Who is Sebastián Rodrigues Cermeño?

This Manila galleon commander was born named Sebastião Rodrigues Soromenho in Sesimbra, Portugal. He lived from about 1560 until 1602. Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño, the Spanish derivative of his Portuguese name, is how he is commonly known in relation to New Albion. This is because he was sailing for Spain when he anchored in the bay.

With the reputation of a well-seasoned mariner, Cermeño was appointed by the Spain’s King Philip II to make an exploration journey along the shore of California. Ceremeńo did so in the years 1595 and 1596. This expedition was specifically designed to map the area coast line and part of defining the Spanish 16th century Spanish maritime routes in the Pacific.

Cermeño left the Philippines on his eastward Manila galleon voyage on July 5, 1595 (Old Style). He had instructions to land at the first opportunity on the North American coast, assemble the launch carried aboard the Spanish galleon, San Agustin, and explore southwards seeking an appropriate harbor for use by future Manila Galleons. The run from Manila to Mexico was dangerous for many reasons, not the least of these was simply the length and duration of the journey. This trip could easily last at least four months which compromised the food and water supply. This compromised water and food supply—either or both could run out. An intermediary harbor could be beneficial for journey success.

On October 29, 1595 (OS), Cermeño reached the Oregon coast at 42° north latitude. Sailing south, he navigated the rocky coastline. Just as Drake had done so several years earlier, he came to the headlands at Point Reyes and entered Drake’s Bay, arriving on November 6 (OS). The crew anchored the San Agustin near the entrance to Drakes Estero, and most of them went ashore. In late November, an unusually heavy storm blew in from the south, and the San Agustin dragged her anchors as she was inevitably forced toward the shoreline. It did not take long before she was broken up in the surf. Along with the lives of about a dozen men, the entire cargo—mostly silk, wax, and porcelain—was lost.

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This Spanish galleon is similar to Cermeño’s San Augustin. These large, multi-decked ships were the masters of maritime commerce for centuries.

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This Ray Aker map provides details of Cermeño’s arrival and anchorage at Drakes Bay.

Although much of the ship was underwater and well beyond repair, the crew was able to salvage enough of it to effect a self-rescue. Using the San Agustin’s wreckage, the crew completed construction on a small boat—one they had previously begun assembling on ashore—and sailed it to Mexico. The small boat, the launch, was to be used for close in exploration of the coast. Instead, the launch—named the San Buenaventura—was used to pack in about 70 crewmen who set off for safety in Mexico.

The crew had very few supplies and survived mostly on acorns, fruit, and dried meat they got from Indians along the way. Cermeño continued to chart the coast and assess every harbor he encountered. Nevertheless, he missed one of the world’s great bays and maritime shelter: San Francisco Bay. For various reasons, it is easy to miss from sea, and its discovery would not be recorded until late in the 18th century. The crew of the San Buenaventura finally arrived in a Spanish port in Mexico in January 1596.

With his coastal charting rejected, Cermeño was treated poorly by the government of New Spain, and he died at the age of 42. The Portuguese Embassy has requested that the National Historic Landmark plaque be recast with this birth name.

The San Agustin is still at the bottom of Drake’s Bay, and to this day, she sheds porcelain sherds that wash onto the beaches. It is common for beachcombers to find them, particularly after a violent storm. While her precise resting place is uncertain, there are clues that may lead to it. The Guild’s Ray Aker has identified where he thought the wreck still is today. Maybe one day, it will be firmly located and investigated.

This video gives a brief history of Cermeño and the San Agustin shipwreck.

This video gives a brief history of the Spanish Malila galleon trade.

This short video gives describes the archaeology of The San Agustin.