Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa

Sylvia Brito (Biblioteca Nacional de Brasil)

Date of birth: 1530, España

Cosmographer, navigator and governor of the lands of the Estrecho de Magallanes, author of “Viage al Estrecho de Magallanes em los años de 1579-1580 y noticia de la expedicion que despues hizo para poblarle

Link to BRASILHIS Database: https://brasilhis.usal.es/es/personaje/pedro-sarmiento-de-gamboa

Named “governor of the lands of the Strait of Magellan” in 1580 was appointed by Philip II, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa would also be responsible for the settlements and the construction of forts in the region. In one of his most famous works, published under the title “Viage al Estrecho de Magallanes em los años de 1579-1580 y noticia de la expedicion que despues hizo para poblarle”, the chronicler described his journey from Peru to fight the English corsair Francis Drake and then reported his crossing of the Strait of Magellan, the first one that took place in a west-east direction. After exploring the channels of the Strait, the cosmographer sailed to Spain to present King Philip II with his proposal to build two forts at the entrance to the Strait, which would have the purpose of hindering the passage of pirates from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts.

Of Galician family origin, Sarmiento had been in Spanish America since 1555, and it is likely that he had been in Peru for 20 years (Miguel Barros, 2006: 26). With varied skills, as a military man, cosmographer and geographer, Pedro Sarmiento was also a chronicler, he wrote several relaciones, several memoriales, poetry and the famous “Historia de los Incas”, written in 1572. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa was chosen to lead the expedition in pursuit of Francis Drake. The expedition against Drake, fully supplied with arms and ammunition, sailed to the South Seas, awaiting the Englishman’s return to the Straits with the fruit of his plunder. In turn, Francis Drake decided to cross the Pacific, reach the Moluccas, and, using the Portuguese route to the Indies, round the Cape of Good Hope returning to Plymouth, three years after his departure, completing the second circumnavigation of the Earth. The corsair who plundered the Spanish lands and ships was received in England with honours as a hero and decorated with the title of Sir by the Queen (Wallis, 1984: 122).

Pedro Sarmiento’s trip to the Straits would have been unsuccessful if it had not been motivated by other, more important reasons than fighting Drake. The Instruccion he received from the Viceroy of Peru, among other recommendations, explained them:

“VI. Al tiempo que os halláredes en la altura de la Entrada del Estrecho iréis con mucho mayor cuidado de ver todas las particularidades de Mar e Tierra que halláredes atendiendo á las comodidades de Poblaciones que por alli puede haber  […]  y procurad con vigilancia saber todas las Bocas que tiene el dicho Estrecho á la entrada por esta Mar, y medirlas poniéndoles nombres á quantas fueren, midiéndolas así por lo ancho como por lo fondo, y mirando en qual dellas hai mayores comodidades para fortalecerlas.”

Sarmiento de Gamboa sailed east-west across the Strait of Magellan in thirty-two days, carrying out a detailed survey of the conditions and characteristics of the place, in compliance with the instructions he had received from the monarch. On reaching the Atlantic Ocean, Sarmiento sailed towards Spain to deliver his report to the king. After three months on the high seas, he arrived with his vessel at the port of Santiago on Cape Verde.  According to his account, “fueron barcos del Pueblo á saber qué Nao era, y la gente que era, y de onde venía: e como se les dixo que éramos del Pirú, y veníamos de allá por el Estrecho de Magallánes, enmudecían no creyéndolo, y teniéndolo por imposible (…)” (Sarmiento de Gamboa, 1768: 342).

During his stay on the island of Santiago, where ships sailing the Atlantic docked, Sarmiento sought, as the winds had blown him away from the Brazilian coast, to obtain news of incursions by corsairs and pirates and the presence of foreigners in American lands, which in his words “esto determine cumplir lo quel Virrei en su Instruccion me manda, que es darle aviso y razon de todo lo subcedido en este Viage y Descubrimiento hasta este punto porque por el Paraguai , ni Brasil no fue posible por las corrientes […].” (Sarmiento de Gamboa, 1768: 350).

When Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa arrived in Spain in August 1580, bringing the report of his research on the Strait of Magellan to present to Philip II, the king had been in the Spanish city of Badajoz, on Portugal’s border, where he had concentrated his army of 47,000 men to enter the neighbouring country, claiming his right to the Portuguese Crown (Kamen, 2003: 257). At that time, Philip II, already aware of Drake’s pillages for about a year, had received a report from the Viceroy of Peru suggesting that the best solution, in the short term, would be to build ships to patrol the entrance to the Strait. This arrangement, after approval by the Consejo de Indias, had been initiated, but, was interrupted by the lack of Crown funds (Philips, 2016: 8-9). Various concerns of the King with events in which the Spaniards were directly involved were delaying the execution of the proposed measure.

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, as soon as he arrived in Spain, went to Badajoz to present the King with an account of his journey and to set out his considerations on the defence of the Straits. According to Cesáreo Fernandez Duro:

“Dieron mucho que pensar al rey D. Felipe los informes que de palabra y por escrito le hizo en Badajoz Sarmiento sosteniendo, en resumen, la posibilidad de asegurar el dominio del Estrecho de Magallanes construyendo en la parte más angosta dos fuertes en opuestas orillas, y fundando en la inmediación dos poblaciones que podrían muy bien sustentarse por sí solas […]” (Fernandez Duro, 1897: 357)

Philip II submitted Sarmiento de Gamboa’s proposal to the Consejo de Indias, and asked for the assessment of experts in the field, such as the cosmographer Juan Bautista Gesio. Despite the objection of some royal counsellors, on the grounds of the high cost of the enterprise in relation to the construction of vessels, the monarch decided to approve Pedro Sarmiento’s plan. As would be seen later, the aggressive local conditions did not permit a significant increase in navigation to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan. The not very correct information about the place, brought by Sarmiento de Gamboa, probably influenced the royal decision to build two forts in the Strait, which would serve as defences that would discourage other corsairs from repeating Drake’s enterprise, creating a navigation route to the Pacific through the region, with repercussions on the security of the Spanish possessions in Chile and Peru.

In February 1581 the preparations for the undertaking were started and Philip II set up a commission to deal with the various aspects of the expedition. A group of engineers of Italian origin who were then serving the Hispanic monarchy analysed the construction details of the forts project. Under the leadership of Juan Bautista Antonelli and his younger brother of the same name, known as Bautista Antonelli, the engineers Tiburcio Spannocchi and Giacomo Palearo, el Fratín (Zuleta Carrandi, 2013: 159), also participated with criticisms and suggestions. In these discussions, Sarmiento de Gamboa was present with the data and information he had collected about the region during his trip to the Strait.

The importance of the enterprise required a qualified commander, which made Philip II decide to place the undertaking under the orders of Captain-General Diego Flores de Valdés, one of the most prominent and experienced navigators of the Spanish Armada, with over thirty years of service to the Crown. This choice displeased Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa who thought that, because he had persuaded Philip II to adopt his plan to build forts and colonise the Strait, he should be in charge of the enterprise. However, the monarch decided to appoint Sarmiento de Gamboa as Governor of the lands to be occupied and colonised in the Strait of Magellan. This decision by the king would have consequences for the outcome of the expedition and the historical view that was formed of the events of the journey, always in line with Sarmiento de Gamboa’s narrative.

Bibliographical references

Fernandez Duro, C. (1897). Historia de la Armada española desde la unión de los Reinos de Castilla y Aragón (1894-1903, en nueve volúmenes). Tomo II. Madrid: Establecimiento tipográfico Suc. Rivadeneyra.

Kamen, H. (2003). Filipe da Espanha. Tradução de Vera Mello Joscelyne. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record.

Miguel Barros, J. (2006). Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. Avatares de un caballero de Galicia. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria.

Philips, C. R. (2016). The struggle for the South Atlantic: the Armada of the Strait, 1581-1584. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, for the Hakluyt Society.

Sarmiento de Gamboa, P. (1942). Historia de los Incas (1572). Buenos Aires: Emecé.

Sarmiento de Gamboa, P. (1768). Viage al Estrecho de Magallanes por el Capitán Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa en los años de 1579 y 1580 y noticia de la expedición que después hizo para poblarle. Madrid, En la Imprenta Real de la Gazeta.

Wallis, H. (1984). The Cartography of Drake’s Voyage. En Thrower, N. J. W. (Ed.). Sir Francis Drake and the famous voyage, 1577-1580. Essays commemorating the quadricentennial of Drake’s circumnavigation of the Earth. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zuleta Carrandi, J. (2013). La fortificación del estrecho de Magallanes: un proyecto al servicio de la imagen de la monarquía. Revista Complutense de Historia de América, vol. 39.

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