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1 Failure and Futility in the Voyages of Mendaña and Quirós

1 Failure and Futility in the Voyages of Mendaña and Quirós

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2. Exploring the South Pacific

matter of fact, the distance between high aspirations and cruel reality

in the Pacific extends well beyond that period. This bathos became the

hallmark of the creation of the Pacific until well into the nineteenth

century. As Lamb sums up, “Delight always goes hand in hand with

dismay in the Pacific” (2000: 7).9

Menda and Quirós can be said to have inaugurated in the

Pacific what Daniel Boorstin has called “the ardours of negative

discovery” (1983: 278). Negative discovery, as it were, unites efforts

to discover and explore the Pacific, which arose from the belief in the

Southern Continent or Terra Australis Incognita. According to Lamb,

in fact, “negative discovery” pervades not only the journeys

themselves, but also, and more importantly, it encompasses historical

and literary representations of the Pacific.10 Among them, Lamb lists

the following examples: “Gulliver praises the land of the Houyhnhmns

for the things it does not contain; William Dampier describes the coast

of New Holland as a series of absent amenities; More delivers an

account of Utopia by means of the figure of litotes […] Such negative

methods of representation are an index of the profound uncertainty of

navigators, travelers, and settlers in the Pacific” (2000: xv). This

‘negative’ attitude lay behind the sixteenth-century journeys to the

Pacific by Quirós, Barreto and Mendaña, and lasted well into the

eighteenth century, buttressed by enthusiasts, the last of whom was

probably Alexander Dalrymple.11

Before the expeditions of Menda, Barreto and Quirós, other

journeys to the Pacific took place in the fifty years after Magellan’s

circumnavigation (1521-1567), although they did not have much of an

impact in the production of this area of the world. Though at times

couched in semi-imperialist tones, the most thorough study of the

Spanish exploration to date is Amancio Landín, Descubrimientos en

los Mares del Sur.

The Portuguese were developing their commercial links in the

Malay Archipelago and arrived at New Guinea’s coast in 1526, though

they did not carry their search further south. According to Lawrence

Wroth, “New Guinea, or Papua, seems to have been briefly sighted in

passing as early as 1511 by the Portuguese mariner Antonio de Abreu

[…] [in] 1526” (2001: 181). Also, sponsored by the Spanish crown,

García Jofre de Loaísa led an expedition from La Coruña in Spain to

the Philippines in 1525-26 following the Magellanic route and was

2. Exploring the South Pacific


shipwrecked and lost at sea. Two years later, Álvaro de Saavedra

Cerón went from Nueva Espa (Mexico) to the Moluccas and then on

to New Guinea (1527-29). Lastly, Hernando de Grijalva went from

Peru to the Moluccas in 1547.12 These journeys, however, were not

directed to exploring the Pacific. In fact, the first westward voyage of

intentional South Pacific exploration was that of Álvaro de Mendaña

in 1567. The motivation to find the austral landmass, Terra Australis

Incognita, was clearly behind Mendaña’s journey when he set out

from Peru to seek “certain islands and a continent” in the South


In his search for these “certain islands” Mendaña was

probably influenced by Quechua beliefs, which were even more

important for his relative and main competitor in seeking command of

the expedition, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa.14 Quechua tradition, as

interpreted by Sarmiento de Gamboa in the 1550s, ratified the

existence of wealthy islands off the West coast of Peru, in the South

Seas. These islands were known as Hahuachumbi and Ninachumbi,

and Amancio Landín follows Marcos Jiménez de la Espada in

identifying them with the Galapagos Islands (1945: 24n.). Landín

affirms that:

In his Historia de los Ingas del Perú, Sarmiento demonstrates a

perfect knowledge of the indigenous tradition in relation to the

mentioned Hahuachumbi and Ninachumbi, and this knowledge

stimulates his idea of colonizing them.”15 (1945: 25)

Sarmiento de Gamboa, however, did not succeed in his quest, for

Mendaña had the fortune or misfortune to count on the support of his

uncle, the viceroy García de Castro, who favoured him with the

commission to discover the Southern Continent. One of the reasons

for the decision to support the exploration, according to a letter cited

by Landín, was to provide employment for the many idle people that

lived in Peru awaiting their opportunity to sail away and enrich


Mendaña sailed from the Peruvian port of Callao on 19

November 1567 with a fleet of around 170-180 men in two ships, the

Capitana and the Almiranta, which were named Los Reyes and Todos

los Santos respectively. Mendaña was the governor (adelantado) of

the fleet, Pedro the field-master, Sarmiento de Gamboa captain of the


2. Exploring the South Pacific

Capitana,17 and Hernán Gallego the piloto mayor (main pilot). Four

Franciscan friars accompanied the expedition that traversed the

uncharted South-West Pacific in eighty days, making a landfall at

Santa Ysabel in the Solomon group of islands on 9 February 1568.

Mendaña found no Southern Continent, though he discovered and

named Santa Ysabel, San Cristobal and Guadalcanal in the Solomons.

The islands Mendaña discovered were only named Solomons

thereafter because of their association with the Solomonic Ophir

searched for by many explorers and mentioned in the first chapter of

this book. The Solomons thereafter eluded travellers for a further two

hundred years, being only rediscovered after they had already become

another Pacific mirage.18 The words of the nineteenth-century editors

of the documents related to the discovery of the Solomons for the

Hakluyt Society, Lord Amherst of Hackney and Basil Thomson,

rightly present this “discovery” as one of the most puzzling chapters

of European exploration.19 They affirm that: “There is surely nothing

in the history of maritime discovery so strange as the story of how the

Isles of Solomon were discovered, lost, and found again” (1901: i).

Mendaña’s expedition spent six months among the

Melanesian islands and returned to Callao on 11 September 1569 after

an absence of almost two years (Kelly 1971: 16). Upon his return,

Mendaña dedicated the next twenty-six years to canvassing support

for a further expedition, and on 17th of June 1595 he returned to the

South Pacific with Pedro Fernández de Quirós as pilot. With Menda

travelled his wife and brothers and some 354 people, of whom 107

were women, children and servants (Gil c1989: 106).20 In this rather

aimless voyage, Mendaña sought the Solomons, without success, in

order to colonise and settle them. Instead, however, he arrived in and

named the Marquesas de Mendoza in honour of the Marquis of

Cañete, Viceroy of Peru. They then sailed to the Santa Cruz

archipelago where Mendaña died of malaria, as did many others in the

journey. Following Mendaña’s last will and testament, his wife, Isabel

Barreto was named Governor and, after much hardship, hunger and

loss of life, she led the remainder of the fleet to the Philippines. She

commanded the only ship left of the fleet, the galleon San Jerónimo,

which departed the Solomons with one hundred and twenty people on

board. Of those, forty died in Santa Cruz and fifty of scurvy, hunger

and thirst on the way back. Only thirty-five to forty arrived in Manila,

2. Exploring the South Pacific


and of these a further ten died in local hospitals, as will be seen in

more detail in the next section of this chapter.

The other ship from the fleet, the Almiranta, was lost and it is

believed to have landed in the Solomons, in today’s Pamua.21

Archaeological evidence has proved that it is quite likely that the men

and women from that ship founded a settlement of some months’

duration, before disappearing, probably killed by the natives.22 As Jim

Allen and Roger Green observe, “the archaeological evidence

demonstrates that in 1595 A.D. the Spanish in fact did return to the

Solomon Islands they had discovered 27 years before, and established

what became the second European settlement of short duration in the

Oceanic area of the Pacific” (1972: 91).23

After this failed expedition, Quirós assumed Menda’s role

and dedicated himself with passion throughout the following decade to

canvassing support for a further expedition. He finally led the third

voyage to the South Pacific from Callao in 1605.24 This expedition

consisted of two ships, the San Pedro y San Pablo and the San

Pedrico, and a launch, Los Tres Reyes. Quirós was in charge of the

San Pedro y San Pablo, with his declared enemy, Diego de Prado y

Tovar as second in command. Luis Vaez de Torres commanded the

San Pedrico and Pedro Bernal de Cermeño Los Tres Reyes.

Neither the Solomons nor the Santa Cruz archipelago was

found in this journey, though Quirós landed in Vanuatu’s Santo.

Believing it to be part of the Southern continent, he named it

Austrialia del Espíritu Santo to honour the monarchy of the Austrian

Hapsburgs as well as the austral find. From Santo the fleet became

divided and, for reasons unknown to us, Quirós returned, leaving Luis

Vaez de Torres to lead his ship through the strait that today bears his

name. This deed was, however, largely unknown until Dalrymple

found Torres’ letter in Manila, published it, and proposed that his

name be given to the strait and islands that today bear it.25 Brett

Hilder, who has studied in detail Torres’ voyage, laments the secrecy

of his achievements, especially when compared with the recognition

given to Quirós as a result of his self-promotion. In Hilder’s own


That such great discoveries were made only to be filed away so

successfully in the archives that the world has been largely ignorant


2. Exploring the South Pacific

of them to this day is a very poor reward for Torres and his men,

who received neither thanks nor repayment from the Spanish

Crown. Quiros, on the other hand, thanks to his genius for

exaggeration and propaganda, achieved great renown and lasting

fame for his meagre discoveries, which were still inspiring

exploration at the time of Cook. (1980: 10)

The reasons for Quirós’ decision to abandon the search for the

Solomons are unclear, though illness and conflict in the ships were

probably determining factors. However, had the ships held course they

would almost certainly have sighted either New Zealand or Australia

or both. J. C. Beaglehole comments that historians have been puzzled

and unanimous in their condemnation of Quirós’ unfortunate decision:

“So,” writes Beaglehole, “on the pinnacle of glory, Quirós turned his

back; and there began that melancholy retreat the truth of which is so

hard to disentangle” (1966: 96). This decision marked the end of

Quirós’ search. On his return to Madrid in 1607, he tried all means to

have a new expedition entrusted to him for discovery and colonisation

in the Pacific. In 1615 he received permission to return to Peru, but he

died on the way there in June of the same year.

It is worth noting that, between the journeys of Menda and

Quirós, the circumnavigations of Francis Drake in 1577,26 of Thomas

Cavendish in 1586-88 and of Olivier van Noort in 1598-1601 also

took place. These journeys were, however, largely focused on the

South American Pacific coast and the plunder to be obtained from the

Spanish galleons carrying bullion from the colonies to the mainland.27

Also, neither of these navigators stopped anywhere in the South

Pacific. Thus, although as feats of navigation the journeys were

certainly remarkable, as far as knowledge of the Pacific went, they

added little, other than awareness of the lack of accurate geographical

information as to the dimensions of the ocean.28

As indicated at the beginning of this chapter, from the point of

view of post-enlightenment history, the three Spanish-sponsored

expeditions to the South Pacific are assessed as failures. Basil

Thomson sums up the outcomes of these voyages as follows: “In fact,

for all the good that geographical science had derived from these three

Spanish expeditions, they might as well have never been undertaken.

All the discoveries have had to be re-discovered, and the published

narratives of them have only served as material for speculation and

2. Exploring the South Pacific


controversy” (Amherst and Thomson 1901: Ixxii). Along these lines,

these explorations are seen to have been largely infused by the last

remnants of the crusading spirit often accompanying the Iberian

expansions. Such a view of the past, which informed a good amount

of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history, still survives in

some works, which separate the various attempts to discover, settle or

trade in the Pacific islands from the sixteenth to the nineteenth

centuries, according to the attitudes attributed to the nations (or the

rulers) that sponsored them. This reading of Pacific voyages first

situates the Spanish and Portuguese explorations of the Pacific fringes

in search for the Southern Continent and its riches, and in order to

Christianise the native peoples or use them as slaves or cheap labour.29

Next, in chronological and evolutionary terms, it locates the Dutch,

who arrived via the east and whose main objective is seen to be to

secure trade in the islands of today’s Indonesia so as to pursue what is

taken to be a type of “prosaic” commerce.30 These attempts, always

according to this view of history, culminate during the eighteenth

century. At this time, there were a number of European expeditions,

mostly English and French, which were seeking not just commerce but

also the ethnological, botanical, astrological and geographical

knowledge that would afford a coherent image of the Pacific and

facilitate their incorporation into the various empires.31 Prejudices

notwithstanding, a widespread perception of this sequence is that

summed up by Oliver Allen as follows:

Sarmiento and his fellow Spaniards began the quest with a lusty zeal

that entwined finding gold with serving God and the Spanish

Empire. The Dutch took up the search in the 17th Century in a more

prosaic spirit, seeking trade. In the 18th Century came the French,

looking for markets not yet claimed by the Dutch but finding

romance and fare for ruminations on the nature of human society.

The English, succeeding the French, brought to the enterprise

scientific research and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

(c.1980: 16)32

Recent scholarship is, however, less enthusiastic about the

supposed disinterest infusing post-enlightenment journeys. Lamb’s

association of “scientific curiosity” with “mercantile imperialism and

territorial expansion” offers a cogent summary of contemporary

skepticism. For Lamb,


2. Exploring the South Pacific

Voyages were disguised as projects of scientific curiosity, but in fact

paved the way for mercantile imperialism and territorial expansion.

This effort was enabled or accompanied by colonialism in the

domains of culture and knowledge, thought to emerge from a

consistent European ideology now often characterized as

Enlightenment rationalism. (2000: xvi)

From the perspective of post-enlightenment positivism, a

person like Quirós is, among other things, a “dreamer,” and a “zealot.”

In the words of Sir Clements Markham “he was but a dreamer […] the

last of the long and glorious roll of great Spanish navigators […] a

very religious man, deeply imbued with the superstitions of his time

and nation” (1967: xviii-xix).33 Although he is probably a more

complex character than Amherst believes, Quirós’ Christian devotion

is certainly well documented. The profound Christianity or quasimysticism of Quirós can be seen not only in his attitude towards the

conquest but also throughout his attempts to canvass support for the

journeys. In order to convince the Spanish king to sponsor his

expedition, Quirós went so far as to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Ian

Cameron’s description of this journey and Quirós’ attitude illuminates

the events as well as Quirós’ personality:

On August 28th, 1601, a pale slightly-built man in pilgrim’s dress

knelt at the feet of Pope Clement VIII. He was a humble man […]

but he pleaded his cause with eloquence […] The Pope was first

sceptical then impressed; there were two more audiences; the most

learned pilots and mathematicians in Rome checked the petitioner’s

credentials, and at last Clement VIII was won over. He not only

wrote letters recommending the voyage to Philip of Spain, but also,

as tangible evidence of his support, handed over a number of

specially blessed rosaries and a piece of wood from the True Cross;

for never before had he given audience to a man so eager and

apparently so well qualified to spread the Gospel to the farthest

corners of the earth. (1966: 160)

In fact, between 1607 and 1610 Quirós wrote more than fifty

memorials addressed to King Philip III asking for his support in the

form of money as well as people so as to colonise the southern

continent he was thought to have found.34 As Colin Jack-Hinton sums


After eleven days in Madrid Quirós was received by the Count of

Lemos, President of the Consejo de Indias, to whom he presented

his relación, by the Duke of Lerma, then first Minister of the King

2. Exploring the South Pacific


and a member of the Consejo de Estado, and by the King. He now

began to write a succession of memoriales in an attempt to prosecute

the further discovery, colonisation and conversion of the austral

lands which he believed he had discovered. (1969: 158)

Quirós’ views, aggrandised by the self-promotion of his

memorials, were of paramount importance for most Pacific explorers

till James Cook. The diffusion of Quirós’ Eighth Memorial had an

effect on future explorers and cartographic representations of the

Pacific that make it the most important document from Antonio

Pigafetta’s account of the Magellanic exploration.35 The Eighth

Memorial was first printed at the end of 1608 or beginning of

1608[1609?] and was edited thereafter in Seville by Luis Estupián, in

Pamplona in 1610 by Carlos de Labayen, en 1610 and in Valencia in

1611. According to Oscar Pinochet, the Pamplona edition had the

erratum of “Pedro Fernández de Quir,” which would find its way in

many maps up the eighteenth century, in which the Southern

Continent appears as “Quir Regio,” “Terre de Quir,” or “Pays de

Quir” (1989: 156-57). In relation to the maps, it became a feature of

French representations of the area, as Tooley observes, until the

middle of the eighteenth century: “A distinctive feature of the later

French school was the insertion, greatly enlarged, of the discovery of

Quirós. This was marked ‘Terra de Quirós’ or ‘Terre Australe du

Saint Esprit’” (1949: 122).36

Quirós’ Eighth Memorial soon found its way into print in

various European languages,37 and seems to have been behind the zest

to discover the Southern Continent of explorers from Jacob Le Maire

to Alexander Dalrymple. According to Allen:

Le Maire […] had with him a Dutch translation of a memorial that

Pedro Fernández de Quirós had written to the Spanish court five

years earlier to win royal backing for further exploration, and he

now read aloud some of Quirós’ passages describing Terra Australis

Incognita” (c.1980: 44).

Quirós’ name became legendary after his death, and his zest to

discover the Southern continent inspired navigators in subsequent

explorations up to the eighteenth century. This is certainly illustrated

by the scene on board the Eendracht on 25 October 1615, when Jacob

Le Maire was sailing across the Atlantic. With his crew falling to

scurvy and desperate, Le Maire read to them Quirós’ Eighth


2. Exploring the South Pacific

Memorial: “I read to them in the cabin […] the memorial of Quirós in

order to encourage them.” Le Maire goes on to add that this reading

had the intended effect of cheering them up (Allen c.1980: 44).

Hessel Gerritsz translated Le Maire’s account and also

produced a map where the name Quirós appears in good size on the

Southern Continent (Fig. 5).38 This map, made in Amsterdam in 1612,

influenced Dutch and French representations of the Pacific during the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Shirley observes, “This

double hemispherical world map first appeared in a collection of

voyages published by Hessel Gerritsz [...] who was […] official

cartographer to the Dutch East India Company […] Gerritsz’ map has

been carefully drafted to incorporate the latest discoveries. There are

notes on it relating to de Quirós ’ explorations in the Pacific” (1983:


The influence of Gerritsz’ map and or Quirós’ Eighth

Memorial stretches forward into the twentieth century via the

association made in late nineteenth-century Australia between the

name of their country and that given to Vanuatu by Quirós, namely,

Austrialia del Espiritu Santo. As William Richardson observes, these

claims were based on Dalrymple’s “enthusiastic” publication of the

claims of a Spanish and Portuguese discovery of Australia (1995a: 85107). This hypothesis, amplified by McIntyre’s book on the supposed

Portuguese discovery of Australia and supported by the Catholic

Cardinal P. F. Moran in the late nineteenth century, made it into the

school curricula and, “for years, Catholic schools taught that Quirós

discovered Australia” (Richardson, 1995a: 86).39 In fact, although

Clements Markham demonstrated the implausibility of the claim,

Henry Stevens notes that “the popular myth that Quirós personally

was the actual discoverer of Australia was revived by the Australian

press as late as 1928” (1930: 10-11).

As mentioned, the Dutch were not the only explorers

influenced directly by Quirós. In the eighteenth century, both French

and English scholars and sailors were fully acquainted with the

supposed achievements of Quirós. One such explorer was Lozier

Bouvet According to Allen,

On New Year’s Day, 1739, sailing […] far to the South of the Cape

of Good Hope, Bouvet spied a high and rugged headland […] he

2. Exploring the South Pacific


was sure he had sailed along the austral continent. A devotee of the

writings of Spanish explorer Pedro Fernández de Quirós, Bouvet

also believed he had been close to Quirós’ island of Espíritu Santo.

As it turned out, he had stumbled across the most remote speck of

land in the world. The nearest neighbor of Bouvet Island, as the tiny,

ice-encrusted isle he had discovered came to be named, is

Antarctica, 1,100 miles to the south. (c.1980: 78)

Also, the celebrated French explorer, Louis de Bougainville,

searched for the Southern Continent following Quirós’ reports.40

However, Bougainville did not find the Southern Continent but

sighted the Solomons without recognising them, also contributing to

the “negative discovery” of the Pacific that starts from Magellan. The

first person to recognise some of Quirós’ discoveries was Cook when,

in 1769, he identified Quirós’ La Conversion de San Pablo (today’s

Hao). Also, in 1774 Cook rightly assumed Vanuatu’s Big Bay to have

been the Bay of Felipe and Santiago in Quirós’ Austrialia del Espiritu

Santo (Cf. Kelly 1966: 60).

Among the most remarkable vindicators of Quirós’ deeds, the

name of Dalrymple stands out prominently. Dalrymple was fully

conversant in Spanish and read Quirós’ memorials.41 In fact, as

already mentioned, it was to Dalrymple that Torres owes the naming

of the strait that today bears his name.42 Dalrymple wished to continue

Quirós’ search for the Southern Continent and wanted to be the leader

of the expedition that eventually was to be successfully commanded

by Cook.43 “For his sources on the Quirós expedition Dalrymple had

to rely on the inadequate accounts of Torquemada, Arias, the Eighth

Memorial and the Memorial Xa (Ya) he dicho (“I have already said”),

which had been published by Samuel Purchas. He had not then the

letter-report of Torres. Later, Juan Bautista Muñoz sent Dalrymple a

transcription of the Simancas original that he translated into English

and made available to Burney, who published it in 1806” (Kelly 1966:


As late as 1769 Dalrymple still believed that the southern land

was bigger than the whole of Asia and stretched northwest from Tierra

del Fuego. He calculated that there were around fifty million people

living there, thus offering opportunity for trade. However, one year

earlier Cook had been given command of the Endeavour and sailed in

the voyage that would finally dissipate the myth of the Southern


2. Exploring the South Pacific

Continent. Cook arrived in Tahiti in April 1769 and in October the

same year in New Zealand, in spite of the fact that there was, as yet,

no way of fixing longitude.45 After surveying both islands of New

Zealand, Cook proceeded to discover and chart the east coast of

Australia, called New Holland at the time. In fact, he contributed to

mapping the Pacific in a way not seen since Magellan, some 250 years

before. In his second voyage in 1772, as admiral of the Resolution and

Adventure, Cook finally crossed the Indian Ocean to reach New

Zealand, thus proving that no Southern Continent existed in habitable


Cook, therefore, dispelled the myths that underline the

journeys of Quirós, Barreto and Menda. The era of Pacific

exploration and “negative discovery” started by Magellan closes with

Cook, highlighting the failure and cost in human, economic and

historic terms of many of the expeditions. It is worth noting as a

concluding note that, as Kelly and others observe, both Quirós and

Mendaña were infused by a missionary zeal that made them attempt to

establish a Christian relationship with the indigenous peoples they

encountered, unlike some of the men travelling with them.46 In Kelly’s

words: “Menda and Quirós were not only descubridores but

misioneros. It was not the Franciscan friars in the expedition but

Mendaña himself who conversed through the language of signs about

God with the native chief of Ysabel” (1965: xxi).

Interestingly, the names of these two discoverers have

remained in ways that seem unintentionally suitable. Although

indigenous peoples in the Pacific may not have much reason to

celebrate the various arrivals of Europeans on their shores, Quirós’

name was given to a cape in Vanuatu’s Santo that hardly ever makes it

in world maps. As for Mendaña, an important hotel in the capital of

the Solomons, Honiara, is named after him. More interestingly, the

Spanish fishing entrepreneur, Manuel Calvo, created in the 1990s the

Mendaña Fishing Society where some two hundred locals are

employed packing fish for European consumption. These geographical

celebrations are suitably local and located, stressing the (f)utility of

the lives and deeds of Mendaña and Quirós. This, however, need not

imply that they can be dismissed, as they are when contrasted

unfavourably with the post-enlightenment view of exploration and


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