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By the will of God: Philip II of Spain, the great conquistador-king, offering Fernando to Victory, by Titian

The extraordinary plans and dreams which many citizens of the great city of Mexico had in the late 16th century for the conquest of China are the object of my attention. This was a direct consequence of the conquest of the Philippines, carried out from Mexico's shores in the 1560s. Those islands entered the imagination of Europeans when Magellan's marvellous expedition touched on them in 1521. 

Magellan was a Portuguese who had been commissioned to carry out his global voyage by the Spanish crown. He called the archipelago the islands of San Lázaro, but the name did not last. Magellan was killed in battle on the island of Cebú. His arrival had been resisted by the naturales whom he and his fellow explorers called Indians. The command of a much reduced expedition passed to Juan Sebastián de Elcano, a Basque who eventually demonstrated the sphericity of the earth.

Magellan's mistake was to have spent more on manzanilla, before leaving Sanlúcar de Barrameda, than he did on gunpowder which could have saved his life. These adventures raised the question of where Portuguese interest ended and where the Spanish responsibility began. 

The Pope in 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 had drawn a line dividing Spanish from Portuguese interests in the region of the Atlantic and Brazil. But no one knew for certain that the world was round — the uncertainty in the East was resolved in 1529 by a treaty at Saragossa. By that agreement the Spaniards gave up all interest in the legendary Spice Islands, the Moluccas, and abandoned all contact beyond latitude 17 degrees to the west. In exchange, the always penurious King of Spain received from rich Portugal the princely sum of 350,000 ducats.

The treaty of Saragossa might have ended Spanish interest in the East Indies and the mysterious islands of San Lázaro, but speculation about the archipelago continued; thus the apparently immortal Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés's great friend and deputy, "son of the sun", as he was known to the Mexicans because of his fair hair, organised a fleet whose aim would be to visit and perhaps colonise those islands.

Alvarado's expedition never got under way for reasons connected with the Chichimec rebellion in New Spain, but one of his commanders, Ruy López de Villalobos, did set off across the Pacific and reached the far south of the archipelago. He was outmanoeuvred by the Portuguese but he left his mark on history, by naming the islands "the Philippines", after the young Spanish regent, Philip — the future Philip II.

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Nicholas Clifford
April 30th, 2012
7:04 PM
Hugh Thomas is far too good a historian to have finished off his article in anything but a tongue-in-cheek mode, far too good a historian to believe that a few hundred, or a few tens of thousands of Spaniards could have defeated China and made it a Christian nation. Unfortunately, George Weigel, the blue-eyed boy of the Catholic right wing in the US, has taken it all seriously, and has published an article, "The Great What If," bemoaning the failure of Philip II to mount an expedition against China in the name of Catholicism. It is absolutely stunning in its display of historical ignorance, and one wonders if he has ever heard the names of (among others) Matteo Ricci and Alessandro Valignano, who founded the Jesuit mission in China, and whose successors did wonderful work there, before the Vatican turned against them in the early and mid-18th century.

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