In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Spanish Pacific

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of the Spanish Pacific
  • Primary Sources and Translations
  • Conceptualizing the Spanish Pacific
  • The Manila Galleon, Trade, and the Political Economy of the Spanish Pacific
  • Militarization and Spain’s Pacific Empire
  • Catholicism and Religion
  • Rebellions and Revolution
  • Chinese Migrants in Manila and Colonial Mexico
  • Other Migrants and the Making of the Spanish Pacific
  • The Black Spanish Pacific World

Latin American Studies The Spanish Pacific
Kristie Patricia Flannery
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0290


The Spanish Pacific is a geographical space as well as an idea. It refers to the places that Spain colonized or dreamed of colonizing in the large world region that encompassed the Pacific coast of the Americas, much of the vast Pacific Ocean, the Mariana islands and the Philippine islands, as well as Japan and China’s Pacific borderlands. The Philippines was the largest Spanish colony in Asia, and studies that focus on this archipelago loom large in the interdisciplinary literature on the Spanish Pacific. Crucially, early modern visions of the Spanish Pacific world imagined the ocean and its islands and littoral zones as extensions of Spain’s American colonies, and part of a global Spanish empire. As Ricardo Padrón observes, they “mapped America and Asia into a shared transpacific space” (Padrón 2020, p. 23, cited in this essay in the Conceptualizing the Spanish Pacific section). In some instances, they did this mapping quite literally, conceptualizing Asia and the Americas as a massive AmerAsia landmass. The origins of the Spanish Pacific can be traced back to Ferdinand Magellan’s early-16th-century voyage around the world, which was punctuated by the navigator’s death in the Philippines in 1521. At Mactan the datu Lapu Lapu’s men killed Magellan as they defended their land and people from a violent invasion. The date at which the Spanish Pacific ceased to exist is less clear. Some scholars have noted an 1815 expiry date, corresponding to the collapse of the galleon trade that linked Manila to Acapulco from the late 16th century until the outbreak of Mexico’s early-19th-century war for independence. Although the galleon trade came to an end, Spanish colonial rule continued in the Philippines until 1898, when Spain sold the islands to the United States of America as part of the peace treaty that ended the Spanish American War. As in other regions of the global Spanish empire, Spanish colonial power was uneven across the Spanish Pacific world, including in the Philippines, and some mountainous and watery zones in the archipelago remained beyond the empire’s reach. Connections between Spanish Asia and America persisted in the 19th century, yet they have received less attention from scholars. Without invisibilizing the continuous Indigenous presence in islands, coasts, and watery zones in the Caribbean and other seas, Alice Te Punga Somerville suggests that “we might usefully distinguish the vastly Indigenous presence in Oceania from the largely diasporic, transported, enslaved presence in other oceans” (2017, p. 29). As such, the historical experiences of Indigenous peoples and their relationships with Spanish colonists is a core focus of research on the Spanish Pacific, and particularly those studies centered on the Philippines and other Pacific islands. Scholarship on the Black Spanish Pacific in the long period of Spanish colonial rule centers on the experiences of enslaved and free Africans and the African diaspora in cities on the other side of the ocean, especially in colonial Lima and Acapulco. Other key themes in the study of the Spanish Pacific world include the Manila galleon and transpacific trade, the spread of Catholicism in this world region, militarization and the use of brute force in the construction of Spain’s Asian empire, migration and the emergence of a large Chinese diaspora in the Philippines, and anti-colonial resistance and rebellions.

General Overviews of the Spanish Pacific

General histories of the Spanish empire have marginalized the Philippines and the Spanish Pacific world. Readers who are new to this topic would do well to begin with the introductory chapters of Lee and Padrón 2020 and Buschmann, et al. 2014. Rafael 2018 and Corpuz 2005 offer overviews of the history of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines and also provide useful background knowledge. These studies emphasize the uneveness and limits of Spanish colonial power across the terrestrial and watery zones that Spain claimed to rule in the Pacific. Gutiérrez Dewar 2017 reflects on the memory and legacies of the Spanish empire in the Philippines from a Spanish persepctive.

  • Buschmann, Rainer F., Edward R. Slack, and James B. Tueller. Navigating the Spanish Lake: The Pacific in the Iberian World, 1521–1898. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824838249.001.0001

    This monograph’s introduction provides a good overview of the Spanish Pacific as a world region and a concept.

  • Corpuz, O. D. The Roots of the Filipino Nation. Vol. 1. Quezon City: The University of the Philippines, Diliman, 2005.

    A more detailed synthesis of the history of the establishment and expansion of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines.

  • Gutiérrez Dewar, Sally, dir. Ta acorda ba tu el Filipinas (¿Te acuerdas de Filipinas?). Madrid, Spain, 2017.

    Documentary exploring the enduring legacies of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines.

  • Lee, Christina H., and Ricardo Padrón. “Introduction.” In The Spanish Pacific, 1521–1815: A Reader of Primary Sources. Edited by Christina H. Lee and Ricardo Padrón, 1–10. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020.

    This short introduction to an edited volume of primary sources for the study of the Spanish Pacific provides a useful overview of the topic and trends in interdisciplinary scholarship that it has inspired.

  • Rafael, Vicente L. “Colonial Contractions: The Making of the Modern Philippines, 1565–1946.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.013.268

    A useful short overview of the history of Spanish colonial rule of the Philippines, which also covers the US empire in the archipelago and Philippines’ independence.

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