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By José Ramón de Miguel Bosch

Andrés de Urdaneta was born in Ordizia towards the end of 1507 or the beginning of 1508 despite the fact that earlier biographers suggest that he was born a decade before. But he settles this question himself in his letter to the king on 28th May, 1560 in which he explains, “…… and given the fact that I have advanced in years past the age of 52 ……”
His parents, Juan Ochoa de Urdaneta and Gracia de Cerain belonged to the Goierri Valley middle class. His father was mayor of Villafranca (the original name for Ordizia) in 1511 and it seems that his mother had a family connection with the ironworks sector and was also related, according to Velasco to Legazpi. Furthermore, Andrés de Mirandaola was also recognised by Urdaneta as his nephew. Although it is a tradition in Ordizia to cite his place of birth as the Oianguren farmhouse, it seems more logical to suppose that his birthplace was to be found within the walls of the village. Isasti emphasised in 1625 of the existence of the house “of Urdaneta”

Information regarding his education is scarce, but in view of his results it must have been notable, especially in the area of mathematics.

When he went to sea for the first time, at the age of 17, his handwriting was already of a high standard and he was writing with great fluidity. Furthermore, his writings exhibited a notable degree of observation together with an exceptional capacity of memory.
Urdaneta was totally bilingual; he wrote in Spanish what he was thinking in Basque. His writings, in a Spanish strewn with influences from other neighbouring Romance languages, are at times difficult to understand without resorting to the Basque language from which he borrowed both syntax and expressions.

He received his seafaring baptism on the expedition of Loaysa which Carlos V sent to the Spice Islands (The Molucas) in 1525 as part of the race that Castille and Portugal were running for control of such economically valuable islands. The nautical leader of the expedition was Elcano, an expert in circumnavigation. He was at the helm of the ship “nao Sancti Spiritus,” with Urdaneta aboard but without a specific area of responsibility.

Although it has been suggested that given his age he sailed as a cabin boy, galley boy, or such like, the duties he performed belied this. He acted as a witness and signed documents of great significance such as Elcano’s last will and testament. He soon took on various responsibilities and in his diary he astutely questioned several of his superior’s nautical decisions.

The expedition, comprised of seven ships, set out from La Coruña on 24th July, 1525.
After several serious setbacks in The Straits of Magellan and after the loss of six ships for various reasons, together with the loss of most of his officers due to illness, he finally arrived in Mindanao with his remaining ship on 6th October, 1526 under the command of Carquizano, who would later continue on to The Molucas.


Urdaneta remained on the islands for nine years, demonstrating his skills in diplomacy, strategy and observation. After the failed attempts to return to the Americas via the Pacific and his dealings with Asian navigators, he acquired sufficient knowledge regarding climate and local navigational routes that would prove to be crucial for the Return Voyage of 1565.
On 22nd April, 1528 Carlos V sold the much sought after rights to The Molucas to Portugal. Some years later, after finally discovering what had happened, the few Spaniards that had remained there, negotiated their return home with the Portuguese. Urdaneta shipped out on 15th February, 1535, docking in Lisbon on 26th June, 1536. On his arrival, the Portuguese authorities requisitioned all the documentation in his possession, including the navigational courses of the voyages of Loaysa and Saavedra and “other scripts and memoranda seized without warrant or anything of the like”.

He escaped from Portugal, acting upon the advice of the Spanish Ambassador on 26th February, 1537. Upon arrival in Valladolid he presented a report, made from memory, of his journey reflecting his capacity of observation, his interest and vast knowledge of the islands and their development.

At around that time, he was contacted by Pedro de Alvarado with an invitation to accompany him on an expedition sailing from New Spain. They left Seville on 16th October, 1538, but due to the faltering relations between Alvarado and Viceroy Mendoza upon their arrival in Mexico, their objective was abandoned. The death of Alvarado finally left the expedition in the hands of Villalobos who would again fail in his attempt to find the Return Voyage.

Urdaneta remained in Mexico occupying himself with the duties of responsibility such as the investigation into Cabrillos’ failed expedition to the Californian coast in 1542. At about that time he wrote an article covering several topics such as Caribbean navigation, the formation of tropical storms, reproduction in sea turtles and the treatment of tropical fevers. In 1547, he was entrusted with the organisation of an Armada (armed escort) with the aim of bringing peace to Peru. However, Legascas’ success in the matter made this unnecessary. On 20th March, 1553 he became a member of the Order of Saint Augustine, heavily involved in the education of the native nobility. There is not much information available regarding his religious activities, but we do know that he persevered with his nautical activities as he participated in the failed expedition to Pensacola led by Tristan de Luna and Arellano in 1559. He was also on terms with Pensacola’s future conqueror, Pedro Menendez de Aviles.

On 24th September, 1559 Felipe II ordered Viceroy Luis de Velazco to send an expedition on a presumed stable route to The Philippines which would include the presence of Urdaneta as nautical advisor. There is a certain amount of controversy regarding the final destination of this expedition, but existing documentation allows us to establish that these contradictions were possibly caused by precautionary tactics employed to avoid arousing the suspicions of the vigilant Portuguese.

Having been previously advised, Felipe II was aware of the fact that The Philippines fell within an area belonging to the Portuguese, according to the Treaty of Tordesillas. But he also knew that there were no Portuguese settlers in The Philippines.
With a view to cementing the ascendancy over The Philippines and to establish a trading route with China, it was essential to find a return route via the Pacific to New Spain. Five previous attempts of the Return Voyage had failed and Urdaneta would be decisive in the success of this challenge.

The expedition left the port of La Navidad in New Spain on 21st November, 1564 with Legazpi at the helm. Following one of the alternative routes proposed by Urdaneta, they took the most equatorial, already well-known due to the fact that Saavedra and Villalobos had already used it on the outward bound leg of the voyage.
Urdaneta was able to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, his wealth of knowledge of the immense Pacific, aided by his precise calculations. On 21st January, he informed them of the proximity of the island of Guam, sighted the day before. The pilots of the expedition, however, thought that they had already arrived in The Philippines, but they would not actually arrive there until 13th February.

On their arrival, they explored the main islands of The Philippine archipelago in search of a definitive settling point. On 15th March, 1565 while they continued with their explorations, they dropped anchor off Bohol due to the amount of timber to be found there and the necessity to repair the “nao San Pedro” which was to be used on the Return Voyage.

The favourable reports received from a scouting frigate sent to the area, persuaded Legazpi to opt for Cebú as a final destination for the expedition which would remain there to carry out the arrangements for the conquest. On arrival there on 27th April, Urdaneta was first ashore, taking advantage of his linguistic abilities in the negotiation with the natives. (Apart from his knowledge of several local languages, it seems that he was proficient in Malay, a commonly used tongue throughout south-east Asia)

Once definitively settled in The Philippines, the only task left to be carried out was to discover the route which would permit a stable connection with New Spain.


The return trip from The Philippines to Mexico in 1565 proved to be a milestone in navigational history. It was to be the longest voyage ever taken, up to that time, 7644 miles navigating on unknown routes.

A voyage of such importance was to be undertaken under the command of an 18 year old youth, Felipe de Salcedo a grandson of Legazpi, and under the technical direction of a 57 year old monk, Urdaneta. Only the confidence and trust transmitted by Urdaneta can explain what would have been tantamount to suicide under any other circumstance.

The “nao San Pedro” left Cebú on 1st June, 1565 although the trans-Pacific crossing wouldn’t actually commence until the 9th, upon their exit from the Straits of San Bernardino. Pushed by the summer monsoon winds, they sailed North-easterly until 4th August, looking for the Kuro-Shivo currents that would propel them to Acapulco. That day they would reach a latitude of 39º North on a longitude of 170º East for the first time. They were later to descend to 32ºN to later ascend, once again, to 39º 30´N on 4th September. These two extremes which “unnecessarily” prolonged their voyage were, by no means, mere coincidence. Urdaneta was trying to verify the longitude, an untamed co-ordinate at the time, but vital for a transversal crossing of the Pacific.

His calculations proved to be accurate, given that the ship’s pilot, Espinosa, upon affirming the first estimation of the distance to the continent of the Americas, wrote in his log that Urdaneta had calculated to be on a course 270 leagues from Cape Mendocino, a distance that would be verified after the completion of the following fifteen days at sea. Navigating only by guesswork after 7000 miles would make it impossible to achieve such precision.
On 18th September, the Californian island of Santa Rosa was sighted, the climax of the first Pacific crossing from west to east. With an exhausted crew suffering from hunger and thirst, they followed the coastline down at a good rate of speed until they reached Urdaneta´s chosen destination, Acapulco, where they arrived on 8th October.
Not only did they shatter the widespread myth regarding the impossibility of the Return Voyage, but they did so thanks to astute planning without suffering any noteworthy setbacks. The direct ramifications of this voyage were to be significant until March 1815 with the last sailing of the Manila Galleon, but the indirect implications are still being appreciated, to this day, for its recognition as being one of the most important maritime routes of the modern world.
After the arrival in New Spain of the Return Voyage and his declaration before “the Audience”, Urdaneta set sail, once again, this time for Castille to report back to Felipe II. On 8th October 1566, in Castille, our man was to write his findings, entitled “The Opinion of P. Andrés de Urdaneta”, a document that recorded the occupation of the Islands with regard to the Treaty of Tordesillas.
With this accomplished and with the permission of the Counsel of The Indies, he returned to the Saint Augustine monastery in Mexico where he died on 3rd June, 1568.

José Ramón de Miguel Bosch, captain in the Merchant Navy and author of “Urdaneta en su tiempo”. (The times of Urdaneta) This text was first published in Euskonews Nº211. Zbk (2003/05/23-30). and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author. - Creación de sitios web, portales, CMS, B2B, B2C, aplicaciones extranet / intranet
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