The China Ship

chapter 4

How silver changed the world

May 27, 2018

By Adolfo

The main objective behind the sea route plied by Spanish galleons was to establish trade with China. These European vessels became known as China Ships. They transported silver from the Americas to exchange for goods in Asia, mostly commodities of Chinese origin

It can be argued that when Spain instituted a common currency in the form of the Real de a Ocho, also known as Pieces of Eight, or the Spanish dollar, globalisation’s first chapter had been written. The acceptance of the dollar coins for commercial transactions throughout Asia, the Americas and much of Europe, resulted in a cultural exchange between nations, as well as the relatively free movement of people and goods between the three continents

Global trade

China had an appetite for silver ...
When the Spanish tried to establish commercial ties with China they found little taste for goods from the outside world. However, it transpired the Chinese had a voracious appetite for silver. In fact, during the latter part of the 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty, Beijing ruled taxes should be paid in silver, and without domestic recourse to the precious metal, the demand for imported silver soared

Cerro Rico, Potosi

Spain’s colonies in the Americas could mine enormous quantities of silver and the Spanish began to export the commodity to China via their Manila connection.
The colonial mine was located in the Bolivian city, Potosí, for several centuries. At an altitude of 4,000m, Potosí lies at the foot of the Cerro de Potosi, a mountain popularly conceived as being made of silver ore. China’s insatiable demand for silver led to increased production in the Bolivian highlands and by the late 16th century Cerro de Potosi alone produced an estimated 60 per cent of all silver mined in the world

… while the West hungered for goods from China
Many of the products imported into New Spain were highly coveted luxury goods. Silk was popular, both in its raw form and finely embroidered, as was porcelain, diamonds, pearls, ivory and wooden furniture. Cotton from the Philippines, and other parts of Asia, became highly profitable due to the high quality. Other products in demand were spices, tea, Indian linen, amber, swords and knives, potassium nitrate for gunpowder, and mercury, for industrial use to mine silver

Manila as central hub of Asia

Over the years, Chinese commercial vessels began to arrive in Manila with increasing regularity

Junks and other small boats sail between March and June to avoid typhoon season and the southwest monsoon rains

Manila was ideally located as a major trading port for Chinese goods which were highly coveted in Europe and America. The Chinese community in Manila grew exponentially to keep pace with the booming trade. Manila also provided sailors with respite before their long and arduous journey to Acapulco, the Spanish base where galleons would unload and trade their goods for silver ingots, and later, coins

The Manila Parian, Philippines

The Chinese who left their ships to settle in Manila often set up shop as traders. Many of the Chinese merchants in Manila took residence in an area adjacent to the Intramuros – a walled city hosting most of the Spanish colonial and administrative buildings. Known as Parián, this area quickly became the commercial centre of Manila. There were over a hundred shops prospering, and it was here that products arriving by junk from China were traded. Chinese who converted to Christianity (called sangleyes by the Spanish) were able to expand their business interests to other provinces in the Philippine islands

Growth of Manila’s Chinese population

Over the years Manila’s population became one of the most diverse in the world, with people settling there from Spain, France, England, Italy, Flanders, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Persia, Africa, as well as Tartars, Chinese, Japanese and others from across Asia

Acapulco and Mexico City

New Spain, especially Acapulco and Mexico City, began to depend on the China Ships for the open trade route. When galleons arrived in Acapulco they were greeted with much festive activity. There were joyful celebrations starting with Mass and followed with parties and market fairs

Most of the goods arriving in the China Ships were transported from Acapulco to Mexico City. From there, the merchandise would be distributed to Veracruz where it would become part of the Indian fleet bound for Seville, and consequently the rest of Spain and the Spanish crown’s European possessions

Mexico City
Travellers and writers from the 16th and 17th centuries, describe Mexico as home to some of the most luxurious cities in the world. Tales abound of wealthy men ostentatiously decorating the bands of their hats with pearls and gems, and for ladies to be splendidly decked out in rich silks and fine jewellery. Even among the disadvantaged population it was common for people to wear silk clothes

As soon as the trade route took off many Asians began to settle in Mexico, particularly Chinese and Filipinos. Many were sailors from the galleons, others were servants, while others arrived as slaves. There were probably well over 100,000 people from East Asia who started new lives by relocating to New Spain during this period

The birth of Parián: the world’s first Chinatown
The world’s first Chinatown outside Asia was established in the Mexican city of Plaza Mayor as a copy of Manila’s Parián. It had a thriving marketplace with many stalls and kiosks where Chinese vendors sold Asian goods, at competitive prices. Customers could discover fine Chinese porcelain, diamonds, ivory, fabrics from China and other Asian countries, rubies, emeralds, spices from the Moluccas and many other exotic Asian goods

The Parian, Mexico City

The first global currency

Manila became the central hub for trade routes linking Asia to the rest of the world, stimulating rapid international economic growth. China’s acceptance of silver in exchange for commodities such as tea, silks and ceramics would eventually result in the Spanish dollar – silver minted coins – evolving into the world’s first common currency

At first the Chinese insisted on trading with bullion and would not accept payment for their goods in foreign currencies. It wasn’t until later that they started using the monetary unit of the Real of Eight

Pieces of Eight

In 1728 new laws and regulations standardised the coinage of the Real de a Ocho, also known as the Eight Royals Coin or Pieces of Eight, as well as the Spanish dollar. The weight was reduced and the quality improved, making the dollar ideal as a common currency. One of the improvements was the addition of a striated pattern around the edge of the coin. Any chipping, a common practice at the time, was easy to identify and the coins became harder to forge

Countries begin creating their own currencies based on the Spanish pieces of eight:
  • 1537-1869:
    Spanish silver dollar

  • 1794:
    US dollar

  • 1863:
    Mexican dollar / peso

  • 1866:
    Hong Kong dollar

  • 1871:
    Japanese yen

  • 1899:
    Silver dragon

  • 1902:
    Korean won

  • Holley dollar
    (Canada and Australia)

Spanish dollar

1537-1869: Spanish silver dollar

Millions of coins are minted, spreading through Spain, the Americas and Southeast Asia. The consistent weight and purity sets the world standard

US dollar

1794: US dollar

The first coin to be based on the measure and value of the Spanish dollar. Both currencies circulate in America until 1857

Mexican dollar

1794: Mexican dollar / peso

The Mexican peso gains common acceptance in China after the fall of the Spanish Empire

Hong Kong dollar

1866: Hong Kong dollar

The British government starts issuing the currency for use in Hong Kong, with the same value as the Spanish dollar and Mexican peso, after attempts to introduce the pound sterling fail

Japanese yen

1871: Japanese yen

Japan starts issuing its own currency, using coin-making machines bought from the British government in Hong Kong. It has the same value as the Spanish dollar and Mexican peso, and similar characteristics

Silver dragon

1899: Silver dragon

Starts to be used in China at the same time as the Spanish dollar and the Mexican peso, and with the same characteristics

Korean wong

1902: Korean wong

Korea also starts to mill its own coin based on the same characteristics as the global currency

Holey dollar dump

Central plug valued in fifteen pence

Holley dollar

Holey dollar (Canada and Australia)

The British colonies of Canada and New South Wales (Australia) had to resort to the Spanish dollar in the absence of coinage. The central part of the coin was punched out to make a portion of value

It is often believed the dollar symbol originates from the engraving of a banner wrapped around a pillar in the Spanish silver coin

Cultural and social legacy

Just as trading goods for silver initiated economic bonds between Asia, Americas and Europe, the movement of people between continents would also lead to cultural and social exchanges. The 200 years of financial and cultural exchange which followed is now considered to be history’s first true globalisation

One of the most popular exports to New Spain and Europe was Chinese blue and white porcelain. In a 2016 archaeological excavation in Acapulco more than 3,000 pieces were found, demonstrating the kind of demand there was for this tableware. One of the characteristics of these pieces is that they were created exclusively by Chinese manufacturers for export to the American (or Western) market. These creations mixed Christian and Western elements as well as Oriental themes in the painted decorations. The pots from which people drank chocolate, then the height of fashion, were all made in China

Dutch 17th-century still-life painting by Jan Jansz. Treck, showing late Ming blue and white porcelain export bowls, 1649

Also this porcelain had a huge influence on the local artisans in Mexico, who took the Chinese blue and white characteristics and translated it with their own styles and designs. An example is the porcelain from Puebla

The Manila shawl

Chinese fabrics were highly prized. Among the many textile products that came to the Americas and Europe was a square cloth made from silk and finely embroidered. The shawl was folded in half like a triangle and worn over women’s shoulders. This shawl became known as the manton de Manila, although it was produced in Canton not the Philippines

The shawls became very popular in Spain and Spanish America. Over the years they became fashionable throughout Europe, especially in 19th century Paris. Manila shawls are still popular today and are considered to be an integral part of Spanish culture, having even been incorporated into flamenco, the quintessential Spanish art-form

Currently this garment of Cantonese origin is a must-have for flamenco dancers

This shawls became very popular in Spain and Spanish America. Over the years they became fashionable throughout Europe especially in nineteenth century Paris. Their popularity is such that today, Manila shawls are considered an integral part of Spanish culture and continues to be worn

First University in Asia

Asia’s oldest operational university was established in Manila in 1611. The University of Santo Tomas remains one of the region’s top universities

Literature interchange
The Augustinian friar, Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza, wrote one of the earliest Western histories of China, Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China (The History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China and the Situation Thereof). Two years after it was published in Barcelona, the book was translated into English by Robert Parker

Inside page from this book printed in 1586
Photo: Biblioteca Nacional de España (Spanish National Library)

First translation of a classical Chinese text into a European language
The Chinese book ‘Beng Sim Po Cam’ which means Rich mirror of the clear heart, or Riches and mirror with which it is enriched, and where one can see the clear and clean heart was translated into Spanish by Fray Juan Cobo around 1590 and printed in Manila in 1593

Beng Sim Po Cam was published in a bilingual version
Photos: Biblioteca Nacional de España

Cobo translated several texts by Seneca into Chinese

Juan Cobo was also one of the first people to introduce European philosophy and science to China in print. His treatise titled Bian zheng jiao zhen chuan shi lu seng shi Hemu Xian zhuan, Apology of the true Religion; Treaty of the truth of God was probably the first of its kind. It was printed on rice paper using the woodcut technique

Two spread pages of the book conserved in the National Library of Spain in Madrid
Photos: Biblioteca Nacional de España

Keichō Embassy mission

In the years 1613 through 1620, Hasekura Tsunenaga, a Japanese samurai, headed a diplomatic mission to Spain and the Vatican in Rome. He travelled through New Spain, arriving in Acapulco and departing from Veracruz, and made various ports of call throughout Europe. On his return voyage, Hasekura and his companions retraced their route across New Spain in 1619, sailing from Acapulco for Manila, and then sailing north to Japan in 1620. He is considered the first Japanese ambassador to the Americas and Spain


of the fourth and final chapter of

“The China Ship”

The China ship


Here are some of the awards that this graphic has obtained

  • Bronze Medal

    Society For News Design
    Edition 40

  • Bronze medal

    Wanifra Asian Digital Media Awards
    2018 Edition

  • Award of Excellence

    Society For News Design
    Edition 40

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