Saturday, November 22, 2014

big shots on the beach

Mexico is a land that loves its history.

Thursday, it was the Revolution.  But the Revolution could be a current event compared to the historical event Barra de Navidad is celebrating this weekend.

Our tale starts in 1493 -- soon after Columbus returned to Europe.  At the time, Portugal was the major maritime power in Europe.  Through its explorations, it had mapped out a route around Africa to establish trading posts in India -- establishing colonies along the way.

You may recall from grade school that Columbus was seeking an alternate route to the East Indies when he ran into the West Indies.  He died believing he had found that route.  But he was wrong.  No one knew it, though.

Without really knowing the extent of the line they were arguing over, Pope Alexander VI assisted the monarchs of Portugal and Spain to negotiate a treaty that awarded the New World to Spain (with the exception of Brazil) and Africa and India to Portugal.  The people in none of those lands were afforded a say.

Spain still lusted for a trade route of its own to Asia.  It had no desire to allow its commercial life to be controlled by Portugal.

Fast forward to 1564.  After Magellan's crew circumnavigated the globe, the Spanish had a good idea what crossing the Pacific would entail.  It could be done.

Mexico (a Spanish colony) faced the Philippine Islands, that had been claimed for Spain by Magellan.  And the Philippines were a perfect trading post for setting up shop with Chinese merchants.

The problem was finding a route there -- and back.  The only known trade winds blew to the east.  No one knew of any that blew west.  In the age of sail that was a rather important point.

So, the Viceroy of Mexico commissioned a financial bureaucrat, Miguel López de Legazpi, to lead an expedition to the Philippines to establish a trade route from the east to Mexico and on to Spain.  Lagazpi had two galleons and two tenders built in the harbor of what is now Barra de Navidad.  He then pressed Indians from the mountains of Jalisco into the expedition as sailors.  They sailed on 21 November 1564.

As unlikely as it seems, the expedition was successful.  But then came the hard part.  Getting back to Mexico.  That task fell to a friar, Andrés de Urdaneta, who was known as an expert navigator and who had accompanied Lagazpi on the voyage west.

Urdaneta had a hunch.  If the southern hemisphere had a circular current blowing east, there must be a similar current in the northern hemisphere blowing west.

With only that hunch to guide him (and a lot of Catholic faith), he headed northwest (almost to the 45th parallel north) and discovered what we now call the Japanese current.  But the voyage took him longer than he had anticipated.

130 days.  12,000 miles.  Fourteen of the crew dead.  Only Urdaneta and another crew member had enough strength to drop anchor in Acapulco on 8 October 1565.

When that anchor dropped, the world was forever changed.  Spain set up an annual trading regime with China -- the Manila Galleon.  In exchange for Mexican and Peruvian silver, China sold Spain silk, ceramics, and other luxury goods that were shipped to Spain through Mexico. 

Columbus's dream was realized.  Spain had its trade route to the east by going west. 

And thus was born one of the greatest eras of globalization.  That is, until Spain debased its currency with a glut of silver and nearly bankrupted itself in all sorts of pointless national endeavors.  Including an ill-conceived invasion of England.  Mexican independence was the death knell for the Madrid Galleon and its attendant mercantilism.

That is why yesterday was a big day in these parts.  We had local and state politicians whose heads were filled with more history than most of us could consume.

And, to our surprise, the ambassador to Mexico from the Philippine Republic was our guest.  It was pleasurable to witness these two Spanish colonies sharing such a strong special relationship.  It is strong enough that non-interventionist Mexico modified its foreign policy to go to the aid of the Philippines when Japan invaded in the Second World War.  The good will remains.

Of course, there were laying of wreaths.  Singing of anthems.  Awarding of blankets to the ambassador (with none of the tainted history that accompanied such gifts in the past).

There were soldiers.  Indians on stilts.  Beautiful women.  Dancing troupes masquerading as Indians.  Pageants.  Pirates (just like the ones who chased away the Manila Galleon from Barra de Navidad to Acapulco in 1587, and saved our little village from becoming just another spot to watch cliff divers).  Monks.  Beggars.  And an orchestra from Chapala that entertained us all with the equivalent of a Mexican Pops Concert.

In short, a great time.

Almost everyone in town must have had a part to play in this re-enactment of our friendship with the Philippines.  And everyone gave due respect to Urdaneta for making it all possible.

I grew up in a small town where the citizens would have done exactly what my neighbors did.  Barra de Navidad had one big splash in the history books.  450 years ago.  And we are not going to let anyone forget it.

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