Last third of the 18th century. Spain, however implausible it may seem today, barely ten generations later, holds sovereignty over almost the entire territory of the United States, except for the northeast quadrant, where the British colonies are located, and has colonised the entire south, from Florida to New Mexico.
But California is missing. Almost two centuries earlier, the sailor Sebastián Vizcaíno had travelled along its coast, minutely mapping all the features of the Californian coastline, drawing up a map kept top secret by the Spanish authorities. But with Spain busy weaving its vast empire, California had for the time being been ignored, and the mists of time and oblivion crept over those solitudes.
But in 1761, the Spanish ambassador to Russia reported that the Russians were coming down from Alaska, setting up trading posts on the Pacific coast. And Spain, extremely jealous of its sovereign rights, was pressed to halt such an advance, and to move forward in possession.
That, and another reason, decided the far-sighted Carlos III to occupy California. It was a region populated by unchristianised natives, and Spain and the Crown, which had received from the Pope the mission to evangelise the Indies, were also extremely scrupulous about this.
That is why the colonising leap from Mexico to California was called the Holy Expedition, a meticulously designed operation for which a dual military and religious leadership was set up. For the former, the Catalan of illustrious family Gaspar de Portolá. For the second, a wiry Franciscan born in Petra, Mallorca, called Junípero Serra. No better choice could have been made.
The enterprise was planned on two poles: to found a Mission and a Presidio (which was not a prison, but a protective fort for the missionaries) in San Diego, in southern California, and from there to plan the great colonising offensive, founding in Monterey Bay, in the heart of the Californian coast, the Mission that was to be the nucleus of the Spanish occupation.
Mission of San Diego
The first part of the plan was executed as planned: after arriving at San Diego by sea, Fray Junípero stayed behind to organise the Mission of San Diego de Alcalá, and Portolá set out by land with a party of soldiers and mules to locate Monterrey and set up the Spanish colonising embryo.
They took Vizcaino’s map, which accurately marked the bay of Monterrey. But no matter how hard they searched they could not find it, they passed it by and continued northwards, until a few days later they made a sensational discovery: the immense bay of San Francisco.
But Portolá realised that he had gone too far up and that they had to turn back, but even then they did not discover Monterrey. Lacking supplies, he decided to return to San Diego, in a dramatic return in which they had to eat their mules to survive, and they arrived in San Diego “smelling of mules”, as the captain put it in his report.
The “San Antonio”
But the situation in San Diego was agonising: the San Antonio, the ship sent to New Spain for supplies, had not arrived as planned, and hunger, scurvy, and death were raging amongst the Spaniards. According to Portolá, the tides had blocked the bay of Monterrey and the plan was unfeasible, so he decided to consider the venture a failure and to return the expedition to Mexico. The missionaries were discouraged.
But then the spirit of Junípero Serra, who combined deep religious fervour with unrelenting determination, came to the fore. He maintained that in two centuries the tides could not have transformed the coastline in such a way, and that it was essential to try again because the Christianisation of the Californian Indians was at stake.
Portolá finally gave in in part. The situation of hardship in the colony was desperate, but he granted an extension of a few days, and if the San Antonio had not arrived by then, the enterprise would be abandoned.
When the deadline expired, and Portolá had already given the order to evacuate, the San Antonio appeared on the horizon with sails unfurled, bringing the longed-for provisions. Fray Junípero interpreted this as a divine sign, and the search for Monterrey began again, with a double expedition by land and by sea, now embarking Serra himself.
Monterrey at last
And this time Monterrey appeared at the point drawn on Vizcaino’s excellent map, which the fogs had previously hidden. From the new Mission of San Carlos, El Carmel, Fray Junípero would found a string of missions that consolidated Spain’s presence in California. While other countries populated with commercial factories, Spain populated with Missions, which instructed the Indians in religion and Western culture, and it was thanks to them that the natives of North America survived.
Two places of privilege treasure the memory of Fray Junípero: one, in the Capitol in Washington. The other, in the eternal abode, since in 2015 the Catholic Church proclaimed him a Saint of the Catholic Church, considered the Father of California.