The Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra (1541-1595) discovered the Solomon and Marquesas Islands. The journeys of Mendaña and his associates in search of new conquests in the south ended the Spanish phase of the Age of Discovery.
Born in Zaragoza, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra was the nephew of a viceroy of Peru. Mendaña was in charge of an expedition in the South Pacific that sailed from Callao, Peru, at the end of 1567. With him went Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, an adventurer whose campaign for the conquest of the mythical southern continent (also called Terra Australis, although he had no precise relationship with present-day Australia) produced this expedition.
Behind the mission lie generations of European speculation and dreams. Ptolemy’s Geography, rediscovered by Europeans in the 15th century, had indicated the existence of a vast southern land mass. Attracting explorers across the Atlantic was the vision of the lost continent, or island of Atlantis. And once they reached the New World, they continued to be drawn to the story of the Golden One, El Dorado. Now these visions have been reactivated by Peruvian legends. Sarmiento, author of the Historía de los Incas, tapped into his Indian sources for information on Pacific exploration. Among the myths there is the story of the Inca navigator Paullu Tupac Yupanqui, whose 9 months journey south had brought him unimaginable riches. Their lust for these same rewards is the basis of Mendaña and Sarmiento’s journey.
With their two ships the explorers passed, but did not land on the Ellice Islands; but in 1568 they discovered Santa Isabella at Solomon. From there they continued towards Guadalcanal, Malaita and San Cristobal, where the attempt to find a settlement was unsuccessful. The Spanish massacres of islanders caused bloody reprisals; the Spanish hunger for gold was not satisfied. In the summer of 1568 Mendaña began its year-long return trip to Peru.
Mendaña hoped to return to the Solomons. But Spain, now diverted by its long naval war with England, was concerned with maintaining existing conquests rather than acquiring new possessions for sea wolves like Sir Francis Drake to plunder. So it was only in April 1595 that Mendaña was able to leave again, this time with four ships and a complement that included women destined to become wives of future settlers.
The small fleet reached Magdalena in the Marquises (named after the Marquis of Cañete, then Peruvian viceroy) in July 1595. The Polynesian inhabitants were admired and murdered. The journey then continued to its most extreme limit, the island of Santa Cruz, which is still far from the destination of Mendaña. There the expedition, torn by internal dissent and reduced by disease and war with the islanders, began to fall apart. Mendaña himself died in mid-November. The survivors were taken to the Philippines by the Portuguese pilot Pedro Fernandés de Quirós (who later discovered the New Hebrides). Mendaña’s failure to reconfirm his original discovery meant that the Solomons were permanently lost to Spain. They were only rediscovered in the 18th century by the English explorer Captain James Cook.
More information about Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra
For information on Mendaña, the exploration of the Pacific, and the Spanish Pacific see J. C. Beaglehole, The exploration of the Pacific (1934; 3d ed. 1966); William Lytle Schurz, The Galleon of Manila (1939); and Boies Penrose, Travels and discoveries in the Renaissance: 1420-1620 (1952).