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Manila Galleon Voyages

Susan Bacon, Winter 2004

From 1565 to 1815, some of the largest ships of the era cruised the oceans between the Philippine capital of Manila and Acapulco, Mexico. These ships - dubbed the Manila galleons - traveled between the two cities once a year, bringing silks, porcelain, jewelry and other luxury goods east to Mexico, and then returning west to the Philippines with gold and silver, soldiers, missionaries and other passengers.

Captains of these galleons kept detailed logs of the ships' journeys, recording information on wind, ocean currents and weather. Although most of these logs have disappeared, some information is still available with details on when the ships departed and arrived at each port.

After two years of sifting through these remaining records, which are housed in the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, an international team of researchers reconstructed how long the journey took each ship sailing between 1590 and 1750 to complete its journey. And with this data, the researchers discovered they could say more than just how long the journey took, they were able to describe the general climate conditions of the time, providing valuable estimates of weather patterns for a period long before thermometers and other weather-measuring devices were widely used.