In the search for a route to the Far East, the Portuguese explorer Hernando de Magallanes discovered the islands of the Philippines in 1521. The geographical location of the archipelago was strategic for the Spanish empire, since in addition to opening up a route to Japan, India, and China, fifty years later it formed part of a commercial circuit that connected the Spanish colonies.
The discovery of this route that connected Asia with Spain, through New Spain, is due to Andrés de Urdaneta, who arrived at the port of Acapulco in 1565. From then on, it became one of the focal points of the empire's communication and commercial exchange network. In 1573, Acapulco was authorized as the American seat of Asian commerce and by 1579 it was granted the title of city.
The Manila Galleon was the vessel authorized by the Spanish crown to conduct trade between its colonies. According to the travelers of the time, the voyage was sensational as well as dangerous, since it lasted about half a year. The ship would ascend to the port of San Francisco in California and shortly thereafter descend along the Pacific coast, docking at the port of Acapulco in December. During its stay in New Spain, between January and February, the merchandise was disembarked and the prices of luxurious Asian products such as silk, porcelain, or wooden furniture were agreed upon, together with the organization of its fair.
In 1573, Acapulco was authorized as the American seat of Asian commerce and by 1579 was granted the title of city.
From 1593, Acapulco was the only authorized port in Latin America to maintain commercial relations with the Philippines and China. This measure caused that trips were regulated and excluded the New Spanish merchants from establishing a direct deal with the Philippine Islands, a disposition that favored the Spanish merchants. This perhaps explains why the port of Acapulco only came to life during the stay of the Manila Galleon, while the rest of the year travelers describe it as a kind of unhealthy village, with some wooden or mud huts, as well as a small mulatto population that lived there.
Despite the scarce urbanization in the port, the Acapulco fair was one of the most important events in colonial life, were large and medium-sized merchants, coming from Mexico City or the region, would gather and buy Asian merchandise, store it in the capital and then resell it or transfer it to the port of Veracruz for the metropolis, in exchange for the Novohispanic silver. This event was so significant that the most distinguished officials of the viceroyalty used to visit it, including the viceroy himself.
Besides the Manila Galleon, ships from the Viceroyalty of Peru arrived at the port of New Spain.
In addition to the Manila Galleon, ships from the viceroyalty of Peru arrived at the port of Novo Hispano, interested in exchanging their products, such as cocoa or mercury, for Asian goods. Because the crown monopolized trade until 1778, Acapulco was also the gateway to clandestine trade derived from colonial prohibitions imposed from the metropolis.
The last voyage of the Manila Galleon was in 1815, a service that was suspended by the War of Independence. However, since the middle of the 18th century, Acapulco gradually lost its economic importance with the opening of other ports on the Pacific that competed with it, such as San Blas or Panama, as well as the use of new travel routes such as Cape Horn. Furthermore, the number of Asian articles authorized for sale in the Americas and, consequently, the amount of silver transported, also decreased. Last but not least, British piracy, as well as the British occupation of Manila in 1762, are also considered some of the causes that ended up ruining the emblematic port of Acapulco.