Shipwrecked off Guam

On 15 August 1568 the Spanish galleon San Pablo, anchored off the southwest coast of Guam, was hit by a sudden violent storm, blown onto a nearby coast and battered into a wreck, stranding 132 men from Miguel López de Legazpi’s embryonic Philippine colony.

The castaways’ three-month sojourn on Guam led to intensive interaction with the Chamorro people, alternating between periods of trade and cooperation, and confrontation and violence.  The Spanish mariners, who may have built a fortified camp on Cocos Island, a small sandy island off the southern coast of Guam, during their stay, converted the galleon’s boat into a large bark to return to the Philippines.

First galleon lost on Guam

The San Pablo, a 400-ton prototypical “Manila Galleon” that was a mainstay of Legazpi’s 1565 expedition to the Philippines, was the first recorded Spanish shipwreck in the Mariana Islands, as well as the first of more than forty galleons lost in the 250-year history of Spain’s trans-Pacific trading line, many carrying some of the richest cargoes ever transported on the high seas.

The galleon was constructed in the port of La Navidad on the Pacific Coast of New Spain (Mexico), along with her larger sister ship, the 500-ton San Pedro, by order of the Spanish King Felipe II, who wished to establish a trading colony near the Spice Islands (Moluccas) via a westward route through Spanish territory.

Built of Mexican hardwoods and iron fittings imported from Spain, the San Pablo and San Pedro “were the largest [Spanish ships] that had ever been built on the Pacific coast [at that time]….the best that have ever navigated on the South Seas and the stoutest and best equipped.”  They were designed along the “half-moon” lines of the armed galleons that carried Spain’s New World treasure back to Seville, and built in the fashion of the time, with a rounded “apple” bow, high forecastle and vaulting stern bracketing a low waist.  Each vessel was three-masted, mounted several cannon, and could carry more than 200 crewmen and soldiers.

These galleons were built larger and stronger than their typical Atlantic counterparts at the urging of Fray Andrés de Urdaneta, the most knowledgeable Spanish navigator of the Pacific.  Greater size and strength was needed, Urdaneta had advised the King, to enable the vessels to carry the significantly larger quantities of food, water, supplies and equipment, as well as more crewmen.  The galleons, as well, needed to be strong enough to circumnavigate the vast Pacific and to survive the violent storms, especially typhoons, that generated 40-foot seas and gale force winds along the western rim of the ocean.

The San Pablo probably had a deck length of 90 to 100 feet on a 25 to 30-foot beam; the San Pedro, about a 120-foot deck length on a 35-foot beam.  These vessels are regarded as the prototypes for the “Manila Galleons” that plied the 20,000-mile roundtrip journey between Asia and America, the longest continuous navigation ever conducted.

The San Pablo’s initial visit to Guam occurred in January 1565, when Legazpi’s fleet anchored off the island’s southwest coast for eleven days, trading with Chamorros for provisions and surveying the island’s resources.  Urdaneta, who was Legazpi’s principle navigator, was familiar with the southwest roadstead because he had visited it in 1526 on the Vittoria, the surviving vessel of the Garcia de Loyasa expedition.  Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition may also have visited the southwest anchorage in March 1521, but some scholars believe his ships stopped off northwest Guam and interacted with islanders along that coast.

Legaspi’s grandson was commander

In 1568, the San Pablo was chosen to make the return voyage from Cebu, Philippines, to Acapulco, Mexico, and sailed under the command of Legazpi’s grandson, Filipe de Salcedo, arriving off Guam’s leeward coast in mid-August.  The vessel carried more than 400 quintals of Philippine cinnamon (about 40,440 pounds), as well as samples of Philippine gold, Ming porcelain and other articles that might be valued in New Spain and serve as future trade products for the galleon commerce.  One hundred and fifty quintals of the cinnamon were intended for the King and 250 quintals were shipped to provide financial compensation and sustenance for key members of Legazpi’s expedition.

Though only in his late teens, Salcedo was Legazpi’s most trusted general and had served as captain of the sister ship San Pedro in 1565, when the vessel, piloted by Urdaneta, discovered the return route from Cebu across the North Pacific to New Spain.  This long-sought passage, known to the Spanish as the tournaviaje, had been the Holy Grail of Spain’s Pacific exploration, the secret to unlocking direct Asian-American trade.  Salcedo had visited Guam twice before, using the southwest anchorage both times, first with Legazpi in 1565 and again in 1567 when he brought the San Pedro back to Cebu from Acapulco.

In the 1568 visit of the San Pablo to Guam, Salcedo moored in the familiar southwest roadstead and went ashore in the galleon’s boat with some of his men.  On August 15th, the feast of the Asuncion de Nuestra Señora, a sudden and violent storm struck the island, driving the ship off its moorings and dashing her against an area of coastline, where she was smashed to pieces, with a total loss of her cargo.  The crewmen and passengers on board the vessel were saved through the diligent efforts of those already ashore, who rescued them using outrigger canoes and the galleon’s boat.

Because the crew and passengers required rescue by boats and the reportedly violent destruction of the ship, the galleon may have been driven south of its anchorage onto the submerged coral reef extending more than two miles off Guam’s southwest coast, forming a U-shaped spur.  The flat, coconut palm-covered island now known as Cocos rises from the center of the reef.  If grounded on the coral spur, the vessel would have been battered to pieces by the pounding storm winds and waves.  The island would also have well served the castaways as a defensible camp, as they salvaged what they could from the wreck and began building a bark, enlarging and building up the ship’s boat by adding decking, siding and topside structures using woodwork and boards from the lost galleon.

Chamorros attacked crewmen, then helped them

Sparse accounts of this encounter noted that islanders attacked the crewmen several times but also assisted the castaways.  The crew “experienced great difficulty” with the islanders, one report noted, there were “big clashes” and a number of islanders were killed by arquebus fire.  Another account attributed the crew’s survival to Captain Salcedo, who “with his prudence calmed them [the islanders] down until the building of the bark was complete.”  His approach may have involved the gifting and trading of iron and other goods from the wreck, which the crewmen visited regularly to salvage material and equipment.

This encounter may have followed a pattern of onshore confrontations-alternating with peaceful trading that had been reported during earlier Spanish visits.   Chamorros on Guam had vigorously resisted onshore incursions of armed landing parties during both the Magellan (1521) and Legazpi (1565) episodes, perceiving them as threats to their people, homes, canoes and food stocks.  Several Chamorros reportedly had been killed defending their village against Magellan’s onshore assault, yet islanders from other villages continued to trade with the expedition after the attack.

Chroniclers also described a number of violent confrontations between Legazpi’s survey parties and islanders seeking to prevent Spanish landings at west coast villages.  Some of these resulted in the death of warriors.  However Chamorros continued to engage in offshore trading with the fleet’s crews without boarding the vessels.  Legazpi’s chroniclers even reported that while Chamorros fought onshore with a Spanish landing party, others who were trading at the galleons “after leaving aboard their canoes would go ashore to fight with our men, to be replaced in the canoes by those who had been fighting who then came alongside to trade.  At all times they kept their weapons in their hands.”

In these early contacts, the islanders sought to keep Spanish visitors offshore as much as possible and at arms’ length, while gaining the material benefits of the encounter by trading in a safer offshore venue.  The wisdom of this strategy was underscored in 1566, a year after Legazpi’s visit, when the relief ship San Geronimo stopped at Rota, where soldiers went ashore en masse to loot provisions, killing numerous islanders who resisted and burning 200 houses.  The galleon had been dispatched from New Spain to reinforce the Cebu colony but the vessel had suffered a mutiny and lacked effective leadership. Chamorro traders from Guam who arrived in four canoes quickly returned to their home villages when they learned of the Spanish depredations, alerting their kin-groups and neighbor villages to the danger.

Because of these experiences, Chamorros from Guam’s southwest villages may have viewed the extended presence of the large, armed, fortified (and possibly belligerent) camp of San Pedro castaways as an actual or potential threat to their villages.  Forays by armed Spanish watering- and food-gathering parties, as well as attempts by Spanish officers to dominate islanders and various trading disputes – actions that had triggered violence in the encounters with the Magellan and Legazpi expeditions – may have sparked confrontations with the San Pablo camp.

The bark was completed by the end of October and all 132 crewmen and passengers boarded the hybrid vessel and safely navigated the 1,200 nautical miles across the Philippine Sea back to Cebu, arriving by mid-November 1568.

It is not entirely clear from Spanish reports, however, why the San Pablo fetched up at Guam in the first place.  An anonymous account maintained that the galleon had departed Cebu on 1 June 1568 “with good weather” but “after many hardships which they suffered they had to turn back to Cebu… [l]eaving behind many people who had become sick.”  Departing a second time, presumably on July 1st, the galleon arrived at Guam, “where Captain Salcedo was under orders from his grandfather, the Governor, to make a stopover, and to find out if some of the islands [grew] clove or pepper.”

In a letter to the King, Guido de Lavezaris, treasurer of the Philippine Colony, lamented the loss of the galleon, which he said had experienced “much hardship [as] she followed her course to [Guam]…and entered a port “which is very unprotected.”  Noting that Legazpi had to burn the sister ship San Pedro because “it was of no use, and so that the nails it contained might serve for a ship that was being made,” Lavezaris emphasized that without naval support, the small colony on Cebu was highly vulnerable to a Portuguese fleet then seeking to force the Spanish to leave the Philippines.  He prayed, “May God pardon whomsoever did us such harm in losing this ship [San Pablo] in this manner.”

Legaspi asked for Guam and Rota

Though Legazpi’s letter to the audencia of New Spain reporting the San Pablo’s loss did not explain why the ship was at Guam, his petitions to the King add plausibility to the suggestion that he had directed Salcedo to stop there and search for valuable spices.  In his initial requests, delivered by his son Melchior at Madrid in 1568 and 1569, he sought royal grants of titles, authorities, compensation and trading privileges in the Philippines, some of which had been agreed to by Velasco before his death.  Legazpi also requested that “two of the Ladrone Islands” be granted to him, with the title of Governor and Captain-General, “provided he conquer and colonize them at his own cost.”  He also asked that in his absence from the islands, a lieutenant might act in his name.

Noting that Guam and Rota “would be of great service as a way-station between New Spain and the Philippines”, Legazpi also asked that he, his sons and successors be granted “one-twelfth of all incomes from mines, gold and silver, precious stones, and fruits in the Ladrones; and two fisheries, one of pearls and the other of fish, in the same islands.”  Legazpi also asked that his grandson Felipe de Salcedo “be granted the habit of the order of Santiago for his great services in the voyage to the Philippines, and his discovery of the return route to New Spain, for all of which he had received no financial aid from the Crown.”

The King granted most of Legazpi’s requests, providing detailed royal instructions on how to establish and administer the newly claimed colonies, including “the Ladrones,” and govern their native inhabitants and colonists.  Legazpi’s plans for Guam and Rota and the King’s decrees guiding their colonization were never carried out, however, as exploiting the Philippine’s resources and trading nexus absorbed the colonists’ energies.  Legazpi died in 1572 and his successors did not pursue his grants and authorities for the “way-station” islands.

While Salcedo may have stopped at Guam under his grandfather’s orders, it is also possible that his vessel, which reportedly took six weeks to reach Guam from Cebu, was hit by storms after it exited the Philippines and slowly made its way to Guam in damaged condition – to repair, refit and revive its crew and passengers.  If this was the case, the San Pablo may have been an early victim of the region’s seasonal geophysical forces that plagued the galleon line throughout its history.

The first phase of the tournaviaje – northeast through the Philippine Sea to the higher latitudes southeast of Japan – was the most dangerous track, as typhoons often pounded some of the vessels, rending sails, dismasting the ships, dislodging rudder posts and springing leaks, leaving the galleons unable to effectively navigate.  The height of the typhoon season in this region is July, August and September.  Several galleons damaged by these storms during the history of the trade drifted back through the Philippine Sea toward the Philippines.  One of these wrecked at Rota (the Santa Margarita in 1601) and another at Saipan (the Concepción in 1638).  The San Pablo may have been the first of the Manila Galleons lost in this way.

For Chamorros, the San Pablo episode underscored the dangers of onshore incursions and encampments by armed Spanish parties, a salient issue of the early European contact period that had generated vigorous islander resistance and precipitated violent confrontations.  The San Pablo experience doubtless strengthened the islanders’ preference for trading with galleon crews in offshore areas from canoes, rather than onboard the vessels or onshore, a practice that exhibited itself repeatedly over the next century.

For the Spanish, the wreck of the San Pablo became a cautionary tale on the vulnerability of Guam’s southwest roadstead, especially during the typhoon season.  This concern influenced Spanish officials as they prescribed the roundtrip navigation for the developing galleon trade and directed captains of the silver-laden Acapulco ships to use the 30-mile wide Rota Channel, which they called La Bocana, as the navigational and provisioning station on the three-month, 9,000-nautical-mile voyage to the Philippines.  By the mid-1570s the silver argosies (large ships) would typically slacken sails as they entered the channel and drift through the passage, trading with islanders for fresh water, food and craft work in exchange for Spanish iron goods.

This development shifted the major venue for the iron trade in the islands away from the southwest coastal villages, thus providing an advantage to villagers in northern Guam and Rota who enjoyed regular and first access to these highly-valued goods from the Acapulco ships – an exchange that became the linchpin of islander relations with the galleon line for the next 100 years.

Though sporadic visits of British privateers and Dutch expeditions used the southwest roadstead in the 17th century, the Spanish trade galleons generally avoided that anchorage until the 1670s, when the Crown ordered Acapulco ship captains to anchor there on their westward crossing in order to deliver funds, supplies and personnel for the permanent Spanish mission colony.  The anchorage remained vulnerable, however, claiming the Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragosa in June 1690, when contrary winds blew the 1,200-ton Acapulco ship onto the Cocos Island reef where it was pounded into a wreck by high winds.

By Frank Quimby

For further reading

Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas, 1565-1615. Gaspar de San Agustín; introducción por Pedro G. Galende; traduccion por Luis Antonio Mañeru/ Conquest of the Philippine Islands, 1565-1615. Gaspar de San Agustín; introduction by Pedro G. Galende; translation by Luis Antonio Mañeru. Manila, Philippines: San Agustin Museum, 1998. Vol. 1, Chapter 44.

History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Vol. 2: Prelude to Conquest. Rodrique Levesque (Quebec: Levesque Publications, 1992).

The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803. Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson. Volumes 2 and 3.

General History of the Philippines: The Discovery and Conquest of the Philippines (1521-1581), Part 1, Vol. 1. Martin J. Noone, S.S.C.  Manila: Historical Conservation Society, 1986.

Mexico and the Pacific 1540-1565: The Voyages of Villalobos and Legaspi and the preparations made for them. Andre Gschaedler.  PhD Dissertation (New York: Columbia University, 1956.)

The Manila Galleon William Lytle Schurz.  New York: E.P. Dutton, 1959.