Spain, China & Japan in Manila 1571-1644


A review of When Political Economies Meet: Spain, China and Japan in Manila, ca. 1571-1644, by Birgit Magdalena Tremml.

Birgit Magdalena Tremml’s study on the encounter between the “political economies” of Spain, China, and Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is an interesting and far-reaching analysis of Philippine pre-modern history, examining Manila as a crossroads between the East Asian, Southeast Asian, and American markets, as well as a multicultural city-port located in the centre of the so-called Asian or East Asian “Mediterranean” — i.e. the China Seas. The nature of this maritime macro-region, which was particularly favorable for the development of long-distance trade, provides the key for understanding the emergence of what she calls the “Manila system”: a system “characterized by multi-layered connections based on negotiations, a complex market torn between protectionism and free trade, triangular circulations and bi- or multilateral communication, involving different parties of the pre-modern states of Ming China, Azuchi-Momoyama/Tokugawa Japan and the Spanish Overseas Empire” (pp. 6-7). In other words, Tremml examines the cross-cultural trade between the three states in the city of Manila, considering it as a fulcrum of a regional “globalized” maritime area, with the surrounding ports of the Fujian province, the isle of Kyūshū, and the coasts of México as integral parts of it.

The work is divided into four parts and eight chapters. The first part is an accurate introduction that presents at length the state of the field and the aims of the dissertation (chap. 1) before making a comparison between the structures of the monarchy of Spain, China, and Japan. In Chapter 2, Tremml speaks about the differences between the economies of these three pre-modern states, the complex structure of the Spanish colonies and the particular situation of the Philippines. Then, she introduces the East Asian economic framework, presenting the Chinese Maritime prohibitions (haijin) of the Ming in the late-fourteenth century and the establishment of the Superintendencies of the Maritime Trade (shibosi), the opening of the port of Yuegang in 1567, and the Single Whip Tax Reform (yi tiao bian fa) of 1581, related to the influx of silver in China via Manila. On the Japanese side, she introduces the aftermath of the sengoku era (1477-1573) and the process of unification from the Azuchi-Momoyama period until the foundation of the Edo bakufu (1603). The maritime activities of the Sino-Japanese “pirates” — the so-called wakō, or wokou — are presented together with the implementation of the Red Seal Ships system (shuinsen), and the shogunate’s attempts to secure control of the Japanese private trade of Kyūshū and Kinai.

Chapter 3 opens the second part of the dissertation, dealing with the connections and interactions of the “Manila system.” It focuses on the structures of Spain’s administration in the Philippines and its overseas political economy, for example, integrating the transpacific voyages of the Manila Galleons into the framework of the East and Southeast Asian trade networks. Tremml analyses the triangular trade between China, Japan, and Spain in the China Seas and across the Pacific Ocean: arbitrage exchanges of Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese commodities, silver transhipments and other kinds of global connections (chap. 3 and 4). The third part concerns foreign relations and diplomacy, and examines the Chinese tributary system, the existing relations between the states of East Asia and Manila’s bilateral relations with China and Japan. Of particular interest is Tremml’s analysis of the various misunderstanding between the Spaniards, the Chinese, and the Japanese during official communication (chap. 6): problems of language — both written and oral — and gift exchange.

Part 4 proceeds to deal with the dualism between the global and the local, centre and periphery: e.g. Kantō/Kyūshū in Japan, Fujian/Beijing in China, and the role of Taiwan and the Ryūkyū archipelago (chap.7). In Chapter 8, Tremml shifts the focus to the impact of the socio-political aspects of the “Manila system,” speaking about the various communities that coexisted in Manila in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its multicultural aspects related to both conflict and cooperation. At least four different groups lived in the Philippine capital: there were Spaniards in the citadel of Intramuros, Chinese in the so-called “Parián” (alcaicería), Japanese in the villages of Dilao and San Miguel, and a vastly scattered Tagalog community all around the area of the city. Tremml asks whether the Spaniards thought of the merchants from China and Japan as subjects of the Spanish Crown — just like the Tagalogs — or as foreigners depending on the laws and regulations of their own countries. Juridical issues related to this unstable coexistence led to multicultural conflicts: the Chinese “Sangleys” rebelled in 1603, and the Japanese in 1606. Later, in the 1620s and 1630s, the Tokugawa bakufu evaluated the possibility of conquering the Philippines with the help of the Dutch, and in 1662 the Sino-Japanese “pirate” Zheng Chenggong, alias Koxinga, menaced Manila and the Spanish presence in Asia.

In conclusion, When Political Economies Meet is an in-depth analysis of the complex structures of the “Manila system,” shedding light on an important page of Asian maritime history, too often underestimated or simply separated from historical analyses of the East and Southeast Asian trade systems. Moreover, Tremml’s accurate use of European, Japanese, and Chinese sources, as well as the display of a rich and detailed bibliography, give validity to this important work, providing a solid foundation for future studies.

Ubaldo Iaccarino
PhD Candidate at the Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona
Teaching Assistant at the “L’Orientale” University of Naples

Primary Sources

Archivo General de Indias, Seville
Archivo Histórico Nacional, Madrid
Archivium Romanum Societatis Iesu, Rome
Tōyō Bunko, Tōkyō
Ikoku nikki 異国日記

Dissertation Information

University of Vienna. 2012. 377 pp. Primary Advisor: Peer Vries.


Image: Nicolo Bully, Engraving for Gaspar de San Agustín’s “Conquista de las Islas Philipinas” (Madrid: Imprenta de Manuel Ruiz de Murga, 1698): Madrid Biblioteca Nacional R 33057.

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