Pirates of the Pacific Coast

By Shine Dawson from the March 2010 Edition

An account of the Manila Galleon and
English Pirates off the Coast of Mexico

The Spanish Galleon “Santa Ana” slowly tracked the coast of Baja California in November 1587 under clear skies and favorable sailing conditions. She was four months out of Manila and only days away from dropping anchor at her home port of Acapulco. She carried in her hold an immense fortune in Oriental treasure; gold, pearls, silks from China, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon from the Spice Islands, jewels from Burma and ivory from India.

Lookouts from the Santa Ana spotted distant sails as the overloaded ship passed by Cabo San Lucas. Captain Tomas de Alzola reduced sail and ordered camouflage netting to be hung. Weapons were issued to those among the 160 passengers and crew capable of handling them. The unidentified sails grew nearer.

Precautions were warranted. Nine years earlier the English pirate Sir Frances Drake had pillaged the Spanish commercial interests in Peru and Panama and had threatened the Mexican Pacific coast. European rivalry between Spain and England was at its peak. And in an effort to destabilize Spanish power England’s Queen Elizabeth 1 had authorized maritime adventures flying colours to attack Spanish merchant shipping when found.

Thomas Cavendish

The Santa Ana was part of what was called the Manila galleon, a term that referred not only to a specific vessel design then in use, but also to the round trip made by a single Spanish merchantman between Acapulco and the Spanish colony in the Philippines. The Spanish had first fortified Manila in 1571 and had fended off both Portuguese marauders and Chinese pirates to keep what was then one of the wealthiest and most strategic ports in the world. Not only did Manila connect the east and west, its rich trade contributed directly to Spanish political and religious power in Europe.

The Manila galleon was the sole means of communication between Spain and the distant Philippines colony, from the beginning administration not from Spain but through the Spanish viceroy in Mexico. Crossing the Pacific Ocean was no easy feat, especially in cumbersome ships of up to 2000 tons which the Spanish themselves called “flying pigs”. Manila-bound ships out of Acapulco, laden with silver from Mexican mines at Taxco and Zacatecas, had clear sailing; the galleons simply caught the prevailing westerly’s before striking Manila after a voyage of 80-100 days. But the return easterly trip to Acapulco was a different story. Galleons departing Manila had first to sail northeast into the Pacific, where at about 40 degrees north latitude they encountered favourable winds and currents which carried them to California. Following the coast in a south-easterly direction led to Acapulco the only port in New Spain authorized to handle the Manila trade.

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