Asian Trade in The Americas

Desk on stand, 18th century, Jose Manuel de la Cerda (Mexican), Hispanic Society of America

GLOBALISATION IS nothing new. At first, it was overland – the Silk Road that connected China to the Mediterranean coast of the Roman Empire. Secondly, it was in coast-hugging boats in the Mediterranean and throughout Asian waters. Thirdly, which brings us to the subject of this remarkable exhibition, was the advent of transoceanic trade in the 16th century and its goal, like Columbus’ seeking a sea route to the Spice Islands, to connect Europe with Asia. This exhibition explores the Asian trade in the Americas

First Exhibition to Explore This Important Subject

In June 1999, the El Origen del Reino de la Nueva Espana 1680-1750 exhibition opened at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City and was the first museum exhibition to investigate the economic and cultural connection between China and the Spanish-speaking Americas – and the Asian trade in the Americas

There have been European exhibitions on the connections between China and Europe, but this present exhibition at the MFA is the ‘Missing Link’ of the connection between China and Europe that includes Colonial America, both Spanish and English. The timing of the exhibition marks the 450th anniversary of the beginning of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade between the Philippines and Mexico, which was inaugurated in 1565 and ended in 1815, two and a half centuries later.

Beginning with Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of 1492, the bellicose race was on between Spain and Portugal, soon joined by the French, Dutch and English, for New World territories and riches. By the early 17th century, both Spain and Portugal had been expelled from Japan because of their vigorous efforts to promote Catholicism.

The Dutch, however, remained and became almost the only source of Japanese porcelains and many Chinese blue and white porcelains throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. These Chinese blue and white porcelains are often referred to as kraakporcelein from the kraak cargo vessel the Dutch used for transport. These blue and white pieces inspired the foundation of tin-glazed pottery copies at Delft, an early Chinese influence on the Western arts.

The Spanish Trade Route

In the 17th century, access to China was dominated by Spain from its Philippine colony. In 1625, the Spanish trade route began in Canton/Guangzhou, continuing on to Manila, Acapulco, Mexico City, Vera Cruz, and Havana and finally making port in Cadiz.

This route of commercial cargo continued until 1815 and included porcelains, lacquer, textiles, ivories and various other works of art, which explains the presence of 17th-century Chinese porcelains found in Spanish shipwrecks destroyed by hurricanes off the lower east coast of Florida, supporting the evidence of the Asian trade in the Americas

Chinese goods traversed the globe, mainly through the vehicle of Spain (and later the Netherlands and England) and the Americas became a major destination, with Mexico becoming a major commercial centre. The impact of these goods was immediate and widespread among indigenous Spaniards in Mexico and in other Spanish territories, such as Peru.

The exhibition of objects from Asian trade in the Americas includes nearly 100 extraordinary objects produced in the several Spanish and English American colonies and how indigenous craftsmen adapted and adopted Asian styles in Western-produced furniture, silver work, textiles, ceramics, and paintings. Brilliant examples in the exhibition were created from the 17th to the early 19th centuries in Mexico City, Lima, Quito, Quebec City, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

The inspirations for the Western artisans included Chinese blue-and-white porcelains, Japanese lacquer, metalwork and both silk and cotton woven textiles made in China and India. The Chinese and Indian influence appear as original or copied silks and cottons rendered ere as wearing apparel and church hangings.

Chinese Blue and White for Mexican Markets

Chinese blue-and-white porcelains, beginning with those exported specifically for the Mexican markets in the late 16th century, reappear as blue-and-white ceramics made in Puebla de los Angeles and Namban (Southern Barbarian) style art in painting and in mother-of-pearl-inlaid wood. The majority of such inlaid furniture tends to be Peruvian, but with inlay in a style very reminiscent of Gujarat.

On the subject of Japanese-influenced art made in Mexico, an interesting point was raised to me a number of years ago by Ricardo Rivero Lake, Mexican collector, antiques dealer, and author of La Vision de un Anticuario. After length research within Mexico, he had come to the belief that when the Spanish were expelled from Japan, they took with them some Japanese Christian converts, of whom two brothers found a new home in Mexico.

Trained in Japan by the Spanish as Namban-style artisans, he proposes that they continued their in Mexico under their convert names of Miguel and Juan Gonzales. Their specialty was screens and several of them display very obvious Namban designs.

Ivory Religious Figures from Asia

One art form which had no actual influence on colonial styles were ivory votive figures – Corpi Christi, the Virgin Mary and various saints. Almost all of these were carved in the Philippines and it is believed that the Spanish established a barrio in Manila to include an atelier of ivory workers brought in from China who produced these images for Philippine and New Spain converts and churches.

They differ from religious ivories carved in the Portuguese colony of Goa, which were made with a separate, plinth-like base and the rendering of the faces tended not to be as convincingly European and those carved in Manila. It is for this reason that ivory crucifixes, ivory figures of the Virgin Mary and saints, as well as the ivory heads and hands of figures with clothing are found throughout Mexico, Latin America and the original Spanish churches in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, all originally part of Mexico.


Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia, 18 August 2015 to 15 February 2016. Catalogue available. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,

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