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The Spaniards fired their arquebuses “through the air,” writes the diarist, without saying how high they aimed. The natives fled.

On February 9, able to gather only “12 quarters” of water (the ship could hold over 200), Vizcaíno cut the cable to the light anchor and ordered all possible speed to Cabo San Lucas.

On and below-decks, the San Diego was a death ship. Because their mouths were so ulcerated they couldn’t chew the foul food, the sick were dying of starvation. At least 45 men writhed in bunks or blankets on the floor. Their shouts blurred into babble. The smells — death, excrement, decaying food, and human skin — fogged the air. As in times of plague, the dead became the most common sight. Comrades on a long, dangerous voyage blinked out. And most of their fellows were too far gone to mark the passing.

When the San Diego reached Cabo San Lucas, writes Ascensión, “not six were able-bodied.”

On February 13, Vizcaíno held his final council. The expedition had planned to go to La Paz, on the east coast of Baja, and await new orders from the viceroy. But they couldn’t. The men were “so sick and exhausted,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “if the anchor were cast, the ship would not be able to leave.”

From the start, the council made all decisions (they had to, says his boatswain, Gonzalo de Francia, because Vizcaíno “could neither plan nor execute”). While some wanted to sail straight to Acapulco, the majority urged a mad dash across the “Vermillion Sea” — the Gulf of California — to the nearest point of the mainland: the islands of Mazatlán. From there, Vizcaíno would take a scouting party to a village called San Sebastián, said to be six or eight leagues inland, though no one knew for sure.

On February 17, the San Diego anchored off Mazatlán. Two days later, with the ship securely in place, Vizcaíno and the five most able men rowed to the mainland. Vizcaíno’s ribs were wound and braced, and his health, says one account, was “ruined.”

None knew where the village was, and they found no trail. After walking at least 13 leagues, over mountains and through thick jungles, they became lost.

Two days later, they came upon a small, meandering road. Exhausted, baked by radiant heat, they rested under trees, half expecting to perish in the shade. Down the way, they heard a strange tinkling.

Mule bells! A muleteer and his train were en route to a village called Culiacán. After he unloaded his goods — edibles and clothing from Castile — he promised to take Vizcaíno’s party to San Sebastián. When the mule master gave them tortillas, fruit, and wine, they dined like epicures.

A day later, the group reached San Sebastián, whose mayor, Martin Ruiz de Aguirre, was an old friend of Vizcaíno’s. Aguirre ordered a supply train with a cornucopia of blessings: chickens, veal, vegetables, bananas, oranges, lemons, papayas, generous amounts of bread and wine. Every third day, Aguirre added, he would send six more loads to the coast.

Those who remained onboard, writes Ascensión, were “more dead than alive.” All, including Ascensión, became convinced their death loomed just ahead.

Shortly after Vizcaíno left, corporal Antonio Ruiz and one of the friars rowed the launch ashore to bury dead bodies. After the father said Mass, Ruiz noticed a longish yellow fruit, like a prickly pear. He plucked one from a stem holding at least 100. Since he suffered from scurvy, Ruiz could barely open his mouth.

He took a bite of the white pulp — the pleasing taste both sweet and acidic — and his gums started to bleed. One astringent mouthful began to lacerate the ulcers.

Another bite cleansed the infected areas. Ruiz began coughing. Then he spat out “all the bad blood collected in the swollen gums.”

“Eating it twice,” writes Ascensión, “put the mouth and teeth in such condition that one could eat any other kind of food without difficulty or pain. If this fruit had not produced this effect, the fresh food that came could not have been eaten or passed into the stomach.”

Ruiz loaded the launch to the gunwales with the fruit called xoconostle. As he and the padre rowed back to the ship, those onboard thought Ruiz had gone mad. His ravings rippled across the water. That he could speak was strange enough. And if what they could make out was true, Ruiz was blithering about a “milagro” — a miracle!

“All ate [the fruit] and found themselves much improved,” writes Ascensión. Neither “doctors nor surgeons” brought about the miracle, “nor by any human remedy understood to be a medicine given in this disease.” It came from “Our Lady, the Virgin María del Monte Carmelo.”

When Vizcaíno reached the coast with the supply train, he expected the worst: the San Diego reeking of death and corpses everywhere.

Instead, sailors “in good spirits” waved at him. He saw smiles where mouths had been bloated with ulcers. He heard something no one had in months: laughter. Many of the near-dead were up and around, climbing the mast or swabbing the deck. Vizcaíno, writes his diarist, “was much amazed.”

The crew fed, drank, and rested for 19 days. By the time they reached Acapulco, on March 21, most had recovered enough to perform chores on the ship.

When the San Diego arrived, “all the inhabitants were surprised to see how well and sound all on board her were.” Given what sailors on the Santo Tomás had told them, they’d thought “they would never see her again.”

Back in Mexico City — even though he broke almost every one of the viceroy’s demands and lost at least 48 men — Vizcaíno urged another voyage. Instead, the viceroy named Vizcaíno commander of the next galleon headed for Manila. But a new viceroy appointed shortly after, the Marquis de Montesclaros, countermanded the order. Vizcaíno was too inept for such a challenge.

Montesclaros said Vizcaíno tried to bribe him and charged the cosmographer, Geronimo Martín Palacios, of forging the king’s name to his credentials. The viceroy made Vizcaíno mayor of lowly Tehuantepec, which was “as much as he deserved.” He ordered Palacios hung.

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy

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tswartz Dec. 21, 2011 @ 4:30 p.m.

Thanks so much for this great series. I truly enjoyed it!


Prosperina Dec. 26, 2011 @ 11:12 p.m.

wow! what an adventure series! that was one of the most satisfying yet -- thank you!!! Loved the little tidbits like:

As with Vizcaíno’s overpraising of Monterey as a harbor, writes Michael Mathes, Ascensión’s belief in the strait confused “the cartography of Northwest America for almost two centuries.”

who knew that such a journey, such a marathon, such an epic story could be so fun!


Letter to the Editor Sept. 6, 2012 @ 3:27 p.m.

The description of the scurvy victims with their inability to eat because of their ulcerated mouths was visceral and uncomfortable. In other words I was in some part sharing the fate of the crew of the San Diego while reading the story. This is the best kind of writing. In the end, when Viceroy Marquis de Montesclaros chalked the whole expedition up as a nonevent it made me think that events are not so different today. Most often the amazing accomplishments of brave people as seen through the eyes of administrators evoke either hollow words of praise, Dr apathy and dismissal.

Bernard Baldan


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