Gemelli Careri, an Italian adventurer, circled the world in the late 17th century. No part of his journey was more dangerous than the trip from Manila to Acapulco, made in 1697 on one of the deep-drafted, many-sailed boats known as the Manila Galleons. These trading ships spent more than two centuries delivering spices and luxury goods from Asia to the New World and Europe, earning enormous profits for their financiers, mostly Spanish colonists in Manila. But here is Careri’s description from Giro del Mondo (1699) of what life was like for their sailors:
There is Hunger, Thirst, Sickness, Cold, continual Watching, and other Sufferings … [The sailors] endure all the plagues God sent upon Pharaoh to soften his hard heart; the Ship swarms with little Vermine, the Spaniards call Gorgojos, bred in the Bisket … if Moses miraculously converted his Rod into a Serpent, aboard the Galeon a piece of Flesh, without any Miracle is converted into Wood, and in the shape of a Serpent.
The journey was interminable, the sea was unruly, the food infested. ‘Abundance of poor Sailors fell Sick,’ Careri writes. As a paying passenger, he would have had slightly better conditions than most of the crew. But status didn’t provide much safety: by the end of his journey, two officers, one pilot’s mate and the Captain Commander were buried at sea, their bodies dragged down by earthen jars tied around their ankles.
The captain died of a disease known as ‘Berben’, which according to Careri ‘swells the Body, and makes the Patient dye talking’. The second disease, and the most dangerous to the galleon’s sailors, ‘is called the Dutch Disease, which makes the Mouth sore, putrefies the Gums, and makes the Teeth drop out’. This one is more familiar – we know it as scurvy. For most of its two and a half centuries in operation, the galleon’s sailors died in droves of these and other heinous maladies, teeth rattling from their heads, boils blooming on their limbs like black flowers.
The Berkeley historian Jan DeVries found that some 2 million Europeans made trading voyages to Asia between 1580 and 1795. Of these, only 920,412 survived: an overall mortality rate of 54 per cent. European companies, DeVries concludes, sacrificed one human life for every 4.7 tons of Asian cargo returned to Europe. Of course, the Europeans spread their diseases when they travelled, and made liberal use of violence, so the suffering of the people they ‘discovered’ was even more awful than their own. But no less than colonialism itself, the unrelenting horrors of these sailors’ lives helped forge the world we live in.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/the-manila-galleons-that-oceaneered-for-plague-and-profit