The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1992, Volume 38, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Cabrillo: First European Explorer of the California Coast.
By Nancy Lemke. San Luis Obispo: EZ Nature Books, 1991. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 125 pages. $8.95 paper.

Reviewed by Craig Arnold, Librarian, San Diego Maritime Museum. Author of Euterpe: Diaries, Letters & Logs of the Star of India as a British Immigrant Ship, and of the forthcoming Medea: The Classic Steam Yacht.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo remains a figure of mystery. The first European explorer of Alta California has long been a man cloaked in shadow, despite the effort of numerous scholars to shine a lantern his way. The date and place of his birth are not known, and even his nationality is a subject of dispute. As author Nancy Lemke puts it, “The unknowns about his life often outweigh the knowns.”

Yet the greatness of Cabrillo’s achievement in the final year of his life (1562-43) cannot be denied. Sailing from New Spain into the sea of the “Northern Mystery,” with little more to guide him than wild legends about an island of Amazons waving gold spears, it is remarkable that Cabrillo got as far as he did.

“Gold,” of course, was the key word in the legend–the stuff that sent two generations of conquistadores scrambling across two continents. Indeed, as Samuel Eliot Morison says in Admiral of the Ocean Sea, if Columbus had not found traces of gold in Hispaniola on his first voyage, it is doubtful that the Spanish crown would have backed a return trip.

Cabrillo was no saint, as author Lemke makes clear. As a crossbowman in Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs, he would hardly fit anyone’s wish for a “politically correct” explorer. But if he shared some of the crueler characteristics of his fellow conquistadors, he also had their rough and ready willingness to plunge into the dark unknown, to bear physical hardship, and to make any sacrifice to attain the desired object.

Cabrillo likewise merits respect as a first-rate shipbuilder. Laboring under primitive conditions in a shipyard on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, he built a fine galleon, San Salvador, and two smaller vessels with which to go exploring. The ships were hewn out of the native woods, principally mahogany and Mexican cedar, with only their ironwork brought from Spain.

After a useful sketch of Cabrillo’s early life and military career (insofar as it is known), Lemke devotes most of the latter half of her book to his one great voyage of discovery, including the preparations and aftermath. A voyage of exploration in the sixteenth century usually required years to get ready. This was all the more true if, as in Cabrillo’s case, the expedition would be launched from colonial territory, and thus many things needed on the voyage had first to be hauled out from Spain–at great labor, expense, and risk.

Once at sea, problems multiplied. Food and water might go bad, ships sprang leaks, storms damaged rigging, and sailors long at sea grew sullen and mutinous. One of the most common problems was simply finding out where you were. Navigation was anything but an exact science in Cabrillo’s time, and most explorers depended heavily on dead reckoning. Latitude could be roughly told using astrolabe, quadrant, and tables of ephemeris, but longitude remained pure guesswork until the invention of the chronometer in the 1700s. Charts for mariners like Cabrillo ended where the known coastline ended–with happy hordes of monsters and mermaids drawn in beyond. Even if the hardy explorer chose to follow a coast, as Cabrillo did his best to do, there were no established landmarks on a shore no European had ever seen. It is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend that in the age of Columbus and Cabrillo, exploration meant literally “sailing off the world”–at least the known part.

Since the tendency of most human beings is to cling to what is safe and known, sailing into the outer darkness of the unknown requires a special breed. This is true whether we speak of a sixteenth century mariner in his caravel, or a twentieth century astronaut in his spacecraft. Not every person has this capacity; Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo did. Nancy Lemke has done a fine job of sketching him