Monday, April 20, 2009

Traveler's Tales: Cabrillo's Voyage to California

I tell you that on the right-hand side of the Indies there was an island called California, which was very close to the region of Earthly Paradise. This island was inhabited by black women and there were no males among them at all, for their life style was similar to that of the Amazons. The island was made up of the wildest cliffs and sharpest precipices found anywhere in the world . . .” Las Sergas de Esplandian by Garcia Rodriguez Montalvo, 1510

California was originally a myth. The myth was brought to literary circles by Garcia Rodriguez Montalvo. It was not unlike hundreds of other Traveler’s Tales told before, during, and after the Age of Exploration. As new discoveries were made excitement abounded and imagination mingled with fact; stories were soon fashioned and told about the new "virgin" lands. Along the Atlantic Coast, the Spanish heard tales about the land of Chicora culled together from the natives taken in Spanish slave raids along the South Carolina coast in the 1520’s. The tales told that beyond the coastline in South Carolina, and most of the rest of the southern coast was the land of Chicora. It was a place where the inhabitants were white and had long red hair. Their king and queen were giants. Nearby was a region called Xapida, where pearls were found in abundance. These people also had great herds of domesticated deer, which they milked. They also made deer-milk cheese.

The same sort of tales circulated on the Pacific Coast. California was not a part of the mainland. It was an island. The island of California was ruled by a black Amazon queen who had weapons made of gold. These Amazons also used man-eating griffins as beasts of burden. These stories and others eventually led Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to be the first European to sail along the west coast of the United States. He opened this region to both exploration and European settlement. Born sometime around 1500, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, was intrigued by the stories of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Bartolomeu Dias as well as other traveler’s tales. He decided to go to the New World as did many other young Spaniards to look for wealth and adventure. He arrived in Cuba sometime after 1510. After several years of soldering in Cuba, he was sent to Mexico with an army under the command of Pánfilo de Narvaez to capture Hernan Cortes who was to be returned to Cuba to answer questions of insubordination. Cortes, however, had other plans and he surprised and defeated Narvaez's army in a night battle in the rain in 1520. Cortes then convinced many of Narvaez’s soldiers to join him in conquest by telling them about the dazzling golden riches of the Aztecs.

In 1520-1521, as a unproven young man, Cabrillo assisted Cortes as a corporal of crossbowmen on his conquest of the Aztecs. He was there at the siege of Tenochtitlan and participated in many other battles and skirmishes. After the conquest of the Aztecs, the Spanish then moved south to conquer other native peoples. Cabrillo had by then risen in the ranks to become a hidalgo (an officer of some status). He went on to assist Pedro de Alvarado in subduing the descendants of the Mayans: the Quiches and the Tzutuhils in the conquest of Guatemala in 1524. By this time he had become a man of some means and some time afterward in 1536 he was appointed by Alvalrado as the chief magistrate of the port of Iztapa on the west coast of Guatemala. Here he was ordered to build ships for exploring the Mar de Sur: the South Sea or the Pacific. He built seven or eight ships over the next four years. One of the ships, a galleon, was built with his own money and was known as the San Salvador. This growing fleet was soon set to explore the South Sea. Alvarado’s untimely death in July 1541 in attempting to put down a local uprising in Mexico, however, put the expedition on hold.

Then the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, soon stepped in and resumed Alvarado's quest. He asked Cabrillo to lead a smaller fleet on an expedition to the South Sea to search for new trade opportunities with the Native Americans and to search for a route to China. One part of the fleet was to sail west into the Pacific while the other sailed north along the coast and then west to rendezvous with the other fleet. Cabrillo was to lead the one exploring the coast. Cabrillo accepted the charge and began to equip and man his ships. He had over 200 crewmen who would sail with him. Cabrillo and his 3 vessels the San Salvador, the Victoria, and the San Miguel set out from Navidad, Mexico on June 27, 1542.

With a family, a comfortable government position, and almost 40 years old, why did Cabrillo decide to go on the expedition to the South Sea? Was it more riches? Or did he hope to gain knowledge and fame in finding a route to China and the Orient (the fabled Northwest Passage)? Alvarado had hoped to discover the mythical island of California. Did Cabrillo also have this dream? Or was it just the lure of exploration? What lay around the next cove? What was beyond the horizon? The siren of the Traveler’s Tales was calling.

On September 28, 1542 after 3 months of sailing along the Baja coastline the men sailed into a beautiful harbor today known as San Diego. Cabrillo claimed the land for Spain and gave it the name of San Miguel. Cabrillo and his men briefly explored the area making contact with the local Native Americans. Then they continued their voyage. They sailed along the California coast and they explored the Channel Islands. By November they had gone as far north as Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco. They then turned south to seek shelter from some fierce storms. On January 3, 1543 Cabrillo died on one of the Channel Islands from an injury sustained earlier on the voyage. Cabrillo shattered his shin when he stumbled on some rocks while going ashore. The injury eventually led to gangrene and then to death.

Cabrillo did not discover riches in gold. He did not discover the Northwest Passage, nor did he find the legendary Island of California with its black Amazons. In the end his traveler’s tales were more solid and substantial than ethereal and fantastic. He helped to fill in knowledge about the West. For the first time, this expedition mapped the west coast of what would one day be California and the United States. His expedition also solidified Spanish claims to this area and eventually led to Spanish settlements. The land of California would flower in time to be a destination in vogue whether it was 49ers, the entertainers of Hollywood, or the hippies of the Summer of Love. The tales of what Cabrillo found pointed the way for others who sought their own dreams and destinies in the mythical and real land of California.

Today, Point Loma overlooking San Diego Bay is where the Cabrillo National Monument is located. San Diego is a beautiful city and I urge you to visit it if you have not done so. The weather there seems to be almost perfect every time I have been. Point Loma is also a beautiful spot overlooking the waves of the Pacific. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse stands at the top and guided ships into the bay from 1855-1891. You can spot seals, grey whales, and other maritime creatures in the waters and on the rocks below. I recommend it on your next trip West. Some traveler's tales endure.

Andy Thomas

Works used in preparation of this Blog:

An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguiez Cabrillo
, Cabrillo National Monument Foundation, San Diego, 1999.

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