutely Mexican — the silver, the coconut and the chocolate. It is little details like that which begin to show a rising sense of a national identity apart from Spain. This would, of course, erupt later.

These ladies would have left homes that cost 300,000 pesos to build — at a time when a good living in Mexico could be had for 300 pesos a year — homes where each family member had between 2-4 servants to attend to their every need. Is it any wonder as Spain mired itself more deeply in debt that industrious young Spaniards found their way to the New world?

Many came as newly graduated law students and government bureaucrats. Along with the elegant ladies, these young men would be seen rushing across the plaza on their way to the Palacio Nacional, hurrying to court or to attend to the endless duties of running the Spanish empire in the new world.

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