“Ghost Galleon: The Discovery and Archaeology of the San Juanillo on the Shores of Baja California” by Edward P. Von der Porten, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 248 pages, $60
In 1997, San Francisco-based Edward Von der Porten, a noted marine archaeologist, learned of an unknown Manila galleon wreck on California’s coast. The discovery led to a hunt for the wreck and 20 years studying it.
Von der Porten’s “Ghost Galleon: The Discovery and Archaeology of the San Juanillo on the Shores of Baja California” captures the result of that effort.
One of Von der Porten’s study areas was Chinese porcelain, a frequent cargo in the Manila galleons. These returned to Mexico with Far East goods: porcelains, silks, beeswax and spices. He previously studied the porcelains captured from the Spanish but abandoned by Francis Drake in San Francisco Bay. When he saw a photograph of a plate described as “excavated from an unpublished site off the California coast,” he recognized it as from a wrecked Manila Galleon. He sought out the discoverers of the plate, who showed him where they had found it.
The site, in Baja, California, yielded hundreds more Chinese porcelain potsherds on Von der Porten’s first expedition. The mix of different styles indicated it was one of the earliest galleons in this trade. Study could yield much knowledge about the Manila galleons, 16th-century China and the Philippines.
The book describes Von der Porten’s two-decade effort extracting the secrets of the wrecked galleon, including its identity. He visited the site at least every other year, studying the objects discovered. Readers follow as he pieces together the ship’s name, its history and its cargo from the fragments of porcelain, blocks of wax and metal fragments.
“Ghost Galleon” contains chapters describing the ship, its background and the 16th-century transpacific trade. It’s an adventure, describing the ups and down of both the San Juanillo’s crew and the archaeologists trying to untangle its mysteries.
It’s also a family story. Von der Porten was accompanied by his wife, a son, a grandson, and daughters-in-law on the numerous expeditions (the grandson eventually became a marine archaeologist). Lavishly illustrated, “Ghost Galleon” is a marvelous tale for those fascinated by old ships or stories of people working together on a hunt of discovery.