The Pacific: Spain and the Adventure of the South Sea

Find out how, in under 100 years, the Pacific Ocean became a shipping route, with marked boundaries and routes running in both directions.

By Archivos Estatales

Archivo General de Indias

Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theater of the World) (1588) by Abraham OrteliusOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

An Unknown Ocean

In the 16th century, the Pacific Ocean was an insurmountable abyss. It was a space without precise boundaries, of unknown dimensions, and without routes along which it was possible to travel, in either direction.

Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

Spanish and Portuguese explorers passed on their knowledge of a wide range of people and places, which had not previously been connected. The first circumnavigation of the globe, and subsequent voyages, shaped the new ocean.

The exhibition Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

In 1513, humankind's history changed forever; as shown in the exhibition The Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea. It was held at the General Archive of the Indies, later traveling to several different countries between 2013 and 2015.

Christopher Columbus' arrival to the Americas, in which he first laid eyes on the New World, was only the beginning. Many people continued to be interested in navigation, and in reaching the mythical Maluku (formerly the Moluccas or Spice) Islands.

General History of the Indies (1527 - 1561) by Bartolomé de las CasasOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

One such intrepid explorer and adventurer was Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who stowed away on one of the expeditions around the coasts of the Americas. This is Bartolomé de las Casas' account of it.

The exhibition Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

Desirous of glory and riches, he sailed around the Isthmus of Panama and the wilderness of Darien. In 1513, guided by indigenous people, he caught sight of the new ocean, naming it the South Sea.

Letter by Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1515-10-16) by Vasco Núñez de BalboaOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

This achievement, as well as the events in which he played a part, are recorded in documents held in the General Archive of the Indies: the conquest and its consequences, the battles, the rivalry between the new settlers, and his sentencing to death in 1519.

This manuscript, which records his exploits and is signed by him, is particularly interesting. In it, he defends the accusations that were made against him, at the time that he sent a wonderful gift to the king of Spain: a very large pearl.

File from the General Archive of the Indies containing documents relating to the discovery of the South Sea. (2013)Archivos Estatales

The General Archive of the Indies houses thousands of documents in its shelves and files, including several accounts of the discovery of the South Sea.

Royal Order announcing the discovery of the South Sea (1514-08-19)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

The Council of Indies' record books record the orders issued by the Crown. Royal Orders were issued in connection with many different matters, such as transoceanic voyages, or the organization of new territories.

Detail from the announcement of the discovery of the South Sea (1514-08-19)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

In 1513, the monarch wrote to Pedrarias Dávila, the new governor of the region of the isthmus of Panama, informing him of what Vasco Núñez de Balboa had achieved. In the margin, he wrote: thanks be to God for his discovery of the South Sea.

Model of the carrack Victoria (2013)Archivos Estatales

Exploring the Pacific Ocean

The ocean's vast waters were explored over the course of just a few decades, culminating in the fulfilment of their mission: to cross the ocean, that last bastion of myth and legend.

Map of the Kingdom of Chile (1646)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

The Spanish sailed around the coasts of the Americas in search of a passage to the South Sea. The passage was found by Ferdinand Magellan, after whom the strait linking the two oceans was named.

Displays and maps relating to exploration of the Pacific Ocean (2013)Archivos Estatales

The discovery of a maritime route from Spain to the far-off Maluku (formerly the Moluccas or Spice) Islands prompted new expeditions, which gradually led to the charting of that vast ocean.

Juan Sebastián Elcano's will (1526-07-16) by Juan Sebastián ElcanoOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

One such expedition was led by García Jofre de Loaisa, with Juan Sebastián Elcano as a crew member. These journeys were hard and dangerous. In fact, Juan Sebastián Elcano died during this expedition, having first written his last will and testament.

Miguel López de Legazpi's logbook (1561) by Estevan RodríguezOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

In 1565, Miguel López de Legazpi commanded the fleet that, having set sail from the Mexican coast, led to the permanent presence of the Spanish in the Philippines. However, the return route to New Spain had not yet been found.

Letter written by Andrés de Urdaneta, accepting the royal decree ordering him to travel to the islands in the west (1561) by Andrés de UrdanetaOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

The experienced Andrés de Urdaneta, a friar who had been part of Loaisa's expedition and had acted as a guide to Legazpi, was put in charge of finding the return route, as this document shows.

The exhibition Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

The successful identification of a return route saw the development of regular journeys between Manila and Acapulco, enabling encounters and exchanges between Asia, the Americas, and Spain.

Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

The exhibition Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

New Boundaries, New People

Following those expeditions, the Pacific Ocean became a new passage; a bridge between continents.

Map of Manila and its bay (1715-03-15)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

Manila, the capital of the Philippines, became a trading center, receiving products from across Southeast Asia and sending them on to Spanish America.

Chinese traders and artisans settled in the city and its suburbs. This community played a key role in the development of commercial exchanges with continental ports, from India to Japan.

Inventory of goods sent to the port of Acapulco by Francisco de Sande, governor of the Philippines. (1581-02-17)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

Silks, porcelain, spices, and other luxury products were loaded annually onto the Manila Galleon, as this inventory of goods belonging to the governor, Francisco de Sande, shows.

Ancient map of China (1555)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

This large map of China was sent to the Spanish court, and shows the negotiations that took place between the Spanish authorities and China, an Asian power.

The exhibition Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

From Uncharted Waters to a Commercial Shipping Route

The history of the Pacific Ocean has been brought to life through documentary heritage. The exhibition Pacific: Spain's quest for the South Sea offers visitors the chance to immerse themselves in its mysteries.

The exhibition Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

The General Archive of the Indies' documentary collections allow visitors to find out about the ocean voyages that took place between the 16th and the 19th centuries. High quality reproductions of the documents have been made for the exhibition.

The exhibition Pacific: Spain's Quest for the South Sea (2013)Archivos Estatales

By examining them, visitors can find out all about those journeys, bringing to life the legacy of those who took part in them, the traces they left behind, and the way in which they changed the Pacific Ocean forever.

Credits: Story

Curators: Antonio Sánchez de Mora, General Archive of the Indies, and Antonio Fernández Torres

Digital adaptation of the Pacific: Spain's quest for the South Sea exhibition, organized by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sport, via the Sub-directorate General of Spanish State Archives, and by Acción Cultural Española (AC/E).

This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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