Conquering the Pacific

Cornelius Verbeeck (alisas Smit) A Naval Encounter between Dutch and Spanish Ships. Source: Wikipedia Commons

For the last several years that I taught a general purpose geography course, I used as the main text 1493 by Charles Mann. The book contains a wealth of stories and insights about terrain, climate, agriculture, culture, and economic life. Of course, these aren’t organized in the way a textbook would. But, for my purposes, so much the better. Students could explore culture and the economics of enslavement and rebellion in the Americas through the stories of the independent Quilombo of Palmares, the shifting demography of China as new crops from the Americas were adopted, and the emergence of the Asian trade from the Philippines to Mexico through the swashbuckling tactics of Miguel Lope de Legazpi and his Augustinian friar and world adventurer Andrés de Urdaneta.

Andrés Reséndez book Conquering the Pacific also follows the path of Legazpi and Urdaneta, but where Mann deals mainly with the collision of Spanish and Chinese cultures in the Philippines, Resendez’ book is a story about sailing. He shows that by the mid-1500s crossing the Pacific had become an urgent project of the Spanish crown to give Spanish merchants opportunity to compete with their Portuguese neighbors. Earlier crossings of the Pacific, including Magellan’s, had attempted a return trip via the Pacific gyre, the circular ocean current created by the Coriolis effect (for more on that, see *geography*). All had failed. It was only the voyage of Legazpi’s fleet and the return of Urdaneta that would provide mapmakers and pilots with the clear route for establishing the Pacific route.

Reséndez clearly knows sailing and has a profound understanding of the Spanish empire’s bureaucracy and culture. He also brings to the fore the life and work of Lope Martín, the pilot of the small ship that made the first return across the Pacific. Martín, a mulatto of Portuguese birth, piloted the dispatch boat that sailed ahead of the other three ships of the fleet. The San Lucas also visited the Philippines, but became so separated from the fleet that the captain and pilot determined that their best prospect for survival was to attempt the formidable return. They managed it in spite of limited supplies and a ship that was deemed too small to survive the currents and weather of the North Pacific.

This is an adventure story, replete with bureaucratic chicanery, natural disaster, mutiny (attempted and successful), and clashing temperaments. Reséndez even finds a case of bigamy along the way to bring all the passions and human frailties into play. As the author says in his conclusion, the Pacific is now central to the world economic system. From the beginning of European exploration, economic considerations undergirded the ocean’s partial domestication.

Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created (New York: Vintage, 2012).

Andrés Reséndez, Conquering The Pacific: An Unknown Mariner and the Final Great Voyage of the Age of Discovery (Mariner Books, 2021).