Sebastiao Melendez Rodriguez Cermeno, a Portuguese by birth, was a Spanish navigator and explorer. King Philip II appointed him to sail along California’s shores in the years 1595 and 1596 to map the western American coastline and define the Pacific Ocean’s maritime routes in the 16th century.
He was born in Sesimbra, Portugal, and little is known of his early life, but he grew up to be a sailor. In 1565, Spanish King Phillip II occupied the Philippine Islands to participate in profitable trade with China and the Spice Islands. At this time, Cermeno was appointed by King Phillip to sail along the shores of California to map the American west coastline, define the maritime routes of the Pacific Ocean, and find a safe port where the galleons could take refuge. In the mid-16th century, the Spanish galleons that sailed between Manila and Acapulco carried valuable cargos that attracted foreign privateers and pirates. It was also a difficult trip for the ships and crews who needed a place to refit and restock before Acapulco.
Cermeno left Manila on the galleon, San Agustin, on July 5, 1595, and first sighted land somewhere between Cape St. George and Cape Mendocino, California, on November 4th. He then sailed down the coast looking, without success, for a port he dared enter. A few days later, he rounded a prominent land point and anchored in Drakes Bay on November 6th. The crew was greeted by Native Americans like that of Sir Francis Drake 16 years before. The San Agustin was at anchor in late November when a large storm blew in. Heavy swells caused the ship to drag anchor, and the ship sank. Several crew members drowned, but about 80 men made it to shore. Ceremeno claimed the land, which is now known as Point Reyes, for Spain. Ceremeno and his surviving men salvaged a small launch from the galleon’s wreckage and sailed south on December 8th. They arrived at Puerta de Chacala, Mexico, on January 17, 1596.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2022.
Discovery and Exploration of America