The Spanish Sailor

The Spanish Sailor:

What Kind of Man Sailed with Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo?

By Bob Munson

They were called marineros: the word translates as “man of the sea”. Every member of a ship’s crew, from master down to cabin boy, was a marinero. They each had specific jobs with specific titles, duties, skills and pay, but they were all marineros: men who made the largest, most complex machine ever devised by mankind work. They also were men whose profession had “all the charms of a prison, with the added chance of being drowned.” In the round trip from Seville to Nueva España and back, the “Carrera de los Indies”, a crew death rate of 12 percent per voyage was considered normal. Obviously some ships made the voyage without losing a man. However, other ships simply disappeared or were wrecked or burned, creating the average. Sailors were a superstitious lot, not because they were naïve, but because they recognized they were plying the world’s most dangerous trade, frequently in largely unknown waters a long way from home or any hope of rescue. Simply put, there were lots of ways to get killed being a marinero.

 So who would serve in such a profession? For 600 years Spain had been fighting the longest civil war in history. The nation was inward looking with a well-developed warrior caste. Only those engaged in coastal trade and fishing had any concept of the sea-going trade and its value. Thus, few Spaniards gave any thought to the sea and regarded sailors as being of low class status, like shoemakers, tanners, dyers, and dealers in pig products. Of this class, sailors were the least trusted because they moved around so much.

Then suddenly Spain found itself with a very wealthy trans-oceanic trade, and initially they had a totally inadequate pool of blue-water sailors to man their ships. To fill the gap they had to rely on people who had the necessary skills. Italians, Sicilians and Greeks were good but were tainted by their dealings with the heathen Moors. Portuguese were admired as the best, but relations between Spain and Portugal were frequently strained. By the time of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, Spain and France had effectively been at war for 21 years. So a French sailor was probably a spy. Catalans were good sailors, but they were somehow just not quite Spanish. The Basques and English had yet to develop their blue-water reputations. This left the Dutch and Germans, both of whom had very strong sea-going skills and who happened to be part of the Spanish Empire when Carlos V of the Holy Roman Empire also became Carlos I of Spain.

Out of necessity, Spain was an equal opportunity employer. They would take anyone, possibly even a Frenchman or Moor, if they would swear loyalty to God of the Holy and Apostolic Church and fealty to Carlos I as God’s secular representative.

So what was the makeup of Cabrillo’s crews? Unfortunately, the muster lists of the ships have been misplaced somewhere in the 16 million legajos, which have never been cataloged in the Archive of the Indies in Seville and Estorial. The only thing we might consider is that any sailor wishing to remain in the New World had to have a certificate from the Casa de Contratacion giving them permission to do so. This would suggest that anyone in Cabrillo’s crew probably had a long history with the Spanish empire, rather than the dock sweepings of some foreign port.

Last revised 15-Aug-14