San Diego Galleon

The sinking of the San Diego, the Spanish galleon that carried Japanese mercenaries to stop a Dutch invasion

Sinking of the San Diego galleon (Théodore de Bry) / Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you’ve heard of Franck Goddio. He is a submarine archaeologist, born in Morocco but of French nationality, who a couple of decades ago discovered the location of the Egyptian city of Heracleion under sea and has also directed some important excavations around Alexandria. But, above all, he has become famous for his work on wrecks, of which he has rescued the Napoleonic ship Orient, two indianmen, several junks and the one we are interested in here, the Spanish galleon San Diego.

Goddio used the study that the historian Patrick Lizé, specialized in submarine archaeology and naval subjects, had carried out on the battle that San Diego fought in year 1600 against 4 Dutch ships, the Eendracht, the Hendrik Frederik, the Aro and the biggest one, the Mauritius, that tried to seize Manila. It was a detailed job that Lizé carried out in the General Archive of the Indies, as well as others in the Netherlands, finding plenty of documentation on that episode.

Franck Goddio/Image: Franck Goddio Underwater Archaeologist

Among the information he gathered was the inventory of the San Diego on board (weapons, supplies…), as well as the memories of the events written by two priests of the Philippine capital and something truly interesting, the testimony of twenty-two survivors from the galleon, which ended up sinking with most of its crew. All this prompted Goddio to look for the exact location of the shipwreck, with funding from the Elf Foundation, and the collaboration of the National Museum of the Philippines and the National Museum of Artistic Arts in Paris. He chartered a catamaran named Kaimiloa and began exploring the area where the remains of San Diego were supposed to be.

He succeeded. On April 21, 1991, he found the wreck about 900 meters northwest of Fortune Island, a small, 27-hectare island area belonging to Batangas Province, on the outer reaches of Manila Bay, now privately owned and home to a vacation resort. The ship was 52 meters deep in a marine environment where the remains of other shipwrecks also rest, some as recent as the ferries sunk in 1995 and 1998 by fire and a typhoon, respectively.

Fortune Island Location in the Philippines/Image: Google Maps

The ship was in acceptable condition because, over the years, the sand at the bottom covered it, forming a natural protective layer. In fact, it appeared to be a simple promontory and only one detail could attract the attention of divers and reveal the secret that was hidden: a cannon with the inscription Philippe II. That revealed that the measures of that hill, 25 meters long by 8 meters wide and 3 meters high, suspiciously matched those of a 17th century ship.

And that’s what it was all about, in effect. The San Diego was a galleon about 35 meters long, 4 decks and a 700 ton archeon built in 1590 at the Cebu shipyard. Originally called San Antonio it was intended for commercial navigation but at the end of October 1600 it was taken to the port of Cavite by orders of the deputy governor general of the Philippines, Antonio de Morga Sánchez Garay, to be converted into a warship. From the Viceroyalty of Peru had come news that a Dutch squadron was heading towards the archipelago with a plan to take it from the Spanish Crown, which in 1600 embodied Philip III.

Model of the San Diego galleon at the National Museum of the Philippines/Image: Pinterest

At that time the Republic of the United Provinces, which had achieved de facto independence in 1588 (officially Spain did not recognize it until 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia, although the signing of the Twelve Years Truce in 1609 implicitly recognized it), was entering its so-called Golden Age, a period of commercial and military flourishing that transformed it into a potency. And, as such, it embarked on a world expansion trying to obtain colonies in America and Asia. In that sense, the Philippines was a more than appetizing mouthful for the rich trade they had with China and Japan.

The fruit of this Spanish economic activity in the Pacific and Indian Ocean was reflected in the goods sent to Spain by the so-called Manila Galleon, who used the tornaviaje (literally Return Journey, a transoceanic route, which took advantage of favourable winds and currents, discovered by Andrés de Urdaneta) to link the Philippine capital with the port of Acapulco and from there crossed by land the Viceroyalty of New Spain to Veracruz; the cargo was then loaded onto another ship to cross the Atlantic. The San Antonio was one of those galleons that made the first stretch, specialized in the exchange of Mexican silver for Chinese crafts.

Manila Galleon Route in the Tornaviaje/Image: public doman in Wikimedia Commons

As we said, it had to abandon that task to join the defense against the Dutch. While fortifying Manila and the surrounding area, Antonio de Morga had to settle for a fleet of only two ships, the San Diego and the San Bartolomé patache, although supported by another small ship of 50 tons, the San Jacinto, a couple of galleys that were being finished in a hurry in the shipyards and several ships with indigenous auxiliary troops. They set sail on December 12, 1600 in search of the enemy, who knew he was near because he had been stocking up in Luzon pretending to be French.

They didn’t need to go very far; they found it on morning the 14th, about 50 kilometers southwest, amidst difficult weather conditions. They were the Mauritius, the Dutch flagship, and the Eendracht, although Eendracht’s men moved to the previous one before ordering it to flee, because it was quite small for a naval battle,. At first, the Mauritius also seemed an easy prey for a galleon that doubled its size, was armed with 14 guns and carried on board four hundred men, more than the entire adversary fleet put together. Unfortunately for San Diego, this enormous equipment was counterproductive: it did not have enough ballast to ensure its stability and the weight, combined with the waves and strong wind, constituted an unsuspected threat.

Antonio de Morga Sánchez Garay/Image: Jojagal in Wikimedia Commons

In addition, the artillery pieces it carried came from the fortress of Manila, so its size was larger than normal and it had been necessary to enlarge the portholes, finding that they could not be opened in those conditions because too much water entered. Morga, who in spite of his inexperience at sea personally commanded the ship, chose then to take advantage of its size to attack the Mauritius. He succeeded and approached it, assaulting it with troops without the pikes their defenders holded being of any use.

However, in the midst of victory came tragedy. It is not known whether it was the collision or a volley of the Dutch in their desperate attempt to reject the Spaniards (or perhaps the San Bartolomé, who was shooting from the other side), but it was discovered that there was a waterway on the waterline. The Dutch admiral Olivier van Noort, prostrate on deck, noticed that the others were in trouble and, as he told himself, resorted to an old trick: he had his own ship set on fire, forcing his soldiers, who had barricaded themselves below deck, to go out and fight.

Admiral Olivier van Noort (Martinus Nijhof,)/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Incidentally, the flames would threaten San Diego as well. As van Noort foresaw, Morga decided not to risk extinguishing it or continuing the capture of the hulk, ordering his men to re-embark quickly and cut the moorings that linked them to their rival. But the weight in the galleon was already excessive with so much water inside; it had barely separated by two hundred meters when it sank “like a stone”, according to the Dutch. The deputy governor was able to save himself along with a hundred of his men, but the other 300 drowned or died, while trying to swim out, with the skull crushed with rowing blows by courtesy of the Dutch.

The human and material cost was enormous but it was successful because the loss of the Mauritius caused van Noort, who was wounded but also survived, to renounce attacking the Philippines and put an end to his ephemeral expedition by assuming his losses (as was customary, he had financed it himself, since he must have obtained the command because he was a friend of Mauritius of Nassau) but by giving a fanciful description of the confrontation in front of Morga’s most credible one entitled Events in the Philippine Islands. In exchange, the San Diego spent four centuries at the bottom of the sea until Franck Goddio (who consulted those accounts) found it and proceeded to rescue objects from the wreck, trying not to spoil what remains of the hull.

Detalle del pecio del San Diego/Imagen: Emory Kristof en National Geographic

One of the most surprising things that surfaced were some circular metal pieces that turned out to be tsubas, i.e., katana handguards and other oriental white weapons. They belonged to the Japanese mercenaries hired by Morga to swell his Philippine auxiliary troops, because given the lack of troops to control the thousands of islands that make up the archipelago, at that time it was usual to pay Japanese warriors to protect the populations from pirate raids.

The offer to these Japanese warriors was also justified because they were Christians; they had to escape from their own country on pain of being executed since the first ad hoc edict was issued in 1587, ratified a decade later with a second decree of taikō Toyotomi Hideyoshi (although the hardest period was from 1614, under the mandate of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, when martyrs were counted by the thousands). There were so many Japanese who worked for Spain that they came to form their own neighborhood outside the walls of Manila and many junks were usually anchored in the port.

A tsuba decorated with vegetal motifs/Image: public doman in Wikimedia Commons

Returning to the rescue of San Diego, a total of 34407 pieces were recovered, including cannons of various calibres, stones, anchors, Mexican silver coins, Chinese porcelain (which included pieces from the Ming dynasty) and from other Asian nations in very good condition, articles of clothing, jewelry, muskets, armor and morrions, navigational instruments, bones and teeth of animals carried on board, remains of seeds and food, ship maintenance material and even the seal of the deputy governor, among many other things. The museum technicians mentioned above were in charge of inventorying and ensuring the conservation of the objects.

Three quarters of the entire collection was handed over to the Naval Museum in Madrid, the rest remaining in the National Museum of the Philippines. Not counting what has been definitively lost, it is likely that there is more material down there waiting to resurface. They will not be the skeletons of the dead Spaniards, who will rest forever in that world of silence.

A sample of the pieces rescued from the wreck/Image: Franck Goddio Underwater Archaeologist

Sources: The Manila-Acapulco Galleons: the Treasure Ships of the Pacific (Shirley Fish)/Account of the battle between the San Diego and the Mauritius (VOC Shipwrecks)/San Diego. Un trésor sous la mer (Dominique Carré, Jean-Paul Desroches, Frank Goddio y Albert Giordan)/Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (Antonio de Morga)/Wikipedia