The China Ship

chapter 2

Galleon of China: flagship of trade over two centuries

May 13, 2018

By Adolfo


Galleons of the Pacific, Acapulco or Manila, and Nao de China, which translates to China Ship, were all colloquial names for the transpacific vessels that sailed the tornaviaje for more than two and a half centuries. Though similar, the ships were built from different materials than their European counterparts, and had other unique characteristics


By the 16th century, shipbuilding in Spain was extremely advanced and master shipwrights brought their cutting-edge techniques to the Philippines. Though they were still built according to Spanish regulation, the Philippines’ abundance of high-quality wood allowed them to construct hundreds of galleons well into the 17th century – each more grand and ornate than the last


Tropical hardwoods in the Philippines were strong, durable and insect-resistant, with the best coming from bitaog, apitong, terminalia trees, as well as banaba, palo maria, dangam, arguijo and coamings. Shipwrights would identify the most suitable timber for the build, and then take workers on expeditions to find and collect it

It took 6,000 workers three months to find enough timber
for one ship

Shipbuilders took advantage of the natural shapes of different tree varieties, depending on how they would be used in the construction. A straight pine trunk, for example, was perfect for a mast, whereas a crooked one might be ideal to frame the keel

Cut down with
a new moon

According to tradition, trees hewn with the new moon would be drier, harder and more resistant to weathering, putrefaction and fungal infection

Most timber was hewn from forests in Laguna de Bay. It is estimated that 6,000 workers needed about three months to assemble enough timber for each galleon

Building the galleon

Galleons were built in the shipyards of Cavite, a Philippine province south of Manila Bay on Luzon Island. Blacksmiths, carpenters, builders and naval experts worked together to create these “strong castles in the sea” – called so because strength was considered more crucial than mobility

One ship needed thousands of trees, but took less time

Under Spain’s rigid government regulation, a typical galleon would take about two years to build. But in the Philippines, a vessel with the exact same design could be completed in just six months, using about 2,000 trees


During the early years of the Acapulco to Manila route, galleons had similar characteristics to their counterparts in Europe and the Americas. But as the trade and exchange of goods evolved, the Manila galleon acquired it’s own style

Hard hulls
Such durable wood meant the hulls of galleons built in Manila did not splinter easily and were strong enough to withstand cannon fire. During their occupation of Manila between 1762 and 1764, the British fired more than 1,000 cannonballs – each weighing up to 10kg –at the Nuestra Santisima Señora de la Trinidad in Manila Bay. When they finally captured the ship, the British were shocked to find the hull hardly damaged

Galleon’s hull cutaway

Not only wood
Apart from a huge amount of wood, the ships also needed lots of iron and other materials for nails, anchors, chains, pikes, bolts, tacks, spikes, keys, pins, rings and rudder pintles. Most of the metal items were made from iron ore, rough sheets and rods imported from China and to a lesser extent Japan, India and America. China also made nails and pins according to sizes and shapes ordered by the Philippines governor

Protection of the hull
Although timber in the Philippines was highly resistant to rot and cannon fire, thin sheets of tin or lead sheaths were added to parts of the hull for extra protection against sea worms

Rigging, cables, ropes and sails
Rigging was used to manage the sails, masts were supported by rope and cables and cords were used to make shrouds. All the rope was made from abaca plant fibre, which was much stronger than the hemp rigging used by European countries

Galleon typical shape sails

Using high-quality cotton from areas such as the Philippine province of Ilocos, the sails were cheaper to produce and more durable than those made in Spain and across Europe

The whipstaff
Galleons used this steering device before the introduction of the more complex ship’s wheel in the early 18th century. The disadvantage was that the helmsman had a very limited range of control of the tiller’s movement

Poop deck
Galleons with high poop decks need ballast to balance their loads and prevent capsizing

Evolution of the galleon
By the 18th century these were the biggest ships in the world

Peering into a 16th century galleon
Here’s an example of a typical 16th or 17th century galleon that sailed between Acapulco and Manila

The crew are responsible for the ship’s constant upkeep and maintenance

Between 60 and 100 men are needed to crew a merchant ship depending on the vessel’s size

Sailors recruited for the outward journey are mostly European or American, while for the return trip they are mostly Asian sailors

Crew and passengers shared latrines: The latrines located on the ship’s prow are shared by crew and passengers and are extremely dangerous in rough seas

Main anchor, about 600kg. Galleons usually used 4 anchors

Pilots conduct daily observations to determine the vessel’s location according to their charts

Japanese samurai are known to have served as guards on board early galleons

Sometimes the crew have the opportunity to fish for tuna to alleviate hunger on the long trip

All the rigging, ladders, ropes and sails are made from high-quality Philippine hemp

Poultry and live stock were on the decks sharing space with crew and passengers

Cannons are kept to a minimum to reduce weight. But this comes at the expense of the crew’s ability to defend the ship

Silver was only on the westward trip to Manila, mostly in coins and ingots

Cargoes bound for America typically consist of fine fabrics, silks, household items, ceramics, pottery, jewellery, spices, fruit and even live animals

Crew sleep wrapped in hanging beds

Enjoy the third chapter

“A journey of dread”

Immerse yourself into a visual narration of the voyage from Philippines to Acapulco inspired in Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri diary. Use the menu below, or the arrows navigation in the side of this page

The China ship


Here are some of the awards that this graphic has obtained

  • Bronze medal

    Wanifra Asian Digital Media Awards
    2018 Edition

  • Award of Excellence

    Society For News Design
    Edition 40

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