MicSem Publications

The First European Visit to Truk

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1973 History

Translated from Coleccion de documentos ineditos (Madrid: 1887) III, 11-25, by Francis X, Hezel, Micronesian Seminar, Truk.

Late in 1564 an expedition of four ships, under the command of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi left Mexico with the aim of establishing a Spanish settlement in the Philippines. Just 10 days out of port, the smallest of the four ships, the San Lucas became separated from the rest of the expedition. On its voyage across the Pacific, the ship visited three islands in the Marshalls before passing Oroluk. Then, continuing westward, the ship's captain, Alonso de Arellano, sighted a group of high islands on January 17, 1565. What follows is an eyewitness report by Arellano of the first recorded European contact with Truk.

On Wednesday morning we discovered a high island different from those we had visited before, in that the others were only low atolls. The land lay off our port bow when we first saw it. We wanted to put in here in the belief that this was Mindanao, for we were at the correct latitude. As the pilot brought the ship nearer land, he could pick out several islands, 14 or 15 in all which were high and completely surrounded by a reef that not even a skiff could cross. On the reef that encircled the high islands were some low islets, not much higher than sea-level. All of the high islands within the reef were a league or two apart, each of them extending over two to three leagues in lengths. They offered such a good harborage that I feared that we would never get out once we entered, not only because of the barrier reef, but also because of the great throng of people who were there.

As we sailed along the outside of the barrier reef, we saw a pass through the reef. We made our way through the pass with some difficulty due to the strong current and the shoals on either side. Once inside the lagoon, however, we found calm water. The high islands within lie about 4 leagues from the reef. As we sailed across the lagoon, a large canoe with a lateen sail was seen coming towards us and finally caught up with us even though our ship was under full sail. When the natives drew up close to us and lowered their sails, we brought our ship around and threw them a line so that they could make fast their canoe. Four natives entered the ship, while 7 or 8 remained in the canoe. They gave us some of the fish they had brought and some dough-like food which smelled so bad that not a man aboard our ship could get close to it. Since they invited us through signs to come to their island, which they call Huruasa, we made for this island. Meanwhile, the natives did everything they could to make us hurry, for they treated us as their own possession and clearly did not want people from other islands to come and take away their prize. Accordingly, they told us through signs that we should not go to the other islands because the people were bad there, but instead we should come to their island where the people were friendly. The pilot then went aloft to see the port that the natives had pointed out, for we were already very close. He called out to one of the natives to tell him where the port was. Scrambling up the mast as fast as any sailor, the native showed him the channel, the port, the village and some huts on shore. Meanwhile, as the pilot and the native studied the harbor we were to enter, a great number of canoes drew near the ship. The captain did not think it prudent to enter the port since its mouth was narrow and the trade winds were blowing across the harbor entrance, and so he ordered the ship to be turned about and the launch put out. Nonetheless, he had the mainsail hoisted so that we would be ready to sail at a moment's notice if necessary.

When the natives on board our ship noticed the large number of canoes making for us, they urged us to enter the harbor as quickly as possible. The natives, who were on their way towards the ship, they said, intended to kill and eat them. In the distance there appeared to be more than a thousand canoes on their way from the high islands; besides a great number of canoes coming from the low islands. The canoes were filled with armed men who carried spears tipped with fishbone in place of iron, clubs, slings and rocks. From the canoes came an uproar that seemed to fill the entire earth. The natives were disturbed that the other people from Huruasa had beaten them to our ship and already had us in their hands.

The situation looked bad for we had no way of getting our ship out. But, knowing the hostile intentions of these savage natives, we were even prepared to sail over the reef to escape. We decided to unfurl the mainsail and try to break through them. Meanwhile, the natives from Huruasa whom we had taken aboard earlier worked at one of our sheets again and again in an effort to make the ship move faster. They signaled to their friends from Huruasa to hurry and bring their canoes alongside the ship, but their paddling canoes could not overtake us since we were under full sail. One of the natives aboard our ship tried to take over the helm. The helmsman wanted to turn it over to him, but I did not permit this for fear that this action might unnecessarily provoke the natives in the other canoes.

Two of the canoes that were pursuing us finally reached the ship and made fast to our launch. Two natives, one armed with a club and the other with a spear, climbed aboard the ship, trembling from head to foot. Their eyes nearly leapt out of their heads as they glanced here and there on the ship, looking around for some things to steal. Finally taking a few pieces of iron, they jumped into the water. When the natives from Huruasa whom we had taken aboard earlier saw that the other canoes could not catch us, for we were running under our mainsail while the canoes had no sails at all, one of them snatched an iron spoon and prepared to jump overboard with it. One of our sailors, however, seized it from his hands and hit him over the head with it. Thereupon, this fellow and the rest of the natives jumped into the water. If we had not been so close to the reefs, we would not have let any of them escape: for by this time we had lost our fear of them. As we picked our way between the many rocks and reefs that are strewn among these islands, we found ourselves surrounded by shoals and the numerous canoes that had come off all these islands to pursue us. Ahead of us were many canoes standing well off our prow; the natives, all of whom were well armed, seemed bent on cutting us off. When the pilot saw that night was coming on, he prudently went aloft to see whether he could find a channel through which we could make our escape. Our Lady was pleased that he should discover between two islands ahead a reef in which there was a very narrow channel, hardly big enough to allow the ship to pass through. In the middle of it was a rock that we surely would have hit if the pilot had not gone aloft when he did. As it was, we barely scraped the rock in passing. The reason that we had not seen it before was that all of us had gone to the defense of the ship as we were being surrounded by canoes.

I ordered two men into the launch to defend it from the natives who were trying to take it. The two managed to turn back the natives who had already brought their canoes alongside it. When a soldier stationed in the rear of the launch was assaulted by a native swinging his club from the front end of his canoe, the soldier bravely defended himself. Then from all directions the natives began to hurl spears at our men in the ship. With spears stuck in the planking like quills, it was a miracle that no one was killed, especially considering how few weapons we had with which to defend ourselves. When the soldier in the launch saw that we were in danger, he fired a volley, more to frighten than do any harm. After all, if the Armada should pass by this way, or any other ships for that matter, we did not want them to find the natives disturbed.

As we slipped away from the canoes in the confusion and shouting, I ordered the pilot to hoist the rest of the sails. The shouting of the natives was caused not so much by fear of the musket fire, as it was a strategy on their part to bring us back. They were very angry at each other upon seeing us escape safely from out of their hands. At last, however, they returned to their islands and we saw a great deal of smoke rising from the islands for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

At sunset, we found ourselves among so many reefs that the pilot was perplexed as to what to do next. He did not know how deep the bottom was; but to return to the island would mean certain death for all of us. Not long afterwards, the pilot saw white water in the middle of the barrier reef, and we crept along towards it in the hope of finding a firm bottom where we could anchor. Two hours later we reached the spot and I ordered the lead to be thrown overboard for a sounding. They found a depth of thirty fathoms and a coral bottom, so we anchored there in the name of Our Lady of Consolation who has always been our advocate. She saved us that night from very great danger, the extent of which I could not have possibly described until afterwards. The reef completely encircled us at a distance of no more than musket range away, to heighten the fear aboard ship off in the distance on this dark and windy night we heard the shouts of the savage natives from their islands and saw large signal fires all around. Signal fires are customary throughout these islands. As the pilot thought that we might be drifting, he ordered a sailor to drop the sounding lead overboard to find out if we were dragging our anchor. The sailor reported that we were not drifting free, but only swinging in the gusts of wind. As he started to raise and secure the sounding lead, it stuck in some rocks. Both the pilot and the sailor tried their utmost to get it up, but all their efforts were in vain. They had to leave it there is a very regrettable occurrence since we did not have another aboard ship, nor even the lead from which we could make another. Such was our plight when one of our sailors promised Our Lady of Consolation as many candles as she wished if she would help us. No sooner had he made this vow than he took hold of the rope again and raised the lead as easily as if it had never been stuck.

Before daybreak, the pilot ordered the men to set up the yards and to prepare the ship so that if the savages should come both the ship and the crew would be ready to sail at once. At dawn the pilot went aloft to see if there was any passage through the reefs and islands, but found none. He was sure that it would be impassible to escape without risking the loss of the ship. Thanks to Our Lady, there were no canoes anywhere near us; at least there was little danger that we would have to endure once again what we had been through the day before. If the natives had come, they would have found us exhausted from the labor of the preceding day and night-searching for anchorage, preparing the sails all through the night, and making the ship ready in the event that anything untoward should occur. Unfortunately we had practically nothing aboard ship to eat; this is the way we were sent from the Port of Navidad. The few supplies that we were given were all spoiled within a month's time, not for want of proper care either. We were without most of the supplies that we needed and were without even thread to repair our sails.

With confidence in Our Lady's protection, I decided to cast aside all fear and serve His Majesty, as we were directed. And so we unfurled the sails and sailed over a reef that had little more water over it than the draught of the ship. As we passed beyond the last of the high islands in the lagoon, ten or twelve canoes came towards us and signaled us to come to their island where they would give us food and drink. We brought the ship around so that they could catch us, but as they drew nearer we saw that they were carrying weapons and preparing for an attack. Upon seeing this, I gave the orders to let go with a volley of stone-shot from our guns. The gunner's aim was so good that he scored a direct hit on the closest canoe—a large one with many natives in it—and apparently did a great deal of injury to those in the canoe. They jumped into the water and let out a yell to the other canoes, whose occupants were astonished to see the damage done to the first. The gunner, who happened to be the best marksman on our ship, wanted to fire another shot, but I would not let him. The canoes turned back, while our ship sailed on through the shallows and reefs. Once outside of the reefs, we rejoiced in the favors that Our Lady had shown us. The pilot took the sighting and found our position to be 7 1/2. Then the pilot set the ship on a course west by 1/4 northwest so as to put us in a higher latitude –9 or 10–in hopes that we might find the Philippines as we had been ordered. We followed this course the whole day. At nightfall the sails were tied to the mast for fear that we would run aground on islands or reefs. No sooner had dawn risen than we saw three small islands forming a triangle. We drew near one of the islets with the intention of procuring wood and water, spending ten days there, and leaving signs of our stay as we had been instructed. As we sailed closer, we saw that the islands were populated; the beach was crowded with people carrying the same kind of spears and clubs that we had seen in other places. We made for the tip of the island to drop anchor, for there was no other anchorage near the island. To the natives who came out to the ship in canoes, we gave small presents from our supplies so that we might establish good relations with them. Two chiefs came aboard our ship and told us through signs that if we wanted water and fuel we should come ashore for it. We made it understood that we wanted them to remain aboard our ship while one of our men went ashore with the rest of the natives. They were content with this arrangement, so we distributed three water jugs to three canoes, putting aboard one of them a young sailor who had volunteered to go ashore. The two chiefs, meanwhile, stayed aboard the ship.

The sailor brought back a jug of water, a bunch of green bananas, and coconut milk. He returned so pleased with the island and the people that it eventually cost him his life. On his word, we put out our launch with the intention of getting the water and wood that we needed so badly. The pilot, myself, and eight soldiers and sailors made up the shore party, with the two chiefs leading us in their canoes to show us the way. They crossed the reef and beached their canoes, signaling us to land at the same spot, but we did not see how we could possibly pass over the rocks without being ruined. Furthermore, we were suspicious of the manner in which the natives split into two or three groups and took cover in the woods with spears in hand. I warned my men that it was not wise to go ashore. It was with treacherous designs that the natives tried to hurry us over the reef onto the beach.

We told the natives through signs that we needed a rock in order to anchor. At this, the young sailor who had gone ashore before said that he would swim over and get a rock. So he jumped into the water and with the help of a native brought back a good-sized rock. Upon his return, I asked him what the natives were doing. He replied that they were sitting there with poles and spears, slings and other weapons next to them. On hearing this, the pilot and I told him to dive quickly into the water, untie the rock anchor, and come back at once. He assured us that there was no cause for alarm; the natives were afraid of him, and he could handle all of them by himself, if it came to that. With that, he untied the rock, swam back to the launch, and we all rowed back to our ship.

The pilot was of the opinion that these must have been the islands where Magellan had his skiff stolen, for nowhere else had we found a people cunning and bold enough to attempt such a thing. When the natives observed all of what went on, they launched their canoes and came to our ship. We signaled them to come aboard, but they were reluctant to do so for fear that we had seen through their treacherous plans. when they asked us why we had returned to our ship, I replied that we were afraid to keep the big rock that we needed on our launch for long, lest the boat break under its weights. In response to their further questions, I merely replied that we could not understand them. Finally they came on board and asked us for jugs so that they could bring us water, but they wanted one of our men to go ashore with them. We replied by signs that we would like two or three of them to remain aboard ship. Accordingly, two natives came aboard; we then put the jugs on three canoes and sent three of our men along, one on each of the canoes. They all headed for the shore, two of the canoes arriving at the island before the other.

The sailor who was on the last canoe later told us that when he arrived he was horrified to see the young man who had gone on one of the first canoes running towards the beach with the natives in close pursuits. They caught him in the water and clubbed him. He watched the same thing happen to the sailor who arrived in one of the early canoes. Their bodies were then dragged ashore by the natives. When the Spaniard in the third canoe saw this, he yelled to the natives in his canoe to return to the ship. When they persisted in making towards the shore, he seized a paddle from one of them to try to bring the canoe around. At this, one of the natives raised a club and hit the sailor on the head, and the others came at him with clubs to kill him. Pulling a dagger from his belt, however, the sailor attacked them so ferociously that he killed two of the natives and the others jumped into the water and swam off. The sailor then turned to defending himself from the natives in the other canoes who were hurling rocks at him with their slings. When we saw this from the ship, we went to seize the two natives who had remained on board as hostages, but they jumped into the water. Some of our men, ready for action, bounded into the launch to come to the aid of the sailor in the canoe and to capture the natives who were swimming ashore. By the time we had readied the launch, though, the two natives were near the shore. When we saw that we could not catch them, one of the men in our launch fired his musket at one of the natives in the water, striking him full in the head and killing him outright. Then the crew picked up the valiant sailor in the canoe, already so badly wounded by the rocks that we did not think he would survive. I wanted to go ashore with all of our men to see if we could land there and bring back the other two men, or die in the attempt. So we went around the entire reef in an effort to find a place to beach the launch, but because of the jutting coral heads we would have had to jump overboard and swim to shore. Since we did not feel that we should risk losing the launch with no hope of accomplishing anything thereby, we returned to the ship with heavy hearts at seeing our men carried away without our being able to rescue them. All the while we were circling the island, the natives incessantly showered rocks upon us from the shore. In my opinion, the natives here use their slings better than any other people in the world, many of their rocks nearly reaching our ship at anchor.

Later, the natives made great fires to signal the other islands. In response, a large sailing canoe carrying savage-looking natives from one of the other islands arrived; shortly afterwards, it returned to the island from which it had come to pass along the message. Our surmise was that the large canoe was bringing back the body of one of the dead men to eat.

I felt that we should not remain here any longer, given the harm we had already suffered and the present danger to the ship and crew's safety. I agreed that it would be better to proceed on our way without stopping, so as to avoid any more experiences like the one we had just undergone.

These people are savages and thieves who covet everything they see; they never lay eyes on anything at all without calculating how they might steal it. They are well-built, bearded, and have long hair bound in a knot. There are three islands lying at 7 3/4, two leagues apart from each other. These islands are 25 leagues distant from the other islands we visited (Truk). And so we left these islands on the afternoon of January 18, setting a course to the west.