16th c. Chinese bronze found on Mexico coast

A team of U.S. researchers and marine archaeologists from Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) found a Chinese bronze sculpture from the 16th century on the Pacific coast of Baja California, a peninsula south of the US state of California. At just under five inches square, the statue is either a censer or a candlestick. It is decorated with a Chinese “Dog of Fo,” a lion figure that protected Buddhist temples.

It was discovered under water using a metal detector two weeks ago as part of the ongoing 12-year Manila Galleon Project which surveys 7 miles along the Baja coast for the remains of Spanish ships known as the Manila Galleons, ships that carried trade cargo from the Philippines to Acapulco. The trade began in 1565 when Andrés de Urdaneta, explorer, Augustinian friar and the second man to circumnavigate the globe, discovered that if ships departing from Cebu City went north first, the Pacific trade winds would carry them east to the coast of California.

It was a punishingly long trip. Urdaneta lost most of his crew the first time, and even once the trade got going in earnest, the galleons took four months to sail from Manila to Acapulco. From there the cargo of spices, porcelain, ivory, silk and bronze devotional statues, etc., was transported overland to the Gulf of Mexico where it was added to the Spanish treasure ships heading back to the motherland. Tedious, long and dangerous as it was, this trip allowed Spanish ships to avoid using unfriendly foreign ports and the Portuguese routes in the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope.

The find comes from one of the first galleons of the 16th century to set sail from Manila in the Philippines en route to Acapulco in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, INAH marine archaeology unit member Roberto Junco said.

The route “was the longest on the high seas…in this case the ship could have been carried off by the various currents along the coast of the Californias, with no survivors to continue the crossing,” Junco said.

The remains of the goods found probably belonged to the San Felipe galleon, which sailed carrying a large cargo of Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty and which disappeared without a trace in 1576, maritime historian Edward Von der Porten said.

The Manila Galleon Project began when some of that Ming porcelain was discovered on a Baja beach in 1999. The surveys have found thousands of pieces of porcelain, chunks of beeswax, lead sheathing from the ship and other artifacts, but this is the first bronze “Dog of Fo” sculpture they’ve discovered. Jesuit missionary chronicles from the 18th century note on more than one occasion Indians having bronze candlesticks shaped like dogs. Perhaps they were describing something like this object traded from China off a Manila galleon.

It was an enormous market, starting with American silver which the Spanish shipped to the Far East. Historians estimate that as much as a third of all the silver mined in the Spanish colonies of America ended up in Asia. With that silver the traders bought goods to fill up their huge ships — the Manila galleons were built particularly large for cargo and so the crew could actually survive once in a while — and headed back to Mexico. On its way from Baja to the Gulf, some of the cargo would be sold and traded locally. You can see the influence of Asian porcelain and ivory in Mexican ceramics.

The Manila galleons finally stopped sailing in 1815 when the Mexican War of Independence against Spain broke the cycle.

10 thoughts on “16th c. Chinese bronze found on Mexico coast

  1. a 16th century sculpture from China is the last thing I would expect to find on the Mexican coast. I had no idea they were doing trade over the Pacific that long ago. Thanks Liv for the enlightenment. :boogie:

  2. The pleasure was entirely mine, Steve. I knew in passing of the Spanish-Asian trade, but I didn’t realize it started so early or that it festooned the coasts of US and Baja California with Ming artifacts.

  3. Relating to the topic of ancient trade routes between Asia and the “New World”, has anyone read “Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World”, a compilation of papers edited by Victor Mair?

  4. The Manila Galeons used to make their North American landfall on Cape Mendocino in Northern California and then continue south to Acapulco where they’d portage the cargo across to Veracruz and then ship from there to Spain by another Galeon. There’s an area called Spanish Flat just south of Cape Mendocino because all kinds of Chines tradegoods and Spanish coins were found there by the Indians who were in possesion of them when the first Eureopeans showed up there during the California Gold rush.Artifacts from Spanish shiopwrecks can be found in some of the museums on the California north coast. Those old sailors were a tough bunch for sure.

  5. Thank you so much for posting this. I completely missed the news until I surfed onto your blog post today (a month later). The story of the Manila Galleons is such an important one, often overlooked, especially today when the connections between Mexico and Manila are far more tenuous. (Now it’s more whatever comes in from China to Wal-Mart.) It’s also astounding to think of what such a voyage entailed at that time. As for Chinese objects, I expect we’ll find more, and perhaps from even earlier centuries. There are some fascinating books about the sea drifters from Japan and China, who got swept out on sea currents. One Japanese fisherman ended up in Todos Santos in the 18th century and left a most curious record, including illustrations, which was published in English translation by Dawson’s Books.

  6. Yes it is an astonishing find. I have a bronze Fu dog statue @ 5″ 3/4 tall and I haven’t found anything like it before. An antique appraiser said it could b worth several thousand dollars. Sites I have accessed only have ceramic or Jade Fu dogs. I welcome any site suggestions. Thank you

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