The Interesting Times of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa


Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa
Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. (Issued under CC 3.0 licence by Raimundo Pastor).

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa  wrote a History of the Incas in the sixteenth century, not long after the Spanish conquest of Peru. Today, his work is mostly dismissed as outright propaganda  employed to justify the conquest of South America. A deeper understanding of the man, his motives and the times in which he lived, reveals rather more nuances to his History than just political spin.

Even for those tumultuous Renaissance times, the life of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa was eventful. Little is known of his childhood, except that he was born to María de Gamboa and Bartolomé Sarmiento sometime between 1530 and 1532. His mother was most probably from a Basque family, and his father’s was Gallician. Perhaps it was the combination of genes from these  two great seafaring peoples of northern Spain – the Basques and the Celts – that gave the young Pedro his first yearnings to explore the oceans’ expanses.

A university town in Renaissance Spain

In fact, we know even less about the circumstances of Pedro’s parents than we do about their son. They may have spent some time in the Castilian city of Alcalá de Henares in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula – and there is a suggestion that Pedro may have been born there. Alcalá was a seat of learning that was the birthplace to the great Spanish pioneer of the novel,  Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616).

Alcalá de Henares
Painting of Alcalá de Henares in 1565 by Anton Van den Wyngaerde (Public domain).

University towns throughout Europe were hotbeds for the germination of new thinking in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and Alcalá was no exception. It is possible that Pedro’s father, if not the the young Pedro himself, may have participated in the intellectual life that blossomed at this time in the city. Whatever the truth of this, Pedro’s family – even if well-educated –  was most probably not rich. Instead of inheriting any wealth, the young Pedro had to set about seeking his fortune in a piquaresque manner.

Pedro meets the Holy Inquisition

At the age of 18, Pedro became a soldier in the army of Charles I, King of Castile, who also happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It was not long, however, before Pedro turned to the sea in search of adventure and new horizons. In his early twenties, he crossed the Atlantic for the first of many times, bound for what is now Mexico. We know little of Pedro’s life during his two year sojourn there, except that it was brought to a sudden end by his first encounter with the Holy Inquisition.

Franciscan Friary Tlaxcala
The Franciscan Friary of Tlaxcala, Mexico, where the Inquisition’s case against Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa would have been prepared. (Octavio Alonso Maya Castro – Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 3.0), 

It is far from certain, but Pedro may have been appointed as tutor to two nephews of the Bishop of Tlaxcala whilst in Mexico. At some point, he decided to stage a play for their amusement, which lampooned the Inquisition’s censoriousness and pomposity. Needless to say, the representatives of the Holy Inquisition in Tlaxcala, who were not generally known for their sense of humour, did not see the funny side of the parody that Pedro had staged. The rash and irreverent young satirist was put on trial, received a public flogging and then promptly left Mexico for Peru; probably as a result of exile. He was fortunate not to have been burned alive.

Scene from the Inquisition
Francisco de Goya’s painting of a scene from the Inquisition. Those accused by the Holy Inquisition are depicted wearing conical caps and white smocks. (Public domain).
The Iberian Peninsula’s shifting political landscape
Crown of Castile
Lands under the dominion of the Crown of Castile in the sixteenth century, before the conquest of Peru. (CC Licence 3.0)

It is worth remembering that, in Pedro Sarmineto de Gamboa’s lifetime, the political map of the Iberian Peninsula was still very much in a state of flux. It was only some forty years before Pedro’s birth that the Peninsula’s last Muslim territories had been reconquered by Christendom’s forces. This was one of many events that led to the formation of the Kingdom of Castile,  which eventually would become known as Spain. By the time that Pedro was born. Castile had established itself as the dominant power on the Iberian Peninsula, but it was by no means its only political power.

In particular, Portugal had been recognised as a kingdom as far back as the twelfth century, when it had freed itself from Muslim control. Some hoped that Portugal and  Castile would unite to form a single Christian kingdom. This did happen in 1580, in the latter part of Pedro’s lifetime, but the union was short-lived.

Portugal’s copy of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). The Treaty effectively divided up South America between Spain and Portugal and still forms the basis for the Continent’s modern political map. (Public domain).

Political uncertainties did not help to dampen the intense rivalries that had started to grow between Castile and Portugal in the fifteenth century. Both kingdoms had started to invest in building ships that enabled them to explore and to exploit the lands beyond Europe. The rivalry reached a peak after 1492, with the opening-up of the Americas to conquest and colonisation. This was a consequence of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, which had been sponsored by Castile.

Cosmography:  a new science for the New World

The exploration of the New World would not have been possible without a disciplined knowledge of oceans, stars, sea currents and coastlines. As well as building ocean-going ships, both Castile and Portugal were keen to develop expertise in all of these subjects, which came to be known collectively as the science of cosmography. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the importance of cosmography grew to become essential; not just to  economic success, but to the extension of the political and commercial powers of the two Iberian states.

Henry the Navigator.
Prince Henry the Navigator  (1394 – 1460) Pioneer of the science of cosmography in Portugal. (Public domain).

Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal had championed learning in cosmography, which led to an take up in those studying the new science in his realm. Not to be outdone, Castile founded the Real Casa de Contratación de Indias (Royal House of Trade of the Indias) in Seville in 1503. Its curriculum was largely devoted the applied study of mathematics and astronomy for navigation, as well as to cartogragraphy.

The use of the old Spanish  name for the Americas (Las Indias)  in the title of that new institution gives an idea of cosmography’s emerging importance at the time. In essence, it was considered the key to the successful colonisation of the New World.

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa: cosmographer

By the time that Pedro arrived in Peru, the city of Lima was a bustling metropolis that had become the Capital of the new Castilian-Spanish colony. (Known as the Viceroyalty of Peru). Significantly for Pedro, Lima was rapidly establishing itself as one of the main centres for the study of cosmography in all of the Spanish Americas.

Plaque commemorating the life of the Spanish cosmogrpher, Martín Cortés de Albacar (1510–1582). In 1551 he published the Arte de navigar (Art of Navigation). His work almost certainly would have been read by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. (CC Licence 3.0).

It was only thirty or so years since the defeat of the Incas. Castile’s burgeoning  imperial aspirations were coming to rely increasingly on the possession of detailed knowledge of the Pacific Ocean and its South American coastline.  As a consequence, the skills of cosmographers  were highly sought after by those looking to exploit the continent and the great ocean that lay to its west.  It is far from certain, but this must have played a major part in Pedro’s decision to take up cosmography, as he realised he needed to make his way in that New World.

What is certain is that Peru, where Pedro spent more than twenty of the following years, proved to be a watershed in his life.  By redefining himself as a cosmographer, he sought to transform his social standing and economic security; but even such an astute move on his part was not without its share of controversy.

In a  world that was charged with so much intense political and commercial rivalry, it was hardly surprising that cosmographers guarded the secrets of their science carefully.  They understood the intricacies of the heavens’ movements and the rhythmic sway that the moon held over the tides. They knew that the Earth was a sphere – not flat, as the Roman Catholic Church then taught.

In addition, cosmographers  drew on sources of knowledge that hinted at heresy. Many of the maps they made that had used Muslim – even heathen – sources. In this environment, it did not take much for the suspicions of the Holy Inquisition to be aroused. Those few ideas that cosmographers professed publicly must have raised many an inquisitorial eyebrow prior to warranting further scrutiny.

Piri Re'is Map
Surviving fragment of the Piri Re’is Map. Probably compiled from much older originals, the Map provided an accurate representation of South America’s coastline and even the Andes. (See the bottom left of the map). It dates from 1513, which is before the mountain range was supposed to have been charted – at least by Europeans. (Public domain).

We do know that when cosmographers drew maps and charts they made use of much older ones  called Portolans. These had been employed by ancient seafarers and were extremely accurate; certainly more so than those drawn by many of the academic geographers at that time.

More encounters with the Holy Inquisition

These were dangerous times for anyone, whether cosmographer, or simply of an enquiring disposition. Just about anyone who lived in Portugal, Castile – or their respective colonies – might be subject to the scrutiny of Auto de Fé – as the Holy Inquisition was known in the Castilian  tongue – at any time.

Pedro suffered two further brushes with the Auto de Fé. On both occasions he was brought before its tribunal in Lima, variously accused of astrology,  necromancy, of possessing two magic rings, of using magic ink and of following the teachings of Moses. It is impossible to know if there was substance to any of these allegations.

The Auto de Fe in Lima
Illustration of a trial conducted by the Holy Inquisition in Lima’s Main Plaza (Image in the public domain, courtesy of the Museum of the Inquisition, Lima, Peru). 

It may have been just that his clandestine study of maps and stars was enough to arouse the suspicions of the Auto de Fé. The Catholic Church still distrusted many aspects of the new learning engendered by the Renaissance and would seize on any rumours and misinformation that were bound to arise when any such knowledge was kept secret.

Equally, this was a time before there were clear-cut distinctions between science and the occult that we take for granted today. Anyone familiar with the play Dr Faustus, by Pedro’s younger English contemporary Christopher Marlowe, will appreciate this. Heretical occult studies and early science were thought of as two of a kind. It really was an Age of Discovery in every sense of the phrase.

Dr Faustus
Frontispiece from the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). As an Englishman, Marlowe was  writing for an ostensibly Protestant audience. His portrayal of Faustus as a  man of learning, who had strayed into the practice of the black arts was characteristic of the popular fear that gripped both Catholic and Protestant Europe. In the play Faustus practises necromancy; a charge that Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa had to face in real life from the Inquisition in Lima. (Public domain).

Once again, Pedro was considered for exile, but the Archbishop of Lima decided to commute his sentence to that of making an exploratory voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

Pedro’s trial coincided with much talk in Lima of islands across the great ocean to the West that were replete with gold. The rising tide of speculation had been prompted by stories that had emanated ultimately from Inca sources. Rumour, however, has a habit of propagating itself once it reaches a certain intensity; especially when it concerns gold.

There is no way of knowing for certain,  but I do wonder if the Incas may have cultivated these stories deliberately. Perhaps they sought to divert the Spaniards’ attention away from seeking out the remainder of their own royal gold. After all, a similar strategy had been highly effective just a few decades earlier, when Pizarro’s band of conquistadores had overthrown the Incas.

For Pedro, the good news was that instead of receiving a flogging – or worse – at the hands of the Inquisition, his  knowledge of the Pacific would be essential to  the search for any gold. The bad news was that  the acting Viceroy of Peru, Lope Garcia de Castro, appointed his twenty-two year old nephew as the expedition’s leader. Pedro was given the subordinate jobs of captain of one of its two ships, as well as the cartographer for the venture.

Exploration of the Pacific

The Pacific expedition’s aim was both to find gold and to colonise any lands that may be discovered. In truth, the Viceroy’s young nephew, whose name was Álvaro de Mendaña, probably was interested only in the gold, whereas Pedro saw things differently. He seems to have gained the trust of some Inca mariners, who had told him about a great land that lay far to the South-West of Peru’s Pacific coast. His ambitions lay in the discovery of this new land for Castile and in the acclaim it would bring.

Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira
Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira, with whom Pedro quarrelled bitterly during their expedition to explore the Pacific Ocean. (Public domain). 

Inevitably, the differences between the two men came to the surface once the voyage had set off. Pedro had charted a course that would take them to the great land of which the Incas had spoken.

The immature and arrogant de Mendaña  would have nothing of it. As the expedition’s leader, he overruled Pedro and instead ordered that they should head for the islands he believed were full of gold. Had the expedition followed Pedro’s course, then Australia most probably would have been a Spanish speaking country today.

Whilst it is certainly true that the expedition did manage to visit several Pacific archipelagos, and discovered Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands for Castile, the expedition was hardly a success. Above all, there had been little gold to speak of on the islands where they had landed.

The relationship between Pedro and de Mendaña took a turn for the worse when it became apparent that the latter was not really interested in establishing any colonies. The dearth of gold on the islands prompted him to return to Lima at the earliest opportunity. It seems that the animosity between the two men grew so intense that de Mendaña threw Pedro’s charts overboard during one particularly fractious argument between them.

Map of Peru, 1568
Map of Peru’s Pacific Coast from 1568 by the Portuguese cartographer Fernando Vaz Dourado. (Public domain).

The enmity between the two men must have been intense because, we are told, Pedro was left to find his own way back to Peru when the expedition’s two ships called in at Mexico on the return voyage to Lima. Eventually, and after little more than a year, the ships sailed into Lima’s port, Callao, minus Pedro. When the two vessels docked they were still loaded with nearly all of the provisions intended for colonisation largely untouched.

A respect for the Incas’ knowledge of the Pacific

Pedro’s willingness to learn the secrets of the Pacific from the Incas marks a respect for their culture that is evident in the work that he was to write later, The History of the Incas. In commenting on this voyage in his book Early Man and the Ocean, Thor Heyerdhal  observed  that:

Thor Heyerdahl
Thor Heyerdahl., navigator and archaeologist.  Heyerdahl was one of the few Europeans, apart from Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, who has acknowledged the Incas’ detailed technical knowledge of the Pacific, as well as their expertise in sailing (Public domain).

……the Inca historians recounted [to the Spanish] that islands inhabited by different people were to be found two months voyage westwards from their own empire,,,,,,,,,,,,[T]hey gave correct sailing directions to some of them, including Easter Island, which the Mendaña mission missed by sheer misfortune due to quarrels on board that led to a last minute change of course.

Ironically, the expert mariner Heyerdahl did not seem to know any of the back story that took place between Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa and Álvaro de Mendaña. Had he understood this, I feel sure that his sympathies would have been with Pedro rather than with the dilettante de Mendaña.

When Pedro finally made his own way back to Lima, the dispute between the two men resumed in a very bitter and public manner. Recriminations were hurled one way and another in the city’s colonial houses and public places.

Francisco de Toledo
Francisco de Toledo dressed in the regalia of the military-religious Order of Alcántara of which he was a member. (Public domain).

A new Viceroy arrives in Peru

By now there was a new Viceroy in town, Francisco Álvarez de Toledo, who seems to have been rather more astute, and rather less prone to nepotism, than his predecessor. De Toledo called the two men before a public audience in the city, so that they could settle their differences about the failed expedition once and for all.

De Mendaña was no match in debate for the erudite and skilful Pedro, who put in a masterful performance; displaying considerable powers of logic and rhetoric in the process. In the end, not only was Pedro absolved of all responsibility for the expedition’s failure, but the new Viceroy was so impressed by his display of intellect and knowledge that he soon afterwards made him the Cosmographer General for the Dominions of Peru.

Castile consolidates its presence in South America
Portrait of Félipe with his wife Mary I of England, painted in 1558 by Hans Eworth. (Public domain).

Francisco de Toledo had been appointed by the successor to Charles I, King Félipe II. Known to the Spanish speaking world as Philip the Prudent (Félipe el prudente), the new king set about prioritising the realisation of his kingdom’s considerable imperial potential. Félipe’s appointment of Francisco de Toledo as his Viceroy in Peru played a major part in doing just that.

The early 1570s proved to be a turning point for Castile and its dominions in South America. It had been almost forty years since Pizarro and a  small band of fewer than two hundred conquistadores had largely tricked their way into overthrowing the Inca rulers of the vast lands under their dominion.

Túpac Amaru I
Painting of Sapa Inca Túpac Amaru I by an unknown artist of the Cusco School. Túpac Amaru I was just 26 or 27 when he was captured and had reigned only for a year. His capture was facilitated because his wife was giving birth at the time. (Image in the public domain)

Even after forty years in Peru, Castile’s forces were relatively few for such vast possessions. What was more, the Incas had never been defeated entirely. After the fall of Cusco in 1533, some of the Inca Royal Clan had fled into the cloud forests that surround the Amazon’s headwaters and had established what became known as the Neo-Inca State there. In the decades that followed, Inca forces had harried Castilian troops persistently,  mostly through guerilla tactics. The situation continued until 1572, when de Toledo contrived an opportunity to try to put an end to the problem. He used the pretext of a technical infringement of European rules of diplomacy to launch a campaign against the Neo-Inca State. Eventually – and partly through a stroke of luck – his troops captured the Neo-Incan King, Túpac Amaru I . De Toledo wasted no time in giving him a very public execution in Cusco’s main square. Some say that King Félipe had disapproved of the execution, but if nothing else it was a demonstration of de Toledo’s skill in political expediency, as well as his sheer ruthlessness.

Tupaq Amaru I Captured
The Capture of the Sapa  Inca Túpac Amaru I  by forces under the command of Francisco de Toledo. The image is an illustration of the event made by the indigenous chronicler Huamán Poma, who was Pedro’s contemporary. The woodcut dates from the early seventeenth century. (Image in the public domain).

Apart from lacking any pity, de Toledo was a supreme strategist. He knew that even the public execution of the Incas’ Sacred King would not be enough to eradicate the considerable cultural and political influence that Inca civilisation continued to exert on the native population. The conquistadores were destroying the old order,  but de Toledo recognised the importance of establishing new one in its stead.

De Toledo needed the King’s continued support to achieve his aim. That had been called into question after what was most probably Túpac Amaru’s illegal execution. More than ever, he needed something that would demonstrate to King Félipe that in reality the Incas  had been the oppressors of the indigenous peoples of the Andes. Above all, he wanted to prove to the King of Castile that he, Francisco de Toledo, had been morally right to execute the last representative of the Inca hegemony.

Death of Tupac Amaru I
Huamán Poma’s woodcut of the public decapitation of Túpac Amaru I, with crucifix in hand. Note the crowd gathered to witness the event. The tears streaming down their faces are indicative of the acute trauma that the execution of their Sacred King would have caused. (Public domain).
De Gamboa’s History of the Incas 

The fact of the matter was that de Toledo had decided to commission the writing of a History of the Incas some two years before Túpac Amaru’s very public decapitation. Indeed earlier, he had even assisted Pedro at times in gathering information from people throughout the length and breadth of Peru. De Toledo had always seen the History as an important part of his strategy to replace the authority of the Incas with those of the Crown of Castile and the Holy Catholic Church.

If anything, Túpac Amaru’s execution, and King Félipe’s subsequent disapproval, had brought matters to a head. Now, more than ever, he needed to convince the King that his means would justify the end that both of them ultimately served.  Hence, it was all the more important that Pedro should employ his rhetorical skills and his deep knowledge of the native Andean peoples to complete his task. De Toledo ordered Pedro’s History to be sent to  King Félipe as a gift.

Woodcut of the notorious ‘Mountain of Silver’ at Potosí  in present-day Bolivia. Potosí’s silver mine gained an infamy under the imperial stewardship of Francisco de Toledo that lasts even to the present day. To work in the mine was tantamount to a death sentence for the thousands of  indigenous and African de facto slaves who were unfortunate enough to have been sent there. Such was the human price of filling Castile’s royal coffers with silver (Public domain).

 You may be forgiven for concluding from the story so far that Pedro’s History was merely some exercise in propaganda, carefully crafted to justify Spain’s imperialist rapaciousness and to save Francisco de Toledo’s career. Indeed, it is far from lacking in such elements.

Pedro, however, had set about his task over the two years diligently. He had travelled the length of Peru gathering information from numerous sources. He had interviewed high-ranking members of the colonial administration in Lima. He had sought eyewitness accounts from the last of Pizarro’s original expedition, who were still living in South America.

Most importantly of all, Pedro had questioned the indigenous wise-men, or amautas, and the surviving members of the Inca Royal Clan. After he had produced the first draft, he even convened a sort of editorial board of forty-two indigenous amautas, in order to comment on and to correct his work.

Frontispiece from Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa's History of the Incas
Frontispiece from The History of the Incas by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. (Image in the public domain).

The resultant History of the Incas is a curious mixture of what could be thought of today as political spin and genuine historical information that otherwise would have been lost to posterity. Although its overall purpose was one of propaganda, within its many stories can be found glimpses of genuine and extremely ancient Andean traditions.

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between what may have been propaganda and what may contain a germ of truth.  It is easy to assume, for instance, that one of the History’s fundamental theses  – that the Inca were descended from foreigners who conquered and oppressed the native Andean peoples – would seem to be simple propaganda. After all, it was certainly central to the message that de Toledo wanted to send to King Félipe.

Mysterious origins of the Incas
Coat of arms of garcilaso
The Coat of Arms of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The sun, moon, rainbow and serpents on the right hand side of the shield are insignia of the Inca Royal Clan. (Issued under CC 3.0).

Yet, in another early chronicler, Garcilaso de la Vega – who was partly of Inca Royal descent – we find that same information. What is more, Garcilaso tells us that he consulted the older members of his own family when he compiled his Royal Commentaries of the Incas.

Garcilaso, as we might expect, portrays his maternal ancestors as great civilisers, rather than oppressors; but could there be some truth to the notion that the Incas had originated somewhere other than the Andes? Curiously, my own investigations indicate that the Incas indeed may have been remotely and partially descended from forbears who had come from across the ocean.

An unexpected trip to England 

Pedro’s later years were just as crammed with incidents and controversy as his early life. He was called upon to hunt the English corsair Francis Drake in the 1580s, when England was seeking to establish a presence on South America’s Pacific coast. At that time, the Straits of Magellan – where Pedro had founded a colony – were witness to several flash points between the two European sea powers. A few years later, Pedro was captured by an English fleet commanded by Walter Raleigh and was incarcerated in England.

Elizabeth I of England
The ‘Armada Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Painted to commemorate the English victory over the Armada in 1588, Elizabeth is depicted with her right hand on the globe, symbolising the global naval dominance that England believed it had then won. (Image in the public domain).

Even in such dire circumstances, he managed to turn the situation to his advantage by breaking with the conventions of the time in his own inimitable manner. Pedro obtained an audience with Queen Elizabeth I and, conversing in Latin, sought her agreement that she write to King Félipe with a view to securing a lasting peace between their two realms. During the meeting Pedro, it seems, had defied Castilian naval policy by disclosing certain navigational information to the English Queen. Elizabeth agreed to his request and tasked Pedro with delivering her letter to Félipe, which of course meant that he was set free. On his journey from London to Madrid, he was taken prisoner by French Huguenot Protestants.  In the event, Pedro did not arrive in Madrid until after Félipe had given the order for his ill-fated Armada to set sail towards the British Isles in 1588.

I am left to wonder about the subsequent chain of events had Pedro managed to deliver Elizabeth’s letter before the launch of the Armada. Both this, and his argument with Álvaro de Mendaña over setting course for Australia, constitute two of the great historical ‘what ifs’ of Pedro’s life.

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa.
 Modern portrait of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa  by Guillermo Muñoz Vera, imagined as a man of letters, science and philosophy in his later life .(Share alike 4.0)

Soldier, sailor, satirist, cosmographer, mathematician, astronomer, historian and now diplomat; if anything, the gamut of Pedro’s endeavours widened further still during his later years.  As someone who always had to operate on the fringes of Castilian nobility, he needed to rely upon his considerable and resourceful intellect, rather than privilege, in order to survive and prosper. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa’s final years were largely devoted to writing and editing poetry. Fittingly, he passed from this world on board the flagship of a fleet he was about to command that was bound for the Americas.

© Dave Truman