The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1987, Volume 33, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Reviews Editor

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo

By Harry Kelsey. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1986. Bibliography. Maps and Illustrations. Index. 261 pages. $25.00.

Reviewed by Warren A. Beck, Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton, and co-author of California: A History of the Golden State and A Historical Atlas of California.

Biography? This is a biography! The author, who is chief curator of history at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, has written what will stand as the definitive biography of Cabrillo for many years. This is a study based upon facts carefully gathered and made use of in such a way that the reader can really know the subject. One of the first things a reviewer does is look at an author’s sources. In this case Kelsey has used all of the voluminous printed material available on Cabrillo and about Spain’s conquest of the West Indies, Mexico and Central America. More importantly, this biographer has worked extensively among the documents to be found in the archives of Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, and the United States, and even the Netherlands. Furthermore, after examining all of this valuable material with meticulous care, when the author still lacked documentation, he has used scholarly deduction wisely to make his case.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo has been something of a shadowy figure in the history of California-usually bursting upon the scene to lead the first maritime exploration of the coast. There have been many questions about his nationality, his early career, the exact route of his explorations along the California coast, and the details of his death. This work answers all of them and provides the readers with everything they wanted to know about Cabrillo-and much more.

The author proves conclusively that Cabrillo was Spanish and not Portuguese, as has been usually claimed. Kelsey, along with historians Maurice Holmes and W. Michael Mathes, shows that there is no material on anyone named Cabrillo in the Lisbon Archives and even quotes a Portuguese historian that “the name Cabrillo is not known in Portugal.” (6). This biographer attributes the myth of Cabrillo’s Portuguese birth to a statement by the early Spanish chronicler, Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, which most historians have accepted without question.

In the past, laborers in Clio’s vineyard have concentrated upon Cabrillo’s voyage along the California coast in 1542-1543. This work details the subject’s background and shows that he was one of Panfilo de Narvaez’s crossbowmen in Cuba in 1510 or 1511. From there he was with Cortes in the conquest of Mexico and was a lieutenant of Pedro de Alvarado aiding the Spanish settlement of Central America. Rewarded for his services with extensive land grants, Cabrillo became one of the richest men in Guatemala. His wealth came from his land, gold mines, shipbuilding, and, above all, mercantile ventures.

In addition to furnishing hitherto missing details of Cabrillo’s life, this book has a wealth of material on many aspects of the Spanish conquests of the New World. The story of the conquistador as businessman is well told; there is a great deal on the problems mariners of the day faced along with the hazards of life aboard the ships of the day. One tidbit which this reviewer was fascinated by was the discussion of the weather and the description of the snow around Monterey Bay.

The final chapter, “Looking for Cabrillo,” details the historiography surrounding the author’s work and reads like a good detective story. In other words, this is a biography anyone interested in early California or Spanish colonial history must have. Naturally, this reviewer did find shortcomings in this fine work but the only one worthy of mention is the lack of maps of colonial Guatemala and the explorations along the California coast.