13 May 2016

The Story Behind the Sinking of the Galleon San Diego Off Nasugbu’s Fortune Island

By Unknown - Illustration from Peregrinationes" from Théodore de Bry, 1603 (copy in Boston Public Library). Wikimedia Commons.

“That, whereas, because of the coming to these islands of two hostile English [sic] ships, the preparation of a fleet to attack them was immediately discussed with the resolution and advice of the Royal Audiencia, and for this effect it was resolved that Antonio de Morga should go to the port of Cabit (Cavite) to attend to the fitting and despatch of the said war-vessels and the defence of that port… he has attended until now, to the defence of the said port, and the fitting and equipping of the said fleet, consisting of the vessel “San Diego,” of Sebu (Cebu), the galleon “San Bartolome,” which he caused to be finished in the shipyard launched, an English patache1 from the city of Malaca, a galliot1 which was fitted up, and other smaller craft…2

Above is an excerpt from the edict issued by Francisco de Tello de Guzmán, Governor of the Philippines in 1600, authorising Oidor (Judge) Antonio de Morga to attend to the fitting and equipping of Spanish vessels to counter the presence of “hostile” ships. The supposed hostile ships were not even English.

They were Dutch. The two ships, the Mauritius and the Eendracht (Concord, formerly the Hoop or Hope but renamed) were part of a group of four ships that left Holland under the command of the adventurer and entrepreneur Olivier van Noort to look for the Moluccas. The original Eendracht became unseaworthy and had to be abandoned after the Atlantic crossing. The fourth ship, the Hendrik Frederik under the command of Pieter de Lint, got separated but successfully reached the Moluccas.3

The two ships with van Noort first arrived in the Philippines in October of 1600; and after crossing the Pacific Ocean were badly in need of provisions.4

The Dutch had won independence from Spain by way of a revolution just two decades earlier and established the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.5 By the time the Mauritius and the Eendracht arrived in the Philippines, the Dutch were still at war with Spain. Therefore, they were not welcome at all as far as the Spanish colonial government was concerned.

In dire need of provisions, the Dutch ships “captured and sunk several boats, Spanish and Chinese, bound for Manila with rice, poultry, palm-wine and other stores of food.4

The Spaniards in Manila, but naturally, were agitated; enough, at any rate, to order three ships equipped in haste for battle to engage the intruders. The Dutch, although they did not know it then, had arrived at a most fortuitous time. The Spaniards had no warships at their disposal at the time.6

In fact, the San Diego, which would be designated as the command ship under de Morga for the encounter against the Dutch, was a trading galleon. It was built in Cebu originally to be used as a trading ship and given the name San Antonio. It was renamed the San Diego after its hasty conversion into a warship.7

Because the shipyards at the port in Cavite were unable to provide the San Diego with the required artillery, bronze cannons were stripped from forts in Manila and loaded onto it. In all, fourteen cannons were loaded onto the San Diego.8

This was crucial to the eventual fate of the San Diego, along with de Morga’s lack of maritime savvy. When it set sail to engage the Dutch, its original cargo had not even been unloaded. Thus, the cannons which were added along with the 450 fighting men who boarded it made the ship very heavy.6

The two Dutch ships were spotted at sunrise on the 14th of December anchored off Fortune Island just off Nasugbu. The San Diego fired at the Mauritius, came alongside it and for six hours the Spaniards and the Dutch engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat.

In the afternoon, the San Diego was found to be leaking, likely from one of the cannonballs it took from the Mauritius. A true warship could probably have taken these shots and fared better; but then again, the San Diego was in reality a merchant ship not designed for sea battles or to take cannon shots.

There was also the other matter of the ship still being heavily laden with cargo, the cannons stripped from the forts in Manila and the fighting men who had gone on board. When a fire broke out on the Mauritius, de Morga ordered the moorings which connected the San Diego to the Mauritius to be released.

He wanted to take the ship quickly to Fortune Island and beach the ship there. However, after sailing just a few hundred metres, the San Diego, heavily weighed down as it was, sank into the deep of the sea and took with it many lives. De Morga himself survived after swimming for four hours to Fortune Island and would later write about the incident.8

Van Noort and his crew, meanwhile, were able to put out the fire on the Mauritius; and because the Spaniards made no attempts to pursue them, were able to sail back to Holland. While van Noort’s cargo upon his return home was paltry compared to all the trouble he took, History nonetheless recognises him as the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the globe.

In 1992, four centuries after its sinking, the French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio found the site off Fortune Island where the San Diego came to rest. Among the thousands of artefacts that were recovered were Mexican coins, Japanese swords, Chinese porcelain and Portuguese cannons.

The excavation drew worldwide attention and the artefacts recovered were taken on exhibition tours around the world. In the present day, these relics from the San Diego are permanently kept at the Museum of the Filipino People in Manila.7

References and notes:

1 The patache and galliot were both light sailing vessels.
2 Edict of Governor Don Francisco Tello, from “History of the Philippine Islands,” by Antonio de Morga, 1559–1636
3 The Voyage of Pieter de Lint, 1598-1603 by Peter Douglas
4 A History of the Philippines by David Barrows
5 Eighty Years' War, Wikipedia
6 Galion San Diego, online at IEASM
7 San Diego, Wikipedia
8 VOC Shipwrecks: Hendrik Frederik

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