In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Asia and the Americas and the Iberian Empires

  • Introduction
  • Pioneering Works: Explorers and Historians
  • From the Strait of Magellan to the Desembocadero de San Bernardino: Another Mare Nostrum
  • Empires: Constructions Over Several Worlds
  • The Philippine Galleon between Cavite and Acapulco
  • The First Globalization: Between Spices, Silks, and Silver
  • Human Flows in the Oceanic Immensities
  • Cultural Exchanges
  • Material Culture and Its Influences
  • The Great Movement of Plants

Atlantic History Asia and the Americas and the Iberian Empires
Thomas Calvo, Paulina Machuca
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0390


On 12 October 1492, Christopher Columbus reached the island of Guanahaní. On 25 September 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa entered the waters of the South Sea, the future Pacific Ocean. Both dates are inseparable, for they narrowed the planetary space, opened new maritime routes, and brought the four main parts of the world into dialogue. In this article we focus on Asia and the Americas, where the Pacific, the ocean that both separates and unites them, is essential. And across the Pacific, we examine the instrument that connected the two shores: the Manila Galleon as it circulated between Cavite and Acapulco between 1565 and 1815. Our temporality and focus are linked to the evolution of the two Iberian empires: Spain and Portugal. Our analysis space is the Pacific Ocean, on each of its shores, where its humanities, products, and cultures are transferred, from Peru and New Spain to the Philippines, and behind, Southeast Asia, China, and even Japan, and from there to the Americas. Other spaces, such as India and the Ottoman Empire, although they are important, are rarely addressed here due to lack of space, but we recognize that they deserve a separate contribution. We must also consider the imperial times that gave part of their tonalities to our continents, observing empires that were born, such as the Mughal and Iberian; others, like the Ming, disappeared; and other nations, like Japan under the shogunate, that stabilized. In Southeast Asia, the Iberians planned to expand (Cambodia), but internal conflicts multiplied (the Moluccas), and they confronted, again, their old Muslim enemy (southern Philippines). We propose that the relationship between Asia and the Americas goes far beyond American silver against Chinese silks, the great leitmotif. Asia offered luxury products, art, and aesthetics, reaching the most remote corners of the American mountains. America transferred missionaries, soldiers, and settlers and, with them, ideology and political structures, but also religion and culture. It is true that much of the above came from Europe, but it passed through the American prism. The Portuguese from Asia dialogued directly in Lisbon, while the Spanish did so through the Manila-Mexico-Madrid axis. Beyond human beings and their productions, including their languages, plants circulated that modified food systems on each side of the Pacific. The great ecological homogenization of the planet had one of its greatest moments here, after the Roman Empire or the Crusades.

Pioneering Works: Explorers and Historians

This section could be as infinite as the Pacific Ocean itself, but we limit our review to a brief sample from historical documentation, beginning with Pigafetta and Álvarez de Abreu, and seminal works that paved the way for historiography, as Chaunu 1960; Bernal 1965; Boxer 1969; and others. The variety of these contributions and their representative nature well reflect the diversity of situations and problems present in the subject matter. However, there is a common point that can serve as a framework. Whether the authors were Italian, French, Spanish, or Mexican or, later, Anglo-Saxon or Peruvian, among other origins, one constant emerges: a certain permanence in the structure of the problem. For three centuries, seen from the —essentially Western—historiography with which we are most familiar, the Asia-America relationship passed along a thin but tenacious thread, from Cavite to Acapulco, in the form of a nutshell: the Philippine Galleon, aboard which silk was exchanged for silver. Behind, far from Madrid, lay Mexico, which cannot be ignored. The rest, Chinese, Dutch, and others did not unite the two spaces that interest us except, perhaps, through piracy (English, Dutch, French). Among the Portuguese, Goa-Bahia relations were practically non-existent, save the circulation of some high officials, such as viceroys. And although Japan, almost inadvertently, sent an embassy to the West in 1614 that passed through New Spain, it did not go further. For the period under study, we must remember that only Spain held the keys to both worlds, Asia and America, with a complex transculturation process, as seen in Bernal 1965, León-Portilla 1960, De la Torre Villar 1980, and Barrón and Rodríguez-Ponga 1990–1992

  • Álvarez de Abreu, Antonio. Extracto historial del comercio entre Filipinas y Nueva España. 2 vols. Mexico: Instituto Mexicano de Comercio Exterior, 1977.

    Written by a Minister of the Council of the Indies (original edition printed in Madrid in 1736), this is a compendium of commercial regulations—complex and always under discussion—between the Philippines and New Spain, compiled to serve as a guide to the Council. Today, it fulfills the same mission for historians. Its breadth invites explorations that go beyond the economic or political. Introduction by Carmen Yuste.

  • Barrón, Ma. Cristina, and Rafael Rodríguez-Ponga, eds. La presencia novohispana en el Pacífico insular. Primeras y Segundas Jornadas. 2 vols. Mexico: Universidad Iberoamericana, Embajada de España en México, 1990–1992.

    Two volumes published under the same title, two years apart, with a total of twenty-three pioneering essays on the cultural influences of New Spain in the Philippines and other Pacific islands, covering such diverse topics as linguistics, clothing, and trade.

  • Bernal, Rafael. México en Filipinas. Estudio de una transculturación. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1965.

    Bernal was an outstanding Mexican intellectual and a diplomat in the Philippines. His book offers a perspective geared toward the three types of Mexicans he encountered in the colonial Philippines: “Creoles, Indians, and Mestizos.” One of the first, with Miguel León-Portilla, to highlight the linguistic contribution of Nahuatl in the archipelago. This book was preceded by a special issue of the journal Historia Mexicana (1964).

  • Boxer, Charles R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415–1825. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969.

    As Boxer claims, it is the “Western Rim of Christendom” the first modern colonial empire, from its first explorations in Africa and Asia (15th century), until the independence of Brazil. A central chapter is dedicated to “soldiers, settlers and vagabonds,” what others have called the Portuguese “informal Empire” (Luis Filipe Thomaz). There is a revised and enlarged Portuguese edition (2014).

  • Chaunu, Pierre. Les Philippines et le Pacifique des Ibériques (XVIe, XVIIe, XVIIIe). Introduction méthologique et indices d’activité. Paris: SEVPEN, 1960.

    The starting point of economic and naval history dedicated to the colonial Philippines and its trade with Southeast Asia and New Spain, and the continuation of the author’s Séville et l’Atlantique (1504–1650), published in 1959. Sources are presented in statistical form, 116 files from the cajas reales of Manila and Acapulco.

  • De la Torre Villar, Ernesto. La expansión hispanoamericana en Asia. Siglos XVI y XVII. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980.

    Result of a colloquium held in Mexico in 1976, this book deals with several broad themes: religious, linguistic, artistic, and economic. Chapters refer to such aspects as the sources: Mexican and missionary (Lino Cañedo), or bibliography (García), while others focus on spaces: Japan-Mexico (Schütte, Schade), Philippines-China (Díaz Trechuelo), and the East-Peru (Núñez).

  • León-Portilla, Miguel. “Algunos nahuatlismos en el castellano de Filipinas”. Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 2 (1960): 135–138.

    Based on W. E. Retana’s Diccionario de Filipinismos, published in 1921, the Nahuatl influence is notable, especially in plants, but also in other aspects of daily life, such as “nana (from nantli, mother),” a “very affectionate term.” But the article does not address the question of why this linguistic transmission was successful despite the scarce presence of Nahua Indians in the Philippines. Was it thanks to the missionaries?

  • Pigafetta, Antonio. The First Voyage Around the World (1519–1522): An Account of Magellan’s Expedition. Edited by T. J. Cachey. New York: Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library, 2019.

    This book recounts the first Western incursion into the South Sea, narrated by an Italian and conducted by a Portuguese in the service of the king of Spain and emperor of Germany. At that time, reality and myths intermingled, feeding imaginaries. A chronicle of great precision and modernity that lists the vocabularies of the peoples described on each side of the ocean.

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