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Jose Ramón de Miguel Author of “The Times of Urdaneta”

As a navigator, Urdaneta was as important as Columbus, Magellan or Cook.


To most people, Urdaneta is completely unknown, to others he is just another of the many Basques who took part in the Americas adventure, even thought of as a missionary as depicted in the Statue erected in his hometown of Ordizia. Only a few are aware that he was the factotum of “el tornaviaje” the Return Route from the Philippines to the Americas across the pacific. But even those few are unaware of the passionate but unknown profile of the Basque sailor and of his achievements that J. Ramón de Miguel offers us in his book “The Times of Urdaneta”.

José Ramón de Miguel, the Merchant Navy captain agreed to work with the History and Modelling Section of the Oceanographic Society of Guipúzcoa, currently celebrating its Silver Anniversary, to study Andrés de Urdaneta from a nautical point of view “That is to say as the sailor who managed to make “el tornaviaje” or the Return Route from The Americas to the Philippines possible. This route established the “Manila Galleon” which was used for 250 years, and only lost its importance with the advent of steam powered navigation. “I realized that an in-depth study of Urdaneta was necessary to appreciate his achievements in a historical context” explained Mr. de Miguel. It was during this process that the surprises started to appear…

As José Ramón de Miguel reiterates, “Urdaneta has nothing to do with the classical conquistadors or second-string noblemen who threw themselves into adventures to gain fame and fortune in swashbuckling sword fights. Urdaneta, on the other hand, was a son of the middle class, from Guipúzcoa’s commercial and industrial heyday of the 15th Century as clearly shown by his modern way of thinking and upbringing.


Was he really a cabin boy?


The story begins in 1525 when, at the age of 17 he joined Loaysa`s expedition heading out to the Molucas. Elkano, who was nautical commander, had already sailed around the world. It has been suggested that Urdaneta went to sea as a cabin or galley boy, encouraged by his sense of adventure, but this was not true. The most plausible hypothesis is that he sailed as a cabin boy in the interests of his family.

It must be remembered that the expedition set to sea as a commercial venture and that the greater part of the fleet was made up of local ships. A mere cabin boy would never have had the responsibilities that Urdaneta had. He kept a navigational log book of positions, directions, analysis of weather conditions… a diary which, in technical terms coincided with those of the two experienced expedition helmsmen. He even goes on to criticize his “boss” Elkano on three occasions. He also led several shore expeditions and drew up and signed as a witness to Elkano’s last will and testament.

All this proves that in spite of his youth, Urdaneta could never have shipped out as a lowly cabin boy.      


Loayasa’s battered expedition arrived in the Molucas having lost most of its high command, among them, Elkano.

The islands were clearly located in the part of the world that the Treaty of Tordesillas had designated to Portugal, but The Spice Island trade was so appetizing that Castille refused to give it up without a fight.

The problem was, however, that once they had arrived in the Molucas, they all too soon realised that there was no way to return via the Pacific. All their attempts resulted in failure. They would have to return via the Cape of Good Hope, just as Elkano had done on his voyage around the world, but continuously fleeing from the vigilant Portuguese and this did not seem a particularly attractive option. Consequently, it seemed that Urdaneta and the rest of the survivors of the Loayasa expedition were doomed to be trapped on the islands. De Miguel goes on to explain that “Urdaneta was there for eight years, defending the interests of Castille while gathering all sorts of information, but above all, he was collating data of an economic nature. He researched the extent of the annual production of a product on one island or that another enjoyed buoyant trading relations with China, immediately regarded by Urdaneta as the great power of the region. 


 Basically in the future the Philippines would become little more than a stopover point in the trading activities between Asia, The Americas and Europe, and The Manila Galleon would enable the setting up of an alternative to the Silk Route for trading between East and West.

But, Carlos I was in need of money to finance his European wars and in exchange for a sum of money received from Portugal, he gave up any right over the Molucas. Only then did Urdaneta give in and negotiate his return with the Portuguese.

On his arrival in Lisbon all his records and documentation regarding the Molucas were seized and he only escaped a certain death by fleeing just in time. He was, after all, a Castilian agent.

It wasn’t long before he was on his way back to Mexico to participate in another expedition to the Molucas.

But this was not to be. For nearly twenty five years he was to stay in the land at that time known as The Vice-Royalty of New Spain. But he wasn’t idle, in spite of being accepted into the order of St Augustine.

His religious pursuits are of little relevance and, over the course of those twenty five years, he carried out several nautical activities as a seafaring expert and even took part in an expedition to Florida. Furthermore, it is clear that he advised Felipe II on the exploration of the North Eastern route which was as important to the Northern Americas as the Straits of Magellan were to the South Americas, providing a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “Urdaneta had been informed by Basque sailors on their way to Newfoundland that several French expeditions were looking for this route and he consequently advised in favour of its exploration.”


 A strategic vision


It is important to bear in mind that nowadays with global warming, the possibility of forging a new route from the north east gains even more importance. The North Americans were mainly interested in transporting petrol from Alaska to the east coast. The idea of a route from the north east also showed, according to the author, the great strategic vision of the man from Ordizia.

In Europe, meanwhile, the wars continued. The successor of Carlos I, Felipe II was still in need of funds and, for a while, toyed with the idea of inheriting the crown of Portugal which would enable him to control the gold mine that the Spice Islands promised to be. His aspirations were thwarted, however, and he decided upon a surprise attack. “He knew that by virtue of the Treaty of Tordesillas, The Philippines fell under Portuguese control, but he also knew, thanks to Urdaneta, that the Portuguese only visited once in a while. If the Castilians were to establish a base there, it would be very difficult for them to be driven out.

To do this, however, it would be necessary to find a way to return via the Pacific; “The Return Route”. Urdaneta gave his word that he could do it. He prepared everything; instead of sailing out of the port of Navidad, he proposed the idea of leaving out of Acapulco, being more sheltered with nearby forests that would be essential for the construction of future ships. He requested good wages as an incentive for the craftsmen on the settlement and an improvement in communications between Acapulco and Vera Cruz in the Caribbean to ease the shipment of merchandise arriving from Asia and on to Europe, etc.

Urdaneta certainly wasn’t the type of man to take a few ships to a place, load them up return and enjoy the riches of his trading. He was concerned with strategic aspects, about establishing a regular line that would later become known as “The Manila Galleon”. All this was a secret. The expedition to The Philippines was so secret that Felipe II criticized Viceroy Velasco, who was in charge of preparation, for not being as discreet as he should have been.


 From then on, any written document referring to the operation stated that their heading was the Western Islands and the rumour was spread that their destination was Guinea.

They set sail in 1564 and, just like the plots of the classic spy novels, it was only when the ships were at high sea that Legazpi, the leader of the expedition would open the sealed envelope containing the Emperor’s secret instructions. The destination was The Philippines and as de Miguel explains: “for those not privy to this news, and that was the majority, there was great surprise” . He goes on to emphasize the strange yet significant reaction of the St Augustine monks (one of whom was the helmsman) who were travelling with Urdaneta; “they felt deceived, it turned out that they were taking part in an expedition which would violate the Treaty of Tordesillas and they knew that it was none other than the Pope who was responsible for its close adherence.”


“During the expedition, Urdaneta demonstrated his exhaustive knowledge of the Pacific. On one occasion he exclaimed “We will arrive tomorrow!” and so it was. My impression is that he was using secret charts.

Access to these charts depended totally on the trust between the owner and whoever was going to use them and Urdaneta was entrusted without question with this documentation.

One of the helmsmen on the expedition was a Frenchman by the name of Plum who, I get the impression, navigated well.

He was accurate with his positions but later made mistakes due to the fact that he didn’t have a suitable map.

Strangely enough, he was later to be hanged after a mutiny. His executioner was the military commander of the expedition Martin Goiti who was born in the Goierri Valley like Urdaneta.

Their arrival in The Philippines was without further incident. Just as Legazpi was consolidating their position, Urdaneta was already initiating the Return Route.

At just the right time of year and with just the right weather, he headed northwards in search of favourable currents before tacking south and finally arriving in Acapulco.”


 Scratching at the surface


Thanks to Urdaneta, the mission had been successful. De Miguel doesn’t hesitate for one moment in ranking him alongside the likes of Columbus, Magellan and Cook as one of the important navigators ever to have existed.

“The aim of this book is to grant Urdaneta the recognition he so surely deserves, as these achievements have been sadly forgotten over the years.”

During the course of these investigations several interesting details have arisen, such as Urdaneta’s involvement in an expedition along the coast of North America. Researchers in the United States are fully investigating these activities with great interest. These studies are helping them to trace their own history to up to 500 years ago, whereas until only recently they were only able to go back as far as 250 years.

“I am also convinced that Urdaneta’s documentation, requisitioned in Lisbon is still preserved in Portugal to this day. It will be a case of going in search of it. There is also Urdaneta’s log book of the Return Route, currently being kept at the National Library in Paris. Although it is unusable in its present state, its restoration is imperative.”

With the 5th Centenary of Urdaneta’s birth being celebrated in 2007/8, it is necessary to carry out a comprehensive investigation. With “The times of Urdaneta” we have only just scratched the surface and we will have to dig much deeper.


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