Diego Flores de Valdés

Sylvia Brito (Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil)

Date of birth: 1530, Asturias

Date of death: 1595

Capitan-general, Navigator of the Spanish Armada

Link to BRASIL database: https://brasilhis.usal.es/es/personaje/diego-flores-de-valdes

Captain General Diego Flores de Valdés was one of the most prominent and experienced navigators of the Spanish navy, with over thirty years of service to the Crown. A noble Asturian, Flores de Valdés began his seafaring career as a young man on ships of the royal armada that crossed the English Channel to the provinces of Flanders. After sailing for years as ship captain in the Antilles and Tierra Firme, Valdés participated, as admiral, in the expedition to expel the French who occupied Florida (Vigil, 1892: 67).

For his participation in Florida, Philip II granted Valdés the title of caballero of the Order of Santiago, the most important of Spain’s military orders, established since the struggles to reconquer Spanish territory from the Muslims. Promoted to general, Valdés subsequently commanded the fleets of Tierra Firme and, twice, the Armada de la Guardia, an escort squadron from the Carrera de Indias. Flores de Valdés’ relations with Philip II were old. At an age close to that of the king, the Asturian was part of the squadron that took the then prince to England for his marriage to Maria Tudor (Alvarez de la Rivera, 1924: 153). This knowledge of many years with the sovereign gave Flores de Valdés an unusual frankness in his reports to the king, arising from the relationship of trust between the two.

Philip II appointed Diego Flores de Valdés as captain-general of the so-called Armada del Estrecho. The Armada del Estrecho was a blunt response to the monarch’s interest in defending Chile and Peru, as well as Brazil, which had just entered his dominions due to the union of the Iberian crowns in 1580. The choice of Flores de Valdés as captain of the expedition caused discontent. Philip II decided in a conciliatory decision, to appoint the Castilian navigator Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa as governor of the lands to be occupied and colonized in the Strait in 1581. Sarmiento’s apparent assent to the king’s decision would unfold in the outcome of the expedition and in the historical view that was formed of the events of the journey.

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, navigator and also chronicler, considering himself to be the motivator of the existence of the expedition, from the initial steps of the preparation of the expedition, placed himself in frontal antagonism to the command of Valdes, recording his dissatisfaction in letters and narratives he wrote about the journey, which are widely known. Because of this, there was a propensity of practically all historiography on the Armada del Estrecho to accept, endorse and reproduce the concepts of Sarmiento de Gamboa on the participation of Flores de Valdes in the expedition. 

Although the construction of forts and the colonization of the lands of the Straits were in the royal recommendations, the military character of the journey was predominant and the armada should prioritize the pursuit and punishment of corsairs and the destruction of fortified places that they had established along the Atlantic coast. According to the king’s instructions, the true scope of the expedition should be kept secret, both so that the enterprise would not come to the knowledge of nonIberian nations and so as not to hinder the recruitment of those who would embark, considering that the adverse conditions of the seas near the Strait were already known to the sailors.

The admiral, second in command after Diego Flores de Valdés, was Diego de la Rivera, from Asturias, as was most of the fleet’s officers. After several delays and given the king’s determination that the fleet began the voyage as soon as possible, the date of departure of the expedition was set for September 25, 1581. The date set disregarded warnings made by Diego Flores de Valdés about the impropriety of that choice, given that the days following the equinox would be susceptible to strong storms (Sarmiento de Gamboa, 1895: 233).

After six days of navigation, when the fleet was in the vicinity of Cádiz, a strong storm broke out, with damaging consequences for the expedition. Four vessels sank and several ships were damaged. Approximately 800 people died in the tragedy and provisions, armaments and ammunition were lost. The misfortune directly affected Diego Flores de Valdés, as several of his family members, captains and soldiers who had accompanied him for years in the life of the sea disappeared in the episode (Sarmiento de Gamboa, 1895: 236).

On November 23, Philip II ordered the expedition to depart to Rio de Janeiro, where it had to wait for favorable navigation conditions for the Strait. The expedition finally left Cádiz on the morning of December 9. The armada for the Strait of Magellan was then down to sixteen vessels with 2,408 people on board under the command of Diego Flores de Valdés (Philips, 2016: 37). After a month of sailing, the armada docked at Cape Verde. Considering that the expedition was going to stay a few days in Santiago and there was in place a caravel departing to Brazil, Flores de Valdés, paying attention to one of the main purposes of the expedition, sent letters to the governors of Bahia and Pernambuco. The content of the missives referred to requests for information on the state of the Brazilian coast in relation to privateer incursions. The governors were to send the news to Rio de Janeiro where the armada would move. It is clear, even before arriving in Brazil, the concern of Valdés with the state of the Brazilian coast, target of already known constant French raids.

The armada remained in Rio de Janeiro for more than seven months. The armada was waiting, besides the favorable time to continue the trip to the Strait, the reinforcement of supplies promised by Philip II, upon departure from Spain. During the invernada in Rio, a fact to deserve record was the receipt by Valdes of correspondence coming from the kingdom giving him knowledge of the concession to him by Philip II of the Encomienda de Oreja of the Order of Santiago. This fact shows that despite Pedro Sarmiento’s outrageous manifestations against his command of the fleet, Flores de Valdés was still well liked by the monarch. A letter received from Spain gave news of the departure of a French fleet bound for Brazil, emphasising and recalling the main purpose of the expedition, that of chasing the corsairs.

A meeting between the main commanders of the expedition, decided that a new attempt to take Pedro Sarmiento and his settlers to the Strait would be made with part of the armada under the command of Admiral Diego de la Rivera. Diego Flores de Valdés, in turn, with the accompaniment of General Alcega, would sail to Paraíba to fight the French who had settled in the region (Philips, 2016: 44-46).

In Paraíba, the French and the Potiguara indigenous worked together in brazilwood extraction, with the removal of relevant shipments of wood without any taxation, the quintos reais, which resulted in significant losses for the Iberians. All this environment was undoubtedly taken into account when Flores de Valdés was appointed and one of his most important missions was prepared and coordinated by the Hispanic monarchy. The directive to take care of the “coasts of Brazil” can be seen in the king’s instructions to Diego Flores de Valdés and in the choice of Rio de Janeiro as the Brazilian port for the armada “invernar”, much closer to Paraíba than to the Strait, in accordance with the recommendations of the Royal Council, which considered the place appropriate “[…] por que de el se puede acudir a la necesidad que se ofrezca en la banda del norte”.

Diego Flores de Valdés’ fleet arrived in the city of San Salvador in July . The admiral soon sought to obtain from Governor Manuel Teles information about the region about French pirates and their rescue points and sources of supply. The commander was also interested in knowing about the loyalty of Bahia and the other Capitanias to King Filipe II. Diego Flores de Valdés stayed in Bahia for almost eight months. The admiral decided to stay in the region to await the outcome of the confrontation that took place in the Azores between the Spaniards and the consortium of supporters of D. Antonio. When he learned of the victory of Philip II’s forces, Diego Flores de Valdés left for the captaincy of Pernambuco, where the expedition to Paraíba would be prepared.

Classical and even contemporary historiography has dealt with the period of Diego Flores de Valdés in Brazil and his trip to fight the French at the mouth of the Paraíba River in a partial and almost unrefuted way. The stony vision of the historians of the episode justified the presence of the Asturian general in the territory as an improvisation or as compensation for the failure of the enterprise of the Strait of Magellan. The accounts of the arrival in Brazil and the arrival of Flores de Valdés in Paraíba were built on the foundations of the various statements and narratives by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, which disregarded the participation of the Asturian in all phases of the so-called armada of the Strait.

Few discordant voices were raised in opposition to what, to this day, is sedimented in Luso-Brazilian and Spanish historiography regarding the real objectives of the Valdés expedition. The first of these criticisms came from the historian Pedro Calmon, who explained the function of the Valdes armada to protect the Brazilian coast:

“Os historiadores fartaram-se de estudar a este propósito (a expedição ao Estreito, orientada pelo “descobridor” Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, também seu cronista clássico) a aventura militar de Valdez. Deixaram na sombra o essencial dela, que daquele momento em diante passou a ser, não a obstrução da passagem interoceânica, mas a defesa do Brasil contra a nova e vasta ameaça.” (Calmon, 2013: 186-189)

Contemporarily, William D. Phillips and Carla Rahn Phillips, also disagreed with the currently established version of Valdes’ voyage to the Atlantic, and demonstrated that, among the campaigns engineered by King Philip for the defence and protection of his American territories, the Strait of Magellan expedition achieved “considerable success” (Philips, 2015: 164). According to José Carlos Vilardaga, Brazil had been part of the strategic scenarios of the “Felipes” Crown since 1560, due to the defensive fragility of the Capitanias of São Vicente and Rio de Janeiro. There was a constant concern because of their proximity to the Río de la Plata and the mines of Potosi (Vilardaga, 2010: 40-41).

Recent research carried out in Spanish archives, such as that of Sylvia Brito, shows that the incursion into Brazil, and specifically into Paraíba, by the Armada commanded by Diego Flores de Valdés was already foreseen before the fleet left the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda (Brito, 2020). The expulsion of the French and the conquest of the Paraíba region took place thanks to the Armada’s action in Brazil. The importance of this military expedition is expressed by Phillips:

“Despite its official designation, the Armada of the Strait was to spend most of its time and energy in Brazil, bolstering Portuguese defences, ensuring the loyalty of local officials to King Philip, and expelling other European interlopers. […] If historians remember the expedition for anything besides Sarmiento’s self-serving claims, it is because of the Battle of Paraíba in April of 1584.” (Philips, 2016: 4; 48)

Diego Flores de Valdés left Paraíba sailing to Spain in April 1584. That same year, on September 18, Valdés attended a meeting at the Court with the “Ingeniero mayor del Reino de España”, Giacomo Palearo, to discuss his mission in Brazil. In this meeting where were discussed “las trazas de los fuertes de Brasil” – were treated fortifications erected in Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, São Vicente and the “Puerto de la Parayba”, where Flores de Valdés had left the Spaniard Francisco de Castrejón as “alcaide”. All this information was very important and was part of the Monarchy’s need to obtain detailed information about its possessions and this concerned the very foundations of the fortifications that were built. The Felipes were interested in knowing the coastal geography, where inland navigation could be possible and if the port would be safe (Mora-Figueroa, 1998: 73).

The expedition commanded by General Diego Flores de Valdés had an important outcome in Brazil, as already mentioned. The armada had wide-ranging objectives, it sought to end old French incursions into the brazilwood areas in northeastern Brazil; strengthen the Spanish presence around the Río de la Plata; fortify the Strait of Magellan; and start a colony in Patagonia. With the exception of strengthening and establishing a settlement in the Strait, the other actions were successful. But the main aspect to be highlighted about this issue was the configuration of the Spanish strategy for the defense of Portuguese America. 


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