The sacking of the galleon Santa Ana
by Hector Santos
© 1996, 1997 by Hector Santos
All rights reserved.


Thomas Cavendish On the heels of the upstart Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza, the official trade galleon of 1587 from Manila. the Santa Ana, approaced the coast of California where it would swing down on a South-South-Easterly course to Acapulco. The galleon was under the command of Tomás de Alzola and it had left the port of Cavite the last week of June, some four-and-a-half months earlier.

The Buena Esperanza left Macao two weeks later but had the advantage of starting from a higher latitude and not having to navigate through close islands.

In the meantime, there was concern in Peru that English corsairs might have made their way up the coast after going through the Straits of Magellan. In fact, they sent a ship to Acapulco to warn the authorities there that incoming galleons were in danger of getting waylaid. The warning was not taken too seriously although a token effort was undertaken to send a launch to go up the coast of California and warn incoming ships.

In fact, two English ships under the command of twenty-seven-year-old Thomas Cavendish were already stationed around San Lucas, then believed to be the southern extremity of the island of California. Cavendish's flagship Desire and the smaller Content were taking in water and other provisions in a place marked on Spanish maps as Aguada Segura, meaning a place where one can be sure of getting fresh water.

The Santa Ana had 100 Spaniards and 60 people of color on board. It was also heavily laden with goods. Galleons tended to be overloaded with undeclared goods put on board with the assistance of corrupt port masters. Alzola would later testify that he had to dump some cargo right after leaving Cavite as the ship was nearing Mindoro in an effort to make the ship easier to handle.

It was November 14th when the Santa Ana approached the coast in clear weather. The Buena Esperanza, which had made landfall at a higher latitude earlier, had come in when fog covered the whole California coast. The very fog that had made it difficult for Unamuno had saved him from the fate that befell Alzola.

A lookout on the Santa Ana saw sails between their ship and the California shore. The crew and passengers were happy at the thought that it was the Buena Esperanza, their sister ship from the Philippines, and one of its launches. But as the other ships approached, Alzola raised an alarm because the lookout saw the red and white standards flown by the ships signifying their English nationality.

Alzola ordered camouflage netting to be deployed and distributed rocks, swords, and two arquebuses to all able-bodied hands. The Santa Ana had no cannons to defend herself. In spite of the fact that Francis Drake has attacked towns and ships along New Spain and Peru nine years earlier, the Spaniards were confident that they owned the Pacific and that no harm, other than from nature, can come to ships that sailed under her flag in that ocean. This was ironic because on its last trip to Acapulco the Santa Ana was equipped with cannons installed in Manila. Acapulco authorities decided to keep the cannons to defend their city from potential pirate attacks.

As the Desire drew alongside, several Englishmen boarded the Santa Ana and fierce hand-to-hand combat erupted. The initial attack was repulsed and the Englishmen withdrew, many jumping into the sea to escape the wrath of the defenders.

The Desire charged again, shooting artillery and ramming the Santa Ana in turn. Some shells hit their mark and produced holes below the waterline. The English ship drew alongside and some of her men boarded the Santa Ana once more. One was able to climb the main mast and cut down the main sail. He was killed by arquebus shots.

In spite of the fierce fighting that lasted some five to six hours, only a handful of lives from each side was lost. Alzola knew that his ship was sinking, announced to his crew that all was lost, and raised the flag of truce.

Cavendish sent a launch over to pick up Pedro Bravo de Paredes who was designated by Alzola to negotiate with the Englishmen regarding surrender terms. Some officers from the Desire came back in a while and picked up Tomás de Alzola, Fray Francisco Ramos, Don Juan de Almendrales, Antonio de Sierra, Juan Baldonado, and Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño.

Don Juan de Almendrales, canon of Manila, would later be hanged for fighting and using abusive language on his captors.

The next day the sinking Santa Ana was sailed to shore. The passengers and crew were put ashore together with some thirty other Spaniards who had been captured by Cavendish in earlier encounters. Some indios and negroes were detained on board the Santa Ana to man the pumps. Cavendish wanted the Santa Ana to remain afloat until he recovered all its cargo.

Cavendish and his men spent the next several days sacking the ship. He carefully chose what he wanted from the ship's cargo and stores. The Santa Ana had a cargo of gold, pearls, satin, silk, damask, and musk.

The English account say they took 22,000 pesos in gold while one Spanish account said 600,000. Total estimates for the total loss vary from 120,000 to over 2,100,000 pesos. More likely, the loss was in the range of 400,000 to 800,000 pesos. In any event, it would remain on record as the largest loss ever suffered by a galleon during the over two centuries of Manila-Acapulco trade.

After the sacking, the Santa Ana was beached and set afire. The fire went on for four long days before dying out.

Cavendish gave arms and provisions to the men and women he had set ashore. He left them arquebuses, swords, sailcloth, utensils, wine, garbanzos, and other provisions. He returned to Alzola the ship's registry which he signed as a receipt for the things that he took as war booty.

Cavendish and his two ships sailed away to go west to the Moluccas. To help him navigate the ocean he had never seen, he took with him two pilots, Alonzo de Valladolid and Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño. He also kept on board Miguel Sanchez, another pilot he had captured earlier. Valladolid had a 19-year-old slave from Panay Island, Francisco Mangabay.

Cavendish also took with him two Japanese brothers (Cristobal, 20 and and Cosme, 17) and three Filipino boys (Alfonso, 15, Antonio de Dasi, 13, and one unnamed, 9).

Cavendish made one of the fastest Pacific crossings ever, reaching the Philippines in 56 days, three to four weeks faster than normal. In Capul (an island in San Bernardino Straits), he released some hostages, including Mangabay. However, Valladolid was hanged after he was caught writing a letter to the governor of the Philippines.

It did not take long for news to travel to Manila about the loss of the Santa Ana. Causing further consternation among the authorities was the seeming ease with which the small enemy ships with only a small complement of men could enter their territory and how powerless they were to drive them away.

Back in San Lucas, the marooned men and women made the best of their situation. After 12 days, some of the men swam to the burnt-out hull of the Santa Ana to check it out. The bottom part which was in the water was intact.

The men spent the next few days bailing water out of the lower part of the ship, scraping the wood, and making a few repairs until it floated again. They fashioned a mast from some pieces of wood they salvaged and used the material left them by Cavendish to make a sail.

After 36 days is San Lucas, they were underway again on December 21. They spent Christmas at sea and reached the Port of Santiago on January 2, 1588 where they discharged 11 sick passengers. They reached Acapulco on January 6, 1588 just as Cavendish was only a week away from the Philippines.

The news of the sacking of the Santa Ana reached New Spain and Manila almost simultaneously. It caused shock waves that would be felt in years to come as Spanish authorities started to reexamine how they could best protect their interests in the Pacific. It was not Portugal anymore that was the enemy but a Protestant nation that would not take orders from the Pope.

Francis Drake did not cause the Spaniards to worry too much. It took Thomas Cavendish and the tremendous commercial loss of the Santa Ana to wake everybody up to the fact the the Pacific was not a Spanish lake anymore. Then, as today, commercial interests were the prime movers of international policy.

This article was rewritten for the World Wide Web and first appeared in the Jan/Feb 1996 issue (3: 1) of Sulat sa Tansô.



* Licuanan, Virginia Benitez and José Llavador Mira. The Philippines under Spain: A compilation and translation of original documents, Book IV (1583-1590), The Royal Audiencia. Manila, 1993.
* Lessa, William A. Drake's island of thieves: Ethnological sleuthing. Honolulu, 1975.
* Mathes, W. Michael. The capture of the Santa Ana: Cabo San Lucas, November, 1587. Los Angeles, 1969.
* Wagner, Henry R. Spanish voyages to the northwest coast of America in the sixteenth century. San Francisco, 1929.

To cite:
Santos, Hector. "The sacking of the galleon Santa Ana" in Sulat sa Tansô at US, April 5, 1997.