On September 26, 1565, a Basque-run ship, the San Pedro, docked in the vicinity of California’s Cape Mendocino after having sailed 11,160 miles cross the Pacific Ocean without a landfall—the longest continuous oceanic voyage to that date in the age of European exploration. This remarkable crossing is yet another in a long line of significant Basque maritime exploits – all described in fascinating detail by Bill Douglass in Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean (pp. 118-22).
As part of an initial plan to bring the Philippines within Spain’s orbit on the orders of King Philip II, a Basque-dominated expedition, led by two Gipuzkoans, Andrés de Urdaneta from Ordizia and Miguel López de Legazpi from Zumarraga, reached Samar in February 1565. Thereafter, a permanent settlement was established in Cebu, which in the words of Douglass, was “the initial outpost of Spanish hegemony in the islands and one that would endure for more than three and a half centuries.”
As well as establishing an imperial outpost there, however, Legazpi was also charged with finding the elusive easterly return route from the Philippines to Nueva España (present-day Mexico). The Portuguese held the monopoly over the westward sea lane between Asia and Europe, making it impossible to establish trade with the Philippines, let alone a settled Spanish colonial presence there, without violating the Treaty of Zaragoza; hence the importance of discovering this easterly route. Douglass continues:
Urdaneta’s previous experience in the Moluccas had sensitized him to the seasonal shift in the region’s prevailing winds. Furthermore, his relationship with Gerónimo de Sanesteban in Mexico City doubtless gave Urdaneta detailed knowledge of the Villalobos expedition’s two failed attempts to return to Nueva España from the Moluccas via a southern route. On June 1, 1565, Urdaneta left the Philippines in the San Pedro, which was under the command of Legazpi’s young (sixteen-year-old) grandson, Felipe de Salcedo. It seems likely that Urdaneta was the actual commander. Other Basques on the vessel included Friar Andrés de Aguirre; the boatswain, Francisco de Astigarribia; the ship’s mate, Martín de Ibarra (all Bizkaians); and the scribe, Asensio de Aguirre. About one-third of the crew were Gipuzkoans.
Once in the northern latitudes, the San Pedro picked up the summer months’ prevailing northeasterlies and reached the American mainland on September 26 that same year.
“Urdaneta’s Route” across the Pacific. Image by Jrockley, United States Army. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Basques have a reasonable claim, then, to yet another significant maritime historical record, besides being in charge of both the first (Elkano) and second (Urdaneta) global circumnavigations.