The Spanish Pacific, 1521-1815: A Reader of Primary Sources, Christina H Lee (ed), Ricardo Padrón (ed) (Amsterdam University Press, March 2020)

The Spanish Pacific, 1521-1815: A Reader of Primary Sources, Christina H Lee (ed), Ricardo Padrón (ed) (Amsterdam University Press, March 2020)

Back in the day, whenever one was in a waiting room or vestibule, one would likely come across a copy of “Reader’s Digest”, which would include a diverse selection of pieces, often abridged, often extracts from elsewhere: easy reading, something to interest anyone and everyone, thought-provoking but not enough to require too much mental exertion.

I mean no disrespect in saying that The Spanish Pacific, 1521-1815: A Reader of Primary Sources presents like an early-modern era “Readers Digest” for the Asia-Pacific. The selections are well-chosen and wide-ranging; each is prefaced by a readable and illuminating introduction. Some, in their way, are even charming (not an adjective often deployed in the context of books from academic presses).

First up is a piece by Andrés de Urdaneta to whom we owe the Manila Galleon. This piece is however not taken from his “tornaviaje”—the route he discovered in 1565 back from the Philippines to Mexico—but from an earlier voyage to the Spice Islands. The selection covers the section from the Islas de los Ladrones: the Isles of Thieves, now the Marianas, so-called because the local “indios”


do not have any kind of metal, which is why they are very fond of iron, and will give everything they have for any iron object that cuts and if it is not sold for the price they want, they will do what they can to have it or they just steal it and flee with it. In the nao [ship], many of them snatched the machetes or knives or daggers from the tape and threw themselves into the sea and fled, and due to such robbery, the place is called Islas de los Ladrones.


Urdaneta has a somewhat breathless style with an eye for the piquant. There was a Galician marooned on the Ladrones:


He came completely naked except for his private parts, which were covered with a piece of mat. His hair was very bristly, and it reached his buttocks.




There is a custom in these islands. All the single men who are about to get married bring two sticks in their hands and all of them usually bring their own very well-cut mat holding pineapples, which they eat afterwards. The unmarried indios, who bring the rods, have such freedom that they can enter the house of any married indio whose wife seems alright to them and he can do what he wants with her, and if at the time the young man wants to enter her husband is at home, after the other enters, they exchange baskets and if the husband leaves and the young man remains inside, the married man will not arrive home until he knows that the other is out. And many very good mats are made on these islands.


The mores might raise an eyebrow, but the mats are good.

There is much more in this vein as they continue to Mindanao and the Moluccas, where they have a run in with the Portugese. The account is dated 1536, some ten years after the events it tells of, the delay due to Urdaneta himself having been marooned, unable to leave until the Portuguese finally gave him a lift to Lisbon.

The next selection is a letter of 1582 from Bishop Domingo de Salazar to the King of Spain in which he complains of the way the native Filipinos and immigrant Chinese are treated in Manila. It is many many ways rather enlightened, noting that Spanish introduction of money ruined the local economy and that one cannot hope for converts when “from the Christians, they do not hear another word other than ‘pay tribute’…”

There is a fascinating world map from Juan Cobo’s 1593 Bian zhengjiao zhenchuan shilu (Apology for the True Religion), one of the first works to be printed in Spanish Manila. The map shows China in the center and the south on top; Cobo


traces a single continuous coastline from Mexico … to China…, depicting North America and Asia as a single continuous continent, despite the efforts of Mercator, Ortelius, and others to render this once popular idea obsolete.


A royal decree of 1604 put limits on the Manila Galleon trade: caps, ports and who can conduct it. These protectionist regulations were routinely ignored despite the King ordering that the decree “be publicly announced so that everyone is aware of it and no one can feign ignorance.”

There’s a description of a Chinese wedding in 1625 with a great deal of attention paid to the food:


since the Sangleys [Chinese] are avid eaters, the meal can last for a very long time, during which they do not stop eating.


There is a 1644 will from Lima in which one Leonor Alvarez, the “Peruvian daughter of gentile parents from Oriental India” freed her four African and Asian slaves and made one executor.

The readings include an excerpt from The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez, a 1690 adventure novel (“widely believed to be based on a true account”) from New Spain (now Mexico). The protagonist is taken prisoner by British pirates off Cavite in the Philippines.

There are about a half-dozen more selections, ending with an 1813 prohibition from the Bishop of Cebu on “digging up the bones of the dead”.

The selections go well together; the only slight quibble is that because each piece was evidently created as a stand-alone entry, the footnotes repeat: the term sangleys (which was the name for the Chinese in the Philippines) is footnoted several different times.

This Reader only touches an infinitesimal amount of material: the collection of translations of Spanish primary sources from the Philippines by Emma Blair and James Robertson, dating from the first decade of the 20th century, runs to 55 volumes. And there is much more elsewhere. But this is, after all, just a digest: something to whet the appetite. And that it does. I’m off to find a copy of The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez.

Peter Gordon

Originally published in The Asian Review of Books.