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.
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.
Captain Alzola of the Santa Ana had little reason to suspect the ships approaching his ship were unfriendly. The brash English had never before attacked a Manila galleon and the pirate Drake had disappeared from the Pacific. (Drake was in fact, in England, where he was to play a role in the following year in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.) What Alzola didn’t recognize was that Drake had ambitious imitators and one of them, a 27 year old English Captain by the name of Thomas Cavendish, was bearing down on him with distinctly unfriendly intentions.
Cavendish had planned his ambush carefully, which was for when the Santa Ana had to pass the Cape of San Lucas and enter open water before stacking. He must have been astonished to find that his target carried no armament- the galleon had been disarmed the year before and her stripped canon added to the defenses in Acapulco!
His first attempt at boarding repelled, Cavendish drew off and peppered the Santa Ana with shot causing Alzola finally to surrender his sinking ship. Putting his prisoners ashore, Cavendish kept the Santa Ana afloat for the several days it took him to sack the ship. Before striking off westward, he returned the ship’s registry to the defeated Alzola, attaching his signature in receipt of the looted cargo. The loss was the first and greatest ever suffered by the Manila galleon-600,000 pesos. A good part of the hijacked treasure ended up in the coffers of the Queen of England adding salt to the wounded economy of Imperial Spain. The immense wealth generated by the Far East trade enabled the Manila galleon to survive this and other disastrous losses. Even as rival European powers increased their presence in Asia and competition decreased profit margins, there remained a sufficiently strong economic motive for Spain to maintain the Manila galleon for an astonishing 250 years. Only in 1815, when independence was raging in Mexico was the trade route finally abandoned. One historian notes that “….the Manila galleon was one of the most persistent, perilous and profitable commercial enterprises in European colonial history.”