Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
One great desire of the sixteenth century was to find a faster passage to Asia in hopes of dominating the European trade of exotic spices and goods. Ferdinand Magellan and his men made significant inroads in accomplishing this when they circumnavigated the world for Spain, but this accomplishment created a dilemma. That journey took about two years to accomplish and only eighteen of the original 270 voyagers make it home. Surely, with all her American colonies, there had to be a way to greatly shorten this timeframe and the Spanish king was determined to find the elusive pieces to the puzzle that would allow his galleons to travel from the East Indies to Mexico, where the cargoes could be offloaded, shipped across to the east coast, and embarked on galleons bound for Spain.
The dilemma sounds easy to solve, but at the time, no European knows where to find the winds and currents that will allow ships to sail from west to east. The Pacific Ocean complicates this because it is so vast that it can accommodate every continent and island the world has if gathered together in one spot. Or, if one is foolhardy enough to swim across this blue expanse from one continent to another, it will take fantastical luck and a swimmer willing to go twenty-hours a day, every day for six months to accomplish the feat.
Conquering the Pacific is the story of finding this west-east route, how it was accomplished, who was involved, and what the aftermath of opening this passage meant for the men involved and for future generations. In 1557, a cluster of ramshackle abodes dotted the landscape near a lagoon and bay on the west coast of Mexico. Secluded Navidad is a good place to build in secret, yet its remoteness makes it a logistical nightmare for getting necessary supplies and people there and the location isn’t the healthiest. Don Luis de Velasco, the viceroy of Mexico, is tasked with carrying out King Felipe II’s plan. It’s a monumental undertaking for someone with no nautical expertise; nor is he without faults. Two men, both of whom have crossed the Pacific Ocean prior to this endeavor, serve as advisors: Juan Pablo de Carrión, a resourceful and legendary adventurer, and Friar Andrés de Urdaneta, once an explorer with firsthand navigational experience and now a priest. They don’t see eye-to-eye on many points, especially when it comes to the route that will be followed. Carrión suggests the Philippines, which lies on the same latitude as Mexico, but Urdaneta favors a more southern course to land at New Guinea. And who will command this expedition? The viceroy favors neither of these men, choosing instead Miguel López de Legazpi, a scribe in charge of accountants at the Minting House in Mexico City. He’s not an explorer and has no navigational knowledge. To further complicate matters, a royal emissary investigating the viceroy’s excesses and the members of the ruling Audiencia get involved.
Finally, in the fall of 1564, the two galleons built at Navidad – 500-ton San Pedro and 400-ton San Pablo – are ready to set sail. Two other vessels complete the fleet, the San Juan, which carries forty people, and the San Lucas, a tender capable of carrying half that number. The expedition consists of 380 handpicked men of different class, nationality, and race with a variety of occupational skills. Among them is an Afro-Portuguese man named Lope Martín, an extraordinary man, skilled in mathematics, astronomy, and cartography, who is a licensed pilot. His job is to guide the San Lucas from Navidad to the East Indies and back again. All goes according to plan until the Audiencia’s secret orders are revealed and Legazpi orders the San Lucas to scout ahead of the fleet.
Reséndez weaves a fascinating account of who became the first to find the west-east transpacific route. It devolves into a race marked by human and natural hazards, exotic locales, unfamiliar customs, tenuous relations between islanders and crews, short supplies, mutinies, maroonings, and accusations of embezzlement, treason, and murder. Scientific theory and concepts are explained in easily understood language with modern-day examples readers will comprehend. He also discusses how Spain and Portugal come to “own” the lands outside of Europe, as well as how this causes a dilemma regarding ownership of the Philippines, the history of navigation, and what knowledge pilots need to go from point A to B. Twenty-five maps are strategically placed throughout the book. Also included are twenty-two illustrations, a note about dates and measurements, end notes, and an analytical index. (The last was not available for viewing in the galley I previewed.) Highly recommended for any maritime history collection that deals with the ages of exploration and sail.
Review Copyrighted ©2021 Cindy Vallar
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