How monopolies can leave you all at sea

The fate of wrecked Spanish trading ships in the 16th century teaches us valuable lessons for today

Economic history is to economics what historical fiction is to literature – underappreciated, but recently returned to the limelight. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall reinforced the idea that reimagining the past could be literature, while the first global pandemic in 100 years proved that history can be as useful to economists as spreadsheets. Economic history also teaches you things squeezed out by British schooling’s mania for Henry VIII and the Nazis.

Take new research on the Manila galleons – ships working the lucrative trade route between Manila and Acapulco from the late 16th century. It examines a puzzle: why were vessels on this route, a monopoly of the Spanish crown, three times more likely to sink than those journeying between the Netherlands and East Asia?

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