Money MattersNewssliderSpain


by Rose Maramba


“La Ruta del Manton de Manila” exhibition

The recent Manton de Manila exhibition at the Casa de America (“La ruta del manton de Manila: la feliz unión entre Asia, Hispanoamérica y España/The Manila Shawl Route: the Happy Union between Asia, Latin America and Spain,” 30 April – 17 May 2024) is likely to have made one realize that while the Manton has been around for centuries, there is much to learn, or need to refresh one’s memory, about it.  The Manton was, after all, the shawl that played a significant part in launching the first ships on a global voyage.

A primer on today’s Manton de Manila

Cheap Manton de Manila (€4.95 ) made in China and sold in a Chinese store in Madrid

Here’s an intro to the mantons.  Firstly, the shawl, which is square in shape and folded diagonally to drape on shoulders, hang gracefully on the arms, or wrap around the waist, comes in different sizes, with embroidery that are more or less intricate, and always in stunning colors. The fringe around it is believed to be a Spanish contribution.

The cheaper mantons are imported from China, are machine-embroidered and you’d hardly expect them to be made of silk. Think acrylic, polyester or acrylic-polyester blend and you’ll be on the right track. An affront to the reputation and prestige of the elegant Manton, turning it into a trite and vulgar fashion accessory.

Hand-embroidered silk Spanish manton

The best mantons are hand-embroidered and are made of silk as they were during the Galleon Trade era. The silk weight weighs heavily on the prices of the shawls which could easily range from a few hundred euros to a few thousand each. A veritable heirloom, they are handed down from generation to generation.

For authenticity, the shawls must be made in Spain. The irony of it! Weren’t they supposed to have originated in China? Some assert that they might have been manufactured there – and were indeed – but not originate.

Secondly, there is a long, fascinating, riveting history behind today’s Manton de Manila.


Manton history

“Woman with Manton de Manila”, painting by Filipino artist Juan Luna, 1880

The Manton de Manila (Spanish shawls) hit the high seas for the first time right after the Philippines became part of an empire – Spain’s – where the sun never set. That is, in 1565. It wasn’t  even fifty years yet after Magellan, the Portuguese explorer in the payroll of Charles I of Spain (Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), discovered the Philippines in 1521 when the Manila Galleon went on its maiden voyage.  The very lucrative, if risky too, and certainly insalubrious Manila Galleon, a.k.a. Acapulco Galleon or Nao de China, would last till 1815 when the Mexican War of Independence broke out.

Manila, 1792. Photo: Manila Cathedral

At the height of the Galleon Trade, Manila was one of the world’s most important trading ports, central to the trade and commerce between Asia and the Americas. There, in what today is the capital of the Philippines, exotic and valuable goods were loaded onto the large multi-decked galleons: spices from Ceylon, Moluccas and Java; silk, ivory, chinaware, porcelain, lacquer and mother of pearl from Japan and China (with silk, in the form of the Manton de Manila and other apparels, being one of the most important cargo); carpets, tapestries and cotton garments from India, and so on and so forth. Manila was where the Galleon Trade kicked off, plying the Pacific up to Acapulco in Mexico.

There was much cheering by the Manila folk whenever the Galleon set sail. Chruch bells tolled, bands played, and the Archbishop of Manila blessed the voyage. Just as the arrival of the Galleon in Mexico caused quite a stir. In fact, it was a major commercial and social event. The goods, which were very much in demand, were displayed at fairs and in markets where they raked in profits of between 100% and 300%.

Acapulco port in 1628, Mexican terminus of the Manila Galleon

Not that all the merchandise were sold out in Mexico. The cargo, especially the silk, the fine porcelain, and spices were transported overland to the port of Veracruz where, along with some Mexican products, notably silver and gold, they were transferred to waiting ships for dispatch across the Atlantic to Seville or Cadiz in Spain.

While the Atlantic fleets sailed off eastward from Veracruz to Spain, the Manila Galleon would be leaving Acapulco on its westward tornaviaje (return voyage) hauling huge amounts of Mexican silver with which to purchase a new batch of exotic Oriental goods and start the Galleon Trade over again. It is estimated that a whopping one-third of all the silver in New Spain which comprised the heartland of colonial Mexico on the Atlantic flank, and Peru in the South American Pacific, went into the Galleon Trade. Little wonder the Galleon Trade route was also known as the Silver Corridor.

The Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade and the Veracruz-Seville routes

However, though silver dominated the tornaviaje cargo, there were other “goods” making significant impact on the cultural, religious and social physiognomy of the places where the galleons stopped over: soldiers, missionaries, royal officers, privileged Spanish families as well as deportees and prisoners from Europe and the New World,  animals (cows and horses), and plants such as tobacco, peanut, cocoa, tomato, pineapple, potato and corn.

“Drake viewing treasure taken from a Spanish ship”

A successful Manila-Acapulco roundtrip – no shipwreck due to storms and fire on board, or piracy (Francis Drake, to name an iconic pirate: his “favorite pastime” was pillaging and plundering the Spanish treasure fleet, amassing an estimated fortune of $115 million in the process, making him one of the richest men of his time) – usually took four months outbound, and some three months on the tornaviaje, the latter  being generally smoother.


The legend of the legendary Manton de Manila

Filipino royalties in the pre-Hispanic era clad in their native costumes as depicted in Boxer Codex, 1595. See shawl on the woman remarkably identical to the way the Manton is draped on women’s shoulders.

It is generally accepted as a historical truism that the shawls originated in China. Were that the case, the logical question to ask would then be: if they were Chinese, how come they were shipped from Manila and not from China? The answer would be equally logical: the Chinese and Filipinos traded with each other since time immemorial, and that was how the Manton de Manila from China found its way into the Galleon Trade via  Manila, since Manila was a Spanish colonial city and a most important port in the Spanish East Indies too. See the following statement, for example: “ [The] beautiful shawl actually originated in Canton, China and in the 16th century was introduced through Spanish trade to the Philippine capital of Manila, a Spanish colony at that time.”

Prince and Princess from China, Ming Dynasty, attired in their traditional costume, as reported by the Colonial Spanish Authorities of Manila around 1590 in Boxer Codex. Look, no shawl.

There are some dissenting voices, however, who would beg to disagree. The argument being that Philippine shawls, which predated the Spanish colonization, were an intrinsic part of the Filipino indigenous attire. One of the dissenting voices would urge thus:

Please research the Boxer Codex which illustrates that women in the Philippine archipelago already were using shawls which predates the arrival of the Spaniards. Manila’s longstanding trade with China made it possible for the shawl to be mass produced in China, very much like how many products today are made in China—but it does not mean the product originated in China. . . The indigenous people of the Philippines at the time already had a thriving and sophisticated society which includes textile and garment production. If the shawls originated in China, why isn’t it prevalent and part of their traditional outfit. It is very rare to see any depiction of Chinese women wear scarves or shawls.


The Manton de Manila in the context of global commercial-cultural exchange

Dr. Robert Underwood, a prominent scholar of the Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands, would underscore the far-reaching importance of the Manila Galleon in many different ways. He says,

Manila Galleon welcomed by the Chamorros of the Marianas, ca.1590

The galleon trade was not just a one-way stream of goods and beliefs; it also meant a steady stream of products and ideas from Asia to Spain and its colonies…[and provides] a metaphor of the meeting of the East and the West. This cannot be better symbolized than by the Spanish-speaking Filipinos and Chamorros or the silk-clad Spaniards in Mexico and Spain. The Spanish colonies in the Philippines, Mexico and the Marianas [the Manila Galleon docked occasionally on the Mariana Islands] reflected mixed populations, mixed cultures and mixed social norms which evolved on their own to form unique peoples with various mannerisms and speech harking back to their Asian-Pacific-European roots.

Manton de Manila in a 2017 painting

In other words, the Galleon Trade, a Spanish monopoly, may have been primarily a transoceanic commercial enterprise, but the impact of its non-commercial aspects on native life, greatly influencing autochthonous traditions, religion, architecture, art, fashion, and gastronomy among others, was just as significant, and certainly more permanent in many cases. Moreover, it was not only the places on the Galleon Trade route that were impacted but the outlying as well. Spain, most particularly.

One of the most important symbols of this amazing historic phenomenon is the Manton de Manila, an enduring legacy of the Manila Galleon. To this day, the Manton is a fashionable and prized fashion accesory worn at important social and cultural events.

Incidentally, so crucial was the contribution of the Galleon Trade to world trade and global interconnection that UNESCO has declared 8 October as the Day of the Galleon to commemorate the establishment of the Manila-Acapulco Route. The Galleon Trade laid an unshakeable foundation for worldwide dialogue and collaboration.


Images via Wikimedia Commons unless stated otherwise
> Featured image (Guidepost montage): Spanish galleon and Dutch ship engaged in battle in Stanley Lane-Poole’s  The Story of the Barbary Corsairs published by GP Putnam’s Sons 1890, image by Jurien de la Gravière, PD. “Dancer” (Carmencita Daucet) painted by John Singer Sargent, photographed by artnet, PD. Both via Wikimedia Commons
> “La Ruta del Manton de Manila” exhibition/Casa de America
> Manton made in China/©Rose Maramba
> Silk hand-embroidered manton/Karmen Iliturgitana, CC BY-SA2.0. Flickr
> “Woman with Manton de Manila” painting/Juan Luna, PD via
> Manila Cathedral/Fernando Brambila (1763-1834)/PD via Wikimedia Commons
> Acapulco 1628/Adrian Boot, courtesy Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin, PD via Wikimedia Commons
> Manila-Acapulco, and Veracruz-Seville routes/the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs–Official Gazette, PD
> Francis Drake and his loot from Spanish galleon, courtesy New York Public Library. Author unknown. Uploaded before 1923. CC BY4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
> Filipino royalties in their native costume during the pre-Hispanic era in the Philippines/Boxer Codex, created 1595. Uploaded 22 June 2019 via Wikimedia Commons
> Royalties from China, Ming dynasty, in their native attire/Boxer Codex (1590) as reported by the Colonial Spanish Authorities of Manila, Philippines around 1590. Unknown Spanish author and Chinese illustrato, PD via Wikimedia Commons
> Chamorros receiving Manila Galleon. Source: The Boxer Codex (1590). Unknown author/compiler. PD via Wikipedia
> Woman with Manton de Manila, 2017 oil painting by Roman frances, CC BY-SA4.0, Wikimedia Commons