Personal conflict in the Armada of the Strait: Sarmiento versus Flores

In The Struggle for the South Atlantic: The Armada of the Strait, 1581-84, Professor Carla Rahn Phillips provides the first edition in any language of Pedro de Rada’s Relación, the hitherto unknown report written by the chief scribe of the Armada of the StraitThe Struggle for the South Atlantic contains a detailed eyewitness description of this ill-fated expedition, yet it contains more. In a recent interview, the Hakluyt Society Blog asked Professor Phillips about the troubled relationship between Don Diego Flores de Valdés, the Captain General of the Armada, and Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, governor-designate of the future colony at the Strait, as well as about the importance of the discovery of Rada’s manuscript.


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To start, could you say something about the personal conflict at the heart of the Armada of the Strait?

CRP: Like any large enterprise, the Armada of the Strait was bound to have a range of personalities and a certain amount of disagreement and friction among its participants. Nonetheless, one ongoing clash all but defined the Armada of the Strait: the enmity between Pedro Sarmiento, governor-designate of the colony to be planted at the Strait, and Don Diego Flores de Valdés, captain general of the armada as a whole. Their continual wrangles began during the planning stages of the armada in 1581 and continued after the expedition ended in 1584.

Historians know quite a bit about their disagreements, and virtually everyone who has written about the voyage has taken the side of Sarmiento. The likely reason is that Sarmiento wrote much of the documentation published up to now, endlessly arguing his own side of the story; praising his own actions; and accusing Flores of numerous character flaws, mistaken judgment, evil intent, incompetence, and fraud. In the published historical accounts that mention the voyage and the attempt to plant a colony at the Strait, Sarmiento emerges as a hero — flawed, as all heroes are — but a hero nonetheless. Flores emerges as a villain — or at best, as an inept foil for Sarmiento’s heroic actions.

Yet until recently Pedro de Rada’s ‘Relación’ has remained unknown..

CRP: Exactly! As the expedition’s chief scribe, Pedro de Rada wrote thousands of pages of official documentation. Philip II requested all of these records shortly after Flores returned to Spain in July 1584. However, Rada had also written a Relación or report covering the entire voyage, with copies of various official documents appended. This detailed first-hand account remained in private hands until 1999, when it was acquired by the Huntington Library and made available to the research community. 

Rich in detail and human drama, Rada’s Relación provides a unique perspective on the events and personalities involved in the Armada of the Strait. Until it surfaced, the Armada  was known largely from the point of view of Sarmiento, whose version of events overwhelmed all other voices regarding the armada and influenced generations of historians. Important in this respect was that, in 1895, the Hakluyt Society published translated excerpts from Sarmiento’s voluminous writings, edited by Clements R. Markham. By contrast, Pedro de Rada’s Relación provides the reader with an official, dispassionate voice to contrast with the self-serving accounts by Sarmiento.

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Luís de Texeira, Map of the Captaincies of Brazil (c. 1574). Biblioteca de Ajuda, Lisbon

Reading Rada’s Relación against existing documentation, what new conclusions can be drawn about the Armada of the Strait?

CRP: Rada’s Relación clearly shows how the most meticulous plans for overseas ventures could be wrecked by the hazards inherent in sailing into largely unknown waters, yet also how those plans could  be jeopardized by personal conflicts that had entirely human causes. In modern histories of early exploration and colonization, mention of personal antagonisms is generally avoided as a petty distraction from the central, heroic narrative. Likewise, Rada’s laconic account only hints at the ongoing clash between Flores and Sarmiento. Nonetheless, by reading Rada’s journal in the light of the extensive Spanish documentation about the preparations for the voyage, we can understand the difficulties posed by the enmity between Sarmiento and Flores and appreciate what the expedition was able to accomplish despite that enmity.

The Relación chronicles an expedition that was launched with extraordinary effort at a critical period in Spanish exploration and colonization. Despite all the careful planning that preceded its departure, the armada suffered more calamities than many other expeditions, partly due to chance, but also due to the irrational schemes of Pedro Sarmiento, whom so many historians have praised as a visionary hero.

Pedro de Rada’s Relación, together with a selection of instructions and reports pertaining to the Armada of the Strait, are now made available for the first time, in English translation, by Professor Carla Rahn Phillips for the Hakluyt Society. Order your copy here.


Carla Rahn Phillips, Union Pacific Professor  in Comparative Early Modern History (Emerita), retired from the University of Minnesota in 2013. She has  published numerous books, articles, and book chapters on the social and economic history of Spain and its maritime connections in the early modern world, including Six Galleons for the King of Spain (1986)The Treasure of the San Jose (2007), and (with William D. Phillips Jr.)The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (1993), and A Concise History of Spain (2010, 2nd ed. 2015).


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