Early 17th Century observations

In March 1602, Franciscan lay brother Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora deserted a ship off the shores of Rota, an island just north of Guam. Although he was only in the Mariana Islands for seven months, he provided an invaluable historical contribution through descriptive written accounts of the lives, customs, and culture of Chamorros/CHamorus in the early 17th century.

Fray Juan Pobre and several other Catholic missionaries were en route to the Philippines to continue efforts to convert the natives to Christianity. The new Spanish governor of the Philippines at the time, Pedro Bravo de Acuña, ordered their ship to stop in the Marianas at Rota to retrieve any survivors of the Manila galleon Santa Margarita. The Santa Margarita was wrecked near Rota the previous year after being badly damaged during a typhoon upon leaving the Philippines.

Before leaving Mexico for the Far East, Fray Juan Pobre and other clerics told the Philippine governor that they wanted to leave some missionaries in the Mariana Islands to convert the islanders, but this request was denied because of reservations that the missionaries would be unprotected. In 1596, the king of Spain gave then-Philippine Governor Francisco Tello de Guzman permission for Catholic missionaries in the islands with soldiers for protection.

As Fray Juan Pobre had already resolved to remain in the islands, when the ship pulled into Rota and the Islanders came in droves in their canoes to barter with the Spaniards, he took the opportunity to jump ship. Fray Juan Pobre, knowing the Chamorros desire for iron, held a large knife out to draw them closer to the ship, and then dropped into their canoe. Another Franciscan lay brother, Fray Pedro de Talevera, followed suit.

While on Rota, Fray Juan Pobre learned of a Spanish survivor of the Santa Margarita named Sancho. Fray Juan Pobre’s accounts are based on his experiences in Rota and on his conversations with Sancho who had lived in Guam and his descriptions of the Chamorros’ ways of life, their customs, and their values which they taught to their children. Some of the Chamorro behaviors Sancho described was their kindness to one another, their expert skills as seamen and fishermen, their respect for one another, their peaceful nature, and their marriage and death rituals:

The men and women are hard workers, not lazy, and have little regard for those who do not work. While they are very young, they make their sons and daughters work and teach them to perform their tasks. Consequently, the very young know how to perform their tasks like their parents because they have been taught with great love. So great is their love for their children that it would take a long time to describe its praises.

Fray Juan Pobre was struck by the non-Christian Chamorros’ seemingly Christian ways. While in the Marianas, Fray Juan Pobre met Spaniards and Spanish servants, who were either survivors of shipwrecks or had jumped ship, but refused to be “rescued” by passing galleons:

…and the negroes were very happy to be with them. But I would scold them and tell them that they were not good, as far as refusing to leave on the ships was concerned, because, as Christians, they ought not remain to die among these barbarians. They would answer, saying, These barbarians treat us as Christians, but the Christians treat us like barbarians.

Fray Juan Pobre’s accounts paid close attention to the everyday lives of Chamorros in the Marianas:

During the year, they get together at special times or for festive occasions. These gatherings include not just the people of a particular village, but those of others as well, and they reciprocate with festivities and banquets, saving their salted fish for such occasions. Two or three thousand people gather for some of these feasts, though usually not more than one or two hundred, possibly a thousand, depending upon the resources of the fiesta’s host.

They also get together to hold debates: those representing one side meeting in certain barn-like structures, those of the other side, in others. One debater will get to his feet and begin to argue, or to make up ballads, or to poke fun at those across from him, who are from another village. When the first group has finished, someone from the opposing side gets up and begins to argue against the first side. In this fashion, as I have said, people from many villages get together to debate from eight o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon, when they eat. Some individuals bring food, but the usual thing is for the people of the village where the gathering takes place to provide the food.

From these debates, animosities are apt to develop (as happens with all disputes) especially when they want to appear as if they know it all. The wisest indios gather for these debates, some will have learned the skill, called mari, when very young. These debates are the most spirited of all events; consequently, dissentions arrive, which result in one village challenging the other. When this happens, they proceed to an agreed-upon spot, either quite peacefully or lunging at each other, they skirmish with their slings, and sometimes they throw darts a each other. Since I have been among them, I have seen several disputes, but all have been settled peacefully.

In October 1602, the galleon Jesus Maria piloted by the captain of the ship, which Fray Juan Pobre and Fray Pedro de Talavera abandoned, pulled into Rota waters. The captain was successful in getting Fray Juan Pobre on board so they could sail to the Philippines. Fray Pedro de Talavera, who left Rota after agreeing to start mission efforts in Guam, was left behind with another Franciscan friar who became lost on shore during the search for Fray Juan Pobre. They were retrieved five months later by another passing galleon in March 1603.

By Shannon J. Murphy and Tanya M. Champaco Mendiola

For further reading

Driver, Marjorie G. The Account of Fray Juan Pobre’s Residence in the Marianas, 1602. MARC Miscellaneous Series No. 8. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1993.

Rogers, Robert. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.