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The First Age of Pacific Exploration (ca. 1510-1640s)

The European exploration of the world's largest ocean may be said to have begun either with the penetration of Indonesian waters by the Portuguese in the decade after 1510 or with the circumnavigation by Ferdinand Magellan's ship (1519-1522). Whichever beginning is preferred, it must be granted that the "year 1519 was indeed a year of destiny for the Pacific. A month before Magellan sailed from San Lucar, the city of Panama had been founded."[8] The first age of exploration may be divided into two phases. The initial phase was dominated by the Iberians and lasted about a century. The Spanish played by far the dominant role—largely because after about 1520 the Portuguese concentrated their energies on integrating a trading system based on the Indian Ocean.

What were the Spanish trying to achieve in the Pacific? This question raises the larger question of the motives of Spanish imperialism. The familiar historical answer is that offered by the conquistadors: to seek gold and to serve God. Certainly these goals were approved by Ferdinand and Isabella and their successors. Yet Columbus himself repeatedly sought and was expected by his backers to find an alternate passage to the Indies, so that Spain might enjoy the same profits of trade in spices that Portugal seemed to have within its grasp. Just five years after the conquest of Mexico, Cortés was urged by dispatches from the Spanish court to launch exploratory expeditions in the Pacific (from the west coast of New Spain). The Philippine Islands were finally reached from America in 1543. It took another thirty years for the Spanish to work out a practicable return route, and until the correct method was found (by sailing in more northerly latitudes where the winds were favorable) dreadful losses were incurred from lack of water and shipboard diseases. Hence it was not until the 1560s that "the Manila galleon" could be instituted; Spanish trad-


ing with the Indies became an accomplished fact seventy years after Columbus's first voyage.[9]

Clearly this exploratory thrust across the Pacific had an ambitious yet narrow purpose: to reach the islands discovered by Magellan, to establish a trading center there, and to learn how to get back. Along the way other islands were inevitably discovered, most notably the Marianas (Guam was settled for a watering and refreshment station), but once the correct routes were known most voyages adhered closely to them. The exceptions were the voyages of Mendaña and Quiros, in pursuit of gentlemanly and religious goals, and the voyage of Torres (an experienced pilot of Portuguese extraction and low birth), the first great explorer of the waters around New Guinea.

The voyages of Quiros (1606) and Torres (1610) marked the end of Spanish transpacific probing. Thereafter the policy of the Spanish Empire reflected an awareness of inadequate and declining resources. The result was a defensive posture marked by an almost paranoid attitude toward foreign intrusion, particularly in the Pacific Ocean.

The preceding sketch represents the less familiar, oceanic side of Spain's thrust in its first and greatest century of overseas expansion. It ignores what are generally regarded as the key developments: the impact of silver, the encomiendas , the Christian missions, the conquest of Peru, and so on. But it reminds us that the Spanish crown did not abandon the original purpose of Columbus's voyages. Although the large expedition (seventeen ships) that comprised his second voyage might seem to have reflected a change of priorities, it really reflected only a change of plan. Hispaniola was to be settled with Spaniards and sprinkled with cattle chiefly that it might serve as a marshaling point for further exploratory attempts to find a sea route to the true Indies. In the meantime, the aim was to enable the colony to support itself by gold discoveries and plantation products, following models established principally by the Portuguese at Madeira and other Atlantic islands.[10] To be


sure, when silver was discovered on the mainland in great quantities, development of territory proceeded apace. But before then development of territory was by no means the clear-cut primary goal of the crown. In the early decades Castilian authorities were undecided as to the course of empire, and there were strong pressures in favor of continuing to seek out a path to the Indies.[11] Of course the Spaniards who migrated generally cared nothing about this, and it was they, plus the discovery of silver, that set the dominant style of Spain overseas.

The amazing energy and persistence of Spanish expansion in the sixteenth century, fully exemplified by not only the conquistadors but also Mendaña, Quiros, and Torres, was blanketed in the early seventeenth century by a protective conservatism that proved to be profound and enduring. In this regard the influence of the crown, whose concerns were primarily centered on Europe, was decisive. The cost of maintaining Spain's European dominions, though diminished in the seventeenth century by a less ambitious policy, remained heavy. From Madrid's viewpoint, therefore, nothing was more important than the continuance of plentiful bullion supplies from America. There were even moments when the crown considered abandoning the Manila galleon. Since Manila was essentially an entrepôt at which Oriental luxury goods destined for New Spain were traded for silver, Manila appeared to be diverting the all-important silver flow away from the mother country.

This protective conservatism had a pervasive effect on the general pattern of Pacific exploration. It not only curtailed Spanish exploratory activity but also constrained the initiative of other nations. As thinking in Seville, Cadiz, and Madrid became increasingly preoccupied with the narrow aims of shielding the monopoly of Spanish-American trade and the bullion lifeline, a lifeline that traversed a small corner of the Pacific Ocean, the possibility that the Pacific might be better known or "opened up" could only be regarded with foreboding. In fact, a major reason why


the crown could never bring itself to abandon the Manila trade altogether was the strong probability that some other nation might eagerly fill the role. That nation would not only break the trade monopoly but also seek to dominate the Pacific coast of the American empire and thereby command the fate of the indispensable silver shipments from Peru to Panama. Because the seventeenth-century Spanish Empire was usually destitute of means to police its Pacific shores and sailing routes, it saw its best hope in preserving their inaccessibility. The obvious policy was to discourage anyone, even Spaniards, from finding out anything that might entice other Europeans into establishing a foothold nearby. Accordingly, the achievement of Torres was virtually suppressed,[12] and the first circumnavigation of Tierra del Fuego by the Nodal brothers—an impressive voyage which exhibited effective command, navigational skill, and seamanship—was largely obscured.[13]

From a legalistic viewpoint the government of Spain had long regarded the entire ocean from the Philippines to the New World as an exclusive Spanish preserve. During the seventeenth century, and most of the eighteenth as well, Spain treated its vast claim to the Pacific as would a manufacturing company that has obtained a patent in order to suppress its use. The Manila trade, which was the culmination, however disappointing, of the initial excitement about westward access to Eastern riches, was the sole and rather reluctantly pursued exception.[14]

The first age of Pacific exploration was not yet at an end, however. In the decades after 1600 the Dutch converted a prolonged struggle for independence into an aggressive global maritime war against the Iberian powers; they did not hesitate to ignore Spanish claims. By 1625 the Dutch East India Company had effectively expelled the English from the Indonesian archipelago and pushed the Portuguese to the perimeter. In the 1620s the worldwide expansive energy of the Dutch was at its peak, and no other nation was better positioned to embark on further probing of the Pacific. Yet the Dutch exploratory effort was initially


delayed, and after it did begin it was quickly aborted. Although the governors-general and councillors at Batavia in the 1620s and 1630s were, according to their successors, "seriously inclined to send out expeditions for the discovery of the unknown regions," they had wound up giving other matters priority.[15] At last in the 1640s, while Anthony Van Diemen was governor-general, two voyages for this purpose were sent out in quick succession. Their main objectives were, first, to learn more about the "Southland" (Australia), whose coasts and adjacent sea passages were only slightly known; second, to find and claim for the States General any unknown lands which might lie east of the Southland; and, third, to be "better assured of any eventual passage from the Indian Ocean into the South Sea, and to prepare the way for ultimately discovering a better and shorter route from there to Chili" (shorter because of the favorable prevailing wind in southerly latitutdes).

Upon examining the details of the instructions one is struck by the businesslike and practical outlook. The chance of running into civilized peoples was deemed to be slim; the objectives were realistic (Tasman by his two voyages did in fact validate many of the key expectations); and it was even recognized that trading to Chile might, at least initially, be forbidden by authorities in Amsterdam because Chile lay within the West India Company's sphere.[16] Tasman carried out his instructions competently, but no more than that. His main accomplishments were to establish the existence of the southernmost route from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific and to reckon the approximate size from north to south of the Australian continent. A report sent from the officials at Batavia to the company directors at the end of 1644 presented a calmly balanced assessment of the possibilities, problems, and requirements of dealing with the Australian landmass. The assessment was guardedly optimistic, but the task, they said, could not be hurried. They admitted that "investigating lands is not everybody's work," while adding: "God grant but one rich silver and gold mine, . . . to the solace of the general shareholders and honour of the finder."[17]


But the directors were not interested. In 1645, responding to a preliminary report from Batavia, they wrote a letter that effectively terminated all further exploration of both the Australian landmass and the South Pacific. As for attempting to investigate the southern landmass in hopes of discovering precious metals, the directors wrote:

We do not think it part of our task to seek out gold- and silvermines for the Company, and having found such, to try to derive profit from the same; such things involve a good deal more, demanding excessive expenditure and large numbers of hands; it is clearly seen in the West Indies [i.e., New Spain], what numbers of persons and quantities of necessaries are required to work the King's mines, so that gold and silver are not extracted from the earth without excessive outlay, as some would seem to imagine. These plans of Your Worships somewhat aim beyond our mark. The gold- and silver-mines that will best serve the Company's turn, have already been found, which we deem to be our trade over the whole of India, and especially in Taijouan and Japan, if only God be graciously pleased to continue the same to us.[18]

It was a sound, conservative, business decision. A century later Charles de Brosses remarked that the driving spirit of business was to make timely profits. When big commercial companies undertook voyages of discovery, he noted, they tended to focus on particular prospects of profit; upon encountering great expense or obstacles, they tended quickly to revert to their customary modes of commerce.[19] Certainly this describes the Dutch East India Company's policy in the 1640s. The company's success had been founded on ships, efficient commercial operations, shoreline establishments, and control of small enclaves and islands. Soldiers were expensive and the company tried to keep their use to a minimum. Investigation of Australia's interior therefore would have constituted a marked departure from the hitherto successful line of Dutch East Indian enterprise. The directors' refusal to undertake such exploration was consistent and understandable.

It is, rather, their refusal to countenance maritime exploration in the unknown parts of the Pacific that constituted a departure. They ruled out the possibility of a transpacific trade with Chile because that coast lay within the West In-


dia Company's preserve. Hence exploration of the seas to the eastward was useless. And, in the same vein as the Spanish imperial authorities, the directors hoped that the unknown land would remain unknown, "so as not to tell foreigners the way to the Company's overthrow."[20] Hitherto the directors had often been willing to assent to bold proposals from abroad, even where commercial prospects were distant or uncertain. In the mid-1640s, however, their policy changed.[21]

The change of policy was undoubtedly a reflection of the general pressure, especially financial, on the Dutch republic that began to take the wind out of its maritime expansion. The Dutch West India Company, whose objectives proved beyond its means, had begun to impose heavy demands on the taxpayers that appeared to have no limits. By the 1650s—in fact from then on—the Dutch Were on the defensive: the English attacked their commerce and Atlantic settlements by sea, and the French, in the 1670s, put pressure on their home borders by land. Although the directors of the East India Company were overly optimistic when they presumed that Japan and Taiwan would remain part of the eastern network, their commercial decision to stick to the profitable spice trade proved to be wise.[22] But as a result the Dutch East India Company, like the Spanish Empire, retained yet refused to exploit a diffuse monopolistic claim to the vast expanses of the Pacific.

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