When the Pacific Ocean was known as the ‘Spanish Lake’

Centuries ago the Pacific Ocean was not called like that. In fact, there was a time when it was just an empty space on the maps for a large part of the planet. A land unexplored by the European powers. A nameless body of water. It was in the 16th century when the conqueror Núñez de Balboa became the first European to take possession of those lands. He baptized that vast blue desert as the ‘South Sea’. A few years later, the navigator Ferdinand Magellan renamed the ocean with the name by which it is known today: Pacific. But, apart from these names, it was also known for at least two centuries as the Spanish lake. Thus, that immense maritime extension, unknown to Europeans, went from having no name to having three.


Puerto Natales, in the Strait of Magellan, Chile | Shutterstock

The discovery of the Pacific

We should not forget that what was the discovery of America for the European powers, for the natives meant the beginning of the end of their collapse, the loss of a land that had already been discovered. The same thing would happen in the Pacific islands. What the discovery of this ocean meant for the Spaniards and Westerners, for the natives it meant the loss of their autonomy.

With that in mind, it must be said that the discovery of the Pacific has gone much more unnoticed by history. Although at the time it had great repercussions, now few are those who know that it was a Spaniard who named this ocean. Also, few are those who know that for centuries this piece of the world was dominated by the Hispanics. And, of course, not many know that in the middle of the Pacific there are still four lost islands that belong, only legally, to the Spanish State. But that is another story.

Philippine Islands

Aerial photo of the Philippine Islands, apex of the Spanish lake | Shutterstock

The fact is that between the 16th and 17th centuries Spanish rule over the Pacific became undeniable. Why? Well, because the conquest by these colonizers did not present hardly any opposition at that time. The Pacific was then a peaceful enclave, living up to its name. Only Spanish sailors, of all Europeans, were at ease in those parts. In that first stage the Spanish lake could be represented as a triangle whose base was on the controlled American coast as far as California and whose apex corresponded to the Philippine Islands. On these islands alone, the conquerors were in danger of encountering two rivals. However, China and Japan were then inward-looking.

The galleon’s route across the Spanish lake

After many wrecks and many years, the route known as the Manilla Galleon route, also called the Acapulco Galleon or Nao de China, managed to establish itself in the Pacific. This route traveled from Manilla to Acapulco and from there to Cadiz and Seville. Thus, Europeans imported great resources to their lands. Silks, porcelain, ivory and spices, among other products, filled the coffers of the Spanish State.


Acapulco, Mexico, the area through which the Manilla Galleon route went through | Shutterstock

It was this maritime route, the only western route in the Pacific, that attracted the envy and attacks of other European powers. In this second phase, which would take place in the 18th century, different fleets from foreign countries tried to take possession of the Manilla galleon. The English, French and Dutch failed again and again for years. But in 1742, Commodore Anson took over the ship. In addition to appropriating the resources that the Nao de China carried, the navigators took possession of nautical charts and secret hydrographic documents.

At that time, half of the Pacific was still unknown. For Europeans, much of the ocean remained a mystery. But since the Anson incident, which was much talked about at the time, the decline of Spanish dominance in the area was unstoppable. The European powers took over the exploration routes and left the Spanish out of a business they had started. The Spanish lake stopped to be that and went down in history under the name of the Pacific.

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