Gabriel de Castilla was a Spanish navigator and explorer born in Palencia between 1570 and 1577. His parents were Alonso de Cárdenas y Castilla and Leonor de la Mata. When he was still very young he decided to join the Spanish armies. He also became a captain of artillery during his service in New Spain against pirates and enemies of the crown. His greatest achievement, however, was his discovery of Antarctica.

It is known that his lineage went back as far as King Pedro I of Castile (1334-1369). One of the key dates in his life was his departure for New Spain in 1589. He travelled with the recently appointed viceroy, Don Luis de Velasco. From the time of his arrival, he was assigned to the defence of the Atlantic coast of New Spain. Although it is true that his fame would come from his actions on the Pacific coast, from Central America to the Strait of Magellan.

He confronted corsairs, took part in the Arauco War, and moved the king’s gold and silver from the port of Arica to Callao on several occasions until 1602. He also enjoyed the rents of several encomiendas and held various public offices. Among these, we can highlight the office of alguacil mayor (sheriff) of Cuzco and corregidor (mayor) in two jurisdictions.

Private life of Gabriel de Castilla

In 1605, he married a woman, a native of Chuquisaca (Sucre), named Genoveva de Espinosa y Lugo de Villasante in the city of Lima. From this relationship six children were born, Jusepe Lázaro, Ana, Isabel, María, Diego and Lorenzo. Gabriel de Castilla died 15 years later, in 1620 in the city of Lima.

His military career

Don Gabriel de Castilla left for New Spain in September 1589 as part of his uncle Don Luis de Velasco’s entourage, so it is possible that he was on the nao Capitana, which carried the viceroy, or, failing that, on any other ship in the fleet.

The political, economic and social situation of the viceroyalty at that time was truly critical: in addition to the clashes between political factions, there was the war with the Chichimeca Indians and the frequent visits of English and Dutch corsairs, and the unrest generated by the authoritarianism of the former viceroy Don Álvaro Manrique de Zúñiga, Marquis of Villamanrique.

It had been decided to approach the Mexican coast in the port of San Juan de Ulúa, but the forecast of a hostile reception and the adverse weather conditions on arrival made it advisable to dock in the port of Tamiahua, to the north of San Juan de Ulúa, which they managed to do on 19 December after six days of hard waiting in the face of the tremendous storm that was battering the coast. Gabriel de Castilla, therefore, landed on American soil shortly before Christmas 1589, and from then on his life’s journey would be spent in the New World, between sea and land, with no return trip to his homeland.

After the English attack on the port of Cadiz in 1587 led by Francis Drake and the defeat of the Invincible Armada in 1588, and bearing in mind that the main objective of the Europeans was to control the trade routes between the continent, America and the East Indies, the Spanish fleet had to be rearmed and reinforced. The Anglo-Spanish War (1588-1604) had begun and the defence of the American coasts was the main objective of the Spanish Armada.

In the early years in New Spain, Don Gabriel de Castilla was dedicated to the surveillance and protection of its coasts, as since 1590 there had been continuous reports of corsairs prowling those lands. In 1593, Don Gabriel informed us:

“that English corsairs were coming to Havana and San Juan de Ulúa, by order of the said viceroy [Don Luis de Velasco], and with great haste people were raised for the relief of the said port, and on this occasion the said Don Gabriel de Castilla offered himself to the said viceroy to go and serve his Majesty and, putting it into practice, he went down to the said port with his friends, servants, arms and horses, and at his own expense, without pay, he attended with the Castilian of that fort and port with the other captains who were there for the whole time that the presidio lasted”.

Thanks to facts like this, we can get an idea of why he was promoted to “captain of the artillery, ammunition and other supplies necessary for the provisioning of the said city of Mexico for the Philippine Islands, Havana, San Juan de Ulúa and other parts…”, on 26 April 1594, with a salary of 400 pesos of gold from the mines.

In view of Viceroy Luis de Velasco’s career and good work in New Spain, in 1595 he was awarded the viceroyalty of Peru, specifically the “kingdoms and provinces of Peru, Chile and Tierra Firme“, whose situation was very unstable in view of the difficulties in dealing with the Arauco War and the greed of the corsairs who entered through the Strait of Magellan.

The viceroy, aware of his worth, wanted Don Gabriel to accompany him to his new destination. On the way, they crossed paths with the outgoing viceroy, Don García Hurtado de Mendoza, who was returning to Spain with part of the Armada. However, due to the threat and the state of the Viceroyalty, he left in the port of Paita “the ship San Pedro and San Pablo, admiral ship of the (Spanish) Royal Navy that is defending the South Sea” so she could join the flagship in which the new viceroy was travelling to the port of Callao.

They finally reached the port of Callao, and on 19 April 1596, Don Luis de Velasco appointed Don Gabriel admiral of that ship to defend the coasts “…and offend the corsair enemies who usually enter this sea to cause damage, robbery and death along the entire coastline, …” and “…trusting in you, Don Gabriel de Castilla, and in the quality and sufficiency of your person and of the many other good parts that concur in it”.

The port of Callao was the port of entry to the City of the Kings, the capital of the viceroyalty of Peru and the seat of the Royal Court of which the viceroy himself was president.

It was from 1596 onwards that his military activity became more risky: he was appointed to a succession of posts, from field marshal to repeated appointments as lieutenant captain-general of the (Spanish) Royal Navy, and it was for his actions in the exercise of his office that he asked for a report to be made in recognition of his merits and of how much of his wealth had been invested in defending the possessions of the Spanish king in the West Indies.

In that year of 1596, the governor of the Province of Chile, Martín García Óñez de Loyola, informed the viceroy of the relatively good state of the war in Arauco with the Mapuche Indians and other allied tribes, and of the need to send reinforcements:

“of people, artillery and ammunition and what was necessary to help the people who were assisting in that war and on the frontiers, [who] had great hope through our Lord that this time the said war would be over”.

Faced with the governor’s request, Viceroy Velasco‘s confidence in Don Gabriel de Castilla was such that on 24 September 1596 he appointed him:

“…Maese de Campo of the infantry companies that I have ordered to be raised to help the said provinces of Chile, which I order to be in your charge so that in them, both in this city of Los Reyes and on the road and in the war in the said provinces on the occasions that may arise, you may use and use the said office of Maese de Campo”.

We must not lose sight, therefore, of the military work that he would also deploy on land in support and relief of the population settled in Arauco, as the viceroy was clear, bearing in mind the following consideration:

“…that you, Don Gabriel de Castilla, are a knight, a nobleman, and in whom concur the good parts and qualities required for this purpose, and by the satisfaction and confidence I have in your person that you will serve his Majesty with all fidelity and care…”.

When Don Gabriel arrived in Concepción, the governor of Chile, who was already in great trouble with the Indians, issued a provision on 19 November 1596 that both captains, soldiers and footmen should obey and keep the orders given by the Maestre de Campo, and this order, to facilitate its fulfilment, should be proclaimed in the city.

The report of Viceroy Mendoza

According to the viceroy’s own report, Don Gabriel arrived on those coasts with one hundred and sixty soldiers that I ordered him to raise to bring relief to the said kingdom of Chile, and he took them with quantities of munitions and clothing at a time when that kingdom was in great need because of the great amount of relief that had not been brought to it. And he assisted in the exercise of the said office [of field master] in the war, being in many battles, encounters and guacanaras and other occasions that arose with the rebellious Indians. And he assisted in the foundation of the Fort of Purén in part that many years before could not be done due to the great defence that the said Indians had on their side.”

Don Gabriel also adds: “That having left the said Fort founded and gone to make war and entries in other parts, five thousand Indians came to encircle the said fort and having been informed of this he returned with orders from the governor of that kingdom with only eighty soldiers to remove the said encirclement and for this he put himself in notorious risk and danger because, apart from the great number of Indians, they had gained the passage through which they were to enter and in the end he made them withdraw and removed the encirclement and freed the people who were in the said fort who had eleven days had them enclosed with great risk of being lost.

Gabriel de Castilla’s aid was a success.

The important help provided by Don Gabriel and his men was fundamental. Without it, the fight with the Mapuches would have gone very differently. Governor Martín García de Óñez himself stated in a report that it was thanks to his intervention that the provinces of Hualqui and Quilacoya were preserved. He also managed to populate the Purén fort.

Despite his efforts, he was unable to stop the Mapuches.

Adding that he returned to Peru to look for more troops and returning with them, he took an active part in the battle of Lumaco in February 1597, defeating a large contingent of Mapuche Indians, concluding that:

“by my order he has visited all the frontiers of this kingdom in person and made the warning of the city of Santiago last year (1597) and is now returning for the coming summer (1598) to do so and to give an account to the lord viceroy of the state of the kingdom and to beg them to send a supply of clothes to clothe the people of war.

Arriving in the City of the Kings with the Governor’s news, the viceroy granted him the requested relief and returned to the kingdom of Chile with almost 300 soldiers and, Don Gabriel informs us, “took another supply of ammunition and this time also assisted in serving in the war of the said kingdom, being in many malocas and recuentros and in the founding of the city of San Felipe de Aruco. And having been informed by the said governor that the Indians of the province of Lebu, Quidico and Quiapo had revolted, he ordered the said don Grabiel to go and punish them and he did so and left them reduced to the peace they used to have before”.

Unfortunately, the reinforcements sent were not enough. The Mapuche Indian counter-attack in December 1598 ferociously attacked Curalaba. The Spanish defences were destroyed and the Indians took the life of the governor, who died on Christmas Day as a result of wounds suffered after the defeat, and the fortress of Lumaco was also destroyed.

Gabriel de Castilla, the life of the discoverer of Antarctica

In 1603, he set sail from Valparaíso, Chile as leader of three ships, the galley Jesús María, which weighed 600 tons and carried 30 cannons. Another of the ships was called Nuestra Señora de la Visitación and finally Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which weighed 400 tons.

This mission was requested by a first cousin, none other than the viceroy of Peru, Luis de Velasco y Castilla. The purpose of this voyage was to contain the invasions of the Dutch buccaneers that were roaming the southern coasts of Chile at that time.

Due to the disappearance at sea of Don Juan de Velasco de Barrio, nephew of the Viceroy, Don Gabriel was given the maximum authority and responsibility for the Southern Navy, along with the main mission of guarding the coasts of Chile between the months of November and March, the most favourable time for enemy attacks. In this series of surveillance commissions, the most important – although he obtained it without seeking it and possibly ignored its importance – was that of an expedition that set sail from Valparaíso in March 1603, heading south, made up of the following units: The Jesús María, a galleon displacing 600 tons, armed with 30 cannons and commanded by himself; Nuestra Señora de la Visitación, admiral ship, had belonged to the privateer Sir Richard Hawkins;  and the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a 400-ton ship.

On this voyage of exploration and surveillance, as on other voyages carried out in accordance with the permanent instructions for coastal defence, they reached as far as the 64th parallel south. We know this from the declaration of the Dutch sailor Laurenz Claesz – who had reached our coasts with Admiral Mahu’s squadron – who in a document that does not give a date but which must have been later than 1607, declares that he:

“has sailed under Admiral Don Gabriel de Castilla with three ships along the coasts of Chile towards Valparaiso, and from there towards the strait, in the year 1603; and was in March in the 64 degrees and there they had a lot of snow. In the following month of April they returned again to the coasts of Chile”.

The latitude would not be surpassed again until 1773 by the famous British navigator Captain James Cook, who descended to 71°10′ south. Furthermore, these facts would rule out the navigator Dirck Gerritsz as the discoverer of Antarctica.

Gabriel de Castilla and his party of men are said to have sighted the Antarctic lands. Although no precise records have been found at the time. It is said that the latitude reached at the time was 64° south although this is not known exactly. With these coordinates, the sighting of snow-capped mountains was reported.

The coordinates that led to the discovery indicate a reconnaissance of what we now call the South Shetland Islands. This would be the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula. Thanks to these coordinates and the good description of the geographical factors, it is very likely that he reached the Melchior Islands.

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