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Pacific Explorers Library
Ālvaro de Mendaņa de Nehra
Following Mexico's establishment of a colony in the Philippines, the work of Spanish exploration in the Pacific was taken over by Peru. There were several legends of the Incas telling of rich lands lying westward of South America, and these tales stirred keen interest in one Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. He was a historian, mathematician and astronomer who persuaded the Spanish government to mount an expedition with the express purpose of searching for Terra Australis. Sarmiento was deeply versed in Inca history and legend, and was convinced that such a gigantic continent stretched from some point west of Tierra del Fuego northwest to the equator, and lay within easy sailing distance from Peru. Sarmiento, however, was impossibly self-centred and inflexible. Though he was a member of the expedition, he never forgave the authorities for passing him over as leader and selecting instead a man ten years younger. This man was Don Alvaro de Mendaņa, 25 years old and relatively inexperienced, but the nephew of the Viceroy of Peru.
On 19 November 1567, Mendaņa's two vessels sailed from Callao in Peru. The two ships were the 107 ton Todos Santos (ie All Saints) and the 250 ton Los Reyes (ie the Kings). On board were 150 men, made up of 70 experienced sailors and soldiers and the remainder South American Indian slaves. Also on board were four Franciscan friars. For three weeks the ships steered westward. Then, contrary to Sarmiento's advice, but on the counsel of Mendaņa's pilot, Herman Gallego, an experienced navigator, they veered north-west. Sarmiento later blamed the failure of the expedition on Mendaņa and his officers for having ignored his advice at this point. Certainly, had they continued due west, they would almost certainly have discovered the Society Islands. As it was, the ships passed between the Marquesas and Tuvalu) which they named the Isle of Jesus.

By now, after two months at sea, the drinking water was becoming foul. An error on Gallego's part, which prevented the crews landing on the Isle of Jesus, did not improve morale, and near wreckage on some coral reefs reinforced the crew's mutterings. Fortunately, on 7 February 1568, the voyagers sighted an island which they named Santa Ysabel, after the name saint of Mendaņa's wife.

As the ships entered a broad harbour, Mendaņa was certain they had reached the shores of the elusive continent, but it soon became obvious they had landed on an island. However, on the basis that Columbus had discovered such a group of islands with a continent not far away, Mendaņa believed that he too would find a continent close by. On arrival, the ships were met by a fleet of canoes, full of islanders armed with bows and arrows. The next day the chief, Bilebanara, made an appearance, and promised fresh food and water. When the expected supplies did not arrive, Mendaņa sent Pedro de Ortega ashore with an armed party, but although they were hospitably received, no supplies were forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Gallego had supervised the construction of a 5-ton brigantine, the Santiago, for in-shore survey work. Sarmiento and Ortega embarked on a number of less peaceful missions and, on one occasion were so sickened by the proffered gift of a child's shoulder and arm, that they killed a number of natives and burned their huts to the ground. This conduct angered Mendaņa, a humane man, and hastened the ships' departure.

Ortega and Gallego now took the Santiago on three exploratory cruises, during which three further islands were discovered - Malaita, Guadalcanal (named by Ortega after his Spanish birthplace) and Choiseul. After a month, it was decided to move camp to Guadalcanal, where once again the same pattern of events occurred - friendly approaches, misunderstandings, kipnapings and retaliations, in which natives were killed and their huts and canoes were burned. The ships moved on the island of San Cristobal, where the same things happened. Finally, Mendaņa called a meeting to debate their next move. Sarmiento and some of the soldiers wished to stay in the hope of finding gold, while Gallego, Ortega and the friars advised returning home, and Mendaņa accepted this latter advice. A few islanders were captured as trophies, the Santiago was burned, and on 11 May 1568, they sailed for Peru. The islands were not to see any more Europeans for another 200 years.

The last stage of the voyage was by far the worst. The pilots were soon arguing over the correct course to steer. Sarmiento suggested sailing south-west, but was overruled. Gallego refused to obey Mendaņa's orders to sail due east, insisting that the only chance of safety lay in making for North America or Mexico. After veering to and fro between north and south-east, according to the wind, Gallego's advice was heeded. The ships turned north, across the equator, past the Marshall and Gilbert Groups and a lonely island which they named San Francisco (now Wake Island), and finally turned east. At some point Sarmiento parted company with Mendaņa, probably deliberately. Mendaņa and Gallego were left in the Los Reyes to battle through a severe hurricane and then to cope with dwindling supplies of food and water. Finally, on 19 December 1568, the Los Reyes anchored in the bay of Colima on the coast of Lower California. A short time later the Todos Santos limped in, so battered that she resembled a derelict.

It was nine months before the ships returned to Callao, arriving in September 1569. There, on Mendaņa's orders, Sarmiento was arrested. He was later released to continue a violent and unsuccessful career at sea against the English and French. Mendaņa himself received scant recognition for his voyage "for," wrote a Spanish official to the King, "the islands they discovered were of little importance...............they found no specimens of spices, nor of gold and silver, nor of merchandise, nor of any other source of profit, and all the people are naked savages." This same writer invented the name of the Solomon Islands for the newly discovered group, presumably because he imagined that they were the Land of Ophir, the legendary source of King Solomon's wealth, although his letter to the king rather conflicts with this theory.

As it turned out, the Solomons became "lost" again and were not rediscovered until about 200 years later. Mendaņa's pilots had greatly under-estimated the distance involved, being unaware of the effect of the equatorial current, which was so strikingly demonstrated in modern times by the Kon-Tiki expedition.

Meanwhile, the belief in Marco Polo's Beach and the fabulous extensive land of Terra Australis was being fostered by cartographers. In England especially, there were influential men thinking and planning a South Pacific voyage of exploration. The news of Mendaņa's discovery reached England about 1572, five years before Drake commenced his famous voyage of circumnavigation, which, as originally planned, might have led to the discovery of Australia. Instead, Drake raided the wealth of Chile and Peru, and made no discoveries other than those on the American seaboard. His example was followed by Cavendish in 1586 and Richard Hawkins in 1593. The objective of the latter was also Terra Australis, but his vessel, the Dainty was captured off the South American coast.

In all probability, it was information gained from the captives, to the effect that England was interested in Terra Australis, that caused the new Viceroy of Peru, the Marquis of Canete, to favour Mendaņa's plan for a new western voyage. The expedition, which was financed privately by Mendaņa, was ill-found and doomed to failure.

Now 53 years old, Mendaņa left Callao on 9 April 1595, with a fleet of four ships - the flagship San Jeronimo and the San Ysabel, the smaller frigate Santa Catalina and the galiot San Felipe. His objective was to found a settlement in the Solomon Islands as an outpost for further discovery. He was accompanied by his wife, Doņa Isabel de Barreto, her three brothers, and a company of 378 soldiers and sailors, and their wives and children. In his choice as pilot, Mendaņa was fortunate to have the services of a 33 year old Portuguese, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros.

In July, the Marquesas were discovered and named in honour of the Marquesas de Mendoza. Here the voyagers anchored and refreshed themselves, before sailing westward on 5 August. On 7 September the ships ran into a thick fog, caused by the volcano of Tinakula in active eruption. During the night the Santa Ysabel, with Lopez de Vega on board, disappeared, probably destroyed by volcanic shocks. The rest of the ships came to anchor in the Santa Cruz group, which lie to the north of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). As usual, their very first encounter with the natives caused bloodshed.

When the Spanish anchored in Graciosa Bay, however, the natives appeared to be friendly. The chief, Malope, was paddled out and gifts were exchanged, but soon the same old story repeated itself. A watering party was ambushed and three men wounded. Mendaņa promptly dispatched a punishment party to burn huts, kill islanders and steal pigs. The rest of the men set up a camp, but by this time Mendaņa was sick with malaria, and fast losing control of the situation. He was not helped by the constant nagging of his wife and her brothers. It was on their suggestion that the camp master was stabbed to death. This led to an orgy of killing, as supporters of both factions fell upon one another.

Quiros watched and recorded these horrors with growing alarm and despair. Malaria began to kill off many of the party, and on 18 October 1595, Mendaņa himself died. Before he died, Mendaņa had handed responsibility to his wife and her brother Don Lorenzo, but on his death, Quiros took charge. On 18 November, with disease still raging, he and the remainder of the party sailed for the Philippines. The wooden ships were rotting, supplies were almost exhausted, corpses were tossed overboard daily and Quiros had to consult Doņa Ysabel on all matters. She refused to permit him to jettison the other ships so as to combine the crews, and she would not allow the little fresh water remaining to be distributed to the dying men, women and children, but used it instead to wash her own clothes. By December, the ships were near the equator. The days were stifling, the nights freezing. Rations were sown to half a pound of flour and half a pint of putrid water per day. The Santa Catalina disappeared and was never seen again. The San Felipe vanished for a time, but later reached the Philippines. Quiros, by a remarkable feat of navigation, brought the flagship to port at Guam on New Year's Day 1596. At last, in February 1996, Manila was sighted. The sorry, blood-strewn failure of a voyage was finally over, with Quiros alone salvaging from it any shreds of honour.

For more information on Alvaro de Mendaņa de Nehra, go to:

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