The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1987, Volume 33, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Six Galleons for the King of Spain: Imperial Defense in the Early Seventeenth Century.

By Carla Rahn Phillips. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. Maps. Illustrations. Tables. Bibliography. Index. xiv + 318 Pages. $37.50.

Reviewed by Harry Kelsey, Chief Curator of History, Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County, author of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (1986).

A series of nautical inventories in the manuscript collections of the James Ford Bell Library of the University of Minnesota describe the equipment for six galleons constructed in the late 1620’s for the Spanish crown. Intended for use in the squadron guarding the fleets that sailed to and from the Indies, these ships were the product of Spanish labor and business enterprise and were important elements in the machinery that kept the Spanish empire operating during a period of mounting global conflict.

Using the construction of the ships as a starting point, Carla Phillips has given us glimpses of Spanish social structures, business procedures, and bureaucratic techniques that can only delight her fellow scholars. More than this, Professor Phillips has assembled enough information about mundane matters to enable us to understand the milieu in which most of these events took place.

For example, Martin de Arana, who contracted to build the ships, did so at considerable personal cost and continued to operate in this way over a period of years. At first inexplicable, his behavior seems completely reasonable, once we learn that Arana expected and received substantial royal favors for his children and other members of his family. Similarly, Roque Centeno reduced himself to absolute penury in equipping the fleet, then was rewarded by the sovereign with a new posting and back pay, plus “pensions, stipends and preferment” for his six children.

The crown often asked and frequently received more than its subjects could reasonably be expected to deliver, but perhaps there was no other choice. Built during the continuing battles of a Thirty Years War, the galleons have now become vehicles for studying Spanish imperial administration during a time of crisis. One or another of the six galleons served the crown in the Indies and in European waters for a dozen years and more, while Spain successfully fended off European rivals in most of the New World and evaded total disaster in Europe.

Nonetheless, the value of the book for San Diego historians lies not so much in the description of Spanish efforts to fight a global war as in the thorough and scholarly descriptions of ship design, finance, construction, crews, and shipboard life. The latter includes excellent materials on salaries, discipline, diet, and health. While all of the information may not apply directly to ships built and operated along the west coast of New Spain and in the Pacific, most of it does, including some excellent pages on scurvy and a surprising Spanish resistance to that disease.

Even more useful is the detailed study of hull design, derived partly from the Instrucción Nautica of Diego Garcia de Palacio, who lived in Guatemala in the later sixteenth century and understood the peculiarities of ship design on the west coast of New Spain. Moreover, the inventories of the six galleons, thoughtfully translated in Appendix A, can serve as a guide and outline for understanding the inventories of the ships built a century earlier by Hernán Cortés for the voyages of discovery to California.

Based entirely on firsthand accounts, this study by Carla Rahn Phillips is the best and most concise treatment of Spanish ship construction and operation for the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries. No one can expect to understand these ships without first consulting Six Galleons.