10 September 2016

Thomas Cavendish: the 16th Century English Pirate who Prowled Philippine Waters

Image credit:  Wikimedia Commons; Pauline's Pirates and Privateers.

Many will recall from World History lessons the abortive sixteenth century invasion of England by the so-called Spanish Armada, so ordered by Philip II, King of Spain. The invasion force was sent partly as retribution for the execution of the Catholic English Queen Mary I (Stuart), whom the Spaniards, being a dutiful Catholic nation, felt was the rightful Queen of England. But apart from wanting to restore a Catholic to the throne of England, the Spaniards also intended the destruction of the English navy so that its pesky raids of Spanish ports, including those in the colonies, might come to an end1.

What will probably be more obscure to Filipinos, excepting those who majored in Philippine History, is the fact that this monarchical conflict between Spain and England actually spilled over to this side of the world.

In 1586, the English adventurer Thomas Cavendish2 set sail with three ships from the port of Plymouth bound for the Pacific. The term ‘adventurer,’ naturally, depended on whose viewpoint it was. To the Spaniards, Cavendish and those like him were corsairs or pirates who preyed on their ships.

Early the next year, Cavendish and company broke through the Strait of Magellan and reached the Pacific Ocean. They proceeded to sail up the coast of South America, engaging and robbing Spanish ships that they encountered along the way and stopping by Spanish colonial towns to pillage for fresh supplies, food and treasures.

A pilot from one of the Spanish ships that they destroyed gave Cavendish the information that a galleon from Manila was due in November of the same year in Nueva España, present-day Mexico. In addition, he said that the galleon was expected to make a stop in Southern California before completing the journey to Acapulco.

This galleon was the Sta. Ana, one of two galleons that were supposed to cross the Pacific from Manila to Nueva España. The other one, the San Francisco, was destroyed after heading smack into a typhoon. Santiago de Vera, Governor of the Philippines at the time, described the treasures that the Sta. Ana carried in her hull:

“…a thousand marcos3 of registered gold, and there must have been as large a sum unregistered; twenty-two and one-half arrobas of musk, an abundance of civet4, and many pearls, and the richest of silks and brocades…5

With the information on the galleon’s arrival, Cavendish and company set up an ambush off the coast of Baha in California. Because the galleon carried no cannons, the added weight of which was sacrificed to be able to lade more cargo, before long the English had captured it. The Sta. Ana was so much larger than the English ships and carried so much treasures that the Englishmen even had the luxury of selecting only the most valuable of its cargo to transfer to their own ships.

De Vera summed up the loot that the English were able to take from off the Sta. Ana: “There is no doubt that they have plundered more than a million [pesos’] worth of gold, pearls, musk, civet, and rich merchandise, which all belonged in Nueva España.”

Crucially, from the galleon’s crew, Cavendish brought aboard several men, navigators included, who knew the route and could direct him and his ships across the Pacific to the Philippines. Only the “Desire,” Cavenish’s flagship, survived the ensuing Pacific crossing. In February of 1588, the ship was spotted off the Pintados6 Islands on the eastern shores of the Philippines.

At this time, Spain was the acknowledged maritime power in the world; so the arrival of an English ship in its sphere of influence in the Far East was a great affront to the Spaniards. Bishop Domingo de Salazar of Manila, in a letter to Philip II, summed up how significant the arrival of the English pirates was in the Philippines:

“The grief that afflicts me is not because this barbarian infidel has robbed us of the ship “Santa Ana,” and destroyed thereby the property of almost all the citizens; but because an English youth of about twenty-two years7, with a wretched little vessel of a hundred toneladas and forty or fifty companions, should dare to come to my own place of residence, defy us, and boast of the damage that he had wrought.”

Upon learning that a galleon was under construction at the shipyard of Caigoan in Panay Island, Cavendish attempted to land his men to burn the galleon. The shipyard was defended by carpenters and caulkers. The invading party must have been small because the shipyard workers were able to stave off the attack.

From Panay, Cavendish sailed to Mindanao to find a suitable place to spend the time while repairs were made on the Desire and also because, according to de Vera’s letter, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. In the same letter, the governor informed Philip II that he had ordered his own men to follow the English and also sent word to Spanish forts in the Moluccas, where Cavendish and his men were heard to have been headed.

From Mindanao, the Desire headed south to explore islands in what is present-day Indonesia, before heading out into the Indian Ocean for the return trip back to England. In September of 1588, the ship sailed back into the harbour at Plymouth, from where the expedition set out two years earlier.

Cavendish would sail on another expedition in 1591, but this time his exploration was focused on South America, specifically Brazil. He died the following year of unknown causes at the age of 31, while his expeditionary party was stationed off Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean.

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I upon his return from the Philippines. The treasures that he and other so-called adventurers brought to England enriched that country and would enable it to become, in the succeeding centuries, the most powerful maritime country in the world.

Spanish documents called him a corsair or a pirate; but to the English he is remembered as Sir Thomas Cavendish, the adventurer.

Notes and references:
1 Elizabeth I of England, Wikipedia
2 Thomas Cavendish, Wikipedia
3 A marco was an old Italian unit of measurement.
4 Civet was a type of fragrance or perfume.
5 Letter to Felipe II, by Santiago de Vera, as published in the Blair and Robertson series “The Philippine Islands: Volume VII: 1588-1591.”
6 Pintados were native Filipinos who adorned their bodies with tattoos. The islands that they inhabited were in the Visayas in what would presently be Samar, Leyte, Bohol, etc.
7 Cavendish, born in 1560, was in fact 28.

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