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Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra

Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra

The Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra (1541-1595) discovered the Solomon and Marquesas islands. The voyages of Mendaña and his associates in search of new conquests to the south ended the Spanish phase of the Age of Discovery.

Born in Saragossa, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra was the nephew of an appointee to the viceroyalty of Peru. Mendaña was put in charge of an expedition to the South Pacific which sailed from Callao, Peru, late in 1567. With him went Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, an adventurer whose campaign for the conquest of the mythical Southern Continent (also called Terra Australis, although it had no precise relationship to present-day Australia) produced this expedition.

Behind the mission lay generations of European speculation and dreaming. Ptolemy's Geography, rediscovered by Europeans in the 15th century, had pointed to the existence of a vast southern land mass. Luring explorers across the Atlantic was the vision of the Lost Continent, or island of Atlantis. And once they had reached the New World, they continued to be drawn by the story of the Golden One, El Dorado. Now these visions were given a new lease on life by native Peruvian legends. Sarmiento, author of the Historía de los Incas, drew on his Indian sources for information about Pacific exploration. Among the myths was the tale of the Inca navigator Paullu Tupac Yupanqui, whose 9-month journey to the south had brought him untold riches. Their lust for these same rewards underlay the journey of Mendaña and Sarmiento.

With their two ships the explorers passed, but did not land on, the Ellice Islands; but in 1568 they discovered Santa Isabel in the Solomons. From there, they proceeded to Guadalcanal, Malaita, and San Cristobal, where an attempt to found a settlement came to nothing. Spanish slaughters of islanders provoked bloody reprisals; the Spanish hunger for gold went unsatisfied. In the summer of 1568 Mendaña began his year-long return voyage to Peru.

Mendaña hoped to return to the Solomons. But Spain, now diverted by its long naval war with England, was concerned with holding on to existing conquests rather than acquiring new possessions for sea dogs like Sir Francis Drake to plunder. Thus it was not until April 1595 that Mendaña was able to set out again, this time with four ships and a complement including women intended as wives for future colonists.

The little fleet reached Magdalena in the Marquesas (named after the Marqués de Cañete, then Peruvian viceroy) in July 1595. Polynesian residents were admired and murdered. The voyage then proceeded to its furthest limit, Santa Cruz Island, which still fell far short of Mendaña's goal. There the expedition, riven with internal dissension and reduced by disease and war with the islanders, began to fall apart. Mendaña himself died in mid-November. The survivors were led on to the Philippines by the Portuguese pilot Pedro Fernandés de Quirós (who himself later discovered the New Hebrides). Mendaña's failure to reconfirm his original discovery meant that the Solomons were permanently lost to Spain. They were rediscovered only in the 18th century by the English explorer Capt. James Cook.

Further Reading

For information on Mendaña, Pacific exploration, and the Spanish Pacific see J. C. Beaglehole, The Exploration of the Pacific (1934; 3d ed. 1966); William Lytle Schurz, The Manila Galleon (1939); and Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance: 1420-1620 (1952). □

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