Sebastián Vizcaíno [1548?-1627) was a Spanish soldier, explorer, and diplomat who is remembered for mapping the coast of what is now California, as the first Spanish ambassador to Japan, and for his battle with Dutch pirates.

Early Life

Very little is known about Vizcaíno's early life. Said to have been born in Extremadura, the region of Spain that produced most of the famous Spanish conquistadors, Vizcaíno first appears in the historical record as a soldier taking part in the Spanish invasion of Portugal (1580-1583), at which time he was already in his mid-30s. In 1583 he shows up again as living in the Spanish colony in Mexico. In 1586, he sailed from Mexico to Manila as a merchant on a Spanish treasure galleon. He returned to Mexico three years later, in 1589, and made a fortune selling goods he had acquired in the East.


In 1596, the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico, the Count of Monterrey, named Vizcaíno commander of an expedition to locate safe harbors in Alta California for Spanish galleons to use if blown off course on their return voyage to Acapulco from Manila. He was also charged with mapping in detail the California coastline that Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo had first explored six decades before. He departed Acapulco on May 5, 1602 in command of three ships - his flagship, the San Diego, along with the San Tomás and the Tres Reyes.

Sailing up the coast, Vizcaíno named many prominent locations and features, including San Diego, Santa Catalina Island, Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands, Point Conception, the Santa Lucia Mountains, Point Lobos, Carmel, and Monterey Bay (thus superseding some of the names Cabrillo had given to these same places back in 1542). Vizcaíno disembarked several times in California and penetrated inland, but had to retreat because of the hostility of the natives.

Meanwhile the Tres Reyes, commanded by Martín de Aguilar, became separated from Vizcaíno and traveled as far north the coast of present-day Oregon.

The detailed maps produced by Vizcaíno's expedition were used for hundreds of years thereafter.


Vizcaíno returned to Mexico in 1603 and served in various positions in the local government. In 1611, when the Spanish Crown decided to open official diplomatic relations with Japan, Vizcaíno was named Spain's first ever ambassador to Japan by King Philip III. That year, he sailed from Acapulco aboard the galleon San Francisco carrying a Japanese delegation led by Tanaka Shōsuke from Mexico back to Japan. In his ambassadorial capacity, Vizcaíno met with the shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada and his father, the retired shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. However, his diplomatic overtures were hindered by his boorish disregard for Japanese manners and customs.

In 1612, he sailed up the east coast of Japan, making maps and searching for two mythical islands called the Rico de Oro and the Rico de Plata, which he believed to be just off the Japanese coast, but of course he failed to find them.

In 1613, Vizcaíno returned to Mexico, carrying a Japanese embassy led by Hasekura Tsunenaga. Back in Acapulco, Vizcaíno was seriously injured in a brawl with his Japanese charges, as recorded by 17th century Aztec historian Chimalpahin in his oral history of the period, Annals of His Time. The Japanese entourage then continued on to Mexico City, and boarded a galleon bound for Europe at Veracruz.

Battle with Dutch Pirates

Thereafter Vizcaíno retired to manage his estate in Sayula, Jalisco. In 1616, Vizcaíno arose from his retirement and took command of a hastily mustered force of 200 men that successfully defended the port of Salagua against an attack by 200 Dutch pirates under Joris van Spilbergen who were attempting to make landfall and forcibly requisition food, water, and supplies.

As a reward for his services to the colony, Vizcaíno was named mayor of Acapulco. He retired again in 1619, and lived out the rest of his days in a manor near Mexico City, where he died in 1627.


Unlike the names given by Cabrillo, the names Vizcaíno gave to places in California stuck and remain the names of those places today. Several places in Baja California were later named in his honor, including Sebastián Vizcaíno Bay, El Vizcaíno Desert, the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, and the El Vizcaíno Whale Sanctuary.

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