Rica de Oro y de Plata; Hawaii?

The Galleon route had two by-products of interest: first the search for mysterious (and of course rich) islands in the Northwest Pacific; second—at a far remove—claims of a European discovery of Hawaii, long before Cook's visit in 1778.

Of all mythical isles of gold and silver, perhaps none has had a longer paper existence than Rica de Oro and Rica de Plata, supposedly lying between 25° and 40°N and at an indefinite distance east of Japan. Pedro de Unamuno searched for them in 1587 and, so early, expressed disbelief in their existence; but the Dutch looked for them in the 1640s, the Spaniards did not officially write them off until 1741—and one or the other of them appeared in atlases of repute as late as 1927.[61] Findlay in 1870 listed at least eleven highly dubious reports of islands in this general area, and his irritated comments recall those of the more level-headed Spanish officials.[62]

The origin of the fiction is in the report of a Portuguese ship—no name, no date—blown east from Japan to rich islands, with white and civil people; they were known, from a merchant on board, as the Armenian's Islands, later as Rica de Oro and de Plata. What core of experience there may be in the fable is not of vast import, but the story seems to stem from Francisco Gali's voyage of 1584, more important as really bringing home the vast width of the North Pacific. He took over a Manila Galleon which had put into Macao, obviously to take on cargo for New Spain—illicitly, for though the Crowns were now united, their colonies and commerce were by law as exclusive as ever. Gali probably heard the tale in Macao; at all events, he looked unsuccessfully for ‘Armenicão’. His- 107 -report inspired Fray Andrés de Aguirre, who had been with Urdaneta in the San Pedro, to recall an old but seductive document he had seen long ago.

Dahlgren suggests that this account of Aguirre's is a recollection of a Portuguese letter of 1548 read by him with Urdaneta in 1565—two decades earlier!—and that the islands were in the Ryukyus (Lequeos), which in the earlier decades of European penetration in these regions were important and wealthy intermediaries between China and Japan, while both Chinese and Japanese were certainly civil people and commonly described by the Portuguese as white. Mere lapse of memory, with the lapse of time, would account for Aguirre's placing of them east and not south of Japan. Chassigneux finds this reasoning ‘very ingenious … [but] very difficult to accept’, and invokes a double typhoon, which could give the impression that a ship was blown far to the east when in fact it was brought south. His own reasoning is even more intricately ingenious than Dahlgren's: he opts for Okinawa, pointing out that its raised coral soil supports a temperate-looking vegetation, so that it might seem to be more northerly than it is, and that the trade of the Ryukyus had been so cut out by the Iberians that by 1573 they were virtually unknown. However, as Okinawa is the main island of the Ryukyus, all these distinctions end up in no difference at all.[63]

There were other factors in the quest for these islands than the sufficient one of gold and silver. The Bonin and Volcano groups, which lay athwart of the track of Galleons making their northing, offered no satisfactory way-station; they were rather hazards. Yet it was in this section that ships were most liable to hurricane damage and, as we shall see in Chapter 6, refuge in Japan carried other perils. It would, then, be most valuable to have a place for refitment before entering ‘the great gulf of Nueva España’, that is the vast North Pacific embayment. This was the main motivation in the early seventeenth century, and again in the 1730s, when efforts were made to re-awaken official Spanish interest in the search.[64] Another, though officially very minor, element was the desire to see whether the ‘Straits of Anian’ (below, Ch. 9), joining the Mar del Sur and the Mar del Norte or Atlantic, really existed, and if so to forestall other nations in their control.[65] Legendary and elusive, indeed totally fictitious, as Rica de Oro and its sister-isle were, they thus played a considerable role in the exploration of North Pacific waters.

Gali was commissioned to make a further search, but died before he could start, to be replaced by the obscure and possibly shady Pedro de Unamuno. He sailed from Manila in a small ship in July 1587; he found two small islands ‘of no value for any purpose’, but as for Rica de Oro, Rica de Plata, and the Armenian's Island or Islands—they did not exist. Despite this simple and negative report, the quest was not abandoned; instead of following up Sebastian Vizcaino's strong advocacy of a way-station at Monterey (below, Ch. 5), it was decided to resume the search for these western islands, and in 1611 Vizcaino was sent from Acapulco to Japan to look for them once again.[66] Schurz declares roundly that this diversion of energy ‘was responsible for delaying the Spanish- 108 -settlement of California for a century and a half’, but this is going much too far: the Spaniards had good reason to be wary of spreading small and isolated settlements, and despite Vizcaino and his advocate Fray Antonio de la Ascension, that country had really very little to offer. The renewed interest in it after 1770 took place in greatly altered geostrategic conditions, and was a response to fears of encroachment by other powers, especially the Russians in the north. Nevertheless, the two issues were clearly linked, and the choice was conscious. Vizcaino spent some time cruising east of Japan, and in his turn concluded firmly that ‘there were no such islands in the whole world’, though as late as 1620 Hernando de los Rios Coronel thought that in these seas ‘God has placed an island … that serves us as an inn’.[67]

Another element was imported into these unknowns by João da Gama, who in 1589 or 1590 sailed direct from Macao to Acapulco, to the natural anger of the Governor of the Philippines. In the mid-seventeenth century his name was attached, originally on Portuguese maps, to a vague land he sighted northeast of Japan. By 1753, despite a vain search for it by Vitus Bering in 1741, ‘Gamaland’ was on some charts an archipelago stretching over some 13° of longitude.[68] Possibly it was Yezo itself, or one of the Kuriles, seen and named ‘Compagnies Land’ by de Vries in 1643.

This Dutch effort by de Vries was the last serious attempt at finding the shadowy Armenian's evasive islands. The first Dutch search was by Mathijs Quast and Abel Tasman in 1639, sailing far into the Pacific between 37°30′ and 40°N and as far as 175°E; naturally they found nothing, but on the way out they examined the Volcano and Bonin Islands more systematically than had the Spaniards. Four years later Maarten de Vries again failed to find Rica de Oro and its fellow, but he penetrated the Kuriles, finding Iturup and Urup; the latter he mistook for a mainland, taking possession and naming it for the Oost-Indische Compagnie.[69]

From time to time Galleon captains saw, or thought they saw, land or signs of land on the northern passage: Gemelli Careri, for instance, in his famous account of 1696–7, tells of a little wind-blown bird, like a canary, which the captain tried to keep alive, ‘but being quite spent, with hunger and weariness, it dy'd the same day, and there was sand found in its belly.’ All agreed that it could only have come from Rica de Plata, some thirty leagues to the south.[70] We may leave these isles of gold and silver to the oblivion to which they were consigned by Philip V of Spain in his reply (1741) to the demand of the Governor of the Philippines for a new search: the Galleons have got along without them since 1606; nobody has any idea of their position, size, resources, or the nature of their people if any: ‘From all the information received, there appears no reasonable encouragement to attempt the aforesaid discovery …’.[71] An understatement.

On the maps of today the Hawaiian Islands lie so blatantly between the east- and west-bound tracks of the Galleons that it seems almost mandatory that some stray must have found them. The inference was first drawn by La Pérouse, who- 109 -deduced from Spanish charts that islands named ‘la Mesa’, ‘los Majos’, and ‘la Disgraciada’, in the right latitude but much too far to the east, were in fact the Hawaiian group, la Mesa (‘the Table’) in particular being the main island with the great table-massif of Mauna Loa; the error in longitude was put down to Spanish failure to allow for currents. On one such chart is a note saying that Juan Gaetan, who was with Villalobos in 1542, discovered the group, and named it Islas de Mesa, in 1555; unluckily this chart also gives Cook's name, the Sandwich Islands. One must admit that if a non-Polynesian name were to be used, la Mesa would be much preferable to Sandwich.[72]

The argument from maps and documents has been fairly demolished by Dahlgren; it is yet another case of what the great geographer Elisée Reclus called ‘the disorderly fluctuation of oceanic isles’.[73] One may, however, enter a caveat against Sharp's objection that to describe Mauna Loa ‘as a table is fanciful, since it is a typical rugged volcanic mountain. La Pérouse himself did not see Maunaloa.’ Rugged in detail, yes; but it is a shield-type volcano, and seen from the sea, with cloud hanging on the plateau, it would certainly look table-like.

There are also other than written or cartographical evidences: oral traditions, artefacts. Inferences from these have been severely criticised in a competent demolition job by J. F. G. Stokes, but new material has come to light since he wrote. R. A. Langdon makes out a convincing case for regarding the question of one-way Spanish contacts as much more open than it was left by Dahlgren and Stokes, who have received almost complete academic acceptance. Some elements adduced to indicate contact may be discarded, for instance the alleged Spanish style of helmets noted by Cook's officer James King: they are much more like Graeco-Roman or even Etruscan types than the standard Spanish morion or steel-cap, and one may reasonably suppose that King got his notion of armour from romanticised engravings or the stage costuming of his day. But the suggestive oral traditions may well deserve more respectful treatment than they have usually received from academics in reaction against nineteenth century romanticism; there are some intriguing linguistic clues.[74] While iron drifted in pieces of timber has certainly been a factor in the Pacific, the amount and nature of iron in Hawaiian possession in Cook's day may not be so facilely explained; but nor can the possibility of drifted junks from Japan be ruled out.[75] There is also a piece of woven fabric, very like sail-cloth, in an indubitably pre-Cook burial.[76]

It has been suggested that the oral tradition of seven castaways arriving at Kealakekua Bay long before Cook might be not Spaniards but Dutchmen, deserters from Mahu's ship Liefde in 1600; a nice ironic twist, but the decor of the tale and the latitude of the desertion rule this out.[77] But it would seem that Dahlgren's concession that ‘It is not incredible’ that Spanish castaways reached Hawaii and survived should be amended to ‘It is very likely’ that they did so. However, this is not ‘discovery’ in the reasonable sense that the event is put on record and the knowledge made available to others. The one clear thing is that there was no ‘discovery’ by Juan Gaetan in 1542 or 1555.