Andrés de Urdaneta, who met Juan Sebastián Elcano in the Moluccas, was the first to document the way back from Asia to America.
When Christopher Columbus discovered a new world, the economy and commerce changed dramatically. There were new lands with which to exchange products and with which to meet new and distant cultures. In 1494, Tordesillas was the town that housed one of the most important treaties between the Catholic Monarchs and John II of Portugal, where, among other agreements, the Portuguese kingdom was guaranteed that the Spanish would not interfere on its route to the Cape of Good Hope.
This limitation prevented the incipient vast Spanish Empire from establishing commercial relations with Southeast Asia. Their territories in the American continent, in the Philippines and Europe were not connected by maritime transport until an experienced military man, cosmographer and religious named Andrés de Urdaneta, managed to document a route across the Pacific Ocean from the Philippines to Acapulco – a fact that until now had been a failed operation by sailors of the stature of Magellan.
Andrés de Urdaneta was born in Ordizia (Guipúzcoa) around 1508. He participated in great expeditions together with figures like Juan Sebastián Elcano and won the favor of the Crown to carry out one of the great and forgotten historical milestones in the history of Spain at sea. . Spain sought to find a safe route from the islands of coveted spices to its lands in America without the Portuguese interfering in its affairs.
The Portuguese neighbors controlled the Moluccas, which was a war of several years that made clear the need for Spain to find an alternative path. It was Felipe II who ordered the creation of a permanent base in the Philippine archipelago and the opening of a return route that was still unknown.
Agustín R. Rodríguez González, doctor in History and corresponding academic at the Royal Academy of History, recovers Urdaneta’s feat in his recent book, Urdaneta y el tornaviaje. The discovery of the sea route that changed the world (The sphere of books). “He has been unjustly forgotten by our naval history,” he considers.
It was clear that Andrés de Urdaneta was indispensable to the company. The obstacle was not leaving from America to the Philippines, as it had already been done previously. In fact, Magellan’s main mission had been to open a trade route through the West, but adverse circumstances forced the campaign to circumnavigate. “The problem was to ensure that return trip,” says Rodríguez González.
Thus, on November 21, 1564, they set sail from the Puerto de Navidad (today known as Barra de Navidad) and thanks to the routes already documented, they reached the Philippines in just two months. After remaining in the archipelago another four repairing the ships and waiting for the appropriate weather, they began the historic return on June 1, 1565.
For this return Urdaneta had 200 men, of which only 10 were soldiers. Likewise, the provisions were calculated for eight months. “The route devised by Urdaneta was to navigate as much as possible to the northeast, increasing in latitude, to find favorable winds and currents that would take him to America,” says the writer. Urdaneta’s cunning led him to think that if at low latitudes, near the Equator, winds and currents went from east to west, that is, from America to Asia, they would necessarily have to go further north.
“The assumption may seem simple, but despite the discoveries of the Portuguese and Spanish, it was still in an unscientific stage, in which the exceptional, the mythical and the marvelous seemed to always be present in unknown territories”, it is explained in the book.
Despite the scurvy that took over the ship and hunger, the sailors arrived at the port of Acapulco on October 8 of the same year. The cost of the tour was 26 men killed in full navigation and another four in port. Once on land, the Basque explorer drew up “a very complete map of his route, indicating winds, currents and all kinds of references, which was in use for many years”.
Urdaneta traveled to Spain to report the success of the mission to Felipe II. The monarch asked him about the maritime currents, the Filipino peoples and the riches of those lands. In compensation he hardly received any distinctions and after having united Asia with America he returned to his home in New Spain. He died on June 3, 1568 and was buried in the crypt of his convent until a fire followed by a flood in the 17th century caused the disappearance of his remains.
Agustín R. Rodríguez González wonders how many of those considered great navigators of that time and of later centuries can be compared to him, despite which he is seldom remembered among them. The importance of his discovery was proven in the long term, since the route documented by Andrés de Urdaneta was used for 250 years.
The Philippines specifically did not become a great commercial ally, since there were not too many resources that were of interest in those lands. The Chinese Empire was the main supplier and all kinds of porcelain tableware, fabrics etc. were imported from there. They, on the other hand, did not find any attraction in Spanish products, so they became interested in silver. “Even today treasures of Spanish coins buried inside some container are discovered from time to time in China, which proves the significant circulation they had,” says the author.
Only the independence of Mexico in the 19th century broke that road that linked the Philippines with Spain. From then on, it was necessary to resort to the previously avoidable Portuguese route. Times had evolved since the 16th century and Andrés de Urdaneta’s feat was not necessary from then on. Decades later, the opening of the Suez Canal made it possible to facilitate communications between Spain and her possessions in the Pacific. The explorer who accompanied Elcano was forgotten.