Prado, Diego de (de Prado y Tovar) (Writer)


(ca. 1570-after 1615)

Little is known of the life of Don Diego de Prado beyond what can be gathered from his surviving works, which consist of two letters to Spanish government officials, written after a voyage of exploration in the southern Pacific, and the Relacion (Relation), a document reporting on that voyage and addressed to the king of Spain.

Knowledge of the Relacion was lost until the early 1920s, when a copy in Prado’s own handwriting was found among some miscellaneous Spanish manuscripts. It forced historians to revise their understanding of the European discovery of Australia, which had previously been credited to Pedro Fernandez de Quiros and Luis Vaez de Torres (after whom the Torres Strait, which separates Australia from New Guinea, is named). In Prado’s account we learn dramatic facts about the expedition that set out from Peru in December 1605. There were three vessels in the fleet: the Capitana, commanded by Prado; the Almirante, commanded by Torres; and a much smaller launch. Quiros was the overall commander of the expedition and berthed on the Capitana. He rapidly lost the confidence of the Capitana’s crew. A mutiny ensued, which resulted in the Capitana sailing back to Mexico with Quiros as a prisoner, as Prado learned many months later after arriving in the Philippines.

At the time, the people on the Almirante knew only that the Capitana had disappeared. They decided to continue their mission to find out what land there might be in the Pacific south of 20 degrees latitude. They proceeded to sail along the southern coast of what is now Papua New Guinea, stopping on islands along the way, many of which are now considered part of Australia.

Apart from the events surrounding the disappearance of the Capitana, Prado’s account focuses primarily on the physical details most relevant to sailors and to the king’s ambitions for his empire: the presence of natural harbors and drinkable water, the edible plants and animals available, and the presence of mountains that might contain valuable minerals. There is also information about the customs of the inhabitants of the islands, but the often violent encounters with them, most often settled by the Spanish use of firearms, are related in an offhand way. Prado is a devout Catholic (he became a monk after his return to Spain) who assumes that capturing people and taking them away from their homes forever is perfectly Christian so long as an effort is made to convert them to Christianity. On one occasion Prado does command that a beautiful young girl be released to the care of “a good old woman of her own people”—lest some on the ship “might fall away with her and offend God.”

The Relacion is important for the details it provides about the southern Pacific in the early days of European imperialism, Spain’s initial exploration of the area, and the life and culture of Spanish sailors and the people they encountered.

An English Version of a Work by Diego de Prado

New Light on the Discovery of Australia: As Revealed by the Journal of Captain Don Diego de Prado y Tovar. Translated by George F. Barwick. London: Hakluyt Society, 1930; reprinted Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus, 1967.

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