Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira


Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira (1542 – 1595) is best known for voyages in the Pacific in 1567 and 1595 in search of Terra Australis 

Apart from his place of birth (the village of Congosto, in León), little is known of his early life, but he was the nephew of Lope García de Castro, who went on to become Viceroy of Peru. 

Mendaña travelled to Peru around 1558, as part of his uncle's entourage at a time when influential Spanish colonists were growing excited by Inca legends of prosperous islands in the Pacific and a great South Land further to the west. 

One of the chief promoters of such notions, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, proposed an expedition to find land in the Pacific to García de Castro, who seems to have agreed with the project as a means of maintaining peace and order by removing "restless and disruptive” elements from his domain.

Having approved a two-ship expedition, de Castro put Sarmiento de Gamboa's nose out off joint by appointing his nephew as Captain-General. 

Sarmiento went along as “Cosmographer” and, at least in his version of the story,  captain of the 200-ton Los Reyes (the flagship or capitana). Hernando Gallegos would serve as chief pilot and navigator in a command structure that had deep divisions, even before the ships departed.

The expedition sailed from Callao on 20 November 1567 with around one hundred and fifty sailors, soldiers, priests and slaves aboard the capitana and the 140-ton almiranta or secondary ship Todos Santos

After sighting a small island (probably Nui in modern-day Tuvalu) in mid-January, they made landfall on 7 February 1568 at Santa Isabel Island.  Mendana named the archipelago they had reached the Solomon Islands “in the hope that Spaniards might assume that these were the isles from which Solomon had hot the gold to adorn his temple.”.

At first, relations with the Solomon Islanders were cordial, the expedition's need for fresh food and water required more than the Islanders’ subsistence economy could provide. 

A tendency for the Spanish to help themselves, particularly to pigs, the cornerstone of the local economy, produced tension and, at times, conflict.

The pattern of friendly welcome, misunderstandings, reconciliations, robberies and retaliation repeated itself as the expedition explored the surrounding islands (Malaita, Guadalcanal, San Cristobal (Makira) and Choiseul in a small brigantine.

 Finally, at a council meeting of captains, pilots, soldiers and sailors on 7 August 1568, the consensus was that the expedition should return to Peru. The decision did not suit everyone involved. Mendaña wanted to continue onwards and sail further south, while Sarmiento de Gamboa and several others argued in favour of staying and establishing a colony.

The long and challenging return journey took them north and then east, past the Marshall Islands and Wake, and they finally reached the Mexican coast in late January 1569. 

Despite an elaborate and glowing description of the Solomon Islands, Mendaña's reports of his discoveries did not generate much interest, and it took thirty years of lobbying and courting favour in Madrid and Lima before Philip II approved an expedition to found a settlement in the Solomons.

The fleet of four vessels, San Gerónimo (Capitana), Santa Ysabel (Almiranta), the frigate Santa Catalina and galiot San Felipe left Callao on 9 April. Like the previous excursion, there was no shortage of potential sources of discontent. 

Mendaña in was command with Pedro Fernandez de Quiros as chief pilot and captain of the flagship. They were accompanied by accompanied by Mendaña's wife Doña Isabel, her three brothers and a sister, and an argumentative camp master, Pedro Merino Manrique, who proved to be a disruptive influence before the fleet had even departed.

Seeming to expect dissent, Mendaña had Quiros prepare charts for the voyage that only showed Peru and the Solomon Islands.

A three-month voyage brought the Marquesas Islands (named in honour of García de Mendoza, Marquis of Cañete, Viceroy of Peru's wife). On 21 July 1595, where four hundred people in canoes met them. Although relations were amicable at first, by the time the Spaniards sailed on around a fortnight later some two hundred Marquesans were dead.

From there, the expedition continued westward, and despite Mendaña’s confidence that the Solomon Islands were nearby when they sighted the island of Nendo, which they named Santa Cruz on 8 September they decided to start their colony there, in what is now Graciosa Bay. 

By this point in the voyage, the Santa Ysabel had disappeared, and could not be found.

Relations with the Islanders were cordial at first but soon deteriorated. Morale amongst the Spaniards was low; sickness was rife. As internal divisions emerged, Manrique was murdered in front of Mendaña, who had ordered his death.

As the death toll increased, the settlement began to fall apart, and Mendaña died on 18 October 1595. His wife, as his heir became the new governor. Her brother Lorenzo was installed as captain-general., but less than a fortnight later, on 30 October, they decided to abandon the settlement. When the ships departed on 18 November, forty-seven people had died within the last month.

After a twelve-week voyage, made without the aid of charts, Quiros piloted the flagship into Manila Bay on 11 February 1596. Another fifty people had died along the way, victims of disease, the lack of food supplies and Doña Isabel’s alleged refusal to share her private store of food and water with all and sundry. The frigate, with Mendana's body aboard, had disappeared and the galiot arrived in southern Mindanao several days later.

Of the 378 would-be colonists who sailed from Peru, around one hundred arrived in Manila and another ten died shortly after their arrival. Within three months Doña Isabel had married the governor’s cousin, Don Fernando de Castro, while Quiros was commended for his service and charged with taking the flagship back to Mexico with Mendaña’s widow and her new husband aboard.

Back in Peru in June 1597, Quiros began his campaign to return to the Solomon Islands, while Doña Isabel continued to agitate to reclaim the rights she had inherited. While Quiros was given the commission for the return voyage to the Solomons, his expedition was also unsuccessful, although it did result in his pilot, Luis Vaez de Torres' successful passage through the strait between Cape York Peninsula and New Guinea.

© Ian Hughes 2017