Cat Flag: Spanish Galleon Edition

The San Salvador in port

My hometown recently had a very unique visitor. The San Diego Maritime Museum’s full-size replica of the San Salvador, the ship used by Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo when he became the first European to reach California, had sailed into port and was letting people take a tour. To say the least, I was super-excited. Spanish galleons are my favorite type of old ship, and so getting a chance to tour one was a real treat.

The original San Salvador was built in El Salvador, from which it takes its name, in 1540. It was one of three ships Cabrillo took on his expedition, the others being the La Victoria and the San Miguel. On their maiden voyage the ships set sail to Mexico, arriving on Christmas Day at a beach that was given the name “Barra de Navidad” (Christmas Sandbar). There Cabrillo and his men helped put down an Indian uprising against the conquistadors. In 1542, they set sail again, this time heading north.

A few years earlier, another explorer, Francisco de Ulloa, sighted what he thought was an island just northwest of Mexico. He named the land “California” after a fictional land in the 1510 fantasy novel Las Sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. Cabrillo was charged with exploring this “island” and seeing if it could provide a shortcut to Asia. Over the course of his journey, he sighted and mapped much of the California coast, including my hometown, and got as far north as the Russian River before bad storms forced them to turn back. On the return trip, the ship stopped to make repairs at Santa Catalina Island, when the local Indians attacked them. Cabrillo’s leg was broken in the struggle, and he died of a gangrene infection a few days later.

Life aboard a Spanish galleon would have been very rough. The docents said that the San Salvador would have had about 70 people on board – the captain, the crew, the soldiers, a few slaves, a priest, and a surgeon. That’s quite the crowded vessel.

This ship really isn't that big, when you get right down to it.

This ship really isn’t that big, when you get right down to it.

Making matters worse, the below-decks area was reserved for storage. A few officers had bunk beds and the captain had his tiny quarters, but most of the crew would have had to just sleep out on the deck. Not fun if it’s cold or rainy.

In an age before refrigeration, the food that the crew took on board would have been whatever grains and dried foods they could easily store in barrels plus what seafood they could catch along the way.

How appetizing.

How appetizing.

The length of the journey was almost entirely dependent on the weather, as there were no motors and the only thing powering the ship were massive canvas sails pushing it along. Which brings me to steering the thing; not an easy job by any means. Later generations of seagoing vessels would have the famous ship’s wheel used by the helmsman to turn the rudders and steer the ship.

USS Constitution demonstration image from the US Navy

However, that innovation hadn’t been invented yet when Cabrillo made his journey. Instead, the San Salvador and other galleons had to be steered with a giant lever.

San Salvador steering lever

Then there’s the all-important job of the lookout, standing in the crow’s nest looking for land or bad weather. Better hope you aren’t scared of heights!

Crow's Nest

Yet these men somehow were willing to put up with all the hardships and dangers to explore lands that had never been mapped before. You have to admit, these guys were brave.

Cabrillo, of course, was just one of many people in the New World pushing to expand the Spanish Empire, marching or sailing under this flag:

Of course I have to talk about the flag!

Of course I have to talk about the flag!

That flag is known as the “Cross of Burgundy”, and was used by the Spanish army and navy from 1506 to 1701. To this day, the flag is used throughout the Americas as a symbol of the Spanish colonial heritage of much of the continents. Yet the flag was not originally from Spain.

The Cross of Burgundy originated in the 1400s in the Duchy of Burgundy, an ancient realm between France and Germany that dated back to the 9th century. In 1477, France conquered and annexed the heartland of the Duchy, but its peripheral territories – the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of what are today eastern France – remained in the hands of monarchs who claimed the title “Duke of Burgundy”.

One of these “dukes” was Philip the Handsome, whose name should be familiar to you if you remember my posts on the history of the Spanish monarchy. Philip married Joanna, daughter of the famed King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. His son, King Charles I of Spain (who also held the title of Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V), was born and raised in Ghent, Belgium, and he used the Cross of Burgundy as part of his coat of arms. He made the various armies of his many, many realms use the Cross of Burgundy, or variations thereof, as their flag. After he resigned and passed the throne to his son, his descendants in Spain continued to use the Cross of Burgundy for centuries.

Touring the San Salvador was a great experience, and I appreciate the San Diego Maritime Museum for allowing me the opportunity to see it. The museum is home to numerous similar historic and replica ships from different historical ages, and anyone in the San Diego area who has an interest in naval history should pay them a visit!

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of Hurricane Matthew.

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