Gastronomic Migration - The Manila Galleons I

Gastronomic Migration - The Manila Galleons I
Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico is a glitzy resort, once known as the Pearl of the Pacific and the playground of the rich and famous. Built around a wide natural, deep water bay against a backdrop of the dramatic Sierra Madre mountains, its sandy beaches are lined with high rise hotels and its coastal avenue choked with eight lanes of seemingly never-ending traffic – most particularly VW Beetle taxis and dilapidated buses painted in psychedelic colours, blazing with neon lights and blaring loud music! At one end of the Bahía de Acapulco stands the star-shaped Fuerte de San Diego, which was the most strategic and significant Spanish colonial fortress on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Originally built in the early 1600s and rebuilt after a severe earthquake in the late 1700s, its task was to protect the priceless trade with the Orient. Where today giant cruisers glide in and out of the bay, in the 17th century the magnificent three-masted, square-rigged Spanish sailing ships, the “Manila Galleons”, set off across the Pacific Ocean en route to the Spanish East Indies, or the Philippines, Spain’s colony in Asia, which it was granted under the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529.

The majestic galleons measured up to 160 feet in length and weighed anywhere between 500 and 2000 tons. Their many decks could accommodate 1000 passengers - merchants, missionaries, soldiers and sailors bound for the Spanish garrison in Manila – while the vast holds were packed with the New World’s most important product: silver, to be exchanged for eastern treasures. Come March, the preparations for the galleons’ departure became increasingly frenzied as timing was crucial and the ships must be on their way before the end of the month to catch the strong seasonal air and sea streams across the Pacific. The North Easterly trade winds and the North Equatorial Current carried the galleons West on a journey which would last for three or four months. If all went well, the galleons would dock in Manila in June; if they were delayed, they would miss the favourable summer monsoon wind which was essential for the return journey across the Pacific.

As Acapulco faded into the distance behind the galleons, the vast Pacific Ocean stretched ahead, and there would be no sight of land until the island of Guam, a journey of some six and a half thousand nautical miles, before the galleons could take on fresh water and provisions in preparation for the last lap of the voyage to Manila. The crossing was fraught with dangers, not just from storms, which could carry the ship far off course, and doldrums which could delay it indefinitely and bring the risk of disease and starvation, but sea-borne assault. The galleons’ holds were filled with treasure, notably gold bars and silver ingots from the famous Mexican and Peruvian mines to pay for the exotic luxuries of the East: silks and porcelain, priceless pepper, cloves and cinnamon, cochineal and amber, lacquer screens and ivory fans, oriental rugs, precious stones and mother of pearl, riches which made the galleons a prize on both the westward and eastward journeys – a trophy which every pirate who sailed the Pacific knew of and lusted after, including Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish. The Manila Galleons’ course became one of the most dangerous and legendary shipping routes on the high seas, and many never made it to their destination, captured, wrecked or simply lost during the voyage. The majority, however, docked safely in Manila, the Pearl of the Orient, and Acapulco, the Pearl of the Pacific; the two ports became major hubs of what was perhaps the beginning of international commerce, and the exchange of goods between them developed into Spain’s economic lifeblood for close on three centuries: the galleons plied the Pacific from 1565 to 1815 and served to link the continents of Europe and Asia across the land bridge of Mexican “New Spain”.

To be continued....


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