A Brief History of Los Cabos, Part II: The Galleon Trade and the Golden Age of Piracy
For thousands of years, the only contact the Pericú—the original inhabitants of the southernmost part of Baja California Sur—had with the outside world were occasional parlays or skirmishes with their territorial neighbors, the Guaycura, and perhaps, on waterborne excursions along the coast and to islands near La Paz, rare encounters with other hunting and gathering tribes of the Baja California peninsula.
That all changed in 1534, when a Spanish ship sailed into the Bay of La Paz.
The ship was commissioned by Hernán Cortés, the man who led the “Conquest of México,” and who had defeated the mighty Aztecs in 1521. Cortes had written to the King of Spain as early as 1524, citing a lieutenant’s story of gold, women and pearls on an “island” that was 10 days sailing from the Pacific Coast. As a consequence of this letter, Cortés was promised 1/10th of all the land and wealth he discovered there.
The first expedition advanced only as far north as the coast of Jalisco. The second, in 1532, also failed to reach Lower California. The entire crew was killed during two ill-fated encounters with Indians on the western coast of mainland México (then known as New Spain).
The third expedition, which departed in November 1533, seemed similarly destined to failure, when mutineers led by the navigator, Fortún Ximénez, slit the throat of the captain while he slept. But despite this bloodthirsty plot, Ximénez and his crew are recorded as the first Europeans to set foot upon the Baja California peninsula.
What must the Pericú have thought when they saw these strange invaders–who it must be noted, had come not to conquer but merely to escape–making for shore? Were the killings that followed instigated by the Pericúes, or the result of depredations committed by the newly arrived Spaniards? The reasons are shrouded in the mists of history.
What is known is that Ximénez was killed, along with some 20 other members of his crew. Local legend has it that the white crosses at present day Las Cruces honor the deaths of these first Spaniards. But this, too, is unsubstantiated.
Survivors of the third expedition are said to have carried tales of giant black pearls back to Cortés, and the following year, the explorer journeyed across a sea that four years later would be named for him, landing near what is now the Ferry Terminal at Pichilingue on May 3, 1535.
This is the day officially remembered as the founding of La Paz, and it is celebrated in the capital city of Baja California Sur’s annual Fiestas de Fundación, the 480th anniversary of which was commemorated in 2015. It should be noted, however, that Cortés did not call his discovery La Paz but rather Villa de la Santa Cruz.
Remarkably, Cortés, who had conquered the immensely powerful Aztecs with grossly inferior numbers, could not manage to subdue the sparsely populated Baja California peninsula and its primitive, poorly armed tribes. He withdrew after his attempt to found the first permanent settlement on the peninsula–as it turned out, the first permanent settlement was not established for another 162 years–failed in a single year due to food and water shortages, and unrelenting attacks from the Pericúes and Guaycuras.
Cortés’s interest in the region continued, nonetheless, and in 1539 he commissioned Francisco de Ulloa to seek rumored wealth in the “Seven Cities of Cibola,” an expedition that led Ulloa to trace nearly the entirety of the Baja California peninsula (then, as was earlier noted, still considered an island). Ulloa departed with three ships from Acapulco, and followed the coastline around the length of the Gulf of California (it was Ulloa who gave the gulf its more currently common name, the Sea of Cortés, in honor of his patron), losing one of his ships en route.
Ulloa then became the first European to round the tip of the Baja California peninsula–and the first to sight present day Cabo San Lucas–sailing just north of Cedros Island before being forced to turn back by powerful storms. He was later murdered by one of his own crew.
Despite Ulloa’s achievement, and his sighting of Los Cabos, the Capes Region did not emerge on the world stage until decades later, in 1565, with the inception of the immensely lucrative Manila—Acapulco Galleon Trade.
Spain was nearing her peak of her influence at this point, having succeeded Portugal as the world’s preeminent colonizer and sea power. With the exception of Brazil, she counted nearly the entire Western Hemisphere among her possessions, and in 1521 had also planted her flag in the Philippines thanks to the efforts of Ferdinand Magellan.
With these new possessions came untold amounts of treasure, and the demand for fresh new trade routes. For upwards of forty years after the discovery of the Philippines, however, ship after ship failed to find the necessary trade winds needed to establish an eastward route to the New World. In was not until 1565 that Spanish navigators Alonso de Arellano and Andrés de Urdaneta discovered ships must head north to the 38th parallel, off the coast of Japan, to find the trade winds, known as “westerlies,” that would enable them to cross the Pacific, and then proceed down the California coast.
From this propitious discovery came the famed Manila – Acapulco Galleon Trade. Each year galleons would make a round-trip journey between México and the Philippines, transporting Mexican silver to Manila for purchasing power, and bringing back silk, spices, porcelain and other luxury goods from China and elsewhere in Asia.
After finding the trade winds and re-crossing the Pacific, the galleons would then travel south along the coast until they sighted the granite rock formations at Land’s End in Cabo San Lucas.
Not only were these rock formations a navigational landmark, they also signaled an opportunity to take on fresh water at the San José del Cabo estuary–known to the Spanish as Aguada Segura–before completing the four-month journey to Acapulco, where the goods would be offloaded and transported overland to Veracruz, and thence to Spain.
The monetary value of goods carried on these galleons beggars belief, a fact that was not lost on the English and Dutch, who legally commissioned privateers to attack them.
But one man’s privateer is another man’s pirate, and soon after the establishment of the yearly galleon trade, Cabo San Lucas Bay was infested with them. The rocks at Land’s End, so useful to the Spanish as a navigational aid, also proved useful tot the English and Dutch pirates as cover for their inevitable ambushes.
Sir Francis Drake was conducting raids in the area by 1570s, and in 1587, a young English captain named Thomas Cavendish took one of the greatest prizes ever recorded, after sacking the supposedly invincible galleon Santa Ana.
The pirates, or privateers if you prefer, always had the advantage in terms of smaller, more mobile vessels, but were generally warded off by the superior firepower of the enormous galleons. But as luck would have it for Cavendish, the Santa Ana was missing all her cannons. Authorities in Acapulco had commandeered them prior to the first leg or her journey, claiming, rather ironically in retrospect, that they needed them to repel pirates. And her sister ship, Buena Esperanza, had already departed for Acapulco.
Thus Cavendish’s ships Desire and Content were able to harry their larger prey, ram her and board without fear of being destroyed en route by cannon fire.
After six hours of fierce fighting in Cabo San Lucas Bay, the battle was won, and Cavendish was able to offload all the booty aboard before beaching the Santa Ana and setting her ablaze.
It was the greatest loss ever suffered by the Spanish during the 250 years of the Manila – Acapulco Galleon Trade–reportedly valued at over 120,000 gold doubloons–and it resulted in a marked increase in protection for such ships during the remainder of the route’s existence.
The following year, 1588, England famously added injury to Cavendish’s insult by defeating the supposedly invincible Spanish Armada, whose intention was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.
Even with piratical attacks and naval disasters, the Manila – Acapulco Galleon Trade continued unabated until 1815, when eventually successful independence struggles in México and South America effectively ended Spain’s centuries-long reign as a global superpower.
Although the Capes Region was thus an important center of Spanish activities in Baja California during the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond, the pearl beds that stretched north from La Paz continued to exercise a profound fascination on Spanish adventurers, and many additional attempts were made to establish a permanent settlement on the peninsula.
Following Cortés unsuccessful efforts in 1535, the next significant foray was in 1596, when Sebastián Vizcaíno was granted a concession to the Californias by the Spanish crown. The inhospitable climate and inhabitants, and the lack of sufficient food and water, doomed his venture to failure after only two months. But Vizcaíno will be remembered for giving the place its modern moniker, La Paz.
Ultimately, the first permanent settlement on the Baja California peninsula was not established until 1697, when Jesuit priest Juan María de Salvatierra founded a mission at Loreto, the first of what were to be many in the Californias.
But that, as they say, is another story.