Sebastian Cabot and the Loss of Sancti Spiritu

by Heather R. Darsie

On 1 September 1529, Charles V von Habsburg, lost one of his major forts in what is now Argentina. Charles V became King of Spain on 23 January 1516, right before his sixteenth birthday on 24 February. A few years later, on 28 June 1519, Charles effectively inherited the Holy Roman Empire from his paternal grandfather, Maximilian I von Habsburg.

The explorer Sebastian Cabot, the son of John Cabot and a Venetian by birth, worked for both Henry VII and Henry VIII of England in the early 1500s before heading to Spain in 1512. Cabot served as an explorer for Henry VII, and became a cartographer for Henry VIII. Once in Spain, Cabot quickly became the captain of the Spanish House of Trade. He continued in that office until his promotion in 1518 to the position of Pilot-Major to the Council of the West Indies. Over the next several years, tales of South American exploration poured into the Iberian Peninsula.

Sebastian Cabot, an 18th-century engraving by Samuel Rawle after a 16th-century Hans Holbein the Younger portrait; via Wikimedia Commons.

Cabot left Spain in April 1526 with the goal of finding the West Indies. After making several stops at various Spanish and Portuguese outposts along the Atlantic coast of South America, Cabot left for the Plata region in February 1527. He eventually came to a point near the Parana River and decided to build a fort. Named Sancti Spiritu, it was purportedly the first European settlement in Argentina.

After an initially peaceful relationship with the Amerindians, Sebastian Cabot, the Spanish leader, chose to leave Sancti Spiritu to chase after the myth of the White King. Cabot learned of a rumor that a king lived atop a mountain either made of silver or laden with silver ore. The mountain was supposedly in the La Plata basin. This basin is of immense size, covering most of Paraguay and Uruguay, the northern part of Argentina, and part of Bolivia. It is one of the largest river basins in the world, but there was no way for Cabot to know that.

Cabot left a portion of his all-male crew in the care of Gregorio Caro, who proved to be a lax military leader. Cabot and a crew of over 100 men left on 23 December 1527 to find the White King. Cabot is thought to have sailed on the Carcarana River towards the Paraguay River, where they met with other Spanish explorers. After some discussion and no sighting of the White King, the two group of explorers agreed to return to Sancti Spiritu.

While Cabot was away from Sancti Spiritu, a minor mutiny happened. It was put down with the help of a Spanish priest, who exposed the group’s leader. The leader was executed. Still, life at the fort under Gregorio Caro was easy enough, and the Spanish soldiers brutalized the Amerindians to the point where the native population viewed the Spanish as enemies. This led to a lack of food for the Spanish, who relied on the Amerindians to supplement what the Spanish could find.

Cabot returned to Sancti Spiritu to find it in some disarray. The laxity allowed by Gregorio Caro continued even after Cabot returned. Still anxious to find the White King, Cabot organized a second expedition. At first, he thought it prudent to send out ahead three different scouting groups. However, Cabot was too impatient to await their return.  Cabot left the fort in August 1529.

Fairly quickly after he left, Cabot caught wind of a planned attack by the indigenous peoples on the fort of Sancti Spiritu. They were tired of Spanish abuse. Cabot figured that Gregorio Caro and the remaining Spanish troops would have no problem defending Sancti Spiritu, so Cabot left sailed away from the fort so he could find the White King.

On the night of 1 September 1529, the indigenous peoples set fire to the Spanish fort’s palisade, catching the sleeping soldiers off-guard. It was quickly apparent that the Spaniards could not defend the fort, so they tried to escape. A handful managed to find Cabot’s expedition and tell Cabot what happened. Cabot turned around and sailed back to Sancti Spiritu as quickly as he could, but did not arrive in time to defend the fort.

The indigenous peoples completely slaughtered the Spanish at Sancti Spiritu and destroyed at least one, if not both, of the ships which Cabot left behind for the fort. Demoralized, Cabot left Argentina. He brought home with him the tale of the White King, which later led to further exploration and the official founding of Buenos Aires in 1536.

Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Montón-Subías Sandra, Berrocal María Cruz, and Martínez Apen Ruiz. Archaeologies of Early Modern Spanish Colonialism. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.
  2. Santillán Diego Abad de, and Marcos Estrada. Historia Argentina. Buenos Aires: Tea, 1965.

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