Fernando Arteaga, Desiree Desierto, Mark Koyama, 04 December 2020

When the galleon San José sank in a typhoon in 1694, it was carrying a cargo worth 2% of the GDP of the entire Spanish empire. Fernando Arteaga, Desiree Desierto and Mark Koyama tell Tim Phillips about how bribes sank Spanish treasure ships.

Fernando Arteaga, Desiree Desierto, Mark Koyama, 25 October 2020

The Spanish Crown had a monopoly on the trade route between Manila and Mexico for more than 250 years. The ships that sailed this route were “the richest ships in all the oceans”, but much of the wealth sank at sea and remain undiscovered. This column uses a newly constructed dataset of all of the ships that travelled the route to show how monopoly rents that allowed widespread bribe-taking would have led to overloading and late ship departure, thereby increasing the probability of shipwreck. Not only were late and overloaded ships more likely to experience shipwrecks or to return to port, but the effect is stronger for galleons carrying more valuable, higher-rent cargo. This sheds new light on the costs of rent-seeking in European colonial empires.

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