China Ships, Iron Men

The remarkable story of the Manila Galleon and the men who created international trade


Somewhere along the line the book you hold in your hand or the electronic text you’re reading on screen came to you aboard ship. Wood pulp and clay were transported to the papermill which took those ingredients in a one end to be transformed into great, heavy rolls of paper at the other which themselves were transported by ship to a print works filled with machinery which also reached their destination countries by ship.

The dyes that make up the ink printed on the paper, the solvents that carry them on to the paper, and the oils and greases that keep the printing machines pounding out page after page, all travelled by sea.

As for your computer and the monitor you may be reading these words on, everything they’re made of travelled by sea, by ship, during their making.

Sure, aircraft can carry goods, too, but even a modest sized cargo ship can carry a hundred times more than an aircraft and at less than one hundredth the cost. And how do you think all that aviation fuel gets transported around the world? By ship.

When you hold a book, or switch on a computer, you’re looking at an infinitesimal part of a complex webwork of business, a global trade that began when the first Spanish galleon left Cebu, Philippines in the late 16th century and found a way to get to Acapulco, Mexico. Once that ship dropped anchor at its destination all continents, with the exception of yet-to-be discovered Australia, were joined for the first time in a regular trading process, the galleon trade.

The process that has resulted in this book, whether you’re reading it in hard back or on a computer screen.

It’s a story of the days when, it was said, ships were made of wood and men were made of iron. Sometimes the ships were called the Manila Galleon, sometimes the Acapulco Galleon, just as often they were called the China Ships.

This is the story of those ships, the men who rode on them, and the successes and failures of what was for a time the world’s biggest international business.

Bob Couttie
Subic Bay

Meeting Cory

As they lay former Philippine president Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino to rest I remember my only meeting with her. It was a memorable meeting, in the wake of 1989 coup attempt,one of several financed by a man she thought to be a friend.

Plans to remove Aquino began almost immediately after the overthrow of Marcos, and might even have started before. In mid-1986, just months after the world had watched the Peoples Power Revolt in the Philippines that inspired similar revolts around the world, I was told by Manila businessmen: “We got rid of Marcos, now we have to get rid of Aquino”.

There had been coup attempts against Cory Aquino before, but the 1989 attempt, led by Gregorio Honasan and financed by a politician known as ‘777’, a powerful man still beyond the reach of justice, came closest to overthrowing Aquino and instigating a military junta. Disaffected and disappointed junior military officers under the Reform Armed Movement – disappointed that change had not come quickly enough after the overthrow of Marcos, were scammed by power-hungry politicians and Marcos remnants into supporting the attempted coup. They were led to believe that they had the support of the US.

It came so close to success that, according to a former US Foreign Service officer who was in the US Embassy crisis management room at the time, she asked for armed intervention by the United States. Preparations were made at the then-US naval base at Subic Bay with enough materiel to invade a small country. US politicians favoured intervention but the proposal was opposed by military officials with more of an idea of ‘ground truth’- shooting Filipino soldiers was not an option, it would turn the entire country against both the Americans and Cory Aquino. The military won the discourse.

Instead, a small number of US fighter aircraft would take off from USAF Clark and carry out high-level flybys while backchannels reached the coup leaders, advised them whose side the US was on and bluffed that there was a real likelihood of armed intervention.

Armed intervention was not unexpected. Indeed, a British diplomat saw a US fighter jet pass the British embassy building on Paseo de Roxas and immediately called the US ambassador to get assurances that there would be no shooting by US forces.

It was a close-run contest that, not unnaturally shook Aquino. Not because her own life might have been at stake – she was a woman of considerable bravery – but because of betrayal by people whom she believed to be her friends yet who financed and organised the coup, which was intended to bring back to power those who had given force to the Marcos regime.

After the coup attempt was stifled, Aquino went into purda. There were no triumphant interviews with the Filipino or foreign press for weeks afterwards. Then, I forget how, I was invited to a pool press conference at Malacanang. I was just a stringer, but I was the only foreigner to be a full member of the National Press Club at the time, which may be why I got the opportunity.

My notes have long disappeared but I recall there were six of us, mainly from places like Indonesia and a correspondent for a Spanish agency, including three women. Each of us were allowed just two questions.

I had the feeling that she was uncomfortable, that she had developed an invisible shield around her. There wasn’t the sense of presence or charisma that I expected, and I suspected that it was due to the after-effects of the coup attempt.

Each of us was allowed to ask one question, then each of us in turn until our own turn came again. It was difficult to develop a line so I knew I had to ask two key questions and hope that if anything remarkable was said one of the other journalists would pick it up – it was a pool interview to be shared with the world’s press, not an exclusive.

“Do you still want to be President?” I asked.

“Frankly, no,” she responded.

I waited impatiently, hoping the others would pick up the lead, they didn’t. “what’s it like being a woman president?” asked the Indonesian journalist. There was hardy a mention of the coup in the other questions either.

My turn came once more: “You said you don’t want to be president any more. Why is that?”

“Because I have been betrayed by people I thought were my friends” she said.

She did not resign, she could not resign – the coup plotters would have won, and she finished her presidency in 1992.

It is not yet time to determine how history will view Corazon Aquino, she had her strengths and her weaknesses and many of the changes she wanted to introduce were forcefully stifled in Congress and Senate, she could never entirely overcome family loyalties, but let us correct one common judgement:

Corazon Aquino did not restore democracy to the Philippines. Democracy can only come from the Filipino people exercising their right to a democracy.

She restored the opportunity for democracy.

It is up to the Filipino people to determine how to do the rest.