Published by EH.Net (June 2017)

Carmen Yuste López and Guadalupe Pinzón Rios, editors, A 500 años del hallazgo del Pacífico: La presencia novohispana en el Mar del Sur.  México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2016. 423 pp. $32 (paperback), ISBN: 978-607-02-7713-9.  Available at

Reviewed for EH.Net by Marie Christine Duggan, Department of Economics, Keene State College.

If scholars in the U.S. know the Spanish were in the Pacific since the sixteenth century, we tend to believe they squandered their opportunities to develop it.  The reality is that Mexico City was the center of the Spanish colonial empire precisely because inflows of Asian goods since 1573 gave merchants of Mexico City a competitive advantage in negotiations with Spain. Spanish mercantilism was thwarted by the China trade, so Spain attempted to suppress it but Mexico City merchants resisted.  Because Mexico City’s commerce in Asian goods was contraband, evidence of it is hard to find.

Carmen Yuste may know more about Spanish colonial trade from the Pacific Rim than anyone alive today. Over thirty years ago she published archival research illustrating Mexico City’s connection to merchants in the Philippines[1], and completed her magnum opus in 2007[3].   When the Atlantic was rediscovered in the 1990s as a link between Europe, Africa, and America,’ Yuste went to the Pacific to tie not just three continents, but four, into one thread. She and Guadelupe Pinzón, her former student, have brought together in this volume scholars from Asia, Latin America, Spain and Portugal. Notable is Spaniard Salvador Bernabéu who has been working as long as Yuste on Spain’s China trade.

Fittingly, Yuste’s own essay is a masterwork of archival business history. She takes readers inside the Philippine commercial community at mid-eighteenth century by analyzing the pious endowment known as the Misericordia.  The members of this brotherhood were cargadores, men who purchased and transported Asian products to Acapulco in the state-financed galleon.  The endowment was increased by lending it at high rates of interest to cargadores. The interest rate on the loans for the voyage to Acapulco was typically 35 percent, and to Asian ports 12 percent.  The proceeds were split three ways: costs of administration, growing the endowment, and running pious activities.  The endowment grew slowly, and given these high nominal returns, there were rumors of malfeasance. The Crown sent an auditor in the 1750s.  He found solid reasons for the low growth rate: pirates, sinking ships, and tensions with Chinese intermediaries. Even so, the Misericordia never did release all its secrets.

Luís Alonzo Álvarez uses high level correspondence between Mexico, Manila and Madrid to explore why Asian trade with New Spain was curtailed. From its inception in 1573, New Spain preferred Asian imports to Spanish imports.   In 1580, Spain and Portugal were united, so spices could be obtained via the Horn of Africa on the Portuguese route.  In 1586, the Council of the Indies persuaded the crown to shut down trade between Spanish America and the Philippines. However, Mexico City merchants were making margins of 200 to 300 percent on imports from China, so the Viceroy of New Spain suggested that a clause be inserted that for every 90,000 pesos of silver exported from New Spain, 30,000 must be spent importing gold from Manila.   Furthermore, the costs of ships could be sharply reduced if they were built in the Philippines rather than New Spain.  In 1593, the crown ruled that Manila-Acapulco trade would be government-run with limited tonnage, and Acapulco would be Spanish America’s only Pacific port.

In her essay, Pinzón explains how Asian goods nonetheless arrived in other Pacific ports through a local contraband trading network linking several ports:  Huatulco and Tehuantepec (Mexico); Michatoya (Guatemala); Realejo (Nicaragua); Sonsonate (El Salvador); Caldera (Costa Rica); Panamá, and Guayaquil (Ecuador). The shipyard at Realejo constructed small vessels out of cedar, which traveled under the radar.   Realejo-Acapulco traffic provided cover for contraband because shipyards in both locations exchanged supplies. Ocean travel between Lima and Panama was permitted to pick up Spanish goods brought to the Atlantic side of the Isthmus.  Panama thus became a transfer point for contraband Asian products shipped from New Spain onto vessels heading to Lima.  Pinzón examines records of ships accused of contraband trade in the early eighteenth century. Even a viceroy was implicated, when a ship sailing to Lima under his orders was caught hiding Chinese goods on an island.

Dení Trejo Barrajas explores the same contraband networks, but to the north of Acapulco (Guaymas in Sonora, La Paz in Baja California, San Diego and Monterey in Alta California)[3].   By 1780, Spaniards knew otter hides were a second product (besides silver) that the Chinese wanted. Lieutenant Francisco De Paula Tamáriz proposed in 1814 to move the naval department of San Blas to Monterey, California.  Coastal traders would sail between California and Lima. Otter hides, flour, cattle hides and tallow could be picked up in California, the otter hides exported to Asia from Acapulco or San Blas, and the hides and tallow delivered to points further south.  The possibility of adding salted fish from Monterey was also discussed by Fr. Juan Rivas. The return trip to California could bring Asian products and other basic supplies.  English-language literature on the otter trade is dominated by Adele Ogden 1941[4], which perpetuates the New Englanders’ view of the Spanish as inept.  Officers knew that the New Englanders held them in low esteem.  Trejo points out that coastal traders from Guadalajara were already conducting the trade which De Paula Tamáriz proposed, but California exports were enriching mission Indian congregations rather than private individuals.

Returning to sixteenth century Asia, José Antonio Cervera provides a second reason that Spain held on to Manila: the “China-mania” that erupted around 1550 among friars frustrated with religious conversion in New Spain.  Spain viewed evangelism as the first step to conquering China. Cervera points out that Mexican silver was mined from 1540, and the Chinese paid more for silver than for gold, so commercial and religious motives united for China. By 1542, Ruy López de Villalobos sailed to the Philippines, yet it was only in 1565 that Andrés de Urdaneta found the return route. Fortuitously, Fujian in Southern China experienced a political opening to external trade in 1567.  Paulina Machuco explains that Spaniards eager to conquer China viewed the Cambodian desire to negotiate a military alliance with the Spanish in 1596 as an opportunity.

Salvador Bernabéu has elsewhere explained four Spanish contributions to the 18th century California otter trade.[5]  In this volume, he eschews business for a thoughtful portrait of Hernando Magellan. Born in Oporto, Portugal as Fernão Magalhães, Magellan found the Western route to Asia in 1519 for Portugal’s rival, Spain. Portugal failed to reward Magellan after his first voyage to Asia 1505-1514, and Carlos V of Spain paid him well to find an alternate route to the lucrative Spice Islands.  He was a short man who brought many Portuguese relatives, including Rodrigo Oliveira, on his journey to the unknown.  Oliveira thought there was a passage through South America below Brazil – later known as the Straits of Magellan.  Bernabéu contends that Magellan was not motivated by money; rather, he shared with many Portuguese an eschatological notion that once King Solomon’s gold mines were found in Asia, Jerusalem would fall to Christianity.  Impelled by vocation to complete a second voyage to Asia, he could see it would never happen under Portugal.

It is really too bad that the English-speaking world is so unaware of the Spanish-language scholarship on the Pacific Rim trade.  I hope that my review, which outlines only the highlights of this volume, will help remedy this deficit. The effects of this myopia show up in California as the belief that only a few encounters between Europeans and native peoples occurred prior to 1769.  Manila Galleons touched land nearly every year between 1573 and 1815, from modern San Francisco and San Diego — after five months at sea one suspects they landed and got fresh water.  I have only a handful of criticisms. The two art historians who analyze cargo lists overlook the quantitative dimension — how much the luxury goods cost; a direct Lima-Philippine route was in place by the eighteenth century, and it does not receive mention here; and the impact of trade on native people (including Filipinos) is largely absent. Nonetheless, this volume is an excellent introduction to archival researchers of colonial Spain’s Pacific commerce.


1. El comercio de la Nueva España con Filipinas, 1590–1785. Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

2. Emporios transpacíficos: Comerciantes Mexicanos en Manila, 1710-1815. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Institución de Investigaciones Historicas.

3. See also Dení Trejo, “Pugna por el libre comercio en las postrimerías del virreinato: la Nueva Galicia y las Provincias Internas frente a los comerciantes de la ciudad de México, 1811-1818,” Estudios de Historia Novohispana, Vol. 51, Julio-Diciembre 2014.

4. The California Sea Otter Trade, 1784 to 1848.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

5. “Sobre intercambios comerciales entre China y California en el último tercio del siglo XVIII” in Francisco de Solano et al (eds.), Extremo oriente ibérico. Madrid: Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional, 1989.

6. See Cristina Mazzeo, “Comerciantes en conflicto: la Independencia en el Perú y la transformación de la elite mercantil, 1780-1830,” Anuario del Instituto de Historia Argentina, No. 11, 2011 (Universidad Nacional de la Plata, Buenos Aires); and Mariano Ardash Bonialian, El Pacífico hispanoamericano: política y comercio asiático en el Imperio Espanol (1680-1784). México: El Colegio de México, 2012.

Marie Christine Duggan is Professor of Economics at Keene State College in New Hampshire.  In 2016, she published “With and Without an Empire: Financing for California Missions Before and After 1810,” Pacific Historical Review, 85 (1): 23-71.

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