The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER THREE: The Story of Cabrillo

Who was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo?

History books generally dismiss the discoverer of California as a man of mystery, who appeared on the world scene for a few brief months, and then died and was buried in an unknown grave on San Miguel Island off the coast of Southern California. But the mists of time slowly are being dissipated by research and the belated discovery of old Spanish documents in Spain and Central America.

Cabrillo’s discovery of California, by the entering of San Diego bay on Sept. 28, 1542, was, historically speaking, the climax of a career of a seaman-soldier who participated in the cruel conquest of Mexico and much of Central America, helped found the first capital of Guatemala, raised a family, and then supervised the building of a fleet of ships. Some of his vessels opened the way across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines, and others explored the long coast of both Californias.

He died a wealthy and distinguished man. But for hundreds of years history was to deprive his name of the full recognition it deserved. Even the names which he gave to his own discoveries were erased from the maps. His property was seized by jealous rivals and his family reduced to poverty. It is the familiar story of greed and neglect which so characterized Spain’s control of her empires in the new world.

The historic events in which he took part, supplemented by information in the old Spanish script on long-neglected documents, produce a portrait of a man cast in the hard mold of his times, courageous, loyal and religious, but often ruthless. He was a capable administrator and organizer, who placed duty above everything. His last order at death was that his ships were to go on, as he had planned, for the glory of God and Spain.

Much of what we now know about Cabrillo comes from two documents, a summary of the journal of his explorations, and what is called the Informacion of 1560. The original journal, or log, of his explorations up the coast, and of those who continued after his death, has never been found. A summary of it was discovered in the Archives of the Indies, in Seville, Spain, and published in 1857, though its contents certainly were known to 16th Century historians and cartographers. The Informacion of 1560 contains the pleadings of his son, also known as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, for the return of the estates seized just before his father’s death, and recites, point by point, the services of his father to the Spanish crown. The evidence presented by the son is corroborated by testimony from friends and witnesses who had knowledge of the events of the times.

The long hearings, which extended over many years, and which brought many bitter disappointments, were heard before the royal Audiencia of Guatemala, a court of last resort for the governing of Spain’s New World empires, and were addressed to the King of Spain and the Royal Council of the Indies. Copies of these hearings were found in the Archives of the Indies. The originals are in Guatemala, and have been largely overlooked. With them are the royal records of the grants of vast estates, or encomiendas, to Cabrillo in reward for his services. These documents can still be read. More are sure to be found.

The story of Cabrillo must start at Veracruz. Before that, we know nothing. Undoubtedly he was a Portuguese navigator, either in exile from his homeland or seeking new adventures. Although in Portuguese his name would be written Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho, he signed himself Juan Rodriguez, or “Juan Rodz.” Visconde de Lagoa, Portuguese historian, says the name Cabrillo or Cabrilho is unknown as a surname and probably indicates the town from which he came. There are many villages in Portugal called Cabril.

We do not know the age of Cabrillo at the time he arrived in America, but he probably was in his late twenties or early thirties. It was an age of young men, of restless adventurers. And twenty two years later he still was able to take part in a long and hazardous trip of exploration. There is reason to believe that he sailed with the Portuguese explorations of Africa and Asia, and perhaps to the coast of South America. The 16th Century Spanish historian, D. Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, commented on Cabrillo’s fleet of exploration that the Viceroy of Mexico “appointed for their captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese, a person very skilled in matters of the sea.” If not an exile from his country, Cabrillo could have chosen to throw his lot in with the Spanish expeditions, instead of those of his own country, as the Spanish ones largely were privately financed affairs with great possibilities of personal riches.

Cabrillo stepped ashore near Veracruz, Mexico, in 1520, a soldier in the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez, which was sent by an envious governor of Spanish Cuba to defeat and punish Hernan Cortes.

Veracruz today is Mexico’s major Atlantic port. In colonial times it was the gateway for the conquest of Mexico and the funnel through which the gold and silver of the Aztecs flowed back to Spain. Little remains to recall the past except the old coral and lime fort of San Juan de Ulua. Across the bay is the Isle of Sacrifice, where the Spaniards first noted the evidence of human sacrifices and got a glimpse of the terrors which were to lie ahead. It is a humid land, flat and sandy, smelling of the tropics.

Cortes landed on this coast in 1519, with the authority and backing of Gov. Diego Velazquez of Cuba, but soon went into business for himself. He got rid of his obligation to Velazquez by a simple maneuver. He laid out the first city of Veracruz. In the Roman tradition surviving in Spain, cities were the seats of power and authority. A cabildo or governing council was installed. It promptly revoked the authority which Velazquez had given to Corte’s in Cuba, and then thoughtfully handed Cortes its own grant of power on behalf of the King of Spain. Cortes was on his way. He had an army of about 500 men, along with a hundred seamen. As a precaution, he burned his fleet of ships off Veracruz. Now there was no turning back. Ahead of them, somewhere up in the mountain fastness, was the feared Moctezuma and the all-powerful and rich Aztec nation; behind them, an avenging governor.

Quickly overcoming opposition along the coast, and enlisting allies among Indian tribes which resented paying tribute to the hated Aztecs, Cortes advanced toward the Valley of Mexico and the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. From the high cold mountains he looked down upon an amazing sight: a vast, almost flat valley with six lakes and 30 white-plastered cities shimmering in the sun like silver. The soldiers were frightened and said, “We are tempting God if we let ourselves into that danger, so few of us in the midst of so many.”

On an island in the largest lake, Texcoco, was Tenochtitlan, the greatest and richest city of old America. It was the seat of power of Moctezuma and the Aztecs, a nation of perhaps 300,000 people. It was a kind of Venice of America, with traffic moving by canals and streets, and was connected with the mainland areas by three narrow causeways. The Aztecs originally were a small tribe which several hundred years before had drifted down from the north, some think from the American Southwest, to become the leading people of all Mexico.

The lakes have largely disappeared and Mexico City, one of the world’s big capitals, now stands on the site of Tenochtitlan. The Cathedral of Mexico City is built on the very location of the temple pyramid on which 20,000 Indians were said to have been offered as sacrifices in observance of its erection.

Cortes pushed into the valley. The story is well known. Moctezuma, vacillating and fearful, thought Cort6s must be the legendary white-skinned god Quetzalcoatl, who had promised to return from across the sea. Cortes proclaimed the authority of Spain, banned human sacrifices, destroyed the idols, cleaned the temples of blood, and looted the Aztec treasury. He maintained an uneasy domination with a handful of Spanish soldiers in a valley with a million and a half Indians.

It was at this moment in history that the obscure Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed with Narvaez. He was described later in old Spanish records variously as a navigator, crossbowman and horseman. He was probably all three. Now Cortes had to make a bold move. He left the Valley of Mexico with part of his army to face Narvaez on the coast. In Tenochtitlan he left one of his captains, the rash Pedro de Alvarado, who later was to become the most important person in the career of Cabrillo. Cortes surprised and easily defeated Narvaez’ forces, first weakening their ranks by bribery and promises of gold, land and women, then falling upon them at night. Cabrillo was swept up into Cortes’ reinforced army, which turned back toward Tenochtitlan to begin an almost incredible series of military operations.

Alvarado was in trouble. No sooner had Cortes left than the Aztecs received permission to stage a ceremonial dance. Alvarado, greedy for more loot and claiming he feared they were going to attack, fell on them and slaughtered hundreds of victims. Upon his return, Cortes realized that the uneasy peace was at an end and that he would have to withdraw his forces in a hurry. They were isolated on a small island, surrounded by superior forces, with the only avenues of retreat three narrow causeways to the mainland.

Cortes saw that the key to the domination of Tenochtitlan, and the destruction of Aztec power, lay in gaining control of the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. It was a question, strangely enough, of sea power – sea power in a valley of 2,000 square miles, 7,800 feet above sea level, and completely enclosed by mountain ranges. The necessity of gaining military control of the lakes, for the amphibious warfare that must be fought, was to bring the first historic recording of the name of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

One night will live long in Spanish memory. It is called the Sad Night, or Noche Triste. At midnight of June 30, 1520, Hernan Cortes began the withdrawal of his small force of about 1200 Spaniards and 4,000 Indian allies from the Aztec capital.

Cortes chose to retreat over the Tacuba causeway, a two-mile stretch breached at several places and only eight-horses wide. It was to take them four hours to go the two miles. Cortes sent as much of the Aztec treasure ahead as possible, and then called in his men and told them to help themselves to the rest. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who accompanied the conquistadores and later was to write the long and exciting narrative of the great adventure, remarked that it was Narvaez’ men who couldn’t resist the appeal of the riches and loaded themselves down with the treasure that was to carry most of them to their deaths.

The retreat began on a dark, cloudy and rainy night. Cortes and a large body of men went first. In the middle were the former soldiers of Narvaez. One of them was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Bringing up the rear was Pedro de Alvarado. A portable bridge was carried to close the breaches, but it was difficult to handle under the relentless attacks of thousands of Indians in canoes and crowded onto the narrow causeway. Cortes later was to write that “as there was water on both sides they could assail us with impunity, and fearlessly.”

Most of the Narvaez men never got over the first bridge. Weighted down by gold, they stumbled before their attackers, piling up in the breach so deeply that Alvarado’s men virtually crossed over their bodies. Bewildered and panicky, some Spaniards tried to turn back and were seized by the Indians and dragged off to the sacrificial altars. Those still on the causeway imagined they could hear the screams of their companions as they were stretched and cut open in horrible sacrificial deaths.

The survivors reached the city of Tacuba, on the mainland shore. Cortes is supposed to have leaned against a tree at the end of the causeway and wept for the loss of so many of his men. The old tree, now only a shell and said to be a thousand years old, still stands, guarded by a little iron fence, in the Mexican district of Tacuba. Nearer the center of the capital is a short stretch of boulevard named Puente de Alvarado, the bridge of Alvarado, on the site where so many men died.

In those four hours, and in the scattered attacks that followed their retreat around the lakes and back up through the mountains to friendly territory, Cortes lost 65 per cent of his Spanish soldiers, perhaps 800 men, in battle and on the sacrificial altars.

Protected and comforted by the Tlaxcalan Indians, and reinforced from Cuba and Jamaica, Cortes and his men nursed their wounds and gathered strength for the conquest ahead. First he must have a navy. He ordered the construction of thirteen thick-planked brigantines, each about 40 feet long, mounting cannons and carrying sail and a double row of oarsmen. [for more, see “Historiae Verdadera of Bernal Diaz del Castillo” under Translations]

“I remember the man who had charge of and went as captain was one Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who was a good soldier in the Mexican campaign, who later, as a resident of Guatemala, was a very honorable person, and was captain and admiral of thirteen ships in Pedro Alvarado’s behalf, and he served his majesty well in everything which presented itself to him, and died in the royal service.”

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had entered written history for the first time. Curiously, the sentence in the original narrative, now in the National Archives of Guatemala, later was penciled out, but it can still be read.

The brigantines were tested, then taken apart and carried section by section, under the protection of 40,000 Indians, to the Valley of Mexico. The ships were reassembled and the 40,000 men dug a canal along a small stream leading into Lake Texcoco. Cortes, meanwhile, gathered up an additional 50,000 Texcocoan Indians, and the great battle was ready to be joined.

It was amphibious warfare of the kind employed 400 years later by the United States Marines in the great Pacific islands landings. The battle for the city started on the last day of May, 1521. The 13 brigantines led waves of perhaps 16,000 native canoes. They mopped up along the shores, cut off the water approaches, gained control of the lakes, blockaded the city, and landed assault troops along the causeways. The cannons slowly battered down the walls of the city, its temples and palaces.

The battle lasted for 10 weeks. How many died nobody will ever know. Some authorities estimate at least 100,000 defenders died in the siege, 50,000 by starvation. On the day of Saint Hippolytus, August 13, 1521, the last of the city was destroyed. Bernal Diaz was to write of the once beautiful city that, “Of all these wonders that I beheld, today all is overthrown and lost, and nothing is left standing.”

What were Cabrillo’s thoughts as he stood in the ruins of the great empire? We do not know. There were to be no great prizes for him here. Being one of Narvaez’ men, he still had several years of warfare ahead before he could claim the full reward for his ordeals from the crown of Spain.

Cabrillo threw in his lot with the new expeditions of Pedro de Alvarado and Francisco de Orozco, which were to conquer southern Mexico and parts of Central America. These and other campaigns in that area were epics of hardships, cruelty and treachery. Rain forests, swamps, mountains, disease, and bitterly resisting natives sometimes were not as much to be feared as the intrigue and treachery of the rapacious Spaniards themselves. The captains often turned on each other as callously as they tore the golden rings from the noses of the natives and burned their chiefs at the stake.

Cabrillo was wounded again in southern Mexico, according to the records of his descendants, but recovered to fight his way through the waves of thousands of natives which beat against the advancing Spaniards.

Alvarado’s army of 120 horsemen, 300 infantrymen and 20,000 picked Indian allies climbed to the highlands of Guatemala, and found a country dotted with many towns, fields of maize and orchards, and cool streams. To the Spanish, it looked like a paradise. Between them and the final conquest of this rich land were the Quiche Indians, of Mayan linguistic stock, on whom Alvarado fell with treachery and cruelty until the waters of the Olintepec ran crimson and became known as Xequiqel, the River of Blood.

The main Quiche stronghold was the fortified city of Utatlan, which had been ruled by the same dynasty for 20 generations and was comparable to Aztec and Mayan cities in beauty and magnificence.

Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft describes it thus:

“In its center stood the royal palace, surrounded by the imposing residences of the nobles, and beyond, the humbler dwellings of the common people. The palace was one of the most magnificent structures of Central America. It was built of hewn stone of various colors, mosaic in appearance, and its colossal dimensions, and elegant and stately architectural form, excited mingled awe and admiration. Within the lofty portals, the quarters of the household guards, surrounding a spacious barrack yard, were first presented to view. Dusky warriors, lancers, and archers, clad in wildly picturesque garbs of dappled tiger-skins or sombre bear-hides, in brilliant plumes and polished arms, with silent tread measured the well paved court. In the principal apartments near at hand the various arms and paraphernalia of battle lay ready for immediate use, while on the walls hung hard-won trophies of war. Next lay the residence of the unmarried princes, and beyond this the palace proper, containing besides the apartments of the monarch the council-chamber, with the gorgeous throne canopied with costly tapestry of feather work of rare designs and wrought with cunning skill; also the royal treasury, the hall of justice, and the armory. Three separate suites of rooms, for morning, afternoon, and night, were each day occupied by the monarch, and all these more private apartments looked out upon delightful gardens, with trees, and flowers, and fruits, and in their midst menageries and aviaries, with rare and curious collections. Beyond lay the separate palaces of the monarch’s queens and concubines, with their baths, and gardens, and miniature lakes; and lastly the maidens’ college, in which were reared and educated the female offspring of royal blood. And all this was but one pile of buildings, the largest, it is true; but there were others of no mean pretensions, the residences of the nobles and of the wealthy trading class. Of a truth, Utatlan was a fine city, and a strong and noble one.”

But all this was coming to an end. The desperate Quiche Indians sought to lure Alvarado and his men into the city, to set it afire and bum them to death. As the Spanish entered, they noticed the. weakened bridges, the piles of firewood and the strange absence of all women and children. They withdrew in time, and in turn lured the Quiche King, Oxib Quich, and his leaders to the Spanish camp to talk of a truce, seized them and forced the stripping of the city of all its wealth. Then Alvarado hanged or burned his captives.

Aroused to a final stand, the Indians suffered a fearful defeat, and the vengeful Alvarado finally burned the city, destroyed all the crops, and branded and enslaved the captives. The campaign was of such brutality that Alvarado eventually was summoned to Spain for explanation and censure. But he returned to become captain general of a new Spanish colonial empire that stretched from southern Mexico to the northern border of present Panama. Not far from his right hand stood Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, now a captain of crossbowmen, and one-time navigator. The King of Spain at last was ready to recognize the services of a Portuguese adventurer. Cabrillo settled in Guatemala to collect his rewards.

In an old safe in a basement storeroom of the Municipal Building in Guatemala City is a faded record book, its pages frayed by centuries of handling or eaten by insects. It tells of the founding, in an Indian cornfield, of the first capital of Guatemala, Santiago de Guatemala, named in honor of the Apostle Santiago. The date was July 25,1524.

Each of the 101 founders signed his name in this book. The first to sign was “El Sr. Captain General,” who was Pedro de Alvarado. The 11th to sign was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. His scrawled personal signature, “Juan Rodz.,” can be read to this day. On the following May 6th, his signature appeared again as one of about fifty conquistadores formally applying for recognition as first citizens and residents of Guatemala.

In 1527, the capital was shifted to a new site, in a beautiful cool valley with plenty of wood and water, on the sloping arm of a dramatically perfect conical mountain towering 15,000 feet into the clouds. It was a beautiful but deadly spot. On the maps this site is now identified as Ciudad Vieja. It is about three miles from the present Antigua, the picturesque ruined colonial city, and about thirty miles from Guatemala City. It was laid out in the traditional Spanish manner, around a central plaza, with provisions for all necessary public buildings; the remainder of the land was to be divided among the citizens, present or future.

Cabrillo established a home, went to Spain and married Dona Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega, sister of a fellow conquistadore, evidently a pre-arranged marriage customary in that time, and returned to settle down and become a man of property and considerable influence. He had a number of children, who, ironically, were to live to see their father’s estates stripped away from them and to experience the cynical neglect of an ungrateful Spain.

With his brother-in-law, Cabrillo engaged in mining operations along two rivers, and built up wealth and income from the possession of encomiendas granted to him by Alvarado. The locations of these are identifiable on today’s maps of Guatemala. Probably the most important was at Coban, in central Guatemala, now the site of one of the country’s largest towns, which he held in partnership with his brother-in-law. The other encomiendas, as listed in the long legal hearings that followed his death, are designated as Tacuba, Jumaytepec and Jocatenango. He also was given the governorship of Xicalpa and Comitlan.

The encomiendas carried with them the “protection and use” of the Indians who were unfortunate enough to live in the villages or on the farms included in the grants. This generally amounted to virtual slavery. Many of the Indian tribes proved so uncooperative that the new life of the landed gentry occasionally had to be interrupted by calls to suppress rebellions. The Spanish crown frowned on slavery and the harsh treatment of the Indians, and missionaries began to appear in the colonies in large numbers, attempting to alleviate their condition and to bring them to Christianity. These missionaries also began to erect the magnificent churches which have withstood the ravages of war and earthquake.

As time went on, Alvarado more and more called on the ability and loyalty of Cabrillo. Cabrillo engaged in shipbuilding activities as well as farming and mining, in his own behalf and that of Alvarado. At one time he planned to sell horses and mules in Peru, but his vessel, the San Antonio, was requisitioned by Alvarado for some venture of his own and returned in a rotted condition.

Alvarado began to see himself as a great explorer by land and sea, perhaps to rival or excel the great Cortes himself. The events that were to lead to the discovery of California and the untimely death of Cabrillo began to shape up.