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?
Historians cite the weather as the main reason why one in eight ships, carrying incredibly valuable spices and silver between the Philippines and Mexico, sank. But the researchers pose a different possibility – that monopoly restrictions on ship numbers incentivised bribe-taking by galleon officials, undermining limits on cargo weight. Overloaded vessels have a tendency to sink, and one galleon, the San José, went down with cargo equivalent to almost 2% of the entire Spanish empire’s GDP.
We spend a lot of time worrying about the negative impact of monopolies in raising prices. But we need to take a wider view of their damage, which can include lower wages for workers and, it turns out, being lost at sea.