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to Preserving Our Maritime Heritage

Founded by Clive Cussler

The Manila Galleons: Treasures For The ”Queen Of The Orient”

by | Jul 2, 2012 | 38 comments

Picture if you will, a four-deck, 100-gun, 2,500-ton vessel crossing the Pacific loaded with treasure and not making landfall for six months. Picture it as short and broad—with high fore and stern castles—carrying so much silver and gold, it draws 40 feet of water while skirting coral reefs 30 feet deep. It’s no wonder that close to 100 of them sank from 1570 to 1815, leaving a trail of treasure across the globe, while enhancing the image of adventure on the high seas aboard the MANILA GALLEONS.



Nowhere in the annals of the Spanish Empire’s colonial history did a treasure fleet attract so much intrigue and notoriety for its precious cargoes bound for the Far East. Maritime historians continue to pay homage to these vessels and their influence on international commerce that lasted for over 200 years. These were the largest ships afloat, plying long and risky routes. Convoys of two to five ships left Acapulco, Mexico, setting sail for the Spanish colony of Manila in the Philippines. On an average, three to five million silver pesos were shipped annually from Mexican mints to Manila, the “Queen of the Orient.” The sliver and gold was waggishly referred to as “silk money.” Silk stockings were prized by the fashionable Spanish gentry in Mexico and Spain. But the silver and gold bought other lavish exports as well. They came from all over the Far East: spices, Ming porcelain, opals, amethysts, pearls and jade. There were art treasures, ebony furniture, carved ivory and other exquisite rarities found only in China, Japan, India, Burma and Siam.

The galleons, after a long and laborious return voyage eastward, often made landfall around Cape Mendocino, California, then sailed on to Acapulco. Once unloaded, the cargoes were transported overland by mule train to Veracruz and then taken by Spanish galleons to Seville, Spain. Five Manila Galleons are known to have sunk off the west coast of the United States. One, the San Agustin, sank in 1595, victim of a gale in Drakes Bay, northwest of San Francisco.

Manila Galleons

Manila Galleons

Manifests show that one third of all the silver and gold mined in the Spanish New World made its way to the Far East aboard the lumbering Manila Galleons. Ingots and heavy chests of coins were stored over the keel in the main hold, often the only ballast used for draft and stability. The ships also carried supplies to colonists in the Marianas and Philippines. The Strait of San Bernardino, on the eastern end of Luzon in the Philippine Archipelago, separates the Pacific from the China Sea and remains one of the most treacherous passages ships must ply. Even the most seasoned mariners fear entering and exiting the shallow poorly marked waterway. Of the approximately 130 Manila Galleons lost, close to 100 sank within a 50-mile radius of the entrance to this dangerous strait. Some of the vessels simply ran aground on reefs or shoals, while others were lost in storms or sunk by British and Dutch privateers.

Manila Galleons are out there. Picture them if you will, resting in the Pacific Ocean and China Sea–emblazoned with the regalia of Royal Spain and the Roman Catholic Church–waiting to be discovered by modern-day adventurers.




  1. Thanks for a very interesting article. I had no idea the Manila Galleons ever existed. I thought that most of the sunken treasure galleons were sunk off Florida and the east coast of the U.S.

  2. It’s interesting that you would say this. I didn’t know much about the Manila galleons either until I started to research these fascinating ships in order to write about them. I didn’t realize the amount of trade they brought back, including some of the exotic cargoes that were aboard ship in addition to the silver and gold coins and bullion. Many of these prized imports were popular with the wealthy aristocrats back in Spain, thus there was a great demand for them. The lengths of the voyages, as well as the treasures, captivated my interest as well. Thank you. Best regards, Ellsworth Boyd Wreckmaster

  3. Have you ever had the opportunity to dive on a Manila galleon? They sound exciting with all those those treasures from the Orient aboard!

  4. I haven’t had the pleasure of divng on a Manila galleon, but adventurer and salvor Bob Marx has been on several of them. He discovered the remains of the San Augustin, sunk in Drakes Bay, Northern California. It had put in for supplies enroute to Acapulco with a cargo of silk, porcelain, gold, silver and oriental spices. State officials wouldn’t allow him to excavate it. Marx also discovered two Manila galleons off the island of Guam, the Nuestra Senora del Pilar and the Nuestra Senora del Buen Viaje. Thanks for writng. Ellsworth Boyd Wreckmaster

  5. Dear Ellsworth,

    For what I understand the ones with more precious metals such as gold and silver were the ones going from Acapulco to Manilla (please correct me if I am wrong) In your opinion which one would be the manilla Galleon shipwreck with the most valuable cargo?



  6. In response to the question from Luis; The gold and silver coins and bullion were primarily originating from mines in the western and central provinces of New Spain. The port of Acapulco was used from the beginning of the Manila Galleon trade missions. As the mines in the western provinces were developed and the oldest mines in the central province of Guanajuato diminished; the port of San Blas was built north of Acapulco to facilitate access to the mines in the Guadalajara province which encompassed the present day states of Nayarit and Sinaloa. The port of Cabo San Lucas was the first stop before continuing up the Alta California coast to Monterrey and then west to the Phillipines.

  7. I find it difficult to believe that any “Manila Galleon” would tack over 1,000 miles up the California coast before heading out to the trade winds to cross to Manila. It is more likely they would reach out several hundred miles to the trade winds and then reach up toward Manila. The Galleons were never known to be able to sail close hauled and the thought of these slow and unmanuerable ships fighting the headwinds and current to “beat” up the coast over a thousand miles seems highly unlikely.

  8. Found a very interesting piece of a ?rock ? with vague? inscription on it. Found on the Oregon Beach near Cascade Head, supposed site of many ancient shipwrecks. Would anyone be curious enough to give me an email address so I could send a picture of my treasure for further ID ? No need to send Clive Cussler out yet 🙂 Thanks , Bud Lyons

  9. Bud, I would love to see your photo, as I know Cascade Head well. I worked along Siuslaw National Forests for many years and I have a B.S. Degree from Oregon State University in “Technical Journalism”; and my 2010 nonfiction book PACIFIC COAST PIRATES AND SPANISH GALLEONS in available on Amazon.

    I am working on my sequel about The Pacific Coast Manila Galleons and Oregon shipwrecks

  10. You may wish to read a book titled “1421” which tells about the voyages of the Chinese. Extremely well researched and tells about stones left with strange markings. I have a copy that I have finished reading that I could loan you if needed
    PS Ellsworth
    Robert Marx never discovered the Pilar off of Guam. He just borrowed some items from a guy on Guam to use in the Admiralty suit against our group. As he never found the Flo del Mar in the Straits of Molucca. I talked to the guy that was with him when he bought artifacts from an antique shop in Indonesia. Jack

  11. i found a possible 1600 century spanish galleon. if interested pls call +639178168165. tnx.


  13. To: cesar jalosjos….are you looking for treasure hunter ? Friend..mi email address es.. [email protected]

  14. Anyone have any information about the Manilla Galleons in Baja California. IE How often did they go into Cabo San Lucas? What was theie purpose of going into Cabo San Lucas bearing in mind that in those days it would have been a pretty inhospitable place. Are there any records of these galleons being wrecked along the Baja Coast? My interest is purely historical.

  15. Dear Ellsworth Boyd I have A Lantaka Cannon Cirxca 1570’s Rcovered from A Manilla Galleon formerly in the Robert Marx Collection. Could you recommend the best place to sell such an article. Thank you in Advance; Linda Richmond

  16. Such a nice to look back the heritage and how trading begun by these very unique and remarkable treasures that could make a big change in the economy to this present time. Yet those lost pieces of treasure drawn in the ocean or seas be the dream of everybody for them find it and be their key for retrieving our lost in the economy.

    But where we can find them? For me seas ,is familiar to me where I experience and try to explore in it. but because of less training and expertise in diving I can’t perfectly explore to what I what knew about it. Our Place was the safe passage of the shipping lines or it was the gate way of voyaged from South to North of the country. Folklore says the golden ship passes along the cost from the tips of island to another islands with the triangular route flashes its prickling and shiny gold ship and only seen every silent dark night from south to north moving back and forth. Evidence of it was the ancient belongings of the the centuries that still under the care of the local people acquired from their forefathers out of the trade during 15th to 18th centuries. Maybe the lost galleon those time were still in the bed of our undisturbed sea bed. Evidence shown its present were the discovered porcelain caught of the hook by the fishermen and the pieces of it in the shoreline during bad weather in the Southwest monsoon range. The ship wooden plucking were scattered in the sea bed. That means those undocumented discovered be accounted for. In this place many were asking where to find them.? Questions remain questions but until when?

  17. I am some what curious about the cargo of a Spanish Galleon. If silver was shipped from Acapulco to Manila why would they ship it back?

  18. As silver was shipped from Acapulco to Manila why would it be sent back to Acapulco?

  19. There are many websites and papers written about the Manila galleons and their trade for over 240 years. Here are some quick answers to some of the questions above. Acapulco to Manila with silver dollars, the situado or subsidy to the Philippines from King of Spain, approx. 1 million silver dollar coins each year. It was a direct trade wind route west of about 3 months. The difficult journey was going from Manila to Mexico, ( cargo silver ornaments, gold, ivory, spices, wax, cottons, silks and porcelain) which took over 6 months the cumbersome ships unable to cross in easterly direction against wind and tide so needed to sail north to Japan and north of Hawaiian islands to California coast and then another 1,500 miles south to Acapulco.

  20. I dont belive there were so many as 100 wrecks. Can you tell me were you have found that number? Thanks very much.

  21. Does anyone know anything about the last of the ‘Manila Galleons’ (or “Nao de China”)?
    The trade was ended in the period when Mexico (& much of Central & South America gained independence from Spain, very roughly ca. 1810-1820.
    I’ve read that the final “galleon” was a frigate, the ‘Magallanes’ (or ‘San Fernando’, alias ‘Magallanes’), which left Manila in 1811 and “sailed into Acapulco to find that Mexico had rebelled against the Spanish crown” (possibly in early 1811, when Mexican insurgents held, or at least beseiged, Acapulco briefly). This ship eventually returned to Manila from San Blas, up the coast, in 1815 (“with its hold virtually empty”). This (‘San Fernando’, alias ‘El Magallanes’) may have been the main “galleon” from 1794-1815. There were also a ‘Fidelidad’, ‘San Rafael’ and ‘Victoria’ (and maybe ‘Rey Fernando’) which may have sailed from (or at least into) Acapulco in 1814(-15). The Mexican insurgents had been attacking Acapulco since 1810, took it in 1813, burned it and then lost it again in 1814 to the royalists, who held it until final Mexican independence in 1821. The “annual reception” of the Manila galleons was reportedly shifted to San Blas in about 1815, however, which implies that there might have been more ships – possibly up till 1821. The “Nao” appears to have been formally abolished in April 1815, however, and I haven’t seen any names or details of any later ships. Maybe ships arrived from Manila after 1815, but none sailed (or carried cargo) back, or maybe it was just the last of the ships, in 1814-15, which used San Blas only but not Acapulco. I have seen a reference to the fitting-out of ‘Magallanes’ (the last “Nao”) in mid 1819, though, but that may refer to the 1815 trip.
    There is a story (from the 1800s) that two ships fled Acapulco, very heavily laden with treasure, just ahead of the insurgents, only to be captured by pirates who happened to be lurking off-shore at the time.

  22. The story begins in 1521 with Magellan, when sailing around the world discovered the island chain. Spain seemed to believe the lands they discover, and all of its resources, belong to Spanish monarchy. Magellan waded ashore from the Spanish Galleon, and claimed the islands for the King of Spain. Unfortunately, the natives disagreed, and fought the conquistadors. Magellan and many of his crew perished in the battle. Later expeditions sailed the Tornaviaje, “twisting voyage”, sailing low going west then sailing high going east. In 1543 the colonized islands were named Las Islas Fillipinas, after King Phillip. Thus began the Manila Galleon trade to and from Acapulco. Silver and gold from Bolivia was shipped to Manila, to buy pearls, jewels and silk from the orient. The slow sailing Galleons, overloaded with treasure, became targets for privateers “pirates” who dared to challenge. The privateers heard of the Manila Acapulco trade in the Pacific, and sailed around the cape. The Spanish Galleons would usually defend the treasure with a barrage of cannon balls. The swift Pirate frigates would sail along side, and board the Galleons, overpowering the crew. The pirate raids caused King Phillip to send a Spanish Armada to attack England. With the loss of Spanish ships, and eventually the Mexican war of independence, the Manila Acapulco trade route faded from history.

  23. Good anybody direct me on where to find information about Spanish galleons that may have sunk off the Oregon coast

  24. How many ships sunk around cebu, peurto galera & manila bay. I have found thousands of pieces of smashed up china plate on a island beach there…
    Has it been expoloted or is the water to deep

  25. Under circumstances in which they could do so, the Spanish salvaged their own ships. However conditions often prevented it. If you’re finding numerous pottery shards it’s likely that other items of value have been driven to shore by storm. A good metal detector might reward you handsomely. I’d recommend the Minelab Excalibur ll or the Minelab CX3030. They are both good underwater and on land. If you find enough you may want to consider searching for the wreck(s) itself. However that is a profoundly expensive endeavor and one which will certainly require a top notch legal team as well.

  26. @Grant, Robert Marx would be the guy to ask. He’s got the most records out of anyone on shipwrecks there (and around the world) He lists many is his book. My wife is from Cebu. Where have you found pottery/shards? Happy to work together.
    702-232-5504 (US)

  27. Sadly, Bob Marx died not long ago, I think he was about 85 years old. He was most prolific in the research and salvage of treasures all over the world and in writing many books about historic shipwrecks and their cargoes.

  28. @Ellsworth, you are a hard man to find, but it seems that you write for Clive and monitor this page. I’m interested in speaking with you about Manila galleons and where I could do better research. I’m originally from Florida and love the ocean. Having been away from the ocean for 25 years, it’s time for me to get back. In saying that, I am determined to find a Manila galleon as I love the Philippines and the people. And of course I want to treasure hunt like everyone on this site. Even if I don’t find anything, the adventure will be enjoyable. Thank you in advance, Will Douglas
    [email protected]

  29. Will: Go back up and read some of the comments from other viewers about the Manila Galleons. As one viewer said: There are plenty of books about the Manila galleons and also info online. I will respond to you at your email address as soon as I complete an article Ive been working on. Best regards, Ellsworth

  30. Hi Ellsworth — I want to introduce myself to you. I just found your site a dandy mix of old salts and others pending doing a lot of reading. I am working on an article too.

    I am looking for the specific route the Manila Galleons goods took from Acapulco to Veracruz.
    Also — More on the silver that moved up the Pacific from Potosí mint.

    I have some interesting photos and maps I would like to send you. How do I do that?

    Here are a few lines from the story I am working on to fill you in a bit —

    We can now move past the daydreams and endless chats about how much was lost at sea and what might be found. Today all the elements of recovering coins from wrecks are now in place. High technology equipment has proven itself. Vast amounts of research on wrecks has been done. Governments have become more cooperative about recovering and displaying lost history. And collectors are interested in a wide range of numismatic treasure without overpriced hype.

    We all been impressed with the amazing scientific and industrial techniques used to find and bring up the thousands of gold coins and ingots from the SS Central America — and that was 36 years ago. Think about the mobile phone you were using and television sets you were watching in 1985 and the ones you have now. That huge amount of change has also taken place in the technology of treasure search and recovery on the world’s seabed.

    You paid much less for the phone and television you have now than the ones you had three decades ago. You will also be paying less for the recovered gold and silver coins in the future. Technology can now bring up more gold and silver faster and safer at a lower cost. There will be so many treasure wrecks recovered that the coins we want in our collections will be at lower cost than the heavily hyped prices of the past.

    The breathtaking tons of coins lost in shipwrecks is a small fraction of the amount of wealth that successfully traveled from one point of the globe to another. Documents on sailing ships mention chests of colored gemstones and diamonds, thousands of pearls, magnificent bronze cannons, Ming porcelain and artifacts made of silver and gold. Wrecks with such treasure are not the subject of this article — unless a few tons of desirable coins is part of the cargo. We numismatists will not be distracted —we are only tracking lost coins here — and lots of them.

    The Spanish mined more than 500,000 ounces of gold and more than five billion troy ounces of silver in the New World. The Portuguese discovered that Brazil had tons of gold in the 1700s and set about getting as much of it as possible to Lisbon. There were always official tallies of the treasure as it was moved from one place to another. And the unregistered contraband gold and silver that was mined, smelted, smuggled and also lost makes up another huge number.

  31. Gary: Let me check a few of my books and I will get back to you.
    Feel free to email me at: [email protected]
    Cheers, Ellsworth P.S.-Keep writing. The Manila galleons are most interesting!

  32. A correction on my previous comment regarding Spain’s discovery of the route to and from the Philippines from the Pacific Coast of New Spain:

    The Manila Galleons sailed directly West to the Philippines between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator. The return trip required northward sailing toward the Northwest ending in Monterrey on the California Coast, then continuing to sail south toward the port of Navidad in New Spain. A clockwise voyage allowed the trade route to remain in place for hundreds of years.

    In my research I learned that the Spanish Crown had claims to all lands touching the Pacific Ocean since 1493. They actually sailed as far north as Alaska when the English and Russians started claiming lands in the Pacific Northwest in the 18th Century, they sent expeditions during 1774 to 1793. Sailing North was obviously not easy but apparently it was done in Frigates, Schooners and Corvettes.

  33. Gerard: Thanks, for the Very interesting comments. You made some very good points I did not know. It was indeed fascinating that the Manila galleons’ routes from the Philippines were northward, then across the ocean, and finally wound south along the California coast. Many salvors and historians were so interested in the galleons that sailed from South America and Cuba, they didn’t pay as much attention to the Manila galleons. Send more interesting facts as you come across them. Best regards, Ellsworth

  34. Hello everyone especially those who have a great interest in the magnificent Manila galleons. I’d like to hear from any and all of you and I will now put my email address here. [email protected].
    I’ve been researching the Manila galleons for 25 years and happened to have a list of 73 of them that sank with dates, names of ships, location and how they sank. As I write this I’m about 250 mi from a sunken Manilla galleon and it’s near shore and I welcome some of you to join my team and have an adventure of a lifetime but I need help in raising additional funds for our 5 Manila Galleon projects. I knew Bob Marx and in 1988 or 89 gave me the exact location of a manila Galleon that he had located and he told me the story about how he was boarded by robbers and injured. He did take two Ming dynasty tea cups and sold each one for $250,000. Recently a small blue and white Ming dynasty bowl sold for $720,000. Just a few more quick points which you will no doubt find exciting. A typical Manila galleon would carry enough gold and silver leaving from Acapulco that it would be the equivalent in weight of 185 cars! The San Jose was found and salvaged. It was heading to Acapulco and sank with hundreds of boxes of diamonds and rubies as well as 47 chests of objects of worked gold and about 175, 000 pieces of Chinese ceramics. One of my good friends has managed to date this current Galleon that I’m near by looking at the reign marks on the bottom of a cup found on the adjacent Beach. It’s from the 1500s. My friend is head of ceramics of a certain auction firm and he’s considered a world expert on Oriental ceramics and I believe he helped auction Mel Fisher’s treasure long ago. I was in business with Fisher during the time I took my shipwreck treasure diving company public on the OTC market.

    We also have a new ROV and it has sonar, high definition camera, a grabber arm lights and has his depth capability of 1100 ft. Here now is my WhatsApp phone number in case anyone wishes to call me +380 666 978 696. That was my phone number in Ukraine until recently where I was busy doing research and a little diving in the Black Sea. We have a new business plan and budget that I will make available to anyone who wants to see it. I am on West Coast time.

  35. Good luck Bill. You have much information about the wrecks you mentioned. I know you did a lot of research on them. I hope some of the viewers are interested in your project. It sounds as if you are well equipped and ready to go. Good luck and safe diving.

  36. Bill: Thanks for sending all the info about your projects. I’m sure some of the viewers will be interested. Good luck and keep in touch and tell us all about your adventures.

  37. Ellsworth how are you? We have the location of a large Spanish bronze Cannon I’m wondering what they value is. Do you have any idea? Of the ship which was a manila galleon circa early 1600s

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