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Ancient Trade Routes

San Diego

The Story

In December 1600, two Dutch ships, the Mauritius and the Eendracht, arrived in Manila Bay. The 90 sailors on board were all that remained of an original fleet of four ships and 248 men that had left the Netherlands two years previously with a mission to plunder and uncover trade routes.

Sailing out to meet them and give battle were two Spanish ships, the San Bartolomeo and the San Diego, which carried more than 450 armed men (Spanish, Filipinos, Japanese and others). Antonio de Morga, lieutenant governor of the Philippines and chief justice of their supreme court, took over the San Diego, a merchant ship requisitioned and hurriedly armed for battle. The commander of the Mauritius, Oliver van Noort, a former innkeeper in Rotterdam was well versed in piloting a vessel, unlike de Morga who had absolutely no experience at sea.

The Spanish venture was doomed from the start. De Morga took command because he saw it as a way to gain recognition and preferential treatment from King Philip II of Spain. The citizens of Manila knew that he was completely unfit for this mission and did everything they could (including hiring Japanese mercenaries) to avoid sailing with him.

There was also the matter of outfitting the ship. On the 115-foot 300-ton San Diego were 14 cannon, 127 barrels of gunpowder, thousands of cannonballs and musket balls, hundreds of jars for provisions and hundreds of men. When the ship left port it was so over weighted that, according to one eyewitness account, the water came up to the gun ports. Indeed, the ship was so full that the cannon could not be used.

Given his lack of firepower, de Morga decided to grapple on to the Mauritius and board her, overwhelming the Dutch with his vast superiority in manpower. Accordingly, some 30 of his men did board and the Dutch asked for terms of surrender. De Morga, however, was unable to give orders to his men, which allowed the Dutch to take heart and to fight back. Using a well known sailor’s trick, Oliver van Noort deliberately set fire to his own ship to force men to come up on deck to fight and also, of course, to frighten the Spanish. While dense smoke poured out of the Mauritius, the San Diego, moored to her, was caught in a dilemma: either remain attached and burn, or cut the lines and sink. The lines were cut and the monstrously overloaded San Diego sank like a stone, taking hundreds of men with her. As for de Morga, he managed to escape with two Dutch flags as his trophies and lived to write a totally false account of what happened, dying at the age of 77 in Quito (Equator). It is thanks to the account of surviving eyewitnesses, which were kept secret at that time, that we know what really happened.

The Discovery

After studying the documentary evidence regarding the sinking of the San Diego, in 1991 underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio deduced an area in which the wreck of ship probably lay and drew up a zone two and a quarter miles long and one and a half miles wide for exploration. Almost at the end of the time allotted to search, the wreck of the San Diego was discovered lying 52 metres below the surface and less than a half a mile from the shore.

Proceeding with the excavation the team first saw hundreds of the stoneware jars as well as cannon and anchors. They also discovered blue-and-white Ming pieces, which were probably the property of the owner of the requisitioned ship. Almost all were export pieces. Gradually the diversity and quantity of the cargo was revealed: Japanese sword hilts, weaponry and stoneware jars from Vietnam, Thailand, China; silver and gold coins; silverware; the ship’s compass and an astrolabe, as well as objects of daily life.

Further information can be obtained from the website of IEASM (Institut Européen d'Archéologie Sous-Marine).

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