"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Minding the beeswax


13 Responses to “"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Minding the beeswax”

  1. awjt says:

    I’m lost on the economics here.  Why was it a good idea to transport a ship full of beeswax from south Asia to Europe?  They didn’t have wax in Spain?

    • Given that it wrecked off the coast of Oregon, my guess is that it must have been aiming for Spanish missionary outposts in what is now California. In which case, they might have had wax, but maybe not access to enough supply/manpower to make all the wax they needed? I dunno. It is a bit weird. 

      • The 1700 date predates the California missions by several decades, but trade with Mexico and Central/South America may be possible although honey bees were introduced to N America in the early 1600s (I can’t find a reference for the introduction of bees to the Southern Spanish colonies).

        The presence of teak suggests the ship may have been of SE Asian origin, possibly a Chinese junk that was blown way off course in a typhoon.

        Ack! Ignore that last bit. This page says the Spanish at the time regularly sailed North from the Philippines, across the Pacific, and down the coast of California to Acapulco. The teak was probably just cargo.


      • GlenBlank says:

        The native bees of California (well, Alta California, anyway) are solitary bees, not social bees.  The colony-building honeybee was a European import.  I don’t know when the Spanish imported honeybees to Mexico, but likely the colony’s output of beeswax was very small in 1700.

        At any rate, beeswax in multiple-ton amounts was definitely part of the Manila Trade:

        Regular trade between Manila in the Philipines and Mexico began in 1571 and continued until 1814 The voyage, conducted by large galleons weighing up to two thousand tons, took only three months from Acapulco to Manila, but typically six to nine months to return.  An entrepot for goods from Asia, Manila became the center of a valuable exchange network.  There merchants from New Spain traded silver from the Americas for Chinese silks, damasks, jewelry, and porcelains, and Philippine cinnamon and beeswax.

        The Oxford History of Mexico, Beezley and Meyer, Oxford University Press (2010)

        Because the galleons followed the trade winds, they generally made landfall a considerable distance up the Alta California coast on the return voyage.  The rocky, fogbound cliffs of Alta California were inhospitable, so the Manila galleons sailed down the coast without landing for nearly 200 years before Gaspar de Portolà’s 1769 overland expedition explored the interior and discovered San Francisco Bay.

        Storms sometimes blew the returning ships as far north as the Oregon coast – most likely the fate of the ‘beeswax galleon.’

        • I watched the History Detectives episode linked below … apparently the wax would have been bound for missions in Mexico that required huge quantities of pure, unadulterated beeswax, for candles and whatnot. You had to use the pure bee stuff … no animal fat candles … for both religious and art-preservation reasons. 

    • Ryan_T_H says:

      I suspect that a huge amount of wax could very well be part of the ship’s supplies rather than a trade good.

  2. Koocheekoo says:

    I am surprised no one has mentioned this – but this was on an episode of History Detectives on PBS. You should watch that show if you don’t already. Great stuff there. Here is the link to the episode information. It was a fun story to watch:  

    • Navin_Johnson says:

      Yeah I saw that too.  I also think I remember reading about in Oregon Coast Magazine.   I think a lot of Northwest papers covered it.  Very cool.

  3. Bokonon says:

    Did I miss something. Why is the number 67 on it?

  4. HenryPootel says:

    The US west coast is littered (har har) with fascinating historical wrecks, including Japenese ships washed up long before European explorers came.  

    The book “Wrecked Japanese Junks Adrift in the North Pacific Ocean” records some amazing stories, including in 1617, when a junk was recorded at Acupulco belonging to someone named “Magome”


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