ALTHOUGH IT HAD JUST finished raining, the air was hot and close. Nobody else was in sight; the only sound other than those from insects and gulls was the staticky low crashing of Caribbean waves. Around me on the sparsely covered red soil was a scatter of rectangles laid out by lines of stones: the outlines of now-vanished buildings, revealed by archaeologists. Cement pathways, steaming faintly from the rain, ran between them. One of the buildings had more imposing walls than the others. The researchers had put a new roof on it — the only structure they had chosen to protect from the rain. Standing like a sentry by its entrance was a hand-lettered sign: Casa Almirante, Admiral’s House. It marked the first American residence of Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, the man whom generations of students have learned to call the discoverer of the New World.
La Isabela, as this community was called, is situated on the north side of the great Caribbean island of Hispaniola, in what is now the Dominican Republic. It was the initial attempt by Europeans to make a permanent base in the Americas. (To be precise, La Isabela marked the beginning of consequential European settlement — Vikings had established a short-lived village in Newfoundland five centuries earlier.) The Admiral laid out his new domain at the confluence of two small, fast-rushing rivers: a fortified center on the north bank, a satellite community of farms on the south bank. For his home, Columbus — Cristóbal Colón, to use the name he answered to at the time — chose the best location in town: a rocky promontory in the northern settlement, right at the water’s edge. His house was situated perfectly to catch the afternoon light.
Today La Isabela is almost forgotten. Sometimes a similar fate appears to threaten its founder. Colón is by no means absent from history textbooks, of course, but in them he seems ever less admirable and important. He was a cruel, deluded man, today’s critics say, who stumbled upon the Caribbean by luck. An agent of imperialism, he was in every way a calamity for the Americas’ first inhabitants. Yet of all the members of humankind who have ever walked the earth, he alone inaugurated a new era in the history of life.
The king and queen of Spain, Fernando (Ferdinand) II and Isabel (Isabella) I, backed Colón’s first voyage grudgingly. Transoceanic travel in those days was heart-stoppingly expensive and risky — the equivalent, perhaps, of space-shuttle flights today. Despite relentless pestering, Colón was able to talk the monarchs into supporting his scheme only by threatening to take the project to France. He was riding to the frontier, a friend wrote later, when the queen “sent a court bailiff posthaste” to fetch him back. The story is probably exaggerated. Still, it is clear that the sovereigns’ reservations drove the Admiral to whittle down his expedition, if not his ambitions, to a minimum: three small ships (the biggest may have been less than sixty feet long), a combined crew of about ninety. Colón himself had to contribute a quarter of the budget, according to a collaborator, probably by borrowing it from Italian merchants.
Everything changed when he triumphantly returned in March of 1493, bearing golden ornaments, brilliantly colored parrots, and as many as ten captive Indians. The king and queen, now enthusiastic, dispatched Colón just six months later on a second, vastly larger expedition: seventeen ships, a combined crew of perhaps fifteen hundred, among them a dozen or more priests charged with bringing the faith to these new lands. Because the Admiral believed he had found a route to Asia, he was sure that China and Japan — and all their opulent goods — were only a short journey beyond. The goal of this second expedition was to create a permanent bastion for Spain in the heart of Asia, a headquarters for further exploration and trade.
The new colony, predicted one of its founders, “will be widely renowned for its many inhabitants, its elaborate buildings, and its magnificent walls.” Instead La Isabela was a catastrophe, abandoned barely five years after its creation. Over time its structures vanished, their very stones stripped to build other, more successful towns. When a U.S.-Venezuelan archaeological team began excavating the site in the late 1980s, the inhabitants of La Isabela were so few that the scientists were able to move the entire settlement to a nearby hillside. Today it has a couple of roadside fish restaurants, a single, failing hotel, and a little-visited museum. Outside of town, a church, built in 1994 but already showing signs of age, commemorates the first Catholic Mass celebrated in the Americas. Watching the waves from the Admiral’s ruined chamber, I could easily imagine disappointed tourists thinking that the colony had left nothing meaningful behind — that there was no reason, aside from the pretty beach, for anyone to pay attention to La Isabela. But that would be a mistake.
Babies born on January 2, 1494 — the day the Admiral founded La Isabela — came into a world in which direct communication and trade between Western Europe and East Asia were largely blocked by the Islamic nations between (and their partners in Venice and Genoa); sub-Saharan Africa had little contact with Europe and next to none with South and East Asia; and the Eastern and Western hemispheres were almost entirely ignorant of each other’s very existence. By the time those babies had grandchildren, slaves from Africa mined silver in the Americas for sale to China; Spanish merchants waited impatiently for the latest shipments of Asian silk and porcelain from Mexico; and Dutch sailors traded cowry shells from the Maldive Islands, in the Indian Ocean, for human beings in Angola, on the Atlantic coast.
Long-distance trade had occurred for more than a thousand years, much of it across the Indian Ocean. For centuries China had sent silk to the Mediterranean by the Silk Road, an overland route that was lengthy, dangerous, and, for those who survived, hugely profitable. But nothing like this worldwide exchange had existed before, much less sprung up so quickly, or functioned so continuously. No previous trade networks included both of the globe’s hemispheres; nor had they operated on a scale large enough to disrupt societies on opposite sides of the planet. By founding La Isabela, Colón initiated permanent European occupation in the Americas. And in so doing he set the stage for the era of globalization — the single, turbulent economic and ecological exchange that today engulfs the entire habitable world.
Newspapers usually describe globalization in purely economic terms, but it is also a biological phenomenon; indeed, from a long-term perspective it may be primarily a biological phenomenon. Two hundred fifty million years ago, the world contained a single landmass known as Pangaea. Geological forces broke up this vast expanse, splitting Eurasia and the Americas and giving birth to the Atlantic Ocean. Over time the two divided halves of Pangaea developed wildly differ-ent suites of plants and animals. Before Colón, a few venturesome land creatures had crossed the oceans and established themselves. Most were insects and birds, as one would expect, but the list also includes, surprisingly, a few plant species — bottle gourds, coconuts, sweet potato — their method of transport the subject today of scholarly head-scratching. Otherwise, the world was sliced into separate ecological domains. Colón’s signal accomplishment was, in the phrase of historian Alfred W. Crosby, to reknit the seams of Pangaea. After 1492, the world’s ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. The Columbian Exchange, as Crosby called it, is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and chili peppers in Thailand. To ecologists, the Columbian Exchange is arguably the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs.
Of course, this vast biological upheaval had repercussions on humankind as well. Crosby argued that the Columbian Exchange underlies much of the history we learn in the classroom — it was like an invisible wave, sweeping along kings and queens, peasants and priests, all unknowing. The claim was controversial; indeed, Crosby’s manuscript, rejected by every major academic publisher, ended up being published by such a tiny press that he once joked to me that his book had been distributed “by tossing it on the street and hoping readers happened on it.” But over the decades since he coined the term, a growing number of researchers have come to believe that the ecological paroxysm set off by Columbus’s voyages — as much as the economic convulsion he began — was one of the establishing events of the modern world.
ON CHRISTMAS DAY, 1492, Colón’s first voyage came to an abrupt end when his flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground off the northern coast of Hispaniola. Because his two remaining vessels, the Nina and Pinta, were too small to hold the entire crew, he was forced to leave thirty-eight men behind. Colón departed for Spain while those men were building an encampment — a scatter of makeshift huts surrounded by a crude palisade, adjacent to a larger native village. The encampment was called La Navidad (Christmas), after the day of its involuntary creation (its precise location is not known today). Hispaniola’s native people have come to be known as the Taino. The conjoined Spanish-Taino settlement of La Navidad was the intended destination of his second voyage. He arrived there in triumph, the head of a flotilla, his crewmen swarming the shrouds in their eagerness to see the new land, on November 28, 1493, eleven months after he had left his men behind.
He found only ruin; both settlements, Spanish and Taino, had been razed. “We saw everything burned and the clothing of Christians lying on the weeds,” the ship’s doctor wrote. Nearby Taino showed the visitors the bodies of eleven Spaniards, “covered by the vegetation that had grown over them.” The Indians said that the sailors had angered their neighbors by raping some women and murdering some men. In the midst of the conflict a second Taino group had swooped down and overwhelmed both sides. After nine days of fruitless searching for survivors, Colón left to find a more promising spot for his base. Struggling against contrary winds, the fleet took almost a month to crawl a hundred miles east along the coast. On January 2, 1494, Colón arrived at the shallow bay where he would found La Isabela.
Almost immediately the colonists ran short of food and, worse, water. In a sign of his inadequacy as an administrator, the Admiral had failed to inspect the water casks he had ordered; they, predictably, leaked. Ignoring all complaints of hunger and thirst, the Admiral decreed that his men would clear and plant vegetable patches, erect a two-story fortress, and enclose the main, northern half of the new enclave within high stone walls. Inside the walls the Spaniards built perhaps two hundred houses, “small like the huts we use for bird hunting and roofed with weeds,” one man complained.
Most of the new arrivals viewed these labors as a waste of time. Few actually wanted to set up shop in La Isabela, much less till its soil. Instead they regarded the colony as a temporary base camp for the quest for riches, especially gold. Colón himself was ambivalent. On the one hand, he was supposed to be governing a colony that was establishing a commercial entrepôt in the Americas. On the other hand, he was supposed to be at sea, continuing his search for China. The two roles conflicted, and Colón was never able to resolve the tension.
On April 24, Colón sailed off to find China. Before leaving, he ordered his military commander, Pedro Margarit, to lead four hundred men into the rugged interior to seek Indian gold mines. After finding only trivial quantities of gold — and not much food — in the mountains, Margarit’s charges, tattered and starving, came back to La Isabela, only to discover that the colony, too, had little to eat — those left behind, resentful, had refused to tend gardens. The irate Margarit hijacked three ships and fled to Spain, promising to brand the entire enterprise as a waste of time and money. Left behind with no food, the remaining colonists took to raiding Taino storehouses. Infuriated, the Indians struck back, setting off a chaotic war. This was the situation that confronted Colón when he returned to La Isabela five months after his departure, dreadfully sick and having failed to reach China.
A loose alliance of four Taino groups faced off against the Spaniards and one Taino group that had thrown its lot in with the foreigners. The Taino, who had no metal, could not withstand assaults with steel weapons. But they made the fight costly for the Spaniards. In an early form of chemical warfare, the Indians threw gourds stuffed with ashes and ground hot peppers at their attackers, unleashing clouds of choking, blinding smoke. Protective bandanas over their faces, they charged through the tear gas, killing Spaniards. The intent was to push out the foreigners — an unthinkable outcome for Colón, who had staked everything on the voyage. When the Spaniards counterattacked, the Taino retreated scorched-earth style, destroying their own homes and gardens in the belief, Colón wrote scornfully, “that hunger would drive us from the land.” Neither side could win. The Taino alliance could not eject the Spaniards from Hispaniola. But the Spaniards were waging war on the people who provided the food they ate; total victory would be a total disaster. They won skirmish after skirmish, killing countless natives. Meanwhile, starvation, sickness, and exhaustion filled the cemetery in La Isabela.
Humiliated by the calamity, the Admiral set off for Spain on March 10, 1496, to beg the king and queen for more money and supplies. When he returned two years later — the third of what would become four voyages across the Atlantic — so little was left of La Isabela that he chose to land on the opposite side of the island, in Santo Domingo, a new settlement founded by his brother Bartolomé, whom he had left behind. Colón never again set foot in his first colony, and it was almost forgotten.
Despite the brevity of its existence, La Isabela marked the beginning of an enormous change: the remaking of the Caribbean landscape. Colón and his crew did not voyage alone. They were accompanied by a menagerie of insects, plants, mammals, and microorganisms. To La Isabela and subsequent settlements, European expeditions brought cattle, sheep, and horses, along with crops like sugar cane (originally from New Guinea), wheat (from the Middle East), bananas (from Africa), and coffee (also from Africa). Equally important, species the colonists were unaware of hitchhiked along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees, dandelions, and African grasses; rats of every description — all poured from the hulls of Colón’s vessels and those that followed, rushing like eager tourists into lands that had never seen their like before.
Cattle and sheep ground Caribbean vegetation between their flat teeth, preventing the regrowth of native shrubs and trees. Beneath their hooves would sprout grasses from Africa, possibly introduced from slave-ship bedding; splay-leaved and dense on the ground, they choked out native vegetation. Over the years, forests of Caribbean palm, mahogany, and ceiba became forests of Australian acacia, Ethiopian shrubs, and Central American logwood. Scurrying below, mongooses from India eagerly drove Dominican snakes toward extinction. The change continues to this day. Orange groves, introduced to Hispaniola from Spain, have recently begun to fall to the depredations of lime swallowtail butterflies, citrus pests from Southeast Asia that probably came over in 2004. Today Hispaniola has only small fragments of its original forest intact.
Natives and newcomers interacted in unexpected ways, creating biological bedlam. When Spanish colonists imported African plantains in 1516, the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson has proposed, they also imported scale insects, small creatures with tough, waxy coats that suck the juices from plant roots and stems. About a dozen banana-infesting scale insects are known in Africa. In Hispaniola, Wilson argued, these insects had no natural enemies. In consequence, their numbers must have exploded — a phenomenon known to science as “ecological release.” The spread of scale insects would have dismayed the island’s European banana farmers but delighted one of its native species: Solenopsis geminata, the tropical fire ant. S. geminata is fond of dining on scale insects’ sugary excrement; the ants will attack anything that threatens to disrupt their access to this food source. A big increase in scale insects would have led to a big increase in fire ants.
So far this is informed speculation. What happened in 1518 and 1519 is not. In those years, according to Bartolomé de Las Casas, a missionary priest who lived through the incident, Spanish orange, pomegranate, and cassia plantations were destroyed “from the root up.” Thousands of acres of orchards were “all scorched and dried out, as though flames had fallen from the sky and burned them.” The actual culprits, Wilson argued, were the sap-sucking scale insects. But what the Spaniards actually saw was S. geminata — “an infinite number of ants,” Las Casas reported, their stings causing “greater pains than wasps that bite and hurt men.” The hordes of ants swarmed through houses, blackening roofs “as if they had been sprayed with charcoal dust,” covering floors in such numbers that colonists could sleep only by placing the legs of their beds in bowls of water. They “could not be stopped in any way nor by any human means.”
Overwhelmed and terrified, Spaniards abandoned their homes to the insects. Santo Domingo was “depopulated,” one witness recalled. In a solemn ceremony, the remaining colonists chose, by lottery, a saint to intercede with God on their behalf — St. Saturninus, a third-century martyr. They held a procession and feast in his honor. The response was positive. “From that day onward,” Las Casas wrote, “one saw by plain sight that the plague began to diminish.”
The collisions of the Columbian Exchange took place in a thousand different forms, but all had one ultimate result: making the world’s ecosystems more and more alike. So widespread was this biological leveling that some scientists now say that Colón’s voyages marked the beginning of a new biological era: the Homogenocene. The term refers to homogenizing: mixing unlike substances to create a uniform blend. And it refers not only to biological systems, but also to cultures. Indeed, the most dramatic impact of the Columbian Exchange, from the human perspective, was on humankind itself.
Spanish accounts suggest that Hispaniola had a large native population: Colón, for instance, casually described the Taino as “innumerable, for I believe there to be millions upon millions of them.” Las Casas claimed the population to be “more than three million.” Today’s researchers have not come much closer to agreement on the matter; modern estimates range from sixty thousand to almost 8 million. A careful study in 2003 argued that the true figure was “a few hundred thousand.” No matter what the original figure, the European impact was horrific. In 1514, twenty-two years after Colón’s first voyage, the Spanish government counted up the Indians on Hispaniola for the purpose of allocating them among colonists as laborers. Census agents fanned across the island but found only twenty-six thousand Taino. Thirty-four years later, according to one scholarly Spanish resident, fewer than five hundred Taino were alive. The destruction of the Taino plunged Santo Domingo into poverty. The colonists had wiped out their own labor force.
Spanish cruelty played its part in the calamity, but its larger cause was the Columbian Exchange. Before Colón, none of the epidemic diseases common in Europe and Asia existed in the Americas. The viruses that cause smallpox, influenza, hepatitis, measles, encephalitis, and viral pneumonia; the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, and bacterial meningitis — by a quirk of evolutionary history, all were unknown in the Western Hemisphere. Shipped across the ocean, these maladies consumed Hispaniola’s native population with stunning rapacity. The first recorded epidemic, perhaps due to swine flu, was in 1493. Smallpox entered, terribly, in 1518; it spread to Mexico, swept down Central America, and then continued into Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Following it came the rest, a pathogenic cavalcade.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, novel microorganisms spread across the Americas, ricocheting from victim to victim, killing three-quarters or more of the people in the hemisphere. It was as if the suffering these diseases had caused in Eurasia over the past millennia were concentrated into a span of decades. In the annals of human history there is no comparable demographic catastrophe. The Taino were removed physically from the face of the earth, though recent research hints that their DNA may survive, invisibly, in Dominicans who have African or European features, a blending and homogenizing of genetic makeups from different continents, coded legacies of the Columbian Exchange.
HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD, at a busy corner just south of the old city walls in Manila, is a grimy marble plinth, perhaps fifteen feet tall, topped by life-size bronze statues of two men in sixteenth-century attire. The two men stand shoulder to shoulder, facing into the setting sun. One wears a monk’s habit and brandishes a cross as if it were a sword; the other, in a military breastplate, carries an actual sword. The monument is small and rarely visited by tourists. I found no mention of it in recent guidebooks and maps — yet it is the closest thing the world has to an official recognition of the origins of globalization.
The man with the sword is Miguel López de Legazpi, founder of modern Manila. The man with the cross is Andrés Ochoa de Urdaneta y Cerain, the navigator who guided Legazpi’s ships across the Pacific. One way to summarize the two Spaniards’ accomplishment would be to say that, together, Legazpi and Urdaneta achieved what Colón failed to do: establish contact and commerce with China by sailing west. Another way to state their accomplishment would be to say that Legazpi and Urdaneta were to economics what Colón was to ecology: the origin, however inadvertent, of a great unification.
Legazpi, slightly the better known, was born about a decade after the Admiral’s first voyage. For most of his life he showed no sign of Colón’s penchant for maritime adventure. He trained as a notary, inheriting his father’s position in the Basque city of Zumárraga, near the border with France. In his late twenties he went to Mexico, where he worked in the colonial administration for thirty-six years. His life was jerked out of its cozy rut when he was approached by Urdaneta, a friend and cousin who was among the few survivors of Spain’s failed attempt, in the 1520s, to establish an outpost in the spice-laden Maluku Islands. (Formerly known as the Moluccas, they are south of the Philippines.) Urdaneta had been shipwrecked in the Malukus for a decade, and was eventually rescued by the Portuguese. After returning, he had refused all further offers to go to sea and instead entered a monastery. Forty years later, the next king of Spain wanted to take another stab at establishing a base in Asia. He ordered Urdaneta out of the cloister. Urdaneta’s position as a clergyman made him unable by law to serve as head of the expedition, so he chose Legazpi for the job, despite his lack of a nautical background. Legazpi’s disposition on the likelihood of success may be indicated by his decision to prepare for the voyage by selling all of his worldly possessions and sending his children and grandchildren to stay with family members in Spain.
Because Portugal had taken advantage of the Spanish failures to occupy the Malukus, the expedition was told to find more spice islands nearby and establish a trade base on them. The king of Spain also wanted them to chart the wind patterns, to introduce the area to Christianity, and generally to be a thorn in the side of his nephew and rival, the king of Portugal. But the underlying goal was China — “the stimulus that pulled Spain, as the vanguard of Christendom, to search the seaways,” as the historian Antonio García-Abásolo put it in 2004.
Legazpi and Urdaneta left Acapulco, Mexico, with five ships on November 21, 1564. Upon reaching the Philippines, Legazpi set up camp on the island of Cebu, midway up the archipelago. Meanwhile, Urdaneta set about figuring out how to return to Mexico — nobody had ever successfully made the trip. Simply retracing the expedition’s westward route was not possible, because the trade winds that had blown them from Mexico to the Malukus would impede their return. In a stroke of navigational genius, Urdaneta avoided the contrary winds by sailing far to the north before turning east.
On Cebu, Legazpi was plagued by mutiny and disease and harassed by Portuguese ships. But he slowly expanded Spanish influence north, toward China. Periodically, the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City dispatched reinforcements and supplies. Important among the supplies were silver bars and coins, mined in Mexico and Bolivia, intended to pay the Spanish troops.
A turning point occurred in May 1570, when Legazpi dispatched a reconnaissance mission: two small ships with about a hundred Spanish soldiers and sailors, accompanied by scores of native Filipino Malays in proas (low, narrow outrigger-type boats, rigged with one or two fore-and-aft sails). After two days’ northerly sail, they reached Mindoro, an island about 130 miles south of modern Manila. Mindoro’s southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like bite marks in an apple. The Malays on the expedition learned from local Mangyan people that two Chinese junks were at anchor forty miles away, in another cove — a trading post near the modern village of Maojun.
Every spring, ships from China traveled to several Philippines islands, Mindoro among them, to exchange porcelain, silk, perfumes, and other goods for gold and beeswax. Shaded by parasols made of white Chinese silk, the Mangyan descended from their upland homes to meet the Chinese, who beat small drums to announce their arrival. Maojun, which has a freshwater spring a few feet away from the beach, had long been a meeting point; Chinese porcelain has been found there that dates to the eleventh century. Legazpi had ordered the excursion’s commander to contact — politely, not aggressively — any Chinese he encountered. Hearing of the junks’ presence, the commander sent one of the two Spanish ships and most of the proas to meet the Chinese “and to request peace and friendship with them.”
Leading the contact group was Juan de Salcedo, Legazpi’s twenty-one-year-old grandson, popular with and respected by the soldiers despite his youth. Unluckily, high winds separated the vessels; Salcedo’s ship was pushed badly off course. The vessels spent the night in different harbors, protected from the storm by the high, narrow fingers of rock that define the coves. Temporarily leaderless but eager to gain the riches of China, the Spanish soldiers in the proas moved east at first light. Rounding a narrow, rocky promontory on the southern side of Maojun, they came upon the Mangyan and Chinese. The Chinese put on a show of force, one of Salcedo’s men later recalled, “beating on drums, playing on fifes, firing rockets and culverins [a kind of small, portable cannon], and making a great warlike display.” Taking this as a challenge, the Spaniards attacked — a rash act, “for the Chinese ships were large and high, while the proas were so small and low that they hardly reached to the first pillar of the enemy’s ships.” They raked the junks’ decks with musket fire, threw grappling hooks over the sides, clambered onto the decks, and killed many Chinese traders. Onboard, the attackers found small quantities of silk, porcelain, gold thread, “and other curious articles.”
When Salcedo finally arrived in Maojun, hours after the battle, he was “not at all pleased with the havoc.” Far from requesting peace and friendship, as he had ordered, his men had wantonly slain Chinese sailors and left their ships in ruins. (The chronicle, probably written by Salcedo’s right-hand man, Martín de Goiti, makes no mention of the Mangyan, whom the Spaniards didn’t care about; one assumes they fled the carnage.) Salcedo apologized, freed the survivors, and returned the meager plunder. The Chinese, the expedition member reported, “being very humble people, knelt down with loud utterances of joy.” Still, there was a problem. One of the junks was totally destroyed; the other was salvageable, but the ship rigging was so different from European rigging that nobody in the expedition knew how to mend it. Salcedo ordered some of his troops to help the surviving vessel limp to the Spanish headquarters, where Legazpi’s men might be able to help.
The Chinese sailed home in their reconstructed junk and reported that foreigners had appeared in the Philippines: people from Europe, uncouth and violent. Amazingly, they had come from the east, though Europe lay to the west. And the barbarians had something that was extremely desirable in China: silver.
Eight months later, in May or June of 1571, three junks appeared in the great harbor of Manila Bay, in the big northern island of Luzon, the Spaniards’ new headquarters. The ships contained a carefully chosen selection of Chinese manufactured goods — a test of what Legazpi would pay for, and pay the most for. It turned out the Spaniards wanted everything, a result, Legazpi’s notary reported, that “delighted” the traders. Especially coveted was silk, rare and costly in Europe, and porcelain, made by a technology then unknown in Europe. In return, the Chinese took every ounce they could of Spanish silver. If globalization has a single beginning point, this time and place — 1571 in Manila, 440 years ago this spring — was it.
More junks came to Luzon the next year, and the year after that. Because China’s hunger for silver and Europe’s hunger for silk and porcelain were effectively insatiable, the volume of trade grew enormous. The “galleon trade,” as it would become known, linked Asia, Europe, the Americas, and, less directly, Africa. (African slaves were integral to Spain’s American empire; they dug and refined the ore in Mexico’s silver mines.) Never before had so much of the planet been bound in a single network of exchange — every populous area on earth, every habitable continent except Australia. Dawning with Legazpi’s arrival in Manila was a new, distinctly modern era.
That era was regarded with suspicion from the beginning. China was then the earth’s wealthiest, most powerful nation. By virtually any measure — per-capita income; military strength; average life span; agricultural production; culinary, artistic, and technical sophistication — it was equal to or superior to the rest of the world. Much as rich nations today, like Japan and the United States, buy little from sub-Saharan Africa, China had long viewed Europe as too poor and backward to be of commercial interest. Its principal industry was textiles, mainly wool. China, meanwhile, had silk. Reporting to the Spanish king in 1573, the viceroy in Mexico lamented that “neither from this land nor from Spain, so far as can now be learned, can anything be exported thither that they do not already possess.” With silver, though, Spain finally had something China wanted. Badly wanted, in fact — Spanish silver literally became China’s money supply. But there was an unease about having the nation’s currency in the hands of foreigners. The court feared that the galleon trade — the first large-scale, uncontrolled international exchange in Chinese history — would usher in large-scale, uncontrolled change to Chinese life.
The fears were entirely borne out. Although emperor after emperor refused entry to almost all human beings from Europe and the Americas, they could not keep out other species. Key players were American crops, especially sweet potatoes and maize; their unexpected arrival, the agricultural historian Song Junling wrote in 2007, was “one of the most revolutionary events” in imperial China’s history. The nation’s agriculture, based on rice, had long been concentrated in river valleys, especially those of the Yangzi and Huang He (Yellow) rivers. Sweet potatoes and maize could be grown in the dry uplands. Farmers moved in numbers to these areas, which had previously been lightly settled. The result was a wave of deforestation, followed by waves of erosion and floods, which caused many deaths. The regime, already straining under many problems, was further destabilized — to Europe’s benefit.
Spain, too, was uneasy about the galleon trade. The annual shipments of silver to Manila were the culmination of a centuries-long quest to trade with China. Nonetheless, Madrid spent almost the entire period trying to limit the exchange. Again and again, royal edicts restricted the number of ships allowed to travel to Manila, cut the amount of allowable exports, set import quotas for Chinese goods, and instructed Spanish merchants to form a cartel to raise prices.
From today’s perspective, the Spanish discontent is surprising. Both sides gained by the exchange of silk for silver, as economic theory would predict. But it was Europe that emerged in the stronger position. With the galleon trade, declaimed the late historian Andre Gunder Frank, “Europeans bought themselves a seat, and then even a whole railway car, on the Asian train.” Legazpi’s encounter with the Chinese signaled the dawn of the age of globalization. And following it, gliding in the slipstream, came the rise of the West.
WALKING AROUND THE STATUE of Legazpi and Urdaneta, I wished that it were larger, given that it is as close to a formal commemoration of globalization as the world is likely to get. I also wished it were more complete. To truly mark the galleon trade, Legazpi and Urdaneta would have to be surrounded by Chinese merchants, who were equal partners in the exchange. Such a monument probably will never be built, not least because the worldwide exchange network is still viewed with unease even by many of its purported beneficiaries.
In the Philippines, some of the reasons for the disquiet are easy to see. Introduced fish like tilapia and Thai catfish have wiped out almost all the local species of freshwater fish. South American shrubs have driven local palms and bushes out of island parks. Water hyacinth from Africa chokes the rivers in Manila; snails from South America eat up hillside rice paddies. Seven of the immigrants are on a hit list of the world’s hundred worst invasive species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Many of the newcomers were environmentally or ecologically damaging, though only a very few visibly harmed the ecosystem itself, impairing its ability to filter water or grow plant matter or process nutrients into the soil. But the exotics all were helping, in ways large and small, to turn the Philippines into a homogenized version of itself. Like more and more places, it was becoming a storehouse of weedy, opportunistic invaders — the sort of species equally at home in an abandoned pasture and at the edge of the strip-mall parking lot that will eventually replace the pasture.
The effects on the human occupants of the Philippines were drastic as well. Linda A. Newson, a historical geographer at King’s College, London, has estimated that European disease and European cruelty caused the islands’ population to fall by about a third during the decades of Spanish conquest; in the seventeenth century, Luzon, the most populous island, lost almost half its population. In Mindoro, the Mangyan, who witnessed the meeting of Spain and China, were massacred, and those who remained were driven into the hills. Throughout the islands, native groups were dispersed and thrown together. Entire languages disappeared. Culturally and ecologically, the island landscape would never again be what it had been before. It would become a vest-pocket version of the Homogenocene.
Across the street from the Legazpi monument is another, more popular park named after José Rizal, a writer, doctor, and martyred anti-Spanish revolutionary who is a national hero in the Philippines. At the center of Rizal Park is a reflecting pool edged with flower gardens and statuary. All the statues are bronze busts on concrete columns. All depict Filipinos who died fighting Spanish rule.
On the side of the pool facing the Legazpi monument is a bust of Rajah Suleyman, identified by a plaque as “the brave Muslim ruler of the kingdom of Maynila (Manila) who refused the offer of ‘friendship’ by the Spaniards . . . under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi.” Good editors deride quotation marks denoting irony, like those around “friendship,” and tell reporters not to use them. Here they may be merited. Legazpi approached Suleyman soon after encountering the Chinese. The Spaniards wanted to use Manila’s harbor as a launching point for the China trade. When Suleyman said he didn’t want the Spaniards around, Legazpi leveled his principal village, killing him and three hundred of his fellows. Modern Manila was established on the ruins.
Suleyman and the other people around the pool were, in effect, the first antiglobalization martyrs. They have been awarded a place considerably more prominent than the deserted corner given to Legazpi and Urdaneta. In the end, though, they lost, each and every one of them. For better or worse we live in the world begun by Colón and Legazpi.
Big speakers mounted on iron columns at the corners of the pool issued bulletins from the redoubts of classic rock. While walking around, I was nearly run over by a train fashioned into a replica of Thomas the Tank Engine, a children’s book and television character owned by Apax Partners, a British private-equity firm said to be among the world’s largest. Over Thomas’s smiling, tooting head I could see the towers of the hotels and banks in Manila’s tourist district. The birthplace of globalization looked a lot like many other places. In the Homogenocene, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut are always just minutes away.