It is 1821, and for 250 years the Philippine Islands have been under the thumb of the Spanish crown. But, in the end, the Spaniards do not really control everything. In the shadow of the colonial power, self-willed natives have established secret maritime trade with neighboring islands and the Asiatic mainland. Using odd-looking punts and fragile bamboo barks, these black market traders cram their boats with nutmeg, silk, jade, and ginseng, and set sail to smuggle them into Manila. Success in each venture is uncertain, as the seaworthiness of both boats and captains is poor. To add to their woes, pirates lie in wait to plunder boats that cannot escape them.
Given all this, it is not surprising that wares that reach the black markets in Manila command high prices, making the venture worth the risk for those who succeed. The black market dealers use accomplices to ensure they get the wares, bribe pilots to aid their cargoes and hinder others, and insure their cargoes against failure. And a few wealthy merchants hire pirates to attack the black market boats and secretly pocket the profits from these raids.