The Journal of San Diego History
April 1966, Volume 12, Number 2
Elvira L. Wittenberg, Editor
Tim MacNeil, Asst. Editor

By James R. Moriarty and Mary S. Keistman
University of California at San Diego

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Students of California history and most particularly those who concentrate their research efforts on San Diego have tended to emphasize the story of the founding of the first in the series of California’s historic missions. This is readily understandable as the personality of Father Serra tends to loom so large as to obscure most of the other characters in the drama. As a consequence of this, however, other vital elements of historic significance tend to be somewhat overlooked.

Nearly two hundred years before the San Diego Mission was established, a series of events took place which were in effect to be the motivating factors in bringing about the colonization of Alta California and subsequently the founding of the San Diego Mission. If for some reason the Spanish had been unsuccessful in establishing the route of the Manila Galleon there would have been no need to find port facilities and situate presidios to guard them. The history of the American southwest especially along the northwest coast of California would have been considerably different. The letters discussed in this paper mark the point of origin for the eventual colonization of California and as a consequence founding of the City of San Diego. The primary purpose for Gaspar de Portola’s expedition into Alta California was to discover and occupy coastal areas where there were good ports and fresh water as well as to establish facilities to succor the China ships after their hazardous journey across the Pacific. These settlements were also to discourage any efforts by other nations who might attempt their own colonization of the coast. Finally, the Franciscans who went along were to care for the spiritual needs of the soldiers and assist in pacifying the inhabitants and through conversion save their souls and lead them materially into European culture. The formation of the missions therefore was a by-product of Spanish Royal interests.

October, 1964 marked the 400th anniversary of the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean from West to East. This event today would appear to be an undertaking of little importance, however, it ranks in the history of the Western Hemisphere with the conquest of Mexico and the founding of Plymouth by the Pilgrims. Strangely enough, it is little discussed or remembered in our history books. Indeed, the courageous individuals who were responsible for this navigation are quite unknown.

The ramifications of a West to East journey from the “islands of spice” (the Moluccas and Philippines) to the New World were far reaching enough to eventually change and modify the existing trade routes of the world. Portugal’s long control of Asian trade was broken and other European countries moved in to establish the great trade empires which lasted until the first part of this century.

In the light of the events which followed Christopher Columbus’ great discoveries, the main purpose for his voyage tends to be forgotten. Thirty years after the discovery of America Portugal had established an almost complete monopoly on the sea routes to the Orient. The foundation for the problems between Spain and Portugal in the Orient have their beginnings on a day in 1498 when the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, turned the Cape of Good Hope on his port side and on heading north northeast sailed into the vast Indian Ocean.

Eleven years later the Portuguese General, Alfonso de Albuquerque, attacked and conquered the city of Malacca and in the following year a Portuguese trading post was established in the Moluccas at Ternate. Having taken the port city of Goa earlier, Albuquerque returned to it and proceeded to consolidate his gains by making treaties among the rulers of the Malay nations. The monopoly was established and the countries of Spain, England, France and the lowlands were forced to pay the Portuguese price for oriental merchandise. Free trade on the high seas was unknown and Portuguese naval squadrons patrolled the Cape of Good Hope-Indian Ocean route. The Portuguese had concluded by 1515 treaties with all the rulers of major commercial ports along the coasts of India and the Moluccas. Following their normal policies of colonization, attention was paid only to port cities and the control of narrow bands of land surrounding them. By paying the rulers and kinglets of these regions a fair percentage of the trade profits, they were able to maintain friendly and profitable relations with the inhabitants. In addition, through these treaties, they were able to deny to other European nations all of the normal facilities of commerce in the aforementioned areas. Occasionally an incident would occur where the ruler of one of these ports or territories proved reluctant to accept Portuguese conditions. At this time naval units would reduce the port or the area desired and this destruction would be followed up by occupation in force. In 1512, Albuquerque captured Goa and later directed the punitive expedition which took Malacca, thereby occupying for Portugal one of the most important trade ports and sea routes in Asia.

Christopher Columbus’ dream of a short, safe route to the Orient was quickly forgotten with the discovery of America, and the idea was put aside by the Spanish Crown for nearly five decades while the wealth of the Inca and Aztec cultures filled the coffers of the treasury. Even the wealth of two nations, however, was insufficient to satisfy the demands of Charles V and his son, Philip II. Charles V was an empire builder. He was a stubborn and suspicious ruler who as a consequence distrusted even his wisest and most loyal counselors. Any advice or counsel from them had to be as a group. Individually he trusted no one and constantly played one court officer against another for his favor. Through this method he was able to maintain absolute control of all governmental decisions. Near the end of his long reign, he made his son Philip regent and trained him in his methods of statesmanship. Abdicating in Philip’s favor in 1556, he retired to his beloved Extremadura to finish his life in the monastery at Yuste. Charles V lived two years after his abdication. His death marks the end of the Golden Period of Spanish discovery.

Ascending to the throne in 1556 at the age of twenty-nine, Philip inherited a disorganized empire, portions of which were located in areas of the New World thousands of miles from Spain. Spanish policy and intrusion into various parts of Europe, such as in the low lands and Italy, had caused serious inflation at home and chaotic economic and religious conditions throughout Europe for nearly fifty years. His father, Charles V, had been a great soldier but was a failure as an administrator. Philip inherited a bankrupt treasury whose income never was sufficient to satisfy the demands made on it. Some time previous to September 1559, he developed a plan to augment his income. Through a series of highly secret communications he began to revive interest in attempting to establish a westward route to the Indies across the Pacific.

The realm was searched for by men who had seen service in expeditions to the Philippines and the Moluccas. Information was collected and studied. Philip ordered his Viceroy in New Spain (Don Luis de Velasco) to make an inquiry of various people in his jurisdiction about the feasibility of a trade route across the Pacific. Sometime thereafter the Viceroy submitted a written report affirming the possibility of such a route and named some men who had returned from the Philippines in 1527. This was after the agreement between Spain and Portugal as to the placement of the line of Demarcation. One of the names mentioned was that of Fray Andres de Urdaneta. Apparently Father Urdaneta had made a personal report to Philip in 1527 or 1528 when he was regent. The King therefore knew something about Father Urdaneta’s abilities and character beforehand. When all of the’ information had been studied, Philip was satisfied that a new route to Asia was possible across the Pacific. He informed his Viceroy in New Spain of his plans. After some further exchange of communications a commission was sent to Don Luis. This commission ordered the Viceroy to prepare, in the King’s name, an expedition that would undertake a crossing of the Pacific to the Philippine Islands. On the journey, an attempt to explore for new land was to be made. The primary order upon arrival, however, was to determine if a ship could return to New Spain from the Philippines. Several attempts had been made in the past but all had failed. This time the attempt was to be made by the best informed seamen and one of the great navigators of the time, Fray Andres de Urdaneta.

It became apparent, particularly in the letters of Philip to Father Urdaneta, that one of the main problems confronting such an expedition was the development of some rationalization that would allow the Spanish Crown to circumvent the Line of Demarcation Agreement with Portugal. The history of the Line of Demarcation has its beginnings shortly after Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Both Portugal and Spain began making claims to vast sections of the world’s surface, much of which had yet to be mapped and explored. Pope Alexander VI, on May 4, 1493, issued a papal bull stating that a line running due north and south 100 leagues west of the Azores should divide the lands of Spain and Portugal.

All lands discovered west of this line belonged to Spain, provided such lands had not been in the actual possession of a Christian king or prince up to the preceding Christmas. Portugal had the same conditions east of the Demarcation Line. On June 7 of the following year the 100 league line was replaced by a new line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. (Portugal had discovered she would not have a share in South America with the first line.) Spain was content with this agreement. The question of the Demarcation Line in the Pacific was as yet unsettled and the Spanish Crown undoubtedly felt that a concession now would place them in a good position to bargain for the as yet unknown areas in the East Indies. The new agreement was ratified by both Spain and Portugal, and Pope Julius II issued a papal bull in 1506 making the new line. The disputes, however, continued shortly after the Portuguese realized that the new line of Demarcation gave them only the eastern and part of the central portion of Brazil and nothing else in the New World. The chief dispute was to develop somewhat later over who owned the Moluccas and the Philippines. This was settled at the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529 and the Spanish as a consequence were forced to evacuate the Philippines.

The treaty was put in force on April 22, 1529, and it fixed the East Indies Line of Demarcation 297.5 leagues east of the Moluccas. Spain sold for a stated sum whatever rights she claimed in the Spice Islands and agreed not to colonize or “trade there in any manner whatsoever.” The Spanish said nothing about the line in the New World. It is plain, however, that this new line passing from pole to pole around the world would have excluded the Portuguese from the New World. However, they retained their position in Brazil. This variance of 8 to 9 degrees in the Portuguese favor was one of the arguments that Philip II used in defense of his colonizing the Philippines.

A careful examination of Father Urdaneta’s letter of May 28, 1560, allows us to place fairly accurately the Lines of Demarcation as he understood their location from his previous experiences as well as his own computations. The agreement at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494 placed the West Indies Demarcation Line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Measuring this distance from the Island of Santo Antao (the westernmost of the group) the line would fall on 46′ west longitude. This is computed from Father Urdaneta’s measure of 17.5 leagues to a degree, which amounts to a distance of 21.1 degrees west of Santo Antao. In theory this North-South passing through both poles would divide the World in half. The opposite line of longitude would become the Demarcation Line for the East Indies. This was not mentioned in the agreement, and after Magellan’s Voyage the Portuguese accused the Spanish of having broken the Treaty of Tordesillas. The Spanish claimed that the Moluccas were not in Portuguese territory. Between 1524 and 1529 attempts to settle this by both parties failed. Finally, on April 22, 1529, a treaty was negotiated at Saragossa. This treaty fixed the Demarcation Line for the East Indies at 297.5 leagues east of the Moluccas. Measuring from the westernmost tip of New Guinea 297.5 leagues, or 16.4 degrees, places the line at 147 degrees East longitude. This line runs through the city of Tounsville on the northeast coast of Australia.

Philip’s letters leave no doubt that he intended to establish a Spanish trade center in the Philippines. By discovering a safe route across the Pacific to and from the islands, large quantities of merchandise could be brought to New Spain and transhipped to Spain. Once the goods arrived in a New World port they could be carried across the Isthmus to the Atlantic where well-armed Spanish flotillas could convey them the rest of the way.

Miguel de Legaspi was chosen as leader of the expedition. He sailed with four ships and some 300 men. With this small army he secured the Philippines for Spain and founded the city of Manila.

Father Urdaneta under orders returned to the New World with the ship San Pedro, navigating the return route and thus founding the treasure road of the Manila Galleons. He reported his discovery to Philip in person, was rewarded, and returned to his Mexican Monastery where he died in 1568.

The following letters from Philip II, Father Urdaneta and Don Luis de Velasco are translated into English, we believe, for the first time. The original documents are from Mss. Col. Nav., Vol. XVIII, folios 11v, l2v, 14v. We have tried to retain the Spanish phrasing as much as possible in order that the spirit of the time and the personality of the letter-writers can be most clearly viewed.


The King:

To Don Luis de Velasco our Viceroy of the New Spain and President of the Royal Audience which in her resides.

We have seen what you have written us with respect to the commission and orders which we have sent you to make new discoveries by sea. Also the commentaries which were given by the persons which you brought together for this purpose with respect to the type of ships, the types which should be sent, how many, of what size, and of what quality of personnel and provisions should be taken, and what manner of route they should make. We have also received the copy of the Instruction which we sent you with the notes which you put on the margin of each chapter and having completely understood it all, because of the confidence which we have in your person, we have determined to order you, as the person who best comprehends the subject, to prepare and provide for the expedition as you see fit. This is to be done so that it will be most convenient to the service of the God our Lord and our own service and with the least cost to our purse that is possible. Thus we order you by virtue of the commission that we are sending you to make these said discoveries by sea.

Send two ships of the size and type and with the number of people that you will consider necessary. These you will send to the discovery of the islands of the Setting Sun towards the Malucus and you will order them that they are to do this according to the Instruction which we have sent you and you will make provisions that they procure and try to bring back some types of spices for us to taste and sample. They should return by way of New Spain. This done you will order them with whatever is to be done so that they understand that the return is to be assured and how much is to be spent on it. You will give instructions to the people who you are sending that in no manner are they to enter in the islands among the islands of the Malucus because we do not wish to run counter to our agreement with the most serene King of Portugal. Only on the other islands which are nearby to these, such as the Philippines and others, which are outside of the Line of Demarcation within our side and which they say also contains spices. The memo which you sent us of the itinerary trade materials and other things, which you thought we should send from here so that the ships which you are sending on this said discovery should be prepared, we have noted. In order that the trip there should be safe, as well as the return, so that they (the expedition) who do not wish to offend anybody, will be able to defend themselves on the oceans and on the land from whosoever wishes to offend them. They should make proper use of the trade materials that they are taking, we are sending someone to be in charge of these things. We have talked it all over and listened to Captain Juan Pablo de Carrion of whom you wrote us, we therefore shall give him charge of this business. He thought we should send everything that was contained in the memo that you sent us. It is enclosed with this letter signed by our secretary. We have sent to our officials of the house of business in Seville that they should send everything as soon as possible to you and they will comply with everything in accordance with what has been written.

The letter that is addressed to Fray Andres de Urdaneta of the order of St. Augustine, is enclosed because he is there in Mexico City. We have ordered him that he should go with the ships because of the experience that he has had with the things of those Islands of the Spices because of having stayed in them. I am asking you to send that letter and another one for his Provincial requesting that he order that he should go. Do your best to see that these things are accomplished. We are also sending you those letters that you requested in white (these are blank orders signed by the King-the name of a person the Viceroy wanted could be filled in later) for the people who you choose towards the effect you will tell them and will give them the order. This is to be done so that they will achieve the ends which we want. As you understand the most important thing is that they be given instruction that they do not remain (in the Islands) and spend time trafficking with the natives but instead that they should return directly to New Spain. The most important part of this journey to our mind is to know the return route because we already know the way there and it doesn’t take very long. You will tell us what of this is done.

In businesses such as this there is no reason to divulge to too many persons. We have understood that you have informed quite a few (people) as you had our authority to make any discoveries (of the business) you desired. However, from now on you will understand, that you will be far more circumspect in similar occasions because from these (former divulgences) have come inconveniences.

24th of September 1559

I the King


The King:

To the devout Father Fray Andres de Urdaneta, of the order of St. Augustine.

I have been informed that when you were a layman you were with the army of Loaysa and you went through the Straits of Magellan to the Spice Islands, where you stayed eight years in our service. Now we have charged Don Luis de Velasco our Viceroy of New Spain, to send two ships for the discovery of the islands of the Setting Sun, towards the Malacus, and we have ordered what they are to do, in accordance with the Instruction which we have sent.

Because of the great knowledge, that it is said that you have, of the things of that land and the comprehension of how you understand well, the navigation of them, and the fact that you are an astronomer, it would be of great help if you would go with these ships not only with regards to this said navigation but for the service of Our Lord and your King.

I request and order that you go on these ships and do for the Viceroy whatever he orders that besides the service that you will do the Lord you will do me a great service, I will take account of this so that you should receive mercy at the proper time.

The 24th of September 1559

I the King


Your Sacred Catholic and Royal Majesty.

In the beginning of May of the present year of sixty I received the order of your Royal Majesty made in Valladolid on the 24th of September of the past year of 59 in which it’s requested to send me on the ships that Don Luis de Velasco, Viceroy of this New Spain by orders of your Majesty (is) sending to the islands of the Setting Sun. Which order I obeyed like any order of my King and my Lord, whom I have always served, I kiss the royal feet and hands of your Royal Majesty for the mercy and favor extended me to serve as his chaplain and serf. The information they have given your Royal Majesty that I went on the journey that the Commander Fray Garcia de Loaysa made in the service of your Majesty towards the islands of the Malucus, this is true. I did go in this journey on the year (1525) in which I spent eleven years until I returned to Spain, where in Valladolid in the year 1536 1 gave to your royal person account and relation of what had occurred in that journey. The eight years of which I stayed in the seat of the Islands of the Maluca and the regional area, serving Your Majesty as a soldier and as Captain, as in charge of his royal estate, until as such a time as a Royal Seal was sent to us telling us to leave the land free for the Captains of the most serene King of Portugal. Having returned from the Spice Islands, until the year 1552 when our Lord God was served calling me to the state of religion in which now I live, I occupied myself in service of Your Majesty most of this time in New Spain, where through Don Antonio de Mendoza, Viceroy of this land, I was given charges of quality, such as in things of war when they were offered, also in times of peace. Also afterwards, when I was in the religious service, I have been offered dealings of importance for the service of Your Majesty in that sometimes your Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco has occupied me. Now as soon as I received the orders of Your Majesty, through the notice of the Father Fray Agustin de Coruna, Provincial of the Order of our Father St. Augustine in this New Spain, I and he and the whole Order with the great willingness and affection that we all have to the service of Your Majesty, are obeying you and my mandate. The Provincial ordered me to prepare myself to make this trip with three other religious members. Under the circumstances, which according to my age that is past 52, and the failing health which I have been suffering, and the many works which I have done from my youth past, it would be necessary to spend what little is left of my life in solitude; but considering the great zeal of Your Majesty for anything that concerns the service of our Lord our God and the propagation of his Catholic faith I have decided in favor of the travails of the journey.

Purely putting confidence in the divine help throughout which in his mercy I hope that your divine Majesty and Your Royal Person can. be served very well. The Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco has communicated the mandate from Your Royal Majesty concerning the navigation the orders to make towards the west. I discussed with him what appeared to me was convenient to the service of our Lord and of Your Majesty with respect to this business. His Honor has thought that Your Majesty would best be served if I were to give my account to Your Royal Person of this and thus along with this letter goes my opinion on the subject. In order that Your Majesty seeing this will be able to decide which is better for his service, Your Royal Majesty, I pray receive my willingness to serve, as I serve mainly, with the desire to ascertain the service of our Lord God and of Your Majesty. Whose Royal person and large estates may our Lord care for and conserve, augmenting with many, greater new realms and land holdings, and later to take him, raise him to the glory, a celestial glory, so that he may enjoy his reign for all eternity for which he was created.

28th of May of 1560

Sacred Catholic and Royal Majesty, I kiss your feet
and hands. Your most humble chaplain and least servant,

Fray Andres de Urdaneta.



Your Sacred Catholic and Royal Majesty.

Because it appears that there possibly could be an inconvenience or a scruple in having the navigation that Your Majesty orders made towards the west from this New Spain, the best phrasing of the order is that they should go directly in search of the Philippine Islands. This phrasing is for the same reason that Your Majesty expresses in the mandate which he sent, which is that (the expedition) should not enter in the Maluca because there should be no gesture made which would contradict the agreement which His Majesty has taken with the Most Serene King of Portugal. While it is manifest and it is very clear, that the Philippine Islands not only are within the edges of the agreement but that the point which sticks on the said island towards the east is on the meridian of the Islands of the Maluca, and the major part of the said island is more to the west of the meridian of the Maluca. The seat and object of the capitulation, with respect to the pledge, is that from the Islands of the Maluca towards the east on 17o measuring them on the equanotial (equator) which are 297 leagues and one half which more of less makes 17 leagues and a half each degree. There should be a line drawn which would go from pole to pole, and which to the west of this line of this semi-circle none of the armies of Your Majesty nor his vassals may enter nor inhabit. Nor (can they) make treaties nor barter, not until such a time as this sale or agreement has been undone. Because, as I have said, the said Philippine Island is not only within the Line of Demarcation, but even the major part of her was more to the west of the meridian of the same islands of the Maluca. For this reason it appears that it would be inconvenient in sending, Your Majesty, the said ships and people were they to go to the Philippine Islands, without showing any legitimate or pious reason for this. It appears that Your Majesty would be better served were he to order, that from this New Spain, should go two galleons and one patax which would be necessary to make the trip a discovery for the sea of the west from New Spain. Your Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco appears to think that we should rake the ocean until we reach the edges of the demarcation which is already made with the Serene King of Portugal. That is to say until we reach the line that goes from pole to pole more to the orient of the islands of the Malucas 297 leagues and a half. Your Royal Majesty (now has) no information of the lands and islands and people that lay within your demarcation, therefore by discovering what there is, Your Majesty may provide and send what is most convenient for the service of our Lord God and to him and to the good of the naturals of the country which (will) have been discovered. Besides this order, it is possible, it would be appropriate and very pious for Your Majesty to order that since I have been informed that in the Philippine Islands and in other islands near by to her there were lost a few Spaniards, vassals of Your Majesty, who were in those parts with the Armada of Loaysa which left Spain in the year 1525. There are some survivors from the ships sent by the Marques del Valle (Hernan Cortez) from New Spain in 1527 (this was the Saavedra Expedition). Also there are some who were sent by the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza from New Spain in 1542 (the Villalobos Expedition). In addition, there are few others that were lost on a ship from the same Marques del Valle which were coming from Peru to New Spain. They lost their route in bad weather and they evidently were lost on the archipelago (of the Philippines). Now Your Majesty has been informed that there are some Spaniards which have been lost in some of these ships and they are now captives and imprisoned among the infidels of the said Philippine Island. Your Majesty is (best) served through the service of our Lord and for doing good and mercy and being merciful to his subjects and vassals and being compassionate of them that these said ships that are going to discover should reach the Philippine Islands where the said Spaniards are being kept captives. When the ships anchor at these islands they should know (question) the native Indians (about) whether there are Spaniards on their island and the neighboring islands in order that knowing what, who, and where they are they can buy them, or purchase them, or trade them, also their sons if they have any, so that their souls should not be lost. In order to buy them thus, take enough merchandise (of the kind) that they should be things that are wanted by those Indians in those islands. Thus purchased or recovered, these New Spaniards, and their fathers taken from captivity they should be returned to New Spain. This should be done when it appears to them convenient to make this trip back without going to the Malucas, and without occupying themselves in treaties or merchandise, except buying a few things that would be worthy of seeing or showing, or the foods and any other things that are necessary for their navigation. In order to make this navigation Your Majesty will be (best) served because he will search for and send the best pilots that are available, also persons who can speak the language of the natives will go on the journey so that they may bring (report) the most exact story possible and whatever is newly discovered such as the longitude and the route that there is from New Spain to the said Philippine Island. In addition (they should report on) the regions surrounding it in order that it is understood up to where the 180o of longitude of the demarcation of the line.

Therefore it appears that not only is there a just reason for approaching the Philippine Islands in search of said vassals to put them in liberty and take them out of their captivity in which they are, but it appears that there is an obligation to do this because they were lost going in service of Your Royal Majesty. Besides this the service that we will do our Lord God and the great mercy to those in taking them from the infidels, it is possible to profit much from the tongue which they will have learned and notices which they will have noted that Your Royal Majesty may be well served.

Fray Andres de Urdaneta


The King:

To Fray Andres de Urdaneta of the Order of St. Augustine.

I have seen your letter of the 28th of May of the year past 1560 and by it I understand your offer that you will prepare to go to the islands of the west on the ships of Don Luis de Velasco our Viceroy on this land. Through our mandate he is directing the expedition in compliance with the things that you have suggested to us. I appreciate much your willingness with which you have offered to make the journey. Understanding (that you are) mostly in service of our Lord our God and then in ours. I will order that a record be kept so that you shall receive the mercies (masses) that should be offered in the proper places.

I charge you in according with your offer to make the journey and in it to do what your religion, your kindness, and confidence suggests but in what pertains to the appearances that you wrote about I have sent them to the Viceroy for him to dispose of appropriately as it is most convenient and conforms with what has been ordered.

From Valladolid 4th of March 1561

I the King


The authors wish to thank Mr. F. R. Holland of the Federal Park Service for assistance with the research material, Mrs. Dorothy Tuthill, Mrs. Margaret Miller, Mrs. Phyrne Russel, and Mrs. Norma Moriarty for manuscript preparation. Special thanks to William C. Crocker and Glen Trotter of U.C.S.D. for the fine illustrations.

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[This electronic issue of the Journal was scanned and proofread by Cassius Zedaker.]