The Lost Galleon and Other Tales

The Lost Galleon1

Bret Harte

IN sixteen hundred and forty-one,
The regular yearly galleon,
Laden with odorous gums and spice,
India cottons and India rice,
And the richest silks of far Cathay,
Was due at Acapulco Bay.

Due she was, and overdue,—
Galleon, merchandise and crew,
Creeping along through rain and shine,
Through the tropics, under the line.
The trains were waiting outside the walls,
The wives of sailors thronged the town,
The traders sat by their empty stalls,
And the Viceroy himself came down;
The bells in the tower were all a-trip,
Te Deums were on each Father’s lip,
The limes were ripening in the sun
For the sick of the coming galleon.

All in vain.    Weeks passed away,
And yet no galleon saw the bay.
India goods advanced in price;
The Governor missed his favorite spice;
The Señoritas mourned for sandal
And the famous cottons of Coromandel;
And some for an absent lover lost,
And one for a husband,—Dona Julia,
Wife of the captain tempest-tossed,
In circumstances so peculiar;
Even the Fathers, unawares,
Grumbled a little at their prayers;
And all along the coast that year
Votive candles were scarce and dear.

Never a tear bedims the eye
That time and patience will not dry;
Never a lip is curved with pain
That can’t be kissed into smiles again;
And these same truths, as far as I know,
Obtained on the coast of Mexico
More than two hundred years ago,
In sixteen hundred and fifty-one,—
Ten years after the deed was done,—
And folks had forgotten the galleon:
The divers plunged in the gulf for pearls,
White as the teeth of the Indian girls;
The traders sat by their full bazaars;
The mules with many a weary load,
And oxen dragging their creaking cars,
Came and went on the mountain road.

Where was the galleon all this while?
Wrecked on some lonely coral isle,
Burnt by the roving sea-marauders,
Or sailing north under secret orders?
Had she found the Anian passage famed,
By lying Maldonado claimed,
And sailed through the sixty-fifth degree
Direct to the North Atlantic Sea?
Or had she found the “River of Kings,”
Of which De Fonté told such strange things,
In sixteen forty?    Never a sign,
East or west or under the line,
They saw of the missing galleon;
Never a sail or plank or chip
They found of the long-lost treasure-ship,
Or enough to build a tale upon.
But when she was lost, and where and how,
Are the facts we’re coming to just now.

Take, if you please, the chart of that day,
Published at Madrid,—por el Rey
Look for a spot in the old South Sea,
The hundred and eightieth degree
Longitude west of Madrid: there,
Under the equatorial glare,
Just where the east and west are one,
You’ll find the missing galleon,—
You’ll find the San Gregorio, yet
Riding the seas, with sails all set,
Fresh as upon the very day
She sailed from Acapulco Bay.

How did she get there?    What strange spell
Kept her two hundred years so well,
Free from decay and mortal taint?
What but the prayers of a patron saint!

A hundred leagues from Manilla town,
The San Gregorio’s helm came down;
Round she went on her heel, and not
A cable’s length from a galliot
That rocked on the waters just abreast
Of the galleon’s course, which was west-sou’-west.

Then said the galleon’s commandante,
General Pedro Sobriente
(That was his rank on land and main,
A regular custom of Old Spain),
“My pilot is dead of scurvy: may
I ask the longitude, time, and day?”
The first two given and compared;
The third—the commandante stared!
“The first of June?    I make it second.”
Said the stranger, “Then you’ve wrongly reckoned;
I make it first: as you came this way,
You should have lost, d’ye see, a day;
Lost a day, as plainly see,
On the hundred and eightieth degree.”
“Lost a day?”    “Yes; if not rude,
When did you make east longitude?”
“On the ninth of May,—our patron’s day.”
“On the ninth?—You had no ninth of May!
Eighth and tenth was there; but stay”—
Too late; for the galleon bore away.

Lost was the day they should have kept,
Lost unheeded and lost unwept;
Lost in a way that made search vain,
Lost in a trackless and boundless main;
Lost like the day of Job’s awful curse,
In his third chapter, third and fourth verse;
Wrecked was their patron’s only day,—
What would the holy Fathers say?

Said the Fray Antonio Estavan,
The galleon’s chaplain,—a learned man,—
“Nothing is lost that you can regain;
And the way to look for a thing is plain,
To go where you lost it, back again.
Back with your galleon till you see
The hundred and eightieth degree.
Wait till the rolling year goes round,
And there will the missing day be found;
For you’ll find, if computation’s true,
That sailing East will give to you
Not only one ninth of May, but two,—
One for the good saint’s present cheer,
And one for the day we lost last year.”

Back to the spot sailed the galleon;
Where, for a twelvemonth, off and on
The hundred and eightieth degree
She rose and fell on a tropic sea.
But lo! when it came to the ninth of May,
All of a sudden becalmed she lay
One degree from that fatal spot,
Without the power to move a knot;
And of course the moment she lost her way,
Gone was her chance to save that day.

To cut a lengthening story short,
She never saved it.    Made the sport
Of evil spirits and baffling wind,
She was always before or just behind,
One day too soon or one day too late,
And the sun, meanwhile, would never wait.
She had two Eighths, as she idly lay,
Two Tenths, but never a Ninth of May;
And there she rides through two hundred years
Of dreary penance and anxious fears;
Yet, through the grace of the saint she served,
Captain and crew are still preserved.

By a computation that still holds good,
Made by the Holy Brotherhood,
The San Gregorio will cross that line
In nineteen hundred and thirty-nine:
Just three hundred years to a day
From the time she lost the ninth of May.
And the folk in Acapulco town,
Over the waters looking down,
Will see in the glow of the setting sun
The sails of the missing galleon,
And the royal standard of Philip Rey,
The gleaming mast and glistening spar,
As she nears the surf of the outer bar.
A Te Deum sung on her crowded deck,
An odor of spice along the shore,
A crash, a cry from a shattered wreck,—
And the yearly galleon sails no more
In or out of the olden bay;
For the blessed patron has found his day.


Such is the legend.    Hear this truth:
Over the trackless past, somewhere,
Lie the lost days of our tropic youth,
Only regained by faith and prayer,
Only recalled by prayer and plaint:
Each lost day has its patron saint!

1.    THE LOST GALLEON. As the custom on which the central incident of this legend is based may not be familiar to all readers, I will repeat here that it is the habit of navigators to drop a day from their calendar in crossing westerly the 180th degree of longitude of Greenwich, adding a day in coming east; and that the idea of the lost galleon had an origin as prosaic as the log of the first China Mail Steamer from San Francisco. The explanation of the custom and its astronomical relations belongs rather to the usual text-books than to poetical narration. If any reader thinks I have overdrawn the credulous superstitions of the ancient navigators, I refer him to the veracious statements of Maldonado, De Fonté, the later voyages of La Perouse and Anson, and the charts of 1640. In the charts of that day Spanish navigators reckoned longitude E. 360 degrees from the meridian of the Isle of Ferro. For the sake of perspicuity before a modern audience, the more recent meridian of Madrid was substituted. The custom of dropping a day at some arbitrary point in crossing the Pacific westerly, I need not say, remains unaffected by any change of meridian. I know not if any galleon was ever really missing. For two hundred and fifty years an annual trip was made between Acapulco and Manila. It may be some satisfaction to the more severely practical of my readers to know that, according to the best statistics of insurance, the loss during that period would be exactly three vessels and six hundredths of a vessel, which would certainly justify me in this summary disposition of one.    [back]

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