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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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).


@HakluytSociety – Become a member at www.hakluyt.com – #Hakluyt400