The Armada of the Strait: James P.R. Lyell and the Relación of Pedro de Rada

The publication of Carla Rahn Phillips’ The Struggle for the South Atlantic ensured that the Relación by the sixteenth-century Spanish clerk Pedro de Rada is now for the first time made available in print. Only acquired by a public institution in 1999, the Relación had a long and still little-known life in private hands. In this blog post, the independent specialist in antiquarian books and Hakluyt Society Council member Anthony Payne sheds light on this story by focusing on the manuscript’s twentieth-century owner, the British solicitor and bibliophile James P.R. Lyell.


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A source of great satisfaction for an antiquarian bookseller is to discover a rarity and to see a major work of scholarship result from its acquisition by a research library. One such instance for me was the Hakluyt Society’s publication in December 2016 of The Struggle for the South Atlantic: The Armada of the Strait, 1581–1584, splendidly translated and edited by Carla Rahn Phillips from the Spanish manuscript Relación of Pedro de Rada, now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California (MS HM 59416).

The Huntington purchased this from the antiquarian booksellers Bernard Quaritch Ltd in 1999, when I was one of the company’s directors. We had bought the manuscript shortly beforehand from another book dealer in London and, as soon as I had catalogued it, we offered it for sale as item 167 in our Catalogue 1257. It was promptly ordered by Bill Frank, the Huntington’s Curator of Hispanic, Cartographic and Western Historical Manuscripts, and was delivered to the library as soon as we received an export licence.

Professor Phillips has identified the 1742 ownership inscription of one Pedro de Chópite (possibly from the Basque country) in the manuscript, but this apart, nothing is known of its history until the twentieth century when it was acquired by James P.R. Lyell (1871–1948), whose distinctive bookplate is affixed to the margin of the first leaf.

A solicitor by profession, Lyell was a distinguished book collector and bibliographer. He developed an especially close relationship with Oxford’s Bodleian Library, which is marked by the bequest of one hundred of his medieval manuscripts to the library and his endowment of the Lyell Readership in Bibliography at Oxford.

At a talk he gave in 1939 on ‘books and book collecting’, Lyell recalled that ‘I began collecting at school – nibs and postage stamps’. He sold his stamps to eke out his father’s allowance as an undergraduate at University College London, and next, while training to become a solicitor, began to collect books, attending his first auction, at Hodgson’s rooms, in 1891. ‘Book-hunting’, the Oxford historian David Ogg remarked, then became Lyell’s ‘absorbing hobby, and if he parted from time to time with some of his treasures he knew there were always others waiting to be tracked down by the discerning collector’.

Early printed books were Lyell’s first interest. In 1914 he chanced to buy at Hodgson’s a copy of the Complutensian Polyglot, the magnificent six-volume Bible printed in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic at Alcalá de Henares in 1514–17. When he got home from the sale, Lyell said, ‘I found that I had been fortunate enough to secure at a war-time price one of the most famous books in the world’, and it sparked a deep engagement in all books Spanish that led him to collect almost exclusively in that field for the next dozen or so years.

Not only did Lyell collect, but he learnt Spanish, travelled to Spain, and published a biography of the sponsor of the Complutensian Polyglot, Cardinal Ximenes, Statesman, Ecclesiastic, Soldier and Man of Letters with an Account of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible (London: Grafton, 1917), as well as a major study of Early Book Illustration in Spain (London: Grafton, 1926), which became the standard authority on the subject (in 1997 it appeared in a Spanish edition with updated notes). In time Lyell formed the largest private collection of Spanish books in Britain, but in 1927 he decided to move from London to Oxford and parted with most of its rarities, notably the works illustrated with woodcuts.

An allied bibliophilic pursuit of Lyell’s was his collection of books on the Spanish Armada (‘a very fine one’ he considered it). Research on this was the basis for the B.Litt. thesis awarded to him in 1932, aged sixty-one, as a member of New College, Oxford. He later sold the collection to Thomas W. Lamont, a partner in Pierpont Morgan & Co., who then presented it to Harvard.armada-straits

It can readily be appreciated, therefore, that Lyell’s acquisition of the manuscript of Pedro de Rada’s Relaciónreflected not only his interest in Spanish books but also in the naval history of the 1580s. I have not been able to discover when or where Lyell obtained it – it was perhaps on one of his visits to Spain, or maybe in the London trade, for example, from the leading booksellers, Maggs Brothers, who handled much high-quality Spanish material in the 1920s. Nor is it clear whether Lyell disposed of it during his lifetime or not. From the mid-1930s his focus turned to medieval manuscripts and these constituted the principal element in the collection dispersed after his death in 1948.

Items not bequeathed to the Bodleian, or bought from Lyell’s executors by the Bodleian (and a few by the National Library of Scotland), were acquired by Quaritch in 1951 and many, but not all, were included in Quaritch’s Catalogue 699, issued in 1952. Rada’s manuscript is not among those in the catalogue. It is possible that it was among Quaritch’s other, uncatalogued, purchases from Lyell’s collection, but this cannot be established from the firm’s surviving records for this period. It seems equally likely that Lyell sold it during the 1930s as his collecting interests developed in new directions.*


Anthony Payne is an antiquarian bookseller and past Vice-President of the Hakluyt Society. Besides his work in the antiquarian book market, Anthony Payne is engaged in historical research and has lectured at Princeton University, the University of York, the Warburg Institute, the National Maritime Museum, Gresham College and University College London. He is currently working on a major bibliographical study of Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616) and has previously published a short introductory survey, Richard Hakluyt: A Guide to His Books and to Those Associated with Him 1580–1625 (London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2008).

* In compiling this blog I have referred to the biography of Lyell by Dennis E. Rhodes in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which concludes that ‘he was a self-taught bibliophile and scholar of extraordinary enthusiasm and discrimination, and one who deserves to be remembered not only by Oxford but by the whole bibliographical world’. I have also drawn on Lyell’s posthumously published talk, ‘Books and Book Collecting’, Bodleian Library Record, vol. 3 (1951), pp. 278–81; R. W. Hunt, ‘The Lyell Bequest’, Bodleian Library Record, vol. 3 (1951), pp. 68–72; Maurice L. Ettinghausen, Rare Books and Royal Collectors: Memoirs of an Antiquarian Bookseller (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), pp. 76–8; and Albinia de la Mare’s introduction to her Catalogue of the Collection of Medieval Manuscripts Bequeathed to the Bodleian Library Oxford by James P. R. Lyell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

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The Armada of the Strait, 1581-1584: Disastrous beginnings of an ill-fated enterprise

The latest Hakluyt Society publication, The Struggle for the South Atlantic: The Armada of the Strait, 1581-84, edited by Professor Carla Rahn Phillips, documents the story of The Armada of the Strait which sailed under Don Diego Flores de Valdés in 1581–4. The armada set out from south-western Spain in the fall of 1581, with twenty-three ships and 3,500 people on board. During its three years’ voyage, hundreds of people would drown in shipwrecks and hundreds more perished from disease and privation.

The first of such shipwrecks occurred in October 1581, just a few days after the departure of the armada from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, bound for Brazil. In this post, Professor Rahn Phillips introduces us to one of the most thrilling passages of the Relación of chief scribe Pedro de RadaThe excerpt is a translation from fols 4r–5r of the original manuscript, now held in the Huntington Library [1].


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[f. 4r] … Tuesday, the 3rd of October [1581], the eve of San Francisco, when we had sailed about 35 leagues from San Lucar, there began to be such strong wind from the south and south-west, with much shifting of the cargo, and things looked bad, so that it was indispensable that the armada take down its sails and heave to, until Friday, the 6th of the aforesaid, when the weather had such force that the galeaza capitana had to jettison some things, which was done.

And the weather worsened so much on this day that eight navios from the armada could not be seen. And the next day, Saturday the 7th, we found ourselves so off course that, though we were not ten leagues from the Baya de Cadiz, the pilots did not know where they were, and thus there were a thousand variations amongst them, until the capitana saw the land of Rotta downwind, and we found ourselves blown so far to leeward that, given the force of the weather, it was greatly feared that we would not be able to enter the Bayya de Cadiz.

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And thus we sailed toward it with great difficulty, close to the wind because the wind and sea were excessive, the galeaza capitana entering with another fifteen naos that were going with her. In sight of the city of Cadiz, the nao named Nuestra Senora de Guia whose captain was Martin de Quiros, went to the bottom in a trice, and all who were on her drowned, which was the greatest misfortune to see without being able to succour even a single man, although it was four in the afternoon; and 150 men and some women and children settlers were on this nao.

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[f. 4v] This day, the navio named Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza, on which Pero Estebanez de las Alas sailed as captain, was lost near Roctta, which it could not get round. The captain himself and one hundred other persons from this navio were drowned. This same day the navio named San Miguel was lost, whose Captain Hector Abarca was drowned with another eighty persons. This same day the nao named Sancti Yspiritu was lost near the Rio del Oro in El Picacho. The captain and owner was Juanes de Villaviciossa Lizarza, who had remained in San Lucar and did not go on the expedition, because he was given too little money as subsidy; and Captain Alvaro Romo sailed in her and was drowned with another 120 persons.

The nao almiranta, in which Diego de la Rivera sailed, entered into the bay the next day, Sunday the 8th of October, after nearly being lost next to Arenas Gordas. Another two naos entered San Lucar with great difficulty, one in which Don Alonso de Sotomayor sailed, and the other with Captain Gutiere de Solis. The latter was taken to the Cassa de la Contratacion in Seville under arrest, because he had left the nao before it entered into the port. Another nao entered Guelba, with its captain Jodar Alferez.

This incident and misfortune caused great pain and grief to all in the armada, and General Diego Florez felt it very much, because, besides the loss of so many people, provisions, artillery, and other munitions, many captains and [f. 5r] high-ranking dependents of his were drowned.

[1] Note that the spelling of place names, etc. follows the original manuscript. Spanish words that should have accents do not have them in the original text, so they are not added in the translation. Ship names and types are, however, placed in italics, for the sake of clarity if not consistency.

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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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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New Hakluyt Society Publication: The Struggle for the South Atlantic: The Armada of the Strait, 1581-84

To start 2017 in great spirits, the Hakluyt Society has just released its latest publication: Carla Rahn Phillips (ed.), The Struggle for the South Atlantic: The Armada of the Strait, 1581-84, which has been distributed to Hakluyt Society members free of charge. The Struggle for the South Atlantic documents the story of that little-known ‘other Armada’, the Armada of the Strait, whose eventful journey was hardly less desastrous than that of the Armada of 1588. Professor Carla Rahn Phillips (University of Minnesota) presents us with the first edition ever to appear in print of the chronicle kept by Pedro de Rada, the official scribe of the armada. Her expert English translation is preceded by an extensive critical introduction. In this first of three blog posts, Professor Phillips introduces the new volume.


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The Armada of the Strait under Don Diego Flores de Valdés in 1581–4 came at a crucial juncture in global politics. Philip II of Spain had assumed the crown of Portugal and its overseas empire, and Francis Drake’s daring peacetime raids had challenged the dominance of Spain and Portugal in the Americas. Drake’s attacks had demonstrated the vulnerability of both Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and intelligence reports indicated that other English adventurers hoped to replicate Drake’s successful melding of trade and plunder.

It was clear to Philip and his councillors that something had to be done quickly to safeguard the Americas. The armada was intended to ensure the loyalty of Portuguese Brazil; bolster its defences against hostile native peoples as well as English and French pirates and interlopers; and fortify and settle the Strait of Magellan to prevent further incursions into the Pacific.

The Armada of the Strait under set out from south-western Spain in the fall of 1581, with twenty-three ships and 3,500 people, including officers, royal officials, sailors, soldiers, and settlers with their families. Despite careful planning, the expedition suffered terrible losses from the very beginning and hardships throughout. Hundreds of people drowned in shipwrecks and hundreds more perished from disease and privation.

Several ships were lost or so damaged by storms that they could not continue. A contingent of the armada finally was able to establish 338 persons at the Strait, following two earlier failed attempts.  Other contingents from the armada skirmished with an English expedition under Edward Fenton, expelled French interlopers from north-eastern Brazil, and improved the defences of several coastal regions. The armada officially ended when Flores arrived back in Spain with five ships and some 600 men in July of 1584. In September of that year, another three ships and 200 men arrived with the armada’s second in command, Almirante Diego de la Rivera, who had carried the colonizers to the Strait.

Pedro de Rada, the official scribe of the armada, kept a detailed, neutral chronicle of the venture which remained in private hands until 1999 but is now held in the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California. It is now published for the first time, as the latest Hakluyt Society publication (Third Series, Vol. 31). Previous historical assessments of the expedition have largely reflected the writings of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, governor-designate for the planned colony at the Strait, who blamed all the misfortunes of the enterprise on Diego Flores de Valdés. Rada’s Relación is presented here in conjunction with other documentation and compared with Sarmiento de Gamboa’s accusations.

The results will force scholars to revise long-standing conclusions regarding the place of Sarmiento and Flores in Spanish history and the accomplishments of a long-forgotten armada sent into the terrifying waters of the South Atlantic.

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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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