• Thomas Cavendish
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Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo never received full credit for exploring the Pacific Coast, complained historian Henry R. Wagner. In 1602, 60 years later, Sebastián Vizcaino sailed north, covered the same territory, and “arbitrarily changed” Cabrillo’s findings. Like young Adam naming the flora and fauna of Eden, Vizcaino renamed every site: Cabrillo’s San Miguel, for example, became San Diego.

“Who,” Wagner stormed, “hears anything at all about Sebastián Vizcaino?”

Twenty miles northeast of the rocky headland at Cabo San Lucas, sheltered from the northwest wind at Aguada Sedgura, two British ships lay in wait. Their prey: Manila galleons returning from the Philippines bloated to the gunwales with gold, Persian rugs, silks, jewelry, barrels of wine. Bales and bundles of cargo left no room for artillery on the ships’ double decks. Plus, by the time they reached the eastern Pacific Coast — often six months after leaving Manila — most of the half-starved passengers had scurvy. Many died. In effect, a Manila galleon was a 700-plus-ton sitting duck.

Thomas Cavendish, general of the British ships at Aguada Segura (today’s San José del Cabo) liked his odds. The notorious privateer, in fact, never attacked opponents of equal strength.

Cavendish, 27, left Plymouth, England, with three ships in July 1586 — the 120-ton flagship Desire; Content (60 tons); and Hugh Gallant (a 40-ton bark) — and 123 men. Born a gentleman in 1560 (he was four years older than Shakespeare), Cavendish squandered his inheritance. To recoup losses, he mortgaged his estate and went to sea. He set sail with the queen’s blessing and a charge: as a “privateer,” he should plunder at will and gather information about ocean currents and Spanish ports. In effect, privateers were crown-sanctioned pirates. To non-English-speaking peoples, they were the “enemies of all mankind.”

The small flotilla rounded the Strait of Magellan on March 6 and hugged the Pacific coastline. They raided small ports in Chile and Peru. Off Ecuador, Cavendish scuttled the Hugh Gallant “for want of men.” Illness and skirmishes had reduced his crew to fewer than 100.

The British vessels seized a large Spanish ship off Acajutla, El Salvador. Under torture — his thumbs “tormented with a wrench,” writes navigator Francis Pretty — captain Miguel Sanchez confessed that two Manila galleons should reach Acapulco by November. Cavendish sailed north with renewed purpose.

At the defenseless port of Huatulco, population around 100, Cavendish and 30 men rowed a pinnace ashore. When curious townspeople approached them on the beach, 30 British muskets popped smoke. Many fell. Others fled inland. As he had done in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, Cavendish ordered his men to steal everything of value except cloth, which took up too much space. They smashed icons and shredded tapestries in the “heathen” Catholic Church and set fire to brush and wattle huts. The next day his men torched the countryside for miles around.

The only object that wouldn’t ignite was a large wooden cross at Santa Cruz Bay. When his pirates couldn’t shoulder it down, they hacked the hardwood with axes and saws. The cross stood tall.

Not wanting the debacle read as a sign — in an age where practically everything could have a larger meaning — Cavendish ordered his men to loop the Content’s thick mooring ropes around the cross. Then with sails unfurled and an offshore breeze, they tried to yank it from the ground. But the cross still wouldn’t budge. It became renowned as “Santa Cruz de Huatulco,” the “Holy Cross of Huatulco.”

Cavendish pillaged other small towns on his way up the coast but skipped the port at Acapulco. Even though it had no fort until 1617, the town’s four cannons steered Cavendish clear.

In 1587, cartographers still believed California was an island. The Earth had become officially “round” only 95 years earlier. And many believed that the hemispheres must be symmetrical: the northern having the same shape as the southern. Thus a Northwest Passage, similar to the Strait of Magellan, would link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Sir Francis Drake, the second explorer to circumnavigate the globe (Cavendish was the third), went in search of the Strait of Anian, the “western entrance,” in 1579. Rumors claimed he’d found it.

Aguada Segura (“safe watering place”), where Cavendish anchored Desire and Content, was the southern tip of the Island of California. He could take on fresh water from a flowing river and lie in wait for the dot on the horizon that heralded untold treasure.

On October 14, between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., a horn blared from the crow’s nest. The lookout cried, “A sail, a sail!”

Cavendish came on deck and, writes Francis Pretty, watched a large ship “bearing in from the sea with the cape.” Square-rigged and “big-bellied,” the ship showed the high fore- and stern-castles of a galleon. Cavendish ordered his men to prepare for battle, then went belowdecks and donned a full suit of armor.

The ship was the Santa Ana. Almost brand new — it had made one previous trip across the Pacific — the unwieldy galleon had no escort or armament, except for two arquebuses — long barreled, portable guns on a stand — and some rusty flintlocks.

Commanded by Tomás de Alzola, Santa Ana encountered typhoons and doldrums. A sister galleon making the voyage, the Buena Esperanza, took a higher, swifter latitude. Protected by fog all down the Baja peninsula, she reached Acapulco ahead of schedule.

The Santa Ana sailed from the Philippines with 300 crew and passengers. After four and a half months, only 190 remained. The tally didn’t include 60 “Indio and negro” slaves, branded like cattle. At least 50 people died of scurvy. Since stacks of cargo had usurped space for the food supply, all were undernourished, and, since cargo also trumped sanitation, unwashed.

The Santa Ana was relatively new, but the pilot, Sebastián Rodriguez Cermeno, was savvy. In 1595, storms wrecked his galleon, the San Augustin, around Drake’s Bay. From the wreckage his crew built a small boat and sailed 2000 miles down to Navidad.

Chapters: 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation

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