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Pedro Alvarado’s ‘Almost a Lust for Murder’ and San Diego Maritime Museum

The San Diego Maritime Museum and its mission statement carry that bloody legacy of a colonizing tradition.

The mission of the San Diego Maritime Museum is “to serve as the community memory of our seafaring experience by collecting, preserving, and presenting our rich maritime heritage and historic connections with the Pacific world.” The phrase “the community memory of our [emphasis added] seafaring experience” pretty much excludes the Kumeyaay Nation and the Kumeyaay people. The last time I checked there were no Kumeyaaay on the Spanish ships that invasively arrived to the Kumeyaay Nation territory in 1542.

Those who identify with the maritime (seafaring) tradition of colonizers and conquistadores seem to be the target audience for the mission statement of the San Diego Maritime Museum. That being the case, let’s take a closer look at the bloody legacy of that colonizing tradition from an indigenous nations and peoples perspective.

In Four Keys to Guatemala (1939), by Vera Kelsy and Lilly De Jongh Osborne, the authors say that Spanish conquistador Pedro Alvarado, was “neither peacemaker nor preacher; one commentator credits him with ‘almost a lust for murder.’” “From his entrance to Guatemala [in 1532] until the end of 1536,” they continue, “his expedition was a series of massacres.” On the back cover of the book Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (1998), Harry Kelsey says that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was “a professional soldier with a real taste for slaughter.” (emphasis added)


Clearly, Cabrillo and Pedro de Alvarado were kindred spirits when it came to Native enslavement, blood-letting, and carnage by killing Indians for riches and wealth. Regarding maritime tradition of ship-building in Guatemala, Kelsey quotes Bartolomé de Las Casas as saying of Alvarado:

He [Alvarado] killed an infinite number of people in building the ships; from the north to the south sea a hundred and thirty leagues the Indians carried anchors of three and four quintales [600 to 800 pounds] which cut furrows into the shoulders and loins of some of them. And he carried in the same way much artillery on the shoulders of these sad, naked people; and I saw many loaded with artillery on those anguished roads. He broke up homes, taking the women and girls and giving them to the soldiers and sailors in order to keep them satisfied and bring them into his fleets.

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As one of Alvarado’s main ship-builders, and previously a cross-bowman for Cortéz in the Christian domination of Mexico, Cabrillo was right in the thick of it when it came to killing of so many Native people. When combined, the deeds of Alvarado and Cabrillo seem to provide an ideal model for sex traffickers, sadists, and serial killers. Does the outreach education program for the San Diego Maritime Museum ever breathe a word to anyone of the heinous and murderous past of Alvarado and Cabrillo? Certainly not.

Nor does the Maritime Museum mention that the building of ships such as the “San Salvador resulted in tremendous numbers of Native people being killed in Guatemala. How strange, then, that the San Diego Maritime Museum education outreach program instructs its teachers to only discuss Cabrillo and his 1542 voyage “in a celebratory manner.” Why “celebrate” a murdering conquistador who “had a real taste” for slaughtering Indians. Where is the sense in that, and toward what end? A steadfast denial of the dark-side of Spanish Catholic history? A desire to cover-up of the truth about Cabrillo and Alvarado?

Based on cognitive theory, or the theory of the human mind, legal philosopher Steven L. Winter points out that context, purpose, and intent are critical to any kind of interpretation. It is precisely these three things that the San Diego Maritime Museum has stripped from its education activities with the general public. The context of the mass murder of Native people in Guatemala and elsewhere to build those ships must be included in the story in order to provide a historically accurate and comprehensive picture of men such as Alvarado and Cabrillo, and of ships such as “San Salvador” (Holy Savior) and “Victoria” (Victory).

So far as the purpose of Cabrillo’s ship is concerned, the San Diego Maritime Museum wants to emphasize to the public that Cabrillo was only “an explorer and map-maker.” Was his voyage part of Spanish exploration? No doubt about it. However, a fuller picture emerges when we ask, “Spanish exploration toward what end, or with what intention?” The answer is “military reconnaissance and invasion.”

We know, for example, that Cabrillo sailed north under the royal commission that the king of Spain had issued to Pedro Alvarado a couple of years before Alvarado was killed when a horse fell on him in a battle against Indians in Mexico. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft provides a quote from that commission in its original Spanish. The intension of the royal authorization was to “descrubrir, conquistare poblar (“discover, conquer, and populate) whatever lands in the South Sea of the Pacific Ocean, in the area Spain called “New Spain,” that Alvarado was able to locate by ship. (History of Central America, Vol. II, p. 123) This was the intention behind the Cabrillo’s voyage with the ships San Salvador and Victoria.

When Alvarado’s royal commission is thought of as a mathematical equation, we get: discover + conquer + populate = invasion. This was true wherever those Spanish ships sailed. An invasion as I understand it means, “to enter a foreign land while fully intending to subjugate it by forcing the people living there under a dominating control.” The San Diego Maritime Museum’s insistence that Spain’s deadly maritime tradition of reconnaissance and invasion only be discussed in a spirit of celebration strikes me as ridiculous. It is a form of denial of the historically accurate context of the Spanish bid for invasion and domination for the expansion of the empire, power, and wealth of Spain.

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