By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—No one knows for sure how he spelled his name—was it Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho or Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo? No one knows for certain his nationality. Was he Portuguese or a Spaniard? Where he was born is a mystery. So is where he died. And the name he gave to this city when he claimed it for Spain on September 28, 1542 is known to historians and to only a relative handful of other people. He called this place “San Miguel.” The name was changed 60 years after his discovery to “San Diego” by the explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, who followed his route.
Despite the many historical uncertainties about him, certain conventions were adopted. The explorer is known by the name Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, using the Spanish spelling of his name. It is taught that he was Portuguese and that he sailed in the service of Spain. Although what he looked like is unknown, what has come to suffice is the image of him created for a 1939 exposition in San Francisco by Portuguese sculptor Alvaro de Bree and later transported to a promontory overlooking the entrance to San Diego Bay. Eroded by winds and salt spray, the statue was replicated in Portugal and brought to San Diego in 1988.
Although Cabrillo’s birthplace still remains an official mystery; his death place is said to be one of the Channel Islands off the California coast near Santa Barbara. Which one is anyone’s guess. Some records hint that it might be the one today called San Miguel. However, some 350 years after his death, a stone with a cross and the initials J.R. was found on nearby Santa Rosa Island—perhaps it marked Cabrillo’s grave, or perhaps it was simply a coincidence. Spanish sailors typically buried their dead at sea.
Cabrillo was the captain-general of a three-ship expedition that sailed from Navidad, New Spain (today a port in Mexico) to Alta California. In his logs, he described the Pacific coastline and told of the ports and landings along his way that he claimed for Spain. All in all, he was an important figure in the history of North America. The national monument bearing his name overlooks the area of San Diego Bay where his flag ship San Salvador and the companion ships San Miguel and Victoria anchored for six days while his crew members made the first European contacts with the indigenous Kumeyaay people.
There are a few facts that one can plug into the story of Cabrillo. He participated in the reconquest of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, serving both as a shipbuilder and as a crossbowman under the command of the conquistador Hernan Cortes. Tenochtitlan, today known as Mexico City, was surrounded by a lake that has long since been drained, filled in and incorporated into the city limits. To attack the Aztec capital, Cortes’ soldiers, aided by Tlaxcala Indians, built small vessels and invaded the city by sea. Part of the reason the Spaniards were successful was that the Aztec warriors had been decimated by the smallpox they had contracted from the Europeans in their earlier meetings.
A man of action, Cabrillo decided to continue on the Spanish path of conquest. He served under Francisco Orozco in the capture of the city of Oaxaca and later under Pedro de Alvarado in the conquest of Guatemala in a bloody war against the Mayan Indians.
In Guatemala, Cabrillo was listed on the first roll of citizens. He had children by an Indian common law wife, but later formally married Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega, the sister of a Spanish colleague. Cabrillo had farming and mining interests and operated a shipyard where he built the San Salvador, originally intended to be the flagship for Alvarado himself. However, Alvarado was killed by Mixton Indians during a revolt in Jalisco in 1541, and the Viceroy of New Spain Antonio de Mendoza appointed Cabrillo as captain general in his place.
The visitors center and a nearby exhibition hall contains several representations of the San Salvador, along with displays on the type of clothing its sailors and soldiers wore and the types of food that they ate. An interactive display, allowing visitors to press buttons to illumine lights on a representation of the ship, help people in the 21st century imagine the conditions of sailing in the 16th century.
San Salvador was a full-rigged galleon measuring 80 feet long and 22 feet across the beam, according to the posted information. “When full it carried about 100 crewmen which included four officers, 30 seamen, three apprentices, 25 soldiers, a priest, and perhaps a lay brother or two, servants, slaves, and maybe a few merchants and their goods.”
Cabrillo’s cabin was “about the size of a modern bathroom” yet was the “largest and most comfortable on the ship,” the display informs. “There were no cabins for the crew. They slept on deck and wherever there was space. Everyone suffered from sea sickness, even experienced sailors.”
People used lanterns at night to make their way around the ship, the possibility of starting a fire an ever present worry. There were chickens and some cows aboard the ship, with the fresh meat and eggs reserved for the senior officers as well as for the sick.
For the most part, food aboard the ship was far less appealing. The “typical supply of biscuit, beans, (and) salt meat washed down with a mug of wine was supplemented by fish” caught along the California coastline. Meat typically picked in salt water was cooked in olive oil that had been stored in large jars. There was practically no ventilation in the ship’s galley, causing it to be perpetually smoky. “Everyone on board was allowed only one liter of water and wine each day,” the narrative continued. “They stopped wherever possible to refill water barrels.”
Toilets consisted of seats hanging from the deck over the sea. The Spanish sailors jocularly called these primitive accommodations ‘jardines,’ meaning gardens. Even more foul smelling was the bilge of the ship, where water trapped between the hull and the keel became stagnant and odiferous. Other causes for concern were rats, which sometimes could number in the thousands aboard galleons, and insects that made their way into the food provisions.
Cabrillo’s voyage of discovery was no pleasure cruise, to be sure.
Sailors and soldiers had a strict division of duties – the former tended to the ship and did not become involved in the fighting, unless they had to defend themselves or joined a shore party. The soldiers, as a condition of employment, had to provide their own armor, but few could afford a full suit of armor which “was like buying a Ferrari today.” Instead of metal plate or chainmail armor, the soldiers typically preferred quilted cotton and leather to protect them against native weapons. They usually protected their heads and torsos but left their legs and arms unprotected—both because they felt less restricted in their movements and because of the expense. The sailors were required to bring on board a helmet, weapon and shield, but their work knives did not qualify as weapons. Like the soldiers, they tended to purchase the cheapest weapons that they could.
An account of Cabrillo’s journey said “they travelled six leagues (approximately 200 miles) to the north northwest coast and discovered an enclosed harbor which was very good. They named it San Miguel.”
The date was September 28, 1542, and the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel was the next day.
Some soldiers who went ashore for provisions were attacked by Iipay and Tipay branches of Kumeyaay Indians, but Cabrillo wisely decided against having his men return fire. Instead he sent out another group of soldiers with gifts for exchange, resulting in a peaceful six-day stopover in the good enclosed harbor.
Nowadays, each September 28, as part of the Cabrillo Festival, a celebrant dressed up as the explorer wades ashore from a rowboat and reenacts his claiming this area for Spain.
However impressive the original ceremony might have been, there was plenty of time for the Kumeyaay to forget it. They would not see Spaniards again for 60 years when Vizcaino came by and renamed this area as San Diego. Cabrillo did not have time to linger: his mission was to try to find gold, and a route east from the Pacific back to the Atlantic Ocean, and he accomplished none of these objectives.
He continued to sail along the California coastline, reaching northern California before deciding to turn back to wait out the winter on the Channel Islands. There, in a skirmish with local Indians, Cabrillo injured himself breaking one of his limbs. (In yet another uncertainty about him, there is a dispute whether it was his arm or his leg). The injury worsened, perhaps developing gangrene. Cabrillo died January 3, 1543. His lieutenant, Bartolome de Ferrer, assumed command of the voyage and again headed north. Eventually, however they turned around and abandoning the voyage returned to Navidad on April 14, 1543.
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