Manila-Acapulco galleons built by unpaid labor | Inquirer Opinion
On The Move

Manila-Acapulco galleons built by unpaid labor

Andrew Christian Peterson wrote an interesting dissertation entitled “Making the First Global Trade Route: The Southeast Asian Foundations of the Acapulco-Manila Galleon Trade, 1519-1650.” (Link:

Peterson tells us that “Spain’s trans-Pacific galleon trade was ultimately established and maintained only through the forging of a dependent, exploitative relationship with both the local environment and indigenous peoples of the Manila Bay region. The success of Spain’s Pacific endeavors rested a great deal on the quest for the ideal location(s) to found shipyards along the Pacific Rim. Shipbuilding and repair was the single most vital factor in determining the long-term success of trans-Oceanic navigation and long-distance trade in the age of sail and the resources of the Casa de Contratación and the support of European shipyards reached only so far.”

This dissertation was quite a revelation to me, adding perspectives on this part of Philippine history that I thought I knew the basic information on from previous readings and discussions on Philippine history.


The dissertation argues that the most significant environmental change that resulted from the Spanish presence in the Philippine archipelago was the cutting of timber, which drastically reduced the total forest cover of the archipelago. The clearing of forests for agriculture resulted from the pressure of a burgeoning population. This occurred around Manila Bay, especially in the Pampanga region. A second reason was the cutting of specific varieties of hardwood for ship construction, including molave, ipil, guijo, betis, lauan, tanguile, and scores of other species.


Many varieties of Philippine timber were recognized by the Spanish to be particularly resistant to rot and shipworm infestation. According to Peterson, modern stress tests show that the strength of many Philippine timbers had an elastic limit far beyond the common timber used for shipbuilding in the Americas or Europe.

The conspicuous deforestation of Luzon due to the galleons that sailed once a year from Manila to Acapulco in Mexico and back for 200 years may be difficult to imagine. A description of the effort required will help. Wood-cutting expeditions into the interior of Luzon would last several months, typically claiming the lives of scores of laborers. About 2,000 trees would be needed to build the largest of galleons. While typical exploration ships at the time Magellan sailed in 1521 were only 50-100 tons, the Manila-Acapulco galleons were massive, eventually weighing up to 2,000 tons.


Building and crewing these ships rested on skilled craftsmen and seafaring natives. The galleon trade was sustained through the exploitation of the labor of the natives. Obligatory conscription through the polo y servicios to work in the shipyards, nonpayment of wages, and forced purchase of food below market rates (a practice called “vandala”) led to Spaniards running up considerable debt to their subjects. Peterson points out that “when the San Diego was completed in the mid-17th century Casimiro Díaz reported that while the vessel ‘had cost the King 60,000 pesos, the cost to the natives was 150,000 pesos.’” In another case he cites, a 500-ton galleon was completed in 1587 for only 8,000 pesos because the natives provided labor that went uncompensated.

This explains why the history of the Philippines under Spain, as schoolchildren are taught, was one of rebellion protesting the polo and vandala during much of the 17th century. Peterson wryly notes, “both these systems of oppression were instrumental in making the Philippines a fiscally viable undertaking for the Spanish.” It is also often cited why the family is the greatest rival of the state for the loyalty of its citizens because, in the face of state-sponsored deprivation, the family is the only dependable safety net.

Perhaps more corrosive than the exploitation of the natives and the forest resources of the country was the way the Spaniards used the native principalia to control and sustain a net transfer of value from the poor to the rich. The datus who were the leaders of their people ended up being the cabezas de barangay who served as tax collectors, polo enforcers, and overall instruments of exploitation of their people.

The Peterson study is a good read. It is full of information and insights into how the maritime transport infrastructure represented by the galleon was the scaffolding for the Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. This story is an excellent reminder that large-scale oppression of the common tao, treated like a pliant carabao by the exploitative elites of the day, is an enduring theme of life in our archipelago.

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