Table of Contents / Explorers
Magellan Strait
Pacific Ocean
Spice Islands

Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira, 1542?–1595 / Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, d. 1615

Mendaña Expedition (1567–1569): Two ships (Los Reyes, Todos Santos), 150 men
Charge (by the Spanish viceroy of Peru): To find gold and other riches in Pacific lands and to discover the great Southern Continent
Accomplishments: Discovered the Solomon Islands

Mendaña and Queirós Expedition (1595–1596): Four ships (San Geronimo, San Isabel, Santa Catalina, San Felipe), 378 men, women, and children (including Mendaña’s wife and other family members)
Charge (by the Spanish viceroy of Peru): To establish a colony in the Solomon Islands
Accomplishments: Discovered the Marquesas and the Santa Cruz islands

Queirós Expedition (1605–1606): Three ships (San Pedro y San Pablo, San Pedro, Los Tres Reyes), 300 soldiers and sailors, 10 missionaries (but no women or children)
Charge (by King Philip III of Spain): To find Terra Australis and claim it for Spain and Rome
Accomplishments: Discovered Espíritu Santo and other Vanuatu islands

Legacy of Mendaña’s and Queirós’s names: None

[Click on the images below for high resolution versions.]

Portrait of Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira. From vol. 2 of Don José March y Labores’s Historia de la Marina Real Española (Madrid, 1854).

Spain’s major Pacific exploratory expeditions were launched from its colonial bases on the west coast of South America, and they were instigated primarily by men motivated, as perhaps had been Christopher Columbus, by a combination of gold-rush fever (for gold, spices, other riches) and Christian fervor.
            Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1532–1592), a Spanish soldier and navigator, arrived in Peru in the 1550s; he worked as a minor government official and became the leading authority on Inca legends and history. He theorized that such a highly developed and rich society, not indigenous to Peru, had come from a land to the west, possibly from Terra Australis, the great Southern Continent. (For more on this fabled land, see the Terra Australis box in the Pacific Ocean section.) Others had speculated that Ophir, the biblical region from which King Solomon had received cargoes of gold to build his temple in Jerusalem, might be located out there. Sarmiento believed that other explorers had failed to find the continent because they had followed prevailing winds and currents too far to the north. He speculated that the land lay about two thousand miles from Peru.
            A new Spanish viceroy, arriving in Peru in 1564, found Sarmiento’s ideas persuasive and supported the idea of an exploratory trip, but he wanted his nephew, twenty-five-year-old Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira, to lead it. Sarmiento would be second in charge; Hernán Gallego, an older experienced mariner, would be the chief pilot. The two-ship expedition left Callao, near Lima, Peru, on November 19, 1567. After twenty-six days of light winds and empty ocean, the sailors began to grumble, and Gallego persuaded Mendaña to change their course to the north to catch more wind. (Had they maintained Sarmiento’s southwesterly course, they probably would have encountered New Zealand or Australia eventually.) Over the following weeks Sarmiento and Gallego continued to clash; food and water ran very low. In the middle of January, the ships sailed past a tiny atoll and finally spotted substantial land on February 7, their eighty-first day of the voyage, more than six thousand miles from Peru. They thought they had reached the southern continent, but it was Santa Isabel, named for the patron saint that had guided their voyage, in the Solomon Islands. (Though not named by Mendaña, the islands were called the Solomons by those who later received word of his voyage and mapped his discovery—so great was the anticipation for his success and so pervasive the Solomon legend.)

Langenes, Barent. “Nova Guinea et In Salomonis.” Copperplate map, with added color, 9 × 12 cm. Probably from Corneille Nicolas’s Thresor de chartes, contenant les tableaux de tous les pays du monde . . . (The Hague, 1600). [Historic Maps Collection]

First separately printed map of New Guinea (called by some, as the Latin note states, Terra de Piccinacoli, Land of the Bird-of-Paradise). It provides a fairly correct latitude for the Solomon Islands but offers no longitudinal guidance.

During their three months’ stay on the island, an uneasy peace prevailed with the islanders. Food was scarce and had to be coerced from them. Further exploration in a smaller boat proved there was no continent nearby. The Spanish party moved to Guadalcanal, where continuous bloody encounters with the natives ensued. It was the same on San Christobal. After repairing and cleaning the ships, the majority of the men voted to return to Peru. To ease friction, Sarmiento was given command of Todos Santos, and the ships weighed anchor on August 11, 1568.
            Choosing the route home became another contentious affair. Ultimately, Gallego’s advice, to go north in order to catch the westerlies and follow the route that Andrés de Urdanetta (1498–1568) had pioneered, was taken. (For more on Urdanetta, see the Pacific Winds box in the Pacific Ocean section.) Surviving a cyclone, low rations, and dwindling crew, Mendaña’s ship arrived in Baja California in December; Sarmiento’s struggled into their harbor a few weeks later. The two ships finally reached Callao on September 11, 1569.
            After the two-year ordeal, Mendaña received little praise for what was perceived as a failed voyage. He returned to Spain to ceaselessly plead the case for more exploration; Sarmiento went back to Lima. He would eventually write a history of the Incas and explore the Strait of Magellan. En route to Europe in 1584, he was captured by the English and presented to Queen Elizabeth, who sent him to Spain bearing a letter of peace for King Philip II. But Sarmiento was taken prisoner by French Huguenots and imprisoned during the Spanish Armada debacle. (The undelivered letter might have prevented all of that conflict.) He spent most of the rest of his life on his writings.

By 1595, after suffering the plundering of its Pacific coastal regions of South America by Sir Francis Drake and other English privateers, the Spanish government was ready for more exploration of the Pacific—for new territory for colonies and naval bases. Now, after almost thirty years, Mendaña was allowed to mount a follow-up voyage to colonize the Solomon Islands. His ambitious expedition of four ships, including his wife (Doña Isabel), other family members, and women and children, departed from Callao, Peru, on April 9, 1595. Among the potential settlers were a good number of criminals, prostitutes, and adventurers. The Portuguese-born Pedro Fernandes de Queirós was recruited as chief pilot. Though a first-class navigator, he was scorned by the Spaniards in the fleet for his lowly heritage and immigrant origins. Doña Isabel’s bullying personality created additional stress.
            Though the Solomons lie about eight thousand miles from Peru, Mendaña’s reckoning put them at about four thousand. Yet, when the ships sighted islands after only five weeks at sea and about two thousand miles from port, Mendaña claimed they had reached their destination. Quickly he realized his error, though, and named them Las Marquesas de Mendoza after his Peruvian sponsor. The islanders were treated cruelly, and about two hundred were killed, often shot down, Queirós reported, for sport. After departing the Marquesas, the group sailed westward, with food and water rations low, finding on September 7 another group of high volcanic islands (Santa Cruz)—but, alas, they were not the Solomons either. Mendaña claimed them for Spain, and an attempt to colonize was made. However, Mendaña’s ongoing disputes with the soldiers culminated with grisly killings and beheadings after a generous island chieftain was killed. Internal bickering continued, and chaos seemed to rein.
            A fever epidemic took Mendaña’s life in October, so command of the ships went to Queirós. Though still reluctant to abandon the settlement, the group opted to head for the Philippines, finally anchoring in Manila on February 11, 1596. Queirós had managed the navigation feat without the aid of charts. Many had succumbed to scurvy and deprivation while Doña Isabel had hoarded stores of food for herself and brothers; of the original 378 who had set out from Peru, fewer than 100 remained. Doña Isabel, however, was feted, and within three months, she remarried. Her new husband paid to have the San Geronimo prepared for the return journey. Following the now routine route across the northern Pacific, the ship arrived at Acapulco, Mexico, on December 11, 1596. The long voyage in hell had ended, but the Solomons had not been found. (In fact, the islands would remain “lost” until the English explorer Philip Carteret came upon them in 1767.) Queirós, who had experienced great horror, discovered a new calling: he was now obsessed with bringing Christianity to the Pacific. Back in Peru in 1597, he began his campaign to return to seek Terra Australis.

Portrait of Pedro Fernandes de Queirós. From vol. 2 of Don José March y Labores’s Historia de la Marina Real Española (Madrid, 1854).

Descriptio ac delineatio geographica detectionis freti, sive, Transitus ad occasum, suprà terras Americanas in Chinam atq́[ue] Iaponem ducturi, recens investigati ab M. Henrico Hudsono Anglo: Item, Narratio regi Hispaniæ facta, super tractu, in quinta orbis terrarum parte, cui Australiæ Incognitæ nomen est, recens detecto, per Capitaneum Petrum Ferdinandez de Quir . . . (Amsterdam, 1612). [Rare Books Division]

World map showing Queirós’s apparent discovery of Terra Australis and the Solomon Islands. The latitude given (10° S) is roughly accurate. The correct coordinates are 8–10° S, 160° W. The proverbial longitude problem, however, would keep them “lost” for two hundred years (1568–1767).

Manesson-Mallet, Allain, 1630?–1706? “Isles de Salomon.” Copperplate map, with added color, 15 × 10 cm. From his Beschreibung des ganzen Welt-Kreisses . . . (Frankfurt, 1684–1685). [Historic Maps Collection]

A map that conflates and distorts Dutch and Spanish discoveries. Several of Mendaña’s islands are presented as peninsulas of Queirós’s land (i.e., Espíritu Santo), which itself was really an island; that, in turn, is joined to Dutchman Abel Tasman’s New Zealand. The map bears no latitude or longitude markers, furthering the confusion. Still, to the mapmaker’s credit, these shadowy lands and islands, imprecisely located and configured, are acknowledged here—to await further revision and sharper definition.

“Vertoning van’t Callao de Lima.” Copperplate view, 17.3 x 27 cm. From Iournael vande Nassausche vloot . . . (Amsterdam, 1626) [Rare Books Division].

Callao was the center of Spanish commerce in the Pacific and the departure point for the expeditions of Mendaña and Queirós. This view shows the blockade of Callao in May 1624 by the Dutch fleet under Jacques l’Hermite, who earlier in the voyage had confirmed that Cape Horn was an island. L’Hermite succumbed to dysentery  and scurvy and was buried on the island shown at the right.

The new viceroy of Peru encouraged Queirós to seek financial support back in Spain, where he arrived in 1600. King Philip II had died, leaving the country deep in debt and still mired in war. Queirós secured a position as tutor of geography to the son of Spain’s ambassador to the Vatican and ultimately received an audience with Pope Clement VIII, who was interested in the Portuguese explorer’s religious quest. With the pontiff’s blessing of his enterprise, Queirós then approached King Philip III of Spain. Though the Spanish court was not very receptive to the idea, after two more years of the claimant’s relentless pestering, the king agreed to sponsor a voyage of exploration. He signed a letter ordering the Peruvian viceroy to give all aid to Queirós “to win souls to heaven and kingdoms to the crown of Spain.”
            Back in Callao by 1605, Queirós assembled his expedition. He equipped his ships with enough stores for a year’s voyage, with fresh water stored in earthen jars instead of wooden barrels; his holds also were stocked with domestic animals, farm implements, and seed to aid in colonizing any lands discovered. Determined not to repeat the disaster of Mendaña’s last voyage, Queirós wanted no women: his men and missionaries would plant their colony and convert the natives to Christianity first—women and children would come later. Second in charge was the Spanish navigator Luis Vaez de Torres (fl. 1606).
            The three-ship enterprise departed from Callao on December 21, 1605, and followed a more southerly course than on Queirós’s previous mission, expecting it would lead to the landmass of Terra Australis. At 26° S, farther south than anyone had yet explored, bad weather and winds forced the explorer to reluctantly adjust his course to the west-northwest, back toward Pacific waters already traversed by Mendaña’s voyages. Water and food rations had to be cut. Most of the islands they passed were waterless and uninhabited, or had dangerous reefs and surf that inhibited landings. In mid-February, Queirós fell ill and decided to make another course change: due west for Mendaña’s island of Santa Cruz. March came and went, supplies dwindled, bickering and grumbling continued. On April 7, 1606, they came upon an inhabited island (one of the Duff Islands), where they learned that a huge land lay to the south. Heartened, the Spaniards resumed their voyage and headed south. After encountering other small islands, they sighted what seemed to be a large landmass, and sailed into a huge bay on May 1.
            Believing he had finally found the Southern Continent, Queirós named the land Austrialia del Espíritu Santo, honoring King Philip III’s Austrian royal house. Search parties sent inland reported that the country was bountiful with fruits and grains, pigs and fowl. But the natives were not welcoming, and the Spanish soldiers’ use of force produced more enmity. Queirós conducted a religious ceremony aboard his flagship, inducting his men into a new order he had created, the Knights of the Holy Ghost, whose chivalrous duty was to protect the land and spread the word of God. The new settlement he named New Jerusalem, and its nearby river Jordan. But the daily life in this paradise was less celebratory: chronic food shortages precipitated raids on native villages, Queirós acted irrationally (perhaps still sick), and no religious conversion was taking place. Moreover, there was a growing sense that the land was not a continent, only a large island. For whatever reason, only weeks after landing, Queirós suddenly decided that the fleet would leave and explore other areas to the west.
            On June 8, 1606, the ships sailed out of the bay, but against strong headwinds the flagship was separated from the others, which sought safety back in port. Instead, Queirós ordered his ship to Santa Cruz, an agreed-upon rendezvous point. Failing to find that and admitting to the failure of the enterprise, he rashly argued to sail home, which they did via the North Pacific, arriving in Acapulco, Mexico, on November 23, 1606.
            Meanwhile, after a brief waiting period, Torres led the two remaining ships west along the coast of Espíritu Santo, confirming that it was an island (the largest in today’s Vanuatu group), then along the southern side of New Guinea, discovering the strait that bears his name, narrowly missing the continent of Australia which was less than one hundred miles to the south. They ultimately found the Spice Islands in January, where they abandoned the smaller ship, and reached Manila, the capital of the Philippines on May 22, 1607. Torres wrote a short report of his trip to the king; at this point he and his crew disappeared from the historical record. The discovery of the Torres Strait was kept secret by Spanish authorities until British forces captured Manila in 1762 and found it identified on navigational documents. British Captain James Cook would confirm the strait’s existence in 1770. Queirós spent much of the remainder of his life in Spain seeking royal support for a return to his Austrialia del Espíritu Santo. In 1614, his wish was finally granted, but he died on the voyage back to Peru.
            These three voyages were Spain’s last major attempts to explore the South Pacific, for none of the anticipated results—new sources of wealth, new colonies, converts to Catholicism—had been achieved. A government severely strapped for funds had to cut its losses. The geographical discoveries were significant, however, and began to appear on seventeenth-century maps. The found-lost-found aspect of the Solomon Islands remains one of the strangest in maritime history.

Map showing the routes of Mendaña and Queirós in 1595-1596, Queirós in 1605-1606, and Torres in 1606. From vol. 2 of Queirós’s The Voyages of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, 1595-1606, translated and edited by Clements Markham (London, 1904). [General Library Collection]

Related Books:

  • Purchas, Samuel. “The Copie of a Petition Presented to the King of Spaine, by Captaine Peter Ferdinand de Quir, Touching the Discouerie of the Fourth Part of the World, Called Terra Australis Incognita: And of the Great Riches and Fertilitie of the Same: Printed with License in Siuill, An 1610.” From vol. 4 (pp. 1422–27) of Purchas’s Purchas His Pilgrimes: In Five Books. . . . London, 1625. [Rare Books Division]

Here, in Purchas’s English translation, Queirós importunes King Philip III (1578–1621) of Spain (for the eighth time, he says) to allow him to lead an expedition to settle people in the lands he has discovered in the Pacific. He has spent fourteen years of his life and his personal fortune in these efforts, including fourteen months in the king’s court, and has suffered much and borne many crosses. In numbered sections, Queirós then describes at length the various attractions of the discovered parts of Australis incognita: (1) it is twice as large as current Spanish terrain; (2) its inhabitants are various but are not well-armed and would be easy to manage; (3) the soil is rich and fertile, fit to produce all that Europe can; (4) there are riches in minerals (silver, pearls, gold), spices (nutmeg, mace, ginger, pepper), and other commodities (silk, honey, wax) to be mined, harvested, and produced; (5) the country is rich in house-building materials (wood, marble, clay for tiles and bricks), abounds in ports, rivers, and forests and other natural resources and wildlife, and could easily support a great city; (6) the weather and climate are suitable to healthy living, with no swampy ground or snow, no snakes, worms, fleas, or gnats; (7) named Austrialia del Spiritu Santo by Queirós, the territory has been claimed for the king, a cross has been erected, and a church built. In short, the place is a veritable paradise, waiting for Christians to settle there before the enemies of Rome find it. My galleons, Queirós says, are ready to hoist sail whenever the king gives the word. But precious time is wasting.

The king had no real intention of funding another expedition but finally dispatched Queirós to Peru with false hopes in 1614.

  • McAuley, James. Captain Quiros. Syndey, 1964. Epic poem about Queirós’s voyages and their role in the history of Australia. [General Library Collection]
Table of Contents / Explorers
Magellan Strait
Pacific Ocean
Spice Islands