First visited Guam in 1565

Miguel López de Legazpi (1502-1572) was a colonial official in New Spain, Pacific explorer and conquistador who led the Spanish expedition that began the colonization of the Philippines and launched the first Asia-American trading line.  His 1565 expedition visited Guam on its westward voyage from New Spain (Mexico) to Cebu in the Central Philippines.  Legazpi claimed Guam for Spain, was later granted possession of Guam and Rota by the Spanish King Philip II and given the prestigious title adelantado of the Ladrone Islands, as partial payment for his services to the Crown.

Legazpi was born into a noble family in the Basque town of Zumárraga (Guipúzcoa Province) in 1502, the youngest son of Don Juan Martínez López de Legazpi and Elvira Gurruchategui. From 1526 to 1527, the young Legazpi worked as a councilor in the municipal government of his home town. When his parents died, his eldest sibling inherited all of the family fortune. Dissatisfied with his situation, Legazpi emigrated to New Spain (formerly the Aztec Empire) in 1528 to start a new life.

In Tlaxcala, he worked with Juan Garcés and Juan’s sister, Isabel Garcés, whom Legazpi married.  They had nine children.  Between 1528 and 1559, he worked as a leader of the financial department council and as the civil governor of Mexico City.  His wife Isabel died in the mid 1550s. In 1559 the Spanish monarch Philip II ordered the Viceroy of New Spain to launch another expedition to solve the circumnavigation problems that had prevented direct Asian-American commerce.

Expedition to Guam and the Philippines

In 1564, Legazpi was commissioned by the Viceroy to lead a naval expedition across the Pacific to establish a colony in the Philippines and discover the long-sought return sea route from Asia to the Americas.  Legazpi’s expedition, which included 500 soldiers and sailors, sailed from the port of Navidad, on the Pacific coast of New Spain, on November 21, 1564.

Guided by senior-pilot Andres de Urdaneta, who was an Augustinian friar, Legazpi’s cousin and the most knowledgeable Spanish navigator of the Pacific, the expedition reached Guam on 21 January 1565, after a two-month crossing from New Spain. The crew and officers anchored off the island’s southwest coast and traded iron goods for fresh food, including fish, yams, plantains, rice, breadfruit, coconuts and other fruits and vegetables.  By their actions, the Chamorros demonstrated their preference for peaceful offshore trading from canoes, refusing to board the galleons for fear of abduction (based on previous experiences with Spanish ships) and repeatedly resisting Spanish onshore incursions and expeditions.

Legazpi claimed the islands for the King of Spain, sent armed landing parties ashore to fill the ships’ water barrels and conducted coastal surveys of bays and anchorages and inland searches for gold, silver and spices. These incursions regularly met spirited Chamorro resistance, precipitating violent confrontations. Seeking to control the foreign visitors, Chamorros from southwest coastal villages sought to keep them as much as possible offshore and at arm’s length, while actively trading for iron goods at sea, a more secure venue.

At a meeting of expedition leaders during the visit, Urdaneta surprised officials by proposing that the fleet make a permanent settlement on Guam and immediately dispatch one of the galleons for the arduous task of discovering the return route to New Spain – the primary goal of the expedition and key to direct Asian-American commerce.  Urdaneta argued that Guam, an unmistakable high island, had been visited by three Spanish expeditions and its location was well charted.  The island had ample land, perennial streams, good leeward anchorages, abundant food staples and was strategically located to reach Japan, the China coast, the Philippines and the Moluccas.

Guam would make a useful forward base for further Spanish explorations in search of East Asian commercial opportunities and was advantageously situated for dispatching the ungainly galleons, which could safely maneuver in the Philippine Sea’s seasonal southwesterly winds that Urdaneta believed would allow them to reach 30 to 40 degrees north latitude.  Prevailing westerly winds in those higher reaches would then carry the vessels across the North Pacific to the coast of North America and eventually to the Pacific coast of New Spain, completing the circum-Pacific navigation Spain had sought since Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage Magellan had landed on Guam in 1521).

Most importantly for Urdaneta, a Guam settlement would assure that the initial Crown colony in the region would be in Spanish territory acknowledged under agreements with the Papacy and Portugal.  Urdaneta and his fellow Augustinians on the voyage believed that the expedition’s intended destination – the Philippines – was in Portuguese territory, according to the terms of the 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza.

Urdaneta’s proposal for Guam reflected his familiarity with the island and his vision of its role as a provisioning and navigational way-station in enabling Spain to expand westward over its papal-designated sphere of influence.  He had first visited Guam in 1526 on the Santa Maria de la Vitoria, which was Spain’s first attempt to exploit Magellan’s route, and learned about the archipelago directly from the beachcomber Gonzalo Alvarez de Vigo, a member of Magellan’s expedition who had sojourned in the Marianas for four years.

The proposal found favor with his fellow Augustinians as well as virtually all of the expedition leaders attending the meeting, but Legazpi responded that his orders directed him unequivocally to the Philippines to establish a settlement if possible and launch the search for a return route.  For Legazpi, the goal of the expedition was to establish direct contact between Asian trading centers and New Spain, making the Kingdom of Castile competitive with Portugal in developing potentially lucrative trade with the China coast, Japan and the Spice Islands.

Legazpi petitions for possession of Guam and Rota

Legazpi left Guam on 3 February  and reached the central Philippines on 13 February 1565.  During its initial years in the Philippines, Legazpi’s expedition established a base at Cebu and discovered the return route.  They also resisted a Portuguese fleet that tried to oust the Spanish colonists from the islands.  Additionally, Legazpi and his men negotiated alliances with local chiefs, secured food supplies – by force if necessary – and gathered intelligence on local products and trade patterns in the archipelago.

During this time, he repeatedly pleaded for royal guidance and support for the nascent Cebu colony as well as compensation for his efforts.  He petitioned 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.”

Legazpi noted that the settlement of Guam or Rota “would be of very much use to your majesty as a way-station and shelter for the ships that will ply those western seas … [sailing] from New Spain to the Philippine Islands.” 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.”

In 1568, Philip II granted most of Legazpi’s requests for Guam and Rota, authorizing him to “take and seize possession” of the islands, and granting this royal license and permission “in consideration of the many expenses that you have incurred in their discovery, and the hardships you have endured.”  Legazpi was appointed “Governor and Captain General of the … Ladrone islands and of all the villages that you shall settle therein for the rest of your life.”  Philip II also provided detailed instructions to be followed for the colonization of the islands.

Philip II also bestowed on Legazpi the prestigious title of adelantado of the Ladrone Islands “for yourself and for your heirs and successors forever.”  The title, designating a regional military commander charged with conquering and governing frontier territories, carried with it numerous “honors, favors, rewards, licenses, fees, salaries, preeminences, prerogatives and immunities.”

The King also authorized Legazpi an annual salary of 2,000 ducats ($750,000) and made him a one-time grant of 2,000 ducats “in consideration of [his] services … past and present….”

Legazpi’s legacy in the Philippines and Guam

Legazpi’s plans for the islands and the King’s decrees for their colonization were never carried out in their lifetimes, as the Spanish colonists in the Philippines focused their energies on exploiting the archipelago’s ample resources, co-opting the Asian trading nexus at Manila and developing a trans-Pacific trade route.

In 1565, Legazpi directed Urdaneta to guide the expedition’s best-sailing galleon, the San Pedro, in the search for a return route across the Pacific and obtain help for the new colony from New Spain. Departing from Cebu on 1 June 1565, the vessel reached Acapulco on 8 October 1565.

Legazpi and Urdaneta’s expedition to the Philippines effectively created the trans-Pacific Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade, in which silver mined from Mexico and Potosi was transported across the Pacific and exchanged in Manila for Chinese silk, porcelain, spices, and other Asian goods precious to New Spain and Europe at the time.

The 20,000-mile roundtrip trade route was the first direct Asian-American commerce, an important commercial link that is regarded by some historians as the final continental connection in a global trading system. Urdaneta’s mid-Pacific westward crossing and North Pacific return route were followed for the next 250 years.

In 1671, Legazpi moved his base to Manila, where the colonists established their capital in a walled-city (Intramuros) on Manila Bay.  However, Legazpi died of heart failure a year later, on 20 August 1572. He was laid to rest in San Agustin Church, Intramuros.  He had spent most of his personal fortune, including selling family land in Mexico City, to fund Philip II’s Philippine enterprise and served as the first governor of the Philippines until his death.

Legazpi’s successors did not pursue his grants and authorities for the “way-station” islands of Guam and Rota.  However, Legazpi’s (and Urdaneta’s) belief that Guam and Rota had geo-strategic value for the galleon commerce – as a navigational and provisioning way-station and haven for the trade ships and their crews – became a reality during the next century.

As Spain’s trans-Pacific galleon trade developed, Guam and Rota became a regular stop for Acapulco ships carrying New World bullion and coin to finance the Manila colony. British privateers and Dutch expeditions followed the Spanish wake to the islands, hunting the silver argosies and seeking bases to gain a share of Asian trade.

The islands became an eagerly sought provisioning stop and more than 100 European ships visited the Marianas in this period.  Because most of the Spanish ships also carried missionaries on their way to the Philippines, the Chamorros became unwitting candidates for Christian conversion.  A procession of clerics argued that because Legazpi claimed the islands, the islanders deserved the benefits of Spanish civilization, especially conversion to the “true faith,”and were being “neglected” by the Crown.  This moral suasion helped to launch the first Spanish colony on Guam — the 1668 Jesuit Mission. 

By Frank Quimby