Museo Naval (Madrid)

Model of Guilalo Ship. Donated to Museo Naval by the former Ministry of Overseas, and was delivered to the Naval Museum once the General Exhibition of the Philippine Islands of 1887 ended.

**Text from the exhibition catalog for Asia y el  Museo Naval with Curator Ramón Vega, 2018. 

Origins of the Naval Museums´s Asian collections

Spain’s interest in Asia dates back to the time of Henry III of Castile, grandfather of Isabella the Catholic Queen, who sent several ambassadorial missions to Samarkand, such as the one led by Ruy de Clavijo in 1403.

The Spanish Crown’s search for an eastern sea route, trying to avoid the zone under Portuguese influence, eventually led to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Another great feat was the expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano, which reached the Moluccas from the west and completed the first circumnavigation of the globe. Andrés de Urdaneta entered the annals of world history when he discovered and charted a west-to-east route across the Pacific Ocean: the Tornaviaje or Return Route. This route from the Philippines back to Acapulco allowed Spain to establish regular contact with Asia via the famous Manila Galleons, an 8,000-mile crossing that was the main maritime link between Asia and America from 1565 to 1815.

While the Spanish state’s interest in Asia was primarily economic and even evangelizing, many of the erudite sailors who served the Crown in those latitudes were also driven by a strong scientific curiosity, seeking greater knowledge of the territory and its peoples, cultures and seafaring techniques.

One of the earliest products of this scientific work in Asia is the illustrated dictionary of naval construction written by Captain General of the Navy Juan José Navarro de Viana y Búfalo, 1st Marquess of La Victoria. In it he presented the results of research conducted between 1719 and 1756 on every aspect of the ships of his day, including a chapter on Asia that listed the most common vessels of each region: the junks of Nanking and Peking, the great Malayan warships, the dragon boats of Thailand, the small boats of Java, the pirate galleys of Borneo and the fishing boats of Korea. Although the marquess never visited Asia personally, he pored over a vast number of publications on the Naval History of the East, improved descriptions of the vessels and occasionally even corrected information about their origin.

The influence of Enlightenment ideas, which insisted on the absolute supremacy of reason, prompted inquiries in every field of knowledge and promoted studies in the sciences of geography, art, anthropology and others more specifically related to the Navy, such as shipbuilding, which spearheaded many of the scientific breakthroughs of that era.

As a consequence of these efforts, throughout the 19th century a number of world fairs were held in Europe to present the latest discoveries and showcase foreign cultures which, despite having existed for millennia, were exotic revelations to the inhabitants of the old continent. These events heightened the fascination of those “new cultures” and the objects that somehow condensed their essence, and Asian cultures held a special appeal. They began with the Great Exhibition of London in 1851, and Spain’s first world fair was held in Barcelona in 1888.

In addition to actively participating in these exhibitions, the Spanish Navy contributed scientific publications and articles in the press and illustrated magazines that increased the public’s knowledge of and taste for all things oriental. Europeans were especially drawn to China and Japan, and this facilitated a rapprochement between East and West and the emergence of new artistic trends. Some, such as Orientalism, were general while others, like Japonism, were much more specific, documented and detailed.

The interest in oriental aesthetics soon permeated every social class. Among the common folk, this was evident in the use of hand fans and the famous Manila shawls. However, as is usually the case, the European elite of the day led the way in matters of taste. Like other contemporary monarchs, Isabella II was especially fond of oriental art, as evidenced by the decorative programme she commissioned for the halls of the palace at Aranjuez and other royal properties, but she also saw the scientific value of the collections brought from Asia. For this reason, she selected the objects deemed most interesting from a naval perspective and donated them to the Naval Museum.

One of the most remarkable donations was the Chinese Flower Boat, an extraordinary, richly carved and painted ivory vessel used for leisure cruises on rivers and canals. Like most flower boats, it is broad and flat-bottomed, designed to be towed rather than sailed.

Early Acquisitions and Research: The Chinese Cabinet

The same scientific and philosophical spirit of the Enlightenment inspired the Spanish Navy to found this Naval Museum, which opened its doors in 1843. To make its collection as complete as possible, sailors stationed round the world were asked to supply objects that would contribute to a better knowledge of naval history.

The response from those stationed in the Philippines was very generous. They sent home a large number of artefacts related to Asia, especially from China. Miguel Lobo y Malagamba, José Ruiz de Apodaca, José María Quesada and other sailors played a vital role in forming the collection.

Many of the pieces brought from Asia were of such exceptional quality that the Naval Museum decided to create a special Chinese Cabinet, entirely decorated in lavish oriental style. Models of Asian vessels became so numerous and significant that they were distributed throughout the museum, at one point comprising a third of all scale models on display. In a few short years, the museum amassed holdings that represented over a dozen different Asian countries.

However, perhaps the most fascinating and significant fact is that a large number of pieces have been preserved with the descriptive texts sent by the benefactors themselves. These documents are veritable reports, often obtained from a variety of sources, from missionaries to local scholars. Containing “news and interesting observations on the origin and use” of the exhibits, as one document reads, they reinforced the institution’s scientific, documentary and instructive purpose.

The majority of this exclusive Asian collection is exhaustively documented in texts written by these scholarly men of the Spanish Navy, who were closely connected to the Cavite Naval Base and the Hydrographic Authority.

Manila was the effective capital of Spain’s Asian possessions, and Cavite was the strategic natural outpost that protected the city. The Cavite base was the Spanish Navy's headquarters in Asia, serving ships stationed in the Philippines as well as those arriving from the Americas. Ships were built, repaired and protected at Cavite, and troops also went there to rest from active duty. Consequently, it was the best place in the East to trade ideas, objects and news.

Cavite is a major point of reference for the Naval Museum, as the military staff posted there, especially the members of the Hydrographic Commission, were the most active contributors to the museum’s campaign to procure Asian artefacts. Cavite was also the port from which the ships that transported those pieces set sail for Spain, generally bound for Cádiz.

Collectors of Philippine Material

We will now take a closer look at some of the individuals whose generous contributions have earned them a special place in the history of this museum.

Two of them belonged to the same family: José María de Quesada y Bardalonga (Isla de León, Cádiz 1798–Cádiz 1867) and Manuel de Quesada y Bardalonga (Isla de León, Cádiz, 1796–Chiclana de la Frontera, 1876).

A man of remarkable organisational skills and engineering expertise, José María de Quesada was left without pay due to political instability in Spain, caused by the Peninsular War, despite his many merits, resigned from his post in Cuba and left for the United States in 1825. There he devoted his time to studying and perfecting steamship construction in the civilian sector. After receiving several generous offers from the Spanish Navy, he returned to the service in 1837. During his years as a civilian naval engineer, he had taken long voyages across the Pacific and Asia, and those experiences prepared him for his next adventure: the Spanish Navy’s twenty-second circumnavigation of the globe. In the course of that voyage aboard the corvette Ferrolana, he sent several ship models of exquisite craftsmanship and accuracy back to Spain from Singapore, along with documentation describing how they worked.

The second Quesada, Manuel, quickly rose through the ranks thanks to his outstanding performance and valour in numerous battles. In 1848 he was posted to the Philippines as Commander of the Cavite Naval Base, where he did much to combat the plague of piracy. He was also noted for his cartographic work and dedication to the study of local cultures. The pieces he sent to the Naval Museum are valuable sources of anthropological and sociological information.

The didactic facet of the institution’s Asian collection received a boost after 1883 when the painter/restorer Rafael Monleón, a man with a special predilection for all things Asian, joined the Naval Museum staff. According to Monleón, his works aimed to “draw the attention of the public and inspire in it a love of the navy”. Although he never visited Asia, he spent much of his career painting and studying oriental ships. He conducted extremely thorough research on the technical and constructive aspects of shipbuilding, as well as on the different purposes for which vessels were used in their original cultures. Monleón learned a great deal by examining the museum’s holdings—especially the models of Asian vessels, which he sketched for research purposes—but he also pored over Dutch, French and English publications, prints and photographs. Thanks to the precision of his creations and his interesting observations, his work remains an invaluable reference for researchers round the world.

Miguel Lobo y Malagamba (San Fernando, Cádiz, 1821–Paris, 1876) also distinguished himself valiantly in the fight against piracy in the Philippines and had a long career in the Pacific. He was an extraordinary navigator, as well as a linguist and noted bibliophile. In 1857, having already earned the rank of lieutenant, he was given a commission in France. He used this opportunity to purchase rare books not published in Spain, thereby enriching the Navy’s libraries.

Lobo was keenly interested in Asian history, particularly that of India and Japan. His influence on the intellectual training of Spanish sailors endures to this day. His private book collection is currently owned by San Fernando Town Council, which renamed it the Almirante Lobo Library in his honour.

Another important and fascinating historical figure is José María Halcón (Lebrija, Seville, 1799–Cádiz, 1872). Known to his superiors as Halcón or "Hawk", this frigate captain was sent to the Philippines in 1833 as director of the Hydrographic Commission. Upon arrival he was given command of the schooner Mosca and devoted himself to the task of exploring and charting the Philippines. He participated in the fight against piracy, a constant problem in that part of the world, and boosted shipbuilding activity at the Cavite Naval Base. Yet his greatest accomplishments were in the field of diplomacy, where he negotiated many agreements with the Sultanate of Sulu and the Muslim rulers of the southern Philippines, who usually backed the pernicious actions of the pirates.

In 1836, Halcón set out on a diplomatic mission aboard the corvette Mosca. During the voyage he charted the Philippine coast from Manila to Jolo, where he met with the sultan and tribal rulers, seeking their support in the fight against piracy. Because of  these negotiations, the Spanish flag became the official emblem of the Philippines. In the course of his travels, Halcón kept a journal in which he not only wrote down his ideas on how to put an end to pirate attacks but also explained anthropological and social aspects of local cultures. He made notes on the shapes and construction methods of indigenous vessels, efforts to combat cholera and war tactics and created maps and drawings that proved very useful on future missions.

In 1839 he was posted to China, where he once again distinguished himself in diplomatic endeavours such as liberating the crew of the brigantine Bilbaíno. In the First Opium War (1839–1842) he had a hand in the surrender of Canton and the signature of the Treaty of Nanking, for which he received the Grand Cross of Commander in the Order of Isabella the Catholic.

As mentioned, many items shipped to the museum were accompanied by explanations of their origin, purpose and significance. In a few exceptional cases, these reports were genuine scholarly studies that cited research sources, explained the object’s relevance in everyday life or suggested possible etymologies. One of these splendid reports was sent with the compass obtained by José María Halcón immediately after his posting to China in 1839.

That document refers to a compass used for feng shui (風水). Halcón noted that, according to this belief system derived from Taoist philosophy, the orientation of “graves and buildings” determines the “happiness and misfortune of families”. In order to achieve the right level of desired harmony, feng shui practitioners used this special compass (luopan, 罗盘, Lo'pan) to study a space, dividing it into nine sections (ba gua or pa kua) that overlapped the built structure and could alter the destiny of its inhabitants. The text reveals its author’s profound knowledge of Asian cultures and the effort invested in sending objects and accurate information about them to the museum.

Finally, we cannot fail to mention José Ruíz de Apodaca y Beranger (Isla de León, Cádiz, 1788–Madrid, 1876), born into an Álava family with a long seafaring tradition. He participated in practically every major conflict of his time, from the Battle of Trafalgar aboard the San Juan Nepomuceno to the Mexican War of Independence.

In 1839 he was posted to the Cavite Naval Base, and in 1847 he was promoted to Commander General of the base. During his service in the Philippines, he focused on combating piracy and, in the area of navigation, advocated the use of steamships. He also produced several cultural studies of China, the Philippine archipelago and Borneo, especially the coastal settlements.

The pieces he shipped from the Philippines were instrumental in creating the museum’s Asian collection, as they document many aspects of Chinese culture—religion, music, trade, etc.—and he even sent weapons and ship models associated with the fight against pirates and smugglers, items closely related to his military duties in the Philippines.

Espionage, Diplomacy and Warfare as Sources of New Material

Conflicts and alliances were responsible for a considerable number of the artefacts that ended up in the Asian collections of the Naval Museum. These pieces contain valuable information, not only about the historical events that shaped their destiny, but also about the cultures from which they came.

The geography of the Philippine archipelago, consisting of numerous islands and reefs that were difficult to navigate, made it a haven for pirates who frequently plagued the Spaniards living there, especially on the Sulu Sea. Consequently, the constant presence of Spanish Navy ships was vital to maintaining Spanish sovereignty.

Given the great distance from Spain, the availability of resources to combat piracy was limited, which explains why the Spaniards chose to focus on espionage and diplomacy, less costly than outright warfare and ultimately more effective.

Spies were able to discover the pirates’ bases of operation and the strength of their numbers, making it possible to intercept their supplies, mitigate the ferocity of their pillaging and, whenever possible, ambush them on their own turf.

Diplomacy, on the other hand, used the intelligence gathered by spies and the eyewitness accounts of sailors to devise approaches and strategies for dealing with the sultans of different realms and convincing them that it was to their advantage to support the Spanish fight against piracy.

Pirate actions were especially intense in the Sulu Sea, a sheltered body of water ringed by hundreds of islands between the southern Philippines and Brunei. Thanks to its many small harbours and other natural hideouts, the pirates who operated there became a major problem.

Halcón and other experienced Navy officers believed that the solution was to eradicate the slave trade, although he understood that slavery was so deeply ingrained among the local cultures that any attempt to put an end to these practices and the problems they generated would meet with stiff opposition.

However, another  naval veteran, Ruiz de Apodaca, took a very different view, favouring open combat. To eradicate the scourge, he advocated the use of steamships and direct attacks on pirate lairs, which usually resulted in the freeing of hundreds of slaves. Some of the “weapons and effects of war” seized from the enemy after such skirmishes made their way into the collections of the Naval Museum, under the heading of “historical combat souvenirs”.

However, in times of war, difficulties often stimulate innovation and progress, and in this case the need for ships able to keep up with the pirates’ swift vessels led to new developments in shipbuilding, producing faster, more manoeuvrable craft that were also safer for sailors. The last Spanish constructions for the waters of the Philippine archipelago were El Lanao and the General Blanco, twin ships designed in the Philippines, built in Hong Kong and reassembled in Cavite.

Spain also participated in a few large-scale combat actions in the Asian theatre, but these were very sporadic and attributable to the influence of other Western powers. A case in point is the Cochinchina Campaign (1858–1862), a war triggered by the murders of Spanish and French Catholic missionaries but pursued with the ultimate goal of expanding France’s colonial empire.

One man distinguished himself with particular bravery in that combat: Siro Fernández (Cádiz, 1832–Ferrol, 1892), a navy lieutenant junior grade in command of the fifty-man Elcano Marine Corps Unit. He participated in the assault on the fortress of Saigon and managed to hoist the Spanish flag over its walls, a feat that garnered him several distinctions, including the French Legion of Honour.

Spain profited very little from that action. Nonetheless, Siro Fernández sent the weapons and flags captured in the assault on Saigon to the Naval Museum, along with a detailed plan of the fortress and several objects from the palace, including books, musical instruments and wood carvings.

Similarly, diplomatic action was not limited to forging anti-piracy alliances. Several historical events and diplomatic missions also established important contacts with the Orient, and chief among them was the opening of the Suez Canal.

Until the mid-19th century, vessels bound for Asia from Europe had to sail round the Cape of Good Hope or, especially in the case of Spanish ships, through the Strait of Magellan. But in 1869, the Empress Consort of France, Eugénie de Montijo (Granada, 1826–Madrid, 1920), presided over the inauguration of this new passage. The Suez Canal was one of the greatest achievements of the 19th century, not only because of the technological breakthroughs that made its construction possible, but also because of its impact on maritime traffic in that part of the world, making sea voyages to major Eastern destinations several weeks shorter and considerably safer. This new route made the Orient more attractive than ever and began to draw a steady stream of Western visitors, initially explorers and later tourists.

Melchor Ordóñez y Ortega’s Diplomatic Mission to Indochina

As Spain had a large number of permanent embassies in Asia, the Spanish Navy was called on to provide many diplomatic services throughout the 19th century.

A prime example is the voyage of Málaga native Melchor Ordóñez y Ortega, who travelled to Southeast Asia in 1879 as Spain’s envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary and commercial attaché. Ordóñez successfully completed the mission he had been given: to negotiate a trade agreement and strengthen relations between Alfonso XII and the kings of Siam (modern-day Thailand) and Cambodia.

The book he published about his experiences, which revealed him to be a remarkable scholar and collector, was distributed to all armed forces as a guide to Asian countries. In it he boasted of his extensive research prior to the journey, constantly alluding to books about the Orient which he had read in different languages, and the breadth of his own knowledge, acquired during the years he was stationed at the Cavite Naval Base. His free-flowing prose is a blend of the adventure fiction and travel journal styles, and the tone is alternately poetic, comical, critical, remonstrative or quaint.

Thailand received special treatment in his book, occupying a considerable number of pages, and its inhabitants are described as “numerous, varied and beautiful”. Ordóñez quotes Henri Mouhot, calling Bangkok the “Venice of the East” and expressing the greatest admiration for its multicultural diversity.

No facet of life there escaped his notice: dance, painting, society, music, geography, biology and religion are all discussed. Moreover, the text is illustrated with a large quantity of prints that further enrich the book’s contents.

Another noteworthy episode in the history of the Spanish Navy’s presence in Asia was the relationship between Admiral Tōgō and Spain's representatives in Japan.

Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō 東郷 平八郎 (1848–1934) is the greatest legend in the history of the Japanese Imperial Navy and was the most internationally respected admiral of his day. He fought in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). As commander-in-chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy, he defeated the Russian fleets by employing innovative tactics and ships built only a few years previously with European technology.

In consideration of his many achievements, Captain Fernando Carranza y Herrera, then the naval attaché to the Spanish legation in Tokyo, proposed that Tōgō be awarded the Spanish Navy’s highest distinction. Carranza personally presented him with the Cross of the Spanish Order of Naval Merit at the admiral’s humble residence in the Japanese capital in 1925. Admiral Tōgō immediately reciprocated by giving the marquess the photograph now held at the Naval Museum.

The swift modernisation of Japan took the entire world by surprise. In less than thirty years, it went from being considered a backward, almost medieval country to a major power. The great strides made by its navy were a vital factor in this transformation. On the one hand, imperial ships represented the country in every port. And on the other, its victory over the Russian Imperial Fleet (1904–1905) was received with admiration and surprise, cementing Japan’s reputation in the international community.

However, Spain had received highly reliable intelligence of Japan’s immense naval power ten years previously. In 1897, the naval attaché to the Spanish embassy in Tokyo, Lieutenant Carlos Íñigo y Gorostiza, sent home a series of documents with detailed information on the construction of Japanese warships. He noted the crews’ professionalism and tremendous spirit of self-sacrifice and warned of a possible attack on some Western power in the Pacific. However, he concluded, quite rightly, that the Philippines, a Spanish territory at the time, had nothing to fear thanks to the Treaties of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation signed by both countries in 1868.

Gorostiza was also a renowned painter and photographer, and Japan awarded him the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

A final instance of Spanish involvement in Asian political history is the civil war that began in China with the 1927 uprisings, when General Primo de Rivera, the Spanish prime minister at the time, decided to intervene and sent the light cruiser Blas de Lezo to the region. Its mission was to join the international flotilla and protect Spanish and foreign civilians. To achieve this goal, a small marine corps contingent went ashore under the orders of Captain Ramón de Navia Osorio y Castropol, who at the end of the conflict was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun when the Blas de Lezo made a stop in Japan. Continuing their homeward voyage, in Manila the crew members of the Blas de Lezo were hailed as national heroes for their invaluable aid to the Philippine population during the tumultuous events in Shanghai.

The Contribution of Private Collections

The museum also possesses a considerable quantity of materials donated by private civilian and navy collectors, from mere curios to objects of great anthropological interest, and from items delivered by Asian art experts to gifts from a little girl eager to promote closer relations between her country and distant Spain.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the ensuing growth of Western interests in the East gave rise to a flourishing trade in mementos or souvenirs, especially at major ports like Hong Kong, Kobe and Singapore. Pottery, paintings, fans, textiles and photographs were purchased at “deck fairs”, festivals, small port shops or directly from workshops.

The majority of these products came from China’s most important ports, all located at the mouth of the Pearl River: Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong and Macao, the main points of departure for West-bound exports. Over time, factories sprang up in increasing proximity to these cities, becoming the country’s industrial powerhouse after the Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860). With the Portuguese in possession of Macao and the British in Hong Kong, thousands of foreign sailors passed through these ports, and their eagerness to show people back home what they had seen also stimulated the souvenir industry. As a result, many workshops and artists made their fortunes in this area, and those cosmopolitan port cities became the quintessential image of China in the world.

Other gifts entered the museum under highly unusual circumstances, as is the case of this collection of letters from Japan.

In the dark hours between 5 and 6 March 1938, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, the Republican fleet stumbled upon a Nationalist convoy off Cape Palos. During the ensuing sea battle, the cruiser Baleares was sunk. Two years later, some fishermen discovered a packet from that ship in their nets. Inside they found dozens of letters from Japanese girls who, after reading a newspaper article, had eagerly penned missives about their experience of life in the rear-guard while their country was embroiled in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). According to the girls’ own accounts, with great effort they came up with the money to send prints and photographs that would entertain soldiers on the front and boost their morale, knowing that people in Japan were thinking of them. The girls thus became their “wartime pen pals”.

On the topic of donations to the museum from collectors and renowned world experts on Asian cultures, special mention must be made of the Marquess de Croizier, who gifted various items related to Burma (modern-day Myanmar).

Edmé-Casimir de Croizier (Paris, 1846–Bayonne, 1921) was a French explorer and scholar who published multiple studies on Southeast Asia and ancient Persia, although the former region was his primary interest. To disseminate this research, he founded the Société Académique indo-chinoise (Indo-Chinese Academic Society) in France, assembling the leading experts in this field with the firm resolve to publicise scholarly studies of the region’s art and history. In pursuit of its objectives, the society published its own journal and many books which helped to preserve the knowledge of Southeast Asian cultures. Alfonso XII became one of the society’s leading patrons and, from 1883, sponsored a prize bearing his name to acknowledge the Spanish research institutions that most contributed to the advancement of Asian studies (MNM 2164). The Marquess de Crozier actively defended the Spanish possession of Borneo and the Sulu Sea islands, and he also participated in the commission to celebrate the fourth centennial of the discovery of America. Among other distinctions, Spain awarded him the Grand Cross in the Order of Isabella the Catholic, the Cross of Naval Merit (third class), and the rank of Commander in the Order of Charles III.


After seeing the exhibits and comprehending the full scope of their material and intangible value, it becomes clear that the collection of the Naval Museum is a remarkable record of the close, singular relations between Spain and Asia. The objects and documents assembled by this institution over the years attest the existence of common bonds with centuries of history. And throughout those centuries, the members of the Spanish Navy have consistently made commendable and indispensable contributions to the scientific and cultural knowledge of Asian countries, whose societies fascinated them and inspired their admiration. Still more exceptional is their sincere, altruistic and generous effort to share this knowledge through publications or donations to the Naval Museum, which continues to fulfil that noble purpose today.

Browse 15 Items in this collection.

Selected Items from This Collection

Share this