The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2000, Volume 46, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.   Cabrillo National Monument Foundation Project Editor, James D. Nauman. San Diego: Cabrillo National Monument Foundation, 1999. [vi], 97 p. Illustrations, maps, notes. $8.95.

Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University, and author of the book in progress to be called “A Biblophile in the Borderlands: Henry R. Wagner and the Colonial Spanish West.”

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“The Age of Discovery” is a term that historians have long used to designate a period falling roughly from the early fifteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century when European seafarers had their first encounters with an array of non-European peoples. Whether employing the more traditional “Age of Discovery” or any of several alternate designations, this period was witness to several of the most important events in the five thousand years of recorded human history. Among these must be counted the Iberian explorations, conquests, and settlement of the Americas.

Exactly fifty years after a Genoese in the service of Castile first reached the outermost limits of what he believed was Asia, another European mariner who carried a Castilian commission ventured into unchartered waters. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (c. 1500-43) was, like Christopher Columbus, seeking a direct route to Asia. But unlike his predecessor who wished to establish this sea lane between Asia and Spain, Cabrillo hoped to forge this link between Asia and New Spain (Colonial Mexico). According to the conventional geographical wisdom of mid-sixteenth-century Europe, the Asian mainland, if not actually connected to the North American continent, was close to it.

On June 27, 1542, a little armada of no more than three ships sailed from the west coast Mexican port of Navidad under Cabrillo’s command. The explorer was the first European of record to touch Upper California’s coast when he sailed into San Diego Bay on 28 September, 1542. After plying the Pacific Coast perhaps as far north as the present California-Oregon border, the ships returned to Navidad on 14 April 1543. Castilian officials judged the expedition to be a dismal failure. Cabrillo had died in early January 1543 from injuries he sustained due to a fall. But more importantly from the perspective of the royal officers, the expedition had failed to achieve its principal objectives of reaching the Spice Islands and the Asian mainland. Quite understandably, the Real Audiencia (high court) of New Spain ordered an investigation of the expedition. The ensuing inquiries were to create the paper foundation on which An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo rests.

In 1543, the Real Audiencia instructed its notary, Juan Leon, to travel to Navidad and transcribe the oral testimonies of sailors who had participated in the voyage. At the time Leon was compiling his report, the navigator Andres de Urdaneta arrived at Navidad in his official capacity of visitador (inspector) to conduct his own investigation of the Cabrillo expedition. Urdaneta likely copied Leon’s report as well as drafting a greatly abridged account of the logs and charts made during the expedition. Urdaneta’s copy is a summary of the Leon report which itself was a condensation of several mariners’ testimonials. In spite of all of its apparent limitations, Urdaneta’s copy is of principal importance to historians because the written sources on which it was based — Leon’s report and the expedition’s logs and charts — have never been found. Located in the Archivo de las Indias (AGI) in Seville, the fifteen-folio Urdaneta account has been the basis of all published transcriptions and translations of what is popularly, albeit erroneously, known as “the Cabrillo log.”

The complete text of the 1543 Urdaneta manuscript was transcribed during the first part of the nineteenth century under the direction of Martin Fernandez de Navarrette for Madrid’s Deposito Hidrografico. The Fernandez de Navarrette transcription was then edited and published in Spanish in 1857 by Buckingham Smith to become the first Spanish language publication of the full 1543 text. Richard Stuart Evans translated Smith’s published transcription during the 1870s to produce in 1879 the first published English translation of Urdaneta’s full text.

The self-trained bibliographer and historian Henry Raup Wagner (1862-1957) utilized a photostat copy of the AGI’s Urdaneta manuscript to publish in 1929 the first full English language translation of an exact physical image — as opposed to a previously transcribed copy — of the original holograph. In his Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century (California Historical Society, 1929), Wagner provided not only a carefully edited and translated text (pages 72-93, 319-37) but also a photographic reproduction of his photostat of the original Urdaneta manuscript (pages 450-63). Working with this published facsimile, Thomas E. Case, Emeritus Professor of Spanish at San Diego State University, has developed in the volume under review the first published English translation of a photographic copy of the AGI’s Urdaneta manuscript since Wagner’s effort appeared in print now more than seventy years ago.

Professional historians seldom seek translations as their primary sources since one of the canons of historical scholarship demands that serious researchers should in most cases interrogate these sources in their original languages and pristine physical forms. Accordingly, Case’s translated text will not supersede Wagner’s facsimile as the preferred published text of the Urdaneta account for scholars. This statement is not, however, levied as a criticism of the present volume. The book was produced to serve a broad readership and not to accommodate solely the needs of a limited number of scholars. An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo must be assessed, then, as a work intended principally for a public audience. Even the most cursory comparison of the new translation (pages 49-87) with the Wagner facsimile will reveal how skillfully Case has crafted his text in a way that achieves accuracy without compromising fluidity. Cabrillo National Monument Superintendent Terri DiMattio has provided an historical overview of Cabrillo and his times (pages 1-34) that serves as a necessary context for interpreting the translated account. While embellished with photographs of sixteenth-century artifacts and a model of Cabrillo’s flagship (the San Salvador), DiMattio’s text is largely a distillation of Harry Kelsey’s erudite biography, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (Huntington Library, 1986). Still, DiMattio’s contribution achieves its pragmatic purpose of providing readers with a brief and lucid essay that effectively contextualizes Case’s deft translation.

The translated account is further enhanced by James D. Nauman’s written preface (pages 35-42) that essentially synthesizes Kelsey’s more extensive treatment of the evolution of the Urdaneta account and its publication history. The present volume also reproduces a useful chart (pages 46-7) that was developed by Clyde J. Lussier and first appeared in Cabrillo’s World, a publication issued in 1991 by the Cabrillo Historical Association (now the Cabrillo National Monument Foundation). Lussier’s chart gives a comprehensive listing of the names of locations appearing in the Urdaneta account together with the sometimes varying modern-day identifications of these sites that have been suggested by three prominent historians (Hubert Howe Bancroft, Herbert Eugene Bolton, and Henry Raup Wagner). Raymond G. Starr has written a historiographical essay (pages 89-90) on the recent scholarship pertaining to Cabrillo’s life and times that should serve many readers as a point of departure for further explorations of a variety of subjects including the controversy surrounding Cabrillo’s Iberian place of birth.

An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo promises to offer the public the pleasures of sharing in the excitement of first encounters. It is only fitting that this book has been issued by an organization that is quartered at the San Diego monument bearing the name of the first European explorer who sailed into Upper California’s waters more than four hundred and fifty years past.

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