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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

European Explorers of the Pacific

European Explorers of the Pacific


The first white navigator to cross the Pacific was the Portuguese, Ferdinand Magellan, who sailed under the banner of Spain to prove his theory that there was a western passage to the east. He discovered the western passage, which was named the Strait of Magellan after him, and his fleet entered the "Great South Sea" in November, 1520. Magellan reached the Ladrones (Marianas) on March 6, 1521, and he was killed a month later at the small island of Mactan in the Philippines. One of his officers, another Portuguese named Sebastian del Cano, managed to navigate the small Victoria back to Europe and thus became the first to circumnavigate the globe.


A second expedition, under the command of Loyasa, a Spaniard, with Del Cano as second-in-command, sailed from Spain in 1525. The ships passed through the Strait of Magellan and crossed the Pacific on much the same course as that followed by Magellan. Both Loyasa and Del Cano died on the voyage, and the ships reached the Ladrones on September 4, 1526 under the command of De Salazar. During the passage from the Strait of Magellan 40 men had died, and at the Ladrones De Salazar also died. The expedition continued to Mindanao under the command of Martin Yniguez and finally reached Tidore in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. At Tidore, the Spaniards successfully repelled attacks by the Portuguese, who had established posts at Ternate and claimed exclusive rights over the Moluccas.


The two Spanish expeditions had made the eastern part of the Pacific crossing south of the equator, but they did not encounter any Polynesian islands. Magellan's discovery of the Philippines led Spain to claim rights over the group, and Loyasa's voyage induced Hernando Cortez to send three ships to the Moluccas. These ships, under the command of Saavedra, left the Pacific coast of Mexico on October 31, 1527. It was the first voyage initiated from America and, unlike the two other expeditions, it sailed from a port north of the equator. Two of the ships were lost in a storm, but Saavedra reached the Ladrones in his flagship, the Florida, and sailed on to the Philip-page 17pines. Later, he reinforced his countrymen in Tidore. A Hawaiian legend of a wrecked ship has been linked by some writers with one of Saavedra's lost ships, but evidence in support of the theory is of such flimsy nature that it may be dismissed.

Gaetano and Others

Other Spanish trans-Pacific voyages between New Spain and the Philippines followed. Juan Gaetano crossed from Navidad, Mexico, in 1542, and the Spaniards claim that he discovered the Hawaiian Islands, giving the date 1555, however. Careful examination of the evidence by various research workers has conclusively proved that the islands were unknown until they were first visited by Captain James Cook in 1778.

The first Spanish settlement in the Philippines was made by Legaspi at Cebu in 1565. From then on, the voyages between New Spain and the Philippines were regular. The usual North American port was Acapulco, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and the regular route of the Spanish galleons to the Philippines was to make for the parallel between 12° and 13° N. and sail west to Guam, whence it was an easy matter to complete the voyage. On the return trip, the ships sailed north to latitude 35° N., where they caught the northwesterly winds which carried them to the American coast. It was through observation of these sailing directions that the Spaniards failed to encounter the Hawaiian Islands, which lie between latitudes 19° and 22° 15' N. The westward course on the parallel of Guam became well known and the British navigators, Drake, Cavendish, Woodes Rogers, Anson, and others followed it after harrying the coast of South America. The Dutch commanders, also seeking Spanish prizes, followed a similar course. Thus, the earliest voyages were made in the northern hemisphere and Polynesia, south of the equator, remained immune from such visitations.

With the conquest of Peru by Pizarro, Spain extended her American possessions into Peru and Chile, and the southern ports of Callao and Payta became established on the Peruvian coast. Even so, the Spanish ships worked north along the coast to Acapulco and made their crossings to the Philippines on the parallel of Guam. However, crossings south of the equator came in due time.


The first expedition into the South Pacific was planned by Pedro Sarmiento, but the new viceroy of Peru, Lopez Garcia de Castro, gave the command to his nephew, Alvaro de Mendaña. Mendaña, with two ships, sailed from Callao on November 19, 1567 in a general westerly direction. He passed between the Marquesas and the Tuamotus without sighting either. He did sight what may have been one of the Ellice Islands, but his main discovery was the Solomon page 18Islands in Melanesia. He thus performed the astonishing feat of sailing across the Polynesian triangle without encountering an island in that area. The two ships, on their return voyage, reached Callao on September 11, 1569 without having added anything to the knowledge about Polynesia. However, the first voyage had been made south of the equator and the discovery of the Solomon Islands was destined to lead to discovery in Polynesia.