The History the San Diego Maritime Museum Does Not Teach

The San Diego Maritime Museum spent millions to build a replica ship originally built with the intention of invading Native nations.

The San Diego Maritime Museum has accomplished a noteworthy feat by spending millions of dollars and expending thousands of man hours to build a replica of a Spanish military reconnaissance ship called “San Salvador.” The ship’s name translates in English as, “Holy Savior,” a title that the Christian world gave to Jesus Christ. In other words, the San Diego Maritime Museum has built a military ship named after Jesus Christ, “the prince of peace,” a ship originally built with the intention of invading Native nations in the spirit of the Christian Crusades against non-Christians.

Unfortunately, however, the San Diego Maritime Museum has not shown a comparable amount of interest in building a school curriculum that provides students with an accurate historical context of that historical period. Back in 2009, the San Diego Maritime Museum said that its replica of the “San Salvador” would increase the museum’s capacity for teaching living history programs. It further said that the ship’s “most critical mission” is to provide thousands of area school children with a “passage to the past.” An excellent idea, in theory.

The implication seems clear: The Maritime Museum plans to provide school children with important and accurate information about the historical period of the ship San Salvador. Yet the question arises, what kind of information are students learning from the San Diego Maritime Museum? What seems equally important, however, is the historical information which the museum refuses to include in its lesson plans. It has been left out either because it is not considered “age appropriate” or because they believe Cabrillo and the San Salvador ship should only be spoken of and portrayed in a spirit of celebration.

Let’s look at the kind of information the museum does not teach about Cabrillo. On the dust jacket of the book Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Harry Kelsey says that Cabrillo rose from “a ragged childhood in the streets of Seville to a position of power and wealth as one of the richest landholders and most intrepid adventurers in the New World.” He goes on to say that Cabrillo was an “[a]uthor, adventurer, slaveholder, shipbuilder, and a professional soldier with a real taste for slaughter.”

Truth-telling in history could begin with an explanation to the students that Cabrillo had “a real taste” for killing Indians who were living on their own lands minding their own business when the foreign invaders arrived. That said, let’s look at some additional information that the San Diego Maritime Museum does not include in its history lessons because they want to portray Cabrillo as merely an explorer and map-maker.

When Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza sent Cabrillo on a voyage northward up the Baja peninsula, the Viceroy did so based on a royal commission which the murderous conquistador Pedro Alvarado had obtained a few years earlier from the king of Spain. In his History of Central America, Humbert Howe Bancroft, (after whom the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library is named) provides a portion of the original Spanish text of Alvarado’s commission: “Vos damos licencia. . . para que por no. . .podais descubrir, conquistar é poblar, cualesquier Islas qué hay en la mar del Sur de la Nueva España, questán en su parage…”

The king gave Alvarado permission “to discover, conquer, and populate” lands that had not yet been forced under the rule of a governor from Spain. “Conquistar” in this context means, “to acquire by force” newly located places. The king gave Alvarado royal permission to travel by ship to places where free and independent Native nations and peoples were already living, with the plan to invade them, and take them over by various methods of war and domination. It would seem that the San Diego Maritime Museum is not willing to teach this perfectly accurate historical context to students.

When Alvarado unexpectedly died from his horse falling on him during a battle against the Indians in Mexico, the Spanish Viceroy assigned Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo the task of sailing northward under the royal permission granted to Alvarado. The above-quoted Spanish wording from the royal commission reveals the specific intent and purpose of the San Salvador ship. Evidence of that Spanish intention is also found in the title of a book published in 1918 by Manuel Serrano y Sanz, Origenes de la Dominación Española en America (Origins of Spanish Domination in America). Isn’t it important for students visiting the San Diego Maritime Museum to learn about the Spanish crown’s bid for Spanish domination against Native peoples?

Something else that the San Diego Maritime Museum has left out of focus is the military-style royal instructions given to the commanders of all these voyages. In his 2004 book North to California, Paul A. Myers cites Henry R. Wagner as surmising that such instructions were also given “to Bolaños and Cabrillo.” As Myers points out, “The instructions follow a military format as to inventorying men [Indians] and material. Of interest are the instructions as to navigation and to interactions with Indians.” Those instructions provide a clear picture of the devious intent and purpose of reconnaissance ships such as the San Salvador:

You will also observe whether those persons who come to talk with you wear any ornaments, and see which are those they value the most, in order to take note of this as well. See if in any part of their dress they wear gold, pearls or precious stones, and of what quality, but do not ask them for anything nor show yourself more given to one thing than to another of what you see on them, so that they may not cunningly take note of it, but, on the contrary, you will with much dissimulation [deceit , subterfuge] take cognizance of the things which they hold in the greatest estimate.

Myers then provides insight into the motives of the Spanish crown by quoting royal instructions “with regard to the future division and exploitation of Indians occupying the conquered [dominated] lands.” (emphasis added) “His Majesty gives the rule to be observed in dividing the Indians in an item of the instruction which he orders given to persons who are going to conquer and pacify new countries.”

In case you missed it, the intention of “dividing the Indians” means dividing them up among the invading Spanish colonizers. The words “conquer” and “pacify” are two words for “to dominate.” Taking this into account, it is clear that the royal instructions are talking about representatives of the Spanish crown who are going forth to dominate “new countries,” meaning, they are seeking countries that are unknown to them so the countries and the Native people living there can be forced under domination, subjection and slavery.

The Maritime Museum has said the San Salvador provides an opportunity to discuss with students, “The first cultural interaction between Europeans and the well-established Native people of California.” Given that Spanish conquistadors such as Cabrillo were engaging in military reconnaissance for the future purpose of establishing a deadly system of oppression, isn’t the museum using the benign sounding term “cultural interaction” to avoid discussing invasion, robbery, murder and domination?

The adage “what we focus on (e.g., ‘cultural interaction’) determines what we miss” is certainly demonstrated by the museum’s sanitized approach to history and its glorification and celebration of the bloody conquistador Cabrillo. Isn’t it the responsibility of an educational institution such as the San Diego Maritime Museum to teach students, and the public in general, a complete and accurate history of the Spanish crown and of ship commanders such as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo?

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from