Almost a century after Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Bahamas Islands on October 12, 1492 and claimed for the king of Spain what would later be called “the Americas ”, Spanish Captain Pedro de Unamuno “discovered” California on the other side of the continent. Although Columbus ’ discovery is celebrated as a national holiday in the United States , in Spain , and throughout South America, no such honor is bestowed on de Unamuno for his discovery of California on October 18, 1587.
In fact, de Unamuno’s historic voyage has been largely ignored by historians and is only commemorated by the Filipino American community and only because de Unamuno reported in his ship’s log that his crew was composed of “Luzon Indios”.
This historical fact was revealed in Henry R. Wagner’s Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century which was published by the California Historical Society in San Francisco in 1929. The book included an English translation of de Unamuno’s account of his voyage to California.
The Spanish interest in finding California stemmed from the development of the Manila-Acapulco trade route, through which Chinese goods were ultimately delivered to Spain. In 1565, with Father Andres Urdaneta at the helm, a return route to Acapulco was found that passed by what we now know as the California coast. On the way back, Urdaneta sighted land, but lost sight of it in the mist.
Over the next 20 years, Urdaneta’s route was used by more Spanish vessels- mostly Manila galleon ships made in Philippine islands - and staffed by crews of “Luzon Indios.”
In 1585, Archbishop of Mexico Pedro Moya de Contreras dispatched Spanish Captain Francisco Gali to proceed to Manila from Acapulco and, on his return voyage, “to reconnoiter down the coast” in hopes of finding the land that Urdaneta and others reported sighting.
Archbishop Contreras also instructed Gali not to stop by China , mindful of the intense interest by Acapulco merchants in establishing direct commercial trade with China instead of having to go through the Spanish “middle men” merchants in Manila .
The Acapulco merchants had given money to Gali’s second in command, Pedro de Unamuno, to make the trade connections with China . Fortuitously for the merchants, Gali died while in Manila , giving command of his two ships to de Unamuno. Before leaving Manila in 1586, the Spanish authorities there reminded de Unamuno again of the Archbishop’s order not to go to China under any circumstances.
De Unamuno’s crew on his return trip to Acapulco was composed mostly of Luzon Indios who were conscripted by the Spanish authorities in Manila to build the galleon ships and to man the crews that would sail on those ships.
The church authorities in Manila were concerned that if the merchants in Acapulco established direct trade relations with China , they would not need to go to Manila to pick up Chinese goods and the Spanish colonial outpost in the Philippine islands would be abandoned.
Despite repeated warnings, de Unamuno disregarded the instructions of the Acapulco Archbishop and the Manila authorities and proceeded to Macao , a destination he later claimed was due to “bad weather and lack of supplies.”
The Portuguese authorities saw direct Spanish trade with China as inimical to their own trade interests so they confiscated de Unamuno’s ships and reported his China incursion to the Spanish authorities in Manila. The Royal Audiencia in Manila dispatched Captain Juan de Argumedo to Macao to arrest de Unamuno and his cohorts and to recover the two Spanish ships. The penalty for de Unamuno’s insubordination was death.
But de Unamuno and his men were able to elude capture and managed to connect with two Franciscan priests who wanted to return to Mexico . One of the priests, Father Martin Ignacio de Loyola (the nephew of the founder of the Jesuit order), loaned de Unamuno money to buy a small Portuguese-built ship in Macao , which de Unamuno christened “Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza”.
With his new ship loaded with Chinese goods purchased with the funds provided by the Acapulco merchants and with his crew of Luzon Indios, a few Spanish soldiers, and two priests, de Unamuno sailed for Acapulco from Macao on July 12, 1587.
En route to Acapulco, the mast of his ship broke which compelled de Unamuno to dock in the nearest land to replace the broken mast and to replenish his food supplies. When his crew sighted land on October 18, 1587, de Unamuno entered the bay of what he called “Port San Lucas”. He took possession of the port and the land in the name of the Spanish king much as Columbus did on the other side of the continent a century before.
De Unamuno dispatched his Luzon Indios to act as his scouts as he explored the new land. Two days later, on October 20, his crew encountered natives who attacked them. In the battle that ensued, a Spanish soldier and a Luzon Indio were killed, before de Unamuno's crew was able to safely return to their ship.
On October 21, de Unamuno decided to leave and continue on to Acapulco . About a month later, de Unamuno wrote: “We entered the port of Acapulco on November 22 whence we wrote to Your Excellency and reported at length on the events and hardships of our voyage.”
After researching navigational maps of California and the geographic descriptions provided in de Unamuno’s narrative, members of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) determined that de Unamuno’s “Port San Lucas” is the city of Morro Bay.
On October 18, 1995, Morro Bay City Mayor William Yates officially dedicated a historical marker to commemorate de Unamuno’s landing. In part, the marker reads: “ A landing party was sent to shore which included ‘Luzon Indios’ marking the first landing of Filipinos in the Continental United States.”
On September 25, 2009, the state of California officially declared October as “Filipino American History Month” to honor the first Filipinos to set foot in California .
(This article, in its original form, first appeared in the Op-Ed page of the San Francisco Chronicle on October 17, 1997.)