Acapulco: Trade and the Manila Galleon
Desperately in need of a quick trade route between Southeast Asia and the Mexican Pacific in order to better compete with the British, among other European rivals, Philip II of Spain ordered the conquest of the Philippines, his namesake, and of the Molucca or "Spice" Islands, during the mid-16th century.
By that time the Spanish crown, through Viceroy Mendoza and by means of conquistadors Pedro de Alvarado and Gonzalo de Sandoval and the expeditionary forces of the Spanish occupation, had secured an exceptionally deep water port called Acapulco. One of nature's miracles, Acapulco is a visually gorgeous juxtaposition of land and water. Sandoval actually reached Acapulco as early as 1523.
And while pirates skulked around the mouth of the bay in an attempt to prevent passage and supplies to Spanish commerce, trade flourished for the "China Ship" for over 200 years.
The fort of San Diego, in a spectacular setting overlooking the bay, seemed ample bastion for the fort's defense. In those days water lapped around the boulders at the foot of the star-shaped (supposed to be a turtle) construction, enclosed in its deep moat. Today a highway, park and cruise-ship port stretch into the bay beneath the cream-stone layers of the last vestige of colonial occupation still visible in Acapulco. The Museum of History, the current tenant, is however a well-informed and well-stocked source of the area's unique past, a sampling of goods from the Manila Galleon and a revelation of the various phases of the fort's own evolution.
Its initial reason for being was the annual anchorage of the well-laden vessel, when all of Acapulco turned out in celebration. The fair took place on the beach. Merchandise was presented for distribution to the main cities of New Spain. Especially coveted were the embroidered shawls from China, erroneously labeled "mantones de Manila" and often used to grace the cover of a piano, trunk or settee. Also much appreciated were the tons of Japanese and Chinese export porcelain, generally used as ballast. Also included in the cargo, however, was exquisitely carved and polished wooden furniture, leather, ivory, silk, spices and perfumed essences, to make life in the tropics more luxurious, more aromatic or flavorful. The port's population, normally around 4000, swelled to ten or twelve thousand and the roads were choked with festivities, bargaining and feasting.
The return voyage took even more exotic fare around the world, cargo assembled from Chile to Mexico. The New World shared goods soon to be more valuable than even ivory or embroidery: anil dyes, medicinal plants to cure a wide range of ailments, corn, squash, potatoes from Peru, chiles, cotton, cacti, avocados, amaranth, strangler figs, yams, precious hardwoods, marigold for cosmetics and industry, copal for incense, the ever-versatile cohune plant ("nature's supermarket"), dahlias among many other flowers, juniper and oak, wormweed, lilies, sunflowers, guava, henequen (sisal), edible mushrooms in an astonishing variety, acacia, rubber, tomatoes, several varieties of maguey, mesquite, poinsettias, prickly pear, orchids, papaya, pitahaya (now known throughout southeast Asia as "dragon fruit"), vanilla, yucca, among hundreds of other products, but especially the incomparable cacao that became fine chocolate and in itself was hard currency.
Longer lasting coins used in commercial transactions are on display in the fort's museum, since Acapulco became synonymous with trade, but also with festivity and celebration. The luscious setting, balmy climate and dazzling views from the onset invited tourism. Acapulco can be shabby, gutsy, glitzy, glamorous, but in fact it is a sham front on a fragile interior: hot, heady, blatant, bleary-eyed, shoddy, sometimes vicious and vociferous but always vulnerable. For Acapulco is never very subtle and in actual fact is quite sad, brightly lit but bashful, restless, always in search of a style, an identity, a color scheme to match all that energy and passion.
Yet no one can clear the rise toward Puerto Marquez, the little bay nestled below and the Costa Chica strewn like an unfurled ribbon in the sun, without his heart stopping before such wild beauty. Acapulco, apparently saturated, can never be completely exhausted.