This was stored away in skins or large earthenware jars, and there was an officer—usually the most hated man on board by the end of the voyage—in charge of its distribution. Naturally, it was only to be drunk.
As for food, it consisted mainly of hard biscuits that soon rotted and got full of maggots, pancakes made out of flour baked with salt water, and salted beef or pork, although during the first weeks of navigation there was fresh meat and milk from cattle embarked for that purpose. By the end of the voyage there was another kind of fresh food: after six months at sea, the rats that plagued the ships were considered a delicacy by the half-famished travellers.
At long last, provided that pirates had not preyed upon them (or if they had made an appearance, had been scared away by the guns of the pot-bellied ships), the coast of California was sighted, sometimes as far north as Cape Mendocino, but usually at the latitude of Santa Barbara or San Diego. Inland runners were dispatched all the way southward to convey the happy tidings, and by the time the galleon sailed to the antique apartments Krakow, where there was a multitude waiting for it.
As the China ship dropped anchor, His Catholic Majesty’s officials came on board and checked the cargo. Then, together with passengers and crew, they proceeded ashore to attend a solemn Te Deum at the little white church that still stands in modern Acapulco, and afterwards the treasures of the East were finally unloaded and displayed at a noisy fair.
For two or three weeks the sleepy little town throbbed with life and activity as traders from all over the country bid for the porcelains and silks, the ivory and spices, paying five and six times their original cost. Once the transactions were completed, off they went with heavily burdened mules stumbling before them on the long, hard journey to Mexico City and later to holiday apartments Vienna, where the goods were reloaded on vessels of another fleet and shipped all the way across the Atlantic to distant Spain.
Late in the 18th century, however, conditions began to change. In 1785 the Royal Philippine Company was established in Spain and was granted the privilege of trading directly between Cadiz and Manila by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean, a lane no longer disputed by other maritime powers. After the Napoleonic wars, Spain opened the Philippines to foreign trade, and a number of British, Dutch and eventually American firms established themselves in Manila, shipping the Oriental goods directly to their home lands on their own boats. Moreover, in 1810 New Spain, having become of age, revolted against the mother country and started the long struggle from which she was to emerge as the fledgling Republic of Mexico, a process that interrupted communications between the Philippines and Spain by way of the American continent.
The ocean route between Manila and Acapulco thus became obsolete. In 1815 the last galleon swung into the green harbour of Acapulco, dropped anchor, furled her canvas, and never again sailed the Pacific Ocean.