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Why Was the Manila Galleon Only One-Ship Trade?

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Among the institutions the Europeans had in their trade with East India in the early modern period the Manila Galleon stands out: for over 200 years a single large ship travelled back and forth from Mexico carrying a trade of a comparable size to the other Europeans in India or China. This commercial structure, which was mostly private and locally run and persisted for so long challenging notions of efficiency, does not sit well with institutionalists’ characterizations of Spanish colonialism as predatory or the depiction of a self-restrained ruler purposely limiting the trade, as galleon historians portray. The essay explores the reasons for this peculiar version of mercantilism in East Asia: was it really that of an allegedly reluctant or an extractive monopolist? Why was the galleon a one-ship only scheme? In the absence of robust quantitative evidence on the size, volume and values of the trade the paper offers an analytical narrative for the persistence of this particular commercial institution. Section one offers an overview of the galleon as a vehicle for the Spanish East India trade. It gauges various estimators of performance to assess the efficiency of the scheme. Section two discusses the institutional structure of the trade and its particular entanglement with the Spanish governance of Manila. Section three delves in the nature of the private institutions, agents and contracts involved and unravels the particular financing of the trade, revealing economic reasons for such a limited trade. The conclusions offer answers to the questions posed above.

This talk is part of the Global Economic History Seminar series.

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