The Coming of the Spaniards

Spanish in Southern California imageGarcia Ordoñez de Montalvo first used the name California in a 1510 romance novel published in Spain called “Las Sergas de Esplandián”, or “The Adventures of Esplandian”. He also translated the “Amadis de Gaul”, while the Sergas above was frequently referred to as the fifth book of the Amadis.

This once popular book refers to an island called California. At that time, maps showed California as an island. The term came to mean “remoteness allied to riches”.

As a point of interest, in 1709 Captain Woodes Rogers from England had his ship anchored off Cape San Lucas in search of plunder in the form of the Manila galleon. His second mate was one Alexander Selkirk, whom he had picked up on San Fernandez Island.

As many will recall, Alexander Selkirk was the character Daniel Defoe used for his wonderful stories of Robinson Crusoe. The character of Robinson Crusoe was in part based on Selkirk, and the structure of Defoe’s story comes from an earlier Arabic text called “The Story of Hai Bin Yaqzan” written by Ibn Tufail. Tufail’s story too, was based on a yet earlier text by another Arab, Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna.

The island paradise known from the Robinson Crusoe stories in reality refers to California. In fact, certain editions of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe stories were published showing California as an island.

Returning to the 16th Century, 1542 saw Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his crew visit the area. Their intention was to find a new passage to Asia. 1602 saw Captain Sebastián Vizcaíno dropping anchor at Santa Catalina Island, near San Pedro. However, it wasn’t until 1765 before another European would set foot in the region.

The original intention of the Spanish presence along the West coast was to protect the Spanish claim to the territory first made during Cabrillo’s expedition in 1542. Partly, the English were known at the time to pillage the Spanish ships noted above, and partly the Spanish also sought to protect the commodities that the territory yielded up.

1765 saw José de Gálvez arrive in Mexico as Visitor General of New Spain. The plan was to set up a whole line of missions and presidios (“military forts”). The military forts were not self-sustaining, and therefore the missions would supply them with the necessary goods and food. Records show Gálvez was periodically insane, thinking he is God, Montezuma, or the King of Sweden.

At that time there was no interest in setting up Spanish settlements, so the plan was to enlist the native population to do it for them. The idea was born to convert them to Christianity via the missions, thus making them loyal Spanish subjects. Then after ten years, the missions and the new towns would be handed back to the natives. This task was undertaken by about one hundred Spaniards.

However, the project was a genocidal disaster, mostly due to the “white man’s diseases” the Spanish brought with them. The Natives had almost no resistance to the diseases the Spanish brought, resulting in a mortality rate of close to 90%.

This was typical of the whole New World in the century following contact with Europeans. Typically the natives on the more prosperous missions of Mexico and Baja California became infected with mal galico (syphilis) and/or gonorrhea, epidemics of measles, and other diseases that came from the Spanish troops.

The padres feared that within a generation the Natives would become extinct as a people. However this did not stop the Franciscans from trying to apply a similar plan to the rest of California’s native population, then thought to be about 300,000 – 600,000 people. By the 1860’s, there were only 50,000 native people left. This was a people who had lived in the area for several thousand years. By the turn of the 20th century, there were only a few thousand survivors left.