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OPEN FORUM

Presentations were prepared for the Secretary's Open Forum Conversation Series. Views or conclusions contained herein should not be interpreted as representing the official opinion or policy of the U.S. Department of State.


Asian Pacific American Federal Foreign Affairs Council
"Conference on U.S.-Philippine Relations"

Congressman Robert A. Underwood (D, Guam)

Smithsonian Institution
May 13, 1998

"Commerce and Culture of the Manila Galleon:
Linking the Philippines, Guam, The Americas, and Spain"

The Manila galleons were couriers not only of fine silks and precious spices, they were also purveyors of cultural traits and social norms. For 250 years, since its start in 1565 and end in 1815, the Manila galleons were instrumental to the survival of the Spanish colonies in the Philippines and Mexico, then known as New Spain. In the center of all this trade were the Marianas Islands, known to Europeans as the "Islas de los Ladrones." I would like to outline the impact of the galleon trade on the Marianas Islands, specifically on Guam, as well as call your attention to the significance of the galleon trade and the Spanish colonies in Mexico, the Philippines and the Marianas, not only as awesome economic and political ventures of that time, but also as political and cultural conduits between the far East and the West.

The ancient Chamorros were proto-Malays who settled in Micronesia. Excerpts from European travelers describe these people as light-skinned, black-haired, and tall men and women with amazing athletic prowess. They hunted and fished with ease and agility, and demonstrated their intelligence in their encounters with travelers when bartering for products. The ancient Chamorros also had a rigid caste social structure composed of a nobility and a middle class which featured some mobility. There was an outcast group called the manachang. They were restricted by various societal laws, such as laws authorizing where they could fish or how they should fish -- they were only supposed to catch eels with wooden spears. The manachang could never rise out of their caste.

Even before the establishment of the galleon route, the Marianas Islands have always been a necessary stopping point for adventurers and traders heading west towards the Moluccas, then popularly known as the Spice Islands, and the Philippines. Ferdinand Magellan's voyage to search for a westward route to the Orient took him through the Marianas on March 6, 1521. He probably first caught a glimpse of Rota first, then Guam. Magellan chose to land on Guam because of its larger size.

The name "Islas de los Ladrones" was introduced by Magellan. Mistaking the Chamorros' sense of mutual gift exchange for common thievery, he accused them of stealing one of his small boats. As punishment, he and a contingent of men burned 40 or 50 houses. Magellan's men left on March 9, 1521. It is interesting to note that Magellan's landing not only had repercussions on the route of the galleon trade, even today there are mixed feelings regarding Magellan's historic stop on Guam. The village of Umatac has always celebrated Discovery Day to commemorate the so-called discovery of Guam by this Portuguese explorer. However, there is discussion regarding the celebratory nature of this event because Magellan left on rather negative terms with the Chamorros. In addition, "Ladrones" was a name that stuck with the island until Father Diego Luis De Sanvitores had the name changed in honor of Queen Mariana of Austria in the mid-1600's. The Spanish empire and, in particular, the owners of the galleons, were fortunate that the islanders were really not ladrones.

Another Spanish ship, on Sept. 4, 1526, provided another opportunity for some Chamorros to interact with Spaniards, although not in such a manner as they would have desired. A ship commanded by Fray Garcia Jofre de Loaisa encountered Guam in 1526 and stayed for four days to collect water and other provisions. However, they also managed to lure 11 Chamorros into their ship for the purpose of operating water pumps their own personnel were too sickly to operate. The absence of their comrades had a tremendous effect on the Chamorros. Whereas Chamorros before would board foreigners' ships for the purpose of trading, after the Loiasa episode, Chamorros would refuse to board ships. This was the case when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, Governor and Captain General, stopped in the Marianas on January 22, 1565. Although he requested that the Chamorros board his boat in order to trade, they refused.

Miguel Lopez de Legazpi was a significant figure in the Manila galleon trade because it was through his efforts that a return route to New Spain from Manila was achieved. Without this accomplishment, there never would have been a Manila galleon. In addition to being tasked with this responsibility, he was also sent by the King of Spain specifically to claim any lands encountered and to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. On their way to claim the Philippines, Legazpi's men stopped in the Marianas and traded with the Chamorros for provisions. On January 26, 1565, Legazpi officially claimed Guam for King Felipe. Parting with the Chamorros, however, was not on pleasant terms. In retaliation for the natives killing a ship boy, Legazpi ordered the execution of four natives and wounded and burned several homes. The Spaniards always had to let everyone know that they had been there. Legazpi left Guam on February 3, 1565, and went on to claim the Philippines for Spain.

I would like to emphasize that even before the galleon route was established in 1565, there have been relatively frequent trade encounters between the Marianas and other travelers, such as the Europeans and the Carolinians. Voyagers would encounter dozens of "praus," lightweight boats with palm-made lateen sails, cruising at up to 20mph toward their vessels. Chamorros would offer potatoes, rice, yams, coconuts, sugar cane, ginger, bananas and fruits in exchange for colored beads and fabrics. Of great importance was the trade in nails and iron. Before contact with the Europeans, the Chamorros used stone tools. After their acquisition of iron, they began to utilize iron for various tools and weapons.

Although the galleons stopped on Guam on their way to Manila or Acapulco, there was no official station on Guam. It was not until 1668 that a royal order mandated all galleons to make a port of call on Guam. However, a call on Guam would not have materialized if it were not for the efforts of Father Diego Luis de Sanvitores. A Jesuit missionary on board on of the galleons San Damian in 1662 destined for the Philippines, the San Damian made their stop on Guam. After his encounter with the Chamorros, Father Sanvitores made up his mind to Christianize the inhabitants of the Marianas Islands, then still known as the "Islas de los Ladrones." Appealing directly to the King, and then the Queen, Father Sanvitores finally received permission from Queen Mariana of Austria to send a mission to the islands, for whom the islands were renamed. On June 15, 1668, the first permanent mission, led by Father Sanvitores, landed on Guam. He was accompanied by Filipino lay assistants and a garrison force of 32 soldiers.

The Galleon was dramatic in its impact -- its singular annual voyage made the Pacific a Spanish lake; comparable to making all East-West trade dependent upon one voyage, a handful of ships. To speak of the impact of the Manila galleon trade on the Chamorros on Guam and the Marianas would be the same as speaking about the overall impact of Spanish rule on Guam. What made Guam so important to the Spaniards was its strategic location in the Pacific. It was located between the large Spanish communities of New Spain (present day Mexico) and the Philippines. As we all know, these were the two areas serviced by the galleon trade; and the Marianas served as a way station between the two.

First, the primary impact of the first galleon layovers on Guam was economic. Economic because trade between Spain and the Chamorros meant an introduction of products, plants and animals new to the Spaniards as well as to the Chamorros. The Chamorros were introduced to iron, which soon came to be a regular ingredient for their tools and weapons. Even though Spain claimed Guam in 1565, the Marianas remained relatively untouched by Spanish political influence until the 1668 mission was established by Father Sanvitores.

Second, with the mission came Spain's political system of gobernadors and gobernadorcillos. It is important to note that the means for Spanish officials, missionaries, and soldiers to reach Guam was through the galleons. This is what I mean when I say that explaining the impact of the galleon trade on Guam would entail illustrating Spain's establishment on Guam. However, I will not go into such great detail in terms of how Guam and the Marianas were actually ruled by the Spaniards. Suffice it to say that not only did the galleon trade bring various Spanish officials and soldiers for the island's governance, the galleons also brought the yearly stipend of 34,000 pesos for the maintenance of the Spanish government in the Marianas. It was also a policy for Spain to send criminals and political outcasts from New Spain and the Philippines to Guam. This contributed significantly to the mixture of groups populating the island.

Third, the social aspect of the galleon trade can be illustrated through profound impact of Christianity. As I mentioned earlier, Father Diego Luis de Sanvitores was a Jesuit missionary intent on converting the Chamorros to the Catholicism. This push for evangelization was actually the vehicle for Guam's official settlement by the Spaniards in 1668. In addition, the yearly galleon stop on Guam replenished the supply of missionaries from the Philippines or from New Spain who were detailed to do some work on Guam. Christianity became a way of life for the Chamorros, especially when zealous priests were backed by the Spanish military forces.

The Spanish conquest meant profound changes for the ancient Chamorros and their diet. Not only did cultures collide, merge and emerge as unique Spanish and Chamorro strains, a wide range of livestock and plant life were introduced during the over three hundred years of domination. Animals from Spain, Mexico, and the Philippines, such as cattle, horse, pigs, mule, cats, dogs, goats, carabao and Philippine spotted dear found Guam's climate agreeable. In time, lime, lemons, oranges, pineapples, mangoes and maize were cultivated on Guam as well.

The architectural layout of the island also changed when Guam became a settlement for the Spaniards. Buildings directly related to the galleon trade were the various forts lining the Umatac harbor where the galleons would dock. Because of the riches contained in their holds, forts were erected for protection and as watchtowers. Fort Soledad, now a historic monument, still stands today in southern portion of Umatac village.

I have briefly outlined a few aspects of how Guam and the Marianas were affected by the galleon trade. However, I believe it is as important to focus on the legacy of this galleon trade today. We need to look at the bigger picture. We can clearly observe that the galleon trades' lasting impact on Guam has been the introduction of peoples and foods and cultures and tools. We must also not forget the resistance and subsequent subjugation of the ancient Chamorros in their fight to retain their independence and way of life. However, what of the impact of Guam, the Marianas and the other Spanish colonies on Spain? The galleon trade was not just a one-way stream of goods and beliefs; it also meant a steady stream of products and ideas from Asia to Spain and its colonies.

What we see in the Spanish colonies, as a result of the galleon trade, is a metaphor of the meeting of the East and the West. This cannot be better symbolized than by the Spanish-speaking Filipinos and Chamorros or the silk-clad Spaniards in Mexico and Spain. The Spanish colonies in the Philippines, Mexico and the Marianas reflected mixed populations, mixed cultures and mixed social norms which evolved on their own to form unique peoples with various mannerisms and speech harking back to their Asian-Pacific-European roots. It is amazing to note that a major factor of the uniqueness of these cultures today stemmed from the two hundred and fifty year-old voyages of the galleons.

We are having a discussion about the galleon trade today not only because of it is the centennial of the Spanish-American War. I believe, and I am sure my colleagues do as well, that the galleons have had a considerable impact on who we are today. This may appear difficult to accept since the popular view of the galleon trade is simply that of a mercantilist trading venture. However, just from the few examples I have outlined today, we can see that it was more than that. It allowed Europe to connect with Asia, and the conduit for those connections, whether they be economic, political, social or cultural, where the Spanish colonies of New Spain, the Philippines, and the Marianas Islands.

The Manila Galleon was a major force in the exchange between East and West with the new world playing an appropriate role as mediator. It can be studied from many angles; as a compelling story about navigation and trade; as an example of Spain's imprint on the globe; as a way of explaining mercantilism, but its enduring legacy and its metaphorical role in the exchange between a West bent on opening up a reluctant world and an East full of mystery, spices, and exotic items which were compelling enough to risk life and limb for. In the middle were pieces of land and peoples whose lives were changed forever by the linkage which the Galleon provided. Those peoples were the indigenous people of North America, primarily Mexico and certainly my own people, the Chamorro people of the Marianas.

It is clear that the forces which shaped what ultimately we understand today as kostumbren Chamorro, as lina'la' Chamorro as the Chamorro way of life were introduced by ships carrying the label of Manila galleon. The Chamorro way of life as a people tied to ranching rather than fishing, as a people planting vegetables and fruits and not just root crops like taro, the infusion of Catholicism into the very soul of Chamorro identity are all a legacy of the Manila Galleon.

This has been understood in the historiography of the Marianas, but only imperfectly. The introduction of Mexican foodstuffs and ranching/farming are all-recognizable. We, in the Marianas, go through great pains to establish that while the Chamorros certainly borrowed, we adapted rather than merely adopted, we reshaped, we reinvented and we made it Chamorro. Anyone who eats a Chamorro tityas or Chamorro tamales would instantly distinguish it from its new world parentage. But even as we inform ourselves about what the Chamorros were doing during this time of great change and adaptation, I don't think we comprehend the entire story of the Manila Galleon.

We think of the Galleon as a vessel, which carried bullion on Spanish ships from Mexican mines. We see in the return voyage the spices, the riches, the cultural expressions of Asia and the Philippines. But how curious that we still tend to think of the galleon as the extension of Spanish power, the expansion of Spanish influence and the generation of Spanish genius. We interpret the historical importance of the life of the Galleon as one of Western adventurers imposing their will on the ocean and imposing their power on weaker peoples.

I recently went to Acapulco to visit the Fuerte de San Diego (and to go on vacation). This was the fort that provided some protection to the galleon from pirates and adventurers bent on plundering the ships, which we are discussing today. The visit to the museum which the Fuerte now houses was the most instructive, as was my Mexican guide, the architect Jorge Loyaga. The museum did not serve primarily as testimony to the heroic exploits of the men who made the galleon trade possible, although those dimensions were certainly present. Instead, the totality of the experience delivered the message that the galleon was a cultural vessel, which went in two directions. The items brought back from Asia and the Philippines had a dramatic cultural impact on Mexico and ultimately on Spain. Imagine Mexican food without the spices brought back by the galleon and which are now commonplace, imagine a Mexico without embroidery styles imported from Asia, without cockfighting, without coconuts and without countless other items which captured the imagination of the people then as well as now, upon further reflection.

The nature of historical inquiry demands that we explain the present in terms of the past. Today, we are preoccupied with our cultural essence, to demonstrate not only our interconnections as human beings, but to show off our genius. As a teacher, I was fond of telling my students that we move and groove through time and space, that we must understand the influences which impact our movement and that we must see ourselves in that movement. A study of the past should bring us closer to who we are, should empower us, should embody lessons which have meaning today.

The Galleon is best seen today as the metaphorical vessel which connected East and West, but like the Galleon itself, it was a round trip journey, embodying both giving and taking, borrowing and loaning. May we continue to study it.

Blue Line