On January 10, 2017, Senator Benjamin (“Ben”) Hueso introduced a bill in the California state legislature. The bill proposes that San Diego Maritime Museum’s replica of the Spanish ship “San Salvador” (“Holy Savior”) be designated as California’s “official state ship of discovery.” (In this article I will use the name “Holy Savior” which is the English translation of “San Salvador,” a Spanish name referring to Jesus Christ).
When Senator Hueso introduced Bill 73, his office issued a press statement about “the educational and cultural potential of the San Salvador” and “the important role its voyage played in the history of America.” That being said, let’s take a closer look at the historical context of the ship Holy Savior, which sailed in the 16th century on behalf of Spain and Christendom.
The ship Holy Savior was one of the vessels built under the command of the murderous conquistador Pedro Alvarado. When the king of Spain gave Alvarado royal permission to travel by ship to places northward in the Pacific Ocean up the Baja peninsula, it was the king’s desire to claim and add those lands to what the crown called “New Spain.” The king gave Alvarado permission “to discover, conquer, and populate” lands that had not yet been forced under the control of Spain. After Alvarado was killed, Cabrillo was sent to sail in his place on the basis of Alvarado’s royal commission, on a voyage endeavoring to extend Spanish domination to places that were still unknown to Spain.
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Notably, not only does Senator Hueso’s bill ignore Spain’s desire to conquer lands inhabited by original nations in a bid for Spanish domination, his legislation it is dehumanizing to Native peoples by not including even one word about the original nations of the geographical area now typically called “California.” Hueso’s senate bill disrespectfully treats the original Native peoples of the region as not worthy of mention.
Additionally, Senator Hueso’s bill is badly worded. It says, for example, that “[o]n September 28, 1542, the original San Salvador [“Holy Savior”], led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, was the first European ship to sail and survey the waters off the State of California…” (emphasis added) A moment’s reflection reveals that it was impossible for Cabrillo and his men “to sail and survey the waters off” a “State of California” that did not exist in 1542. This very point is acknowledged in the very next section of the bill, which points out that at the time of the Cabrillo voyage “no territory referenced by the rest of the world as California was known to exist.”
Another problem is posed by the following language: “The [ship] San Salvador has been presented throughout the state as the physical manifestation of California’s origin story for more than a century.” The bill’s disrespectful negation of the original peoples of this geographical area of “California,” nations who predate Christian European colonization by thousands of years, shows that the “Holy Savior” ship is part of a Spanish Catholic “origin story” about the imperial colonization of California.
Next, CA Senate bill 73 says that the San Diego maritime museum “recently constructed a historically accurate replica of the San Salvador,” a replica “that was unveiled on September 4, 2015. The question arises, in what sense is the replica historically accurate given the number of Indians that suffered and died at the hands of the Spaniards in the construction of the original vessels. In his biography Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (1998), Harry Kelsey says of Pedro Alvarado under whose command a fleet of Spanish ships were built, many by Juan Rodriquéz Cabrillo:
He [Alvarado] killed an infinite number of [Native] 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 [three to four hundred pounds], which cut furrows into the shoulders and loins of some of them. And he carried in the same way [by Indian slave labor] 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.
How can the present-day “Holy Savior” ship be called “historically accurate” when it was built with some $12 million dollars and the labor of hundreds of volunteers rather than Indian slave labor under brutal and deadly conditions, and with the human trafficking of Indian women and girls? In what way is the present-day “Holy Savior” “historically accurate” when it was constructed using modern power tools such as a large ban-saw, and when it presently has two engines, electricity, a global positioning system, and a modern toilet? The answer: It isn’t historically accurate.
Replicas of slave ships that transported Africans as “property” and “cargo” across the “Middle Passage” of the Atlantic Ocean are not being “commemorated” today as part of some glorious past worth celebrating. Simply put, the Spanish ship “Holy Savior” (“San Salvador”) should not be celebrated by the California legislature. Senator Hueso’s bill uses the word “precious” to describe Spain’s “maritime heritage” without once mentioning the “precious” lives of the Native people that were destroyed in the construction of those ships in Guatemala. Why is Senator Heuso attempting to romanticize and celebrate the brutal and dominating legacy of a deadly by-gone era of Spanish and Catholic imperialism?
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 38Plus2Productions.com.