Point Loma Explorer Juan Cabrillo Never Conducted a Spanish Possession Ceremony in Kumeyaay Territory

by on September 26, 2016 · 5 comments

in California, Civil Rights, History, Ocean Beach

juan-cabrillo-plagueBy Steve Newcomb / Indian Country / September 26, 2016

A statue is dedicated to the conquistador Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo stands at the Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma, California.

On the ground nearby is a plaque the Navy of the country of Spain placed there a few years ago, with the approval of the U.S. Navy.

The plaque states as a fact that in 1542 Cabrillo “took possession of these lands.” The Spanish Navy is part of the Spanish government, and the plaque is Spain’s way of claiming that Cabrillo “took possession” of the Kumeyaay Nation’s territory in what is now typically referred to as San Diego, California. In response to this unfounded claim by Spain, I have devised the following short fictional story in which my friend Paul Cuero, a traditional Kumeyaay leader and Vice-Chairman of Campo Kumeyaay Nation plays a role:

san-salvador-mus-pic Once upon a time, Vice Chairman Paul Cuero of the Campo Kumeyaay Nation met a professor named Dr. Colón, who happened to be an expert in Spanish colonial history. As the two men began discussing the Cabrillo statue and the Spanish Navy’s plaque, Cuero asked Dr. Colón, “Is that true? Did Cabrillo really perform such a ceremony here claiming to ‘take possession’ of our Kumeyaay Nation territory?”

Dr. Colón became somewhat cautious. He realized that such probing questions from an astute Kumeyaay person such as Vice Chairman Cuero might pose something of an embarrassment for the Spanish government and its plaque, not to mention for the United States, which claims to be the political successor to Spain in this part of the North American continent.

“Well you see,” replied Dr. Colón, “that’s just how things were done in those days.”

Vice Chairman Cuero followed up. “Well, I notice you did not answer my question. It’s rather simple. Did Cabrillo actually perform that ceremony here or not?”

Cuero continued.

Besides, how could a Spanish ritual be used to ‘take possession’ of our Kumeyaay lands? More to the point, we’re talking about a Spanish ceremony, if it was performed, which I doubt, being conducted in a place where another nation, our Kumeyaay nation, was already existing.

Our Kumeyaay ancestors had been existing here in our territory for thousands of years as your people calculate time. So, we’re talking about a foreign country conducting a ceremony or ritual in a place where the king of Spain had no right, no sovereignty, and no jurisdiction.

How could such a ceremony manage to ‘take possession’ of our lands, especially given that Spain had no agreement with, or consent from, our Kumeyaay ancestors?”

Dr. Colón, replied:

“My good man, you’re getting much too technical. All I can tell you is that it must have happened otherwise the United States Navy would not have let the Spanish Navy place that plaque at a National Monument of the United States.”

Dr. Colón had no way of knowing that Vice Chairman Cuero had been reading up on the subject. He had come across a 1972 copy of “The Journal of San Diego History.” He read an article by W. Michael Mattes, about the Spaniard explorer, Vizcaino. Professor Mattes, an expert in colonial history, says in the article that although Cabrillo performed such a ceremony of “possession” in Ensenada, some 80 miles south of San Diego. However, the article says nothing about Cabrillo performing such a ceremony at what is now typically referred to as Point Loma, California, in the Kumeyaay Nation territory (“San Diego”).

When he read the article, Vice Chairman Cuero realized that Juan Cabrillo never performed any Spanish ceremony of “possession” at Point Loma as the plaque at the Cabrillo National Monument asserts. “What are the implications?” he thought.

He realized that every September 28 the Cabrillo Festival has a fake “Cabrillo” re-enactor, with his cross-bearing priestly side-kick and faux Spanish sailor, recreate for the public a ceremony of possession that never happened. Since there is no documentation that Cabrillo ever performed that ceremony at Point Loma, Vice-Chairman Cuero said to Professor Colón,

“Why is the Cabrillo Festival reenacting a ceremony of Spanish domination in the Kumeyaay Nation territory when that ceremony was never performed here?”

Vice Chairman Cuero continued:

Here’s what I think. The government of Spain and its navy need to produce documentation to substantiate what it states on that plaque. Let them provide the documents proving that it happened here. And if they cannot provide such documentation then the Spanish government and its navy need to immediately remove that insulting plaque from the Cabrillo National Monument.

They need to remove the plaque which falsely states that Juan Cabrillo took possession of our Kumeyaay Nation territory, which to this day we Kumeyaay have never ceded, relinquished or surrendered.”

Here’s the moral of the story.

The Spanish government has disrespectfully erected a plaque in the Kumeyaay Nation territory with no historical facts backing it. It has simply been assumed that because of Cabrillo’s ridiculous ceremony of fictitious “possession” at what is now typically known as Ensanada, Mexico, the Kumeyaay nation today has no right of property in the thousands of square miles of its traditional territory. (See footnote number 2 in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in White v. University of California, August 2014).

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is about to sail its replica of one of Cabrillo’s Spanish Caravels, the Holy Savior (“San Salvador”) from the Kumeyaay Nation territory to points up North. The museum and its patrons claim to be celebrating the maritime tradition of Spanish ship building and nautical engineering.

With regard to that rapacious maritime tradition, U.S. Diplomat Henry Wheaton, in his Elements of International Law (1836), wrote

The Spaniards and Portuguese took the lead among the nations of Europe in the splendid maritime discoveries in the East and the West, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.”

This includes the time of Cabrillo and the ship “Holy Savior,” a ship named in the tradition of Christianity.

How does Wheaton, one of the most notable authorities in the history of international law in his time, explain the mindset of Christendom during the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries? Keep in mind that the ship Holy Savior was built with Indian slave labor and sailed north under the commission the Spanish crown gave to the psychopath Pedro Alvarado. Here’s Wheaton stating the matter,

“According to the European ideas of that age, the heathen [non-Christian] nations of the other quarters of the globe were the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”

Since the caravel San Salvador (“Holy Savior,” meaning Jesus Christ) is going to be a “sailing” classroom influencing young minds, perhaps this quote from Wheaton can be part of the curriculum, and “spoil” and “prey” can be two key glossary terms to build vocabulary.

The term “spoil” brings us back to the plaque that the Spanish government and the Spanish Navy placed at the Cabrillo monument, for in the context provided by Wheaton “spoil” means, “the plunder taken in war, material, land or property seized or confiscated by the victor of an armed aggression.” Also, “something taken unlawfully by stealth.”

A violent tradition of domination is being celebrated by the Spanish Navy with its historically inaccurate Cabrillo plaque at the national monument. It is being celebrated with the reenactment of a ritual at Point Loma that Juan Cabrillo never actually performed in the Kumeyaay Nation’s territory. It is time for people to stop celebrating Western Christendom’s tradition of maritime violent colonization and begin to engage in some accuracy in history from the perspective of our Original Nations. It is time for a reset by honoring and respecting our nations.

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 co-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.




{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

rufus September 27, 2016 at 6:27 am

” It is time for people to stop celebrating Western Christendom’s tradition of maritime violent colonization and begin to engage in some accuracy in history from the perspective of our Original Nations.”

While I’m all for history to be told as accurately as possible, to call out western Christendom’s violence while ignoring the barbaric slaughter of indigenous New World populations by other indigenous New World populations is disingenuous.

Let’s just call it what it is. Mankind, whether now or 10,000 years ago, has a history of barbarism. It’s up to us, here and now, to do what we can to stop the slaughter.


OB Joe September 27, 2016 at 8:33 pm

While it is true that tribes fought each other, the stronger tribes conquered and enslaved others, they didn’t commit the wholescale extermination of natives as the original European settlers did. The colonists brought guns and disease and wiped out entire populations. I think we’re talking a huge difference in magnitude here. But I agree with your last statement, rufus, “It’s up to us, here and now, to do what we can to stop the slaughter.” Thank you for that. I mean it.


Geoff Page May 8, 2019 at 9:36 am

Great piece. This whole Portuguese-San Diego tradition needs to be honestly told. Most historians believe Cabrillo was Spanish, not Portuguese. Cabrillo sailed for Spain, not Portugal. There was a Portuguese presence here for many years in the tuna fishing industry that eventually fell victim to foreign competition and disappeared. This was a period of about 60 years, a small part of San Diego’s history that seems to receive out-sized attention. Certainly it was a blip in time compared to the native people already here. It’s good to see the record being set straight.


jack ferro May 9, 2019 at 12:19 am

Cabrilho was Portuguese, like Da Gama, Magellan etc.,but whatever, the Portuguese here now are a CENTRAL ,not small part, in San Diego’s history, every house in Point Loma was dirt poor migrants from Azores, Madeira and we became 80% + of the world’s tuna fishing production for many years, there is many things that need to be ‘honestly told” as you said, for example the early US imperialist warmongers like Keaney and Logan who came and colonized, with a genocidal brutality far exceeding the Portugese working for conquistadors, you imbecile, you are criticizing the wrong people ,and why?


Geoff Page May 9, 2019 at 12:42 pm

Great way to have a discussion calling someone an imbecile. First, historians agree that Cabrillo was of Spanish birth. He was sailing for Spain. Second, San Diego is over 300 years old, but that is only the European influence. As this article said, the native people were here far longer. That does makes the Portuguese timeline a blip. Third, every house in Point Loma was not peopled by the Portuguese. Fourth, I never said the Portuguese had any history of brutality and genocide, that was mostly over by the time any of them arrived and they have no such history. And, fifth, I did not criticize the Portuguese people, I was critical of popular “history” that is not correct. I’ve been here long enough to know how the fierce pride is of the Portuguese community and the reaction that will come if anything even remotely suggests that the Portuguese are not totally responsible for San Diego being what it is today. They are a part of the city’s history, just one part, nothing more.


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