Estevan Gomez, navigator and explorer

    Born Estavao Gomes in Portugal, this little-known navigator sailed under the Spanish flag when he explored the Maine coast and became the first European tourist in Bangor.

    Like the better known Ferdinand Magellan, Gomez was born in Porto in northern Portugal.  Also like Magellan, he changed his loyalty to the Spanish crown. The spelling of his name was changed from Gomes (pronounced "Gamash") to the more Spanish Gomez.

    His nautical career almost ended before his trip to Bangor, when Gomez mutinied against Magellan and wound up in a Spanish prison.  When Magellan sailed from Spain in 1519 with five ships, Gomez was pilot of one of them, the San Antonio.  As the ships traveled  through the dangerous strait from the Atlantic to the Pacific at the southern tip of South America, one of the ships was lost, and the San Antonio opted  to return to Spain rather than continue west through the dangerous Strait of Magellan.  As soon as he returned to Spain, Gomez was jailed for mutiny.  When the remainder of the Magellan expedition returned to Spain in 1522, the few surviving crew members told such dreadful stories of their terrible experiences that Charles V of Spain decided to free Gomez.   The navigator convinced the king to sponsor his search for a better route to Asia, a "northwest passage" rather than the risky route Magellan  had taken. 

    The earliest European travelers to get near the coast of Maine were John Cabot in 1498, the Portuguese Gasper Corte Real in 1500, and Giovanni Verazzano, who visited the coast of southern Maine in early 1524, with financial backing from Francis I of France.  The natives somewhere in the vicinity of Casco Bay were vulgar and hostile to Verazzano and his crew; they would accept nothing but knives, fish hooks, and other tools in trade; would not let the Europeans go ashore; they wore animal skins and made crude gestures; worst, they  did not produce the gold Verazzano sought.  Nevertheless, Verazzano returned to Spain  in July, 1524, with stories of a city of gold named Norumbega, supposedly located near the present site of Bangor, Maine.  In his report to Francis I, he called southern Maine the "Land of Bad People."

 

    Eager to claim the northwest passage before France did, the Spanish king agreed to provide financial backing for Gomez's voyage.  In September, 1524, Gomez left Spain on the ship La Anunciada.  He arrived at the Gulf of St. Lawrence in February, 1525, and spent a miserable winter there.  As soon as possible, he started south, thinking that a passage to India in the far north would be no better than Magellan's route in the far south.  Continuing to seek a westward route, he explored and mapped the Bay of Fundy, Passamaquoddy Bay, Mount Desert Island, Somes Sound (which he named Rio de Montanas,) Blue Hill, Jericho Bay, Eggemoggin Reach, and the Penobscot River as far inland as the mouth of the Kenduskeag Stream. He must have reached the Bangor area in June.   Gomez named the Penobscot River "Rio de las Gamas" because of the plentiful deer along its banks.  He found the natives to be friendly and the country "temperate and well-forested," well forested with oak, birch, olive, and wild grape, but on his carefully drawn map, he wrote, "No gold here."  Realizing the Penobscot River was not the strait he sought but "a famous river with a gret flow of water," Gomez continued along the North American coast, exploring the Rio de Juan Bautista (Boothbay), the Rio de Buena Madre (Kennebec River,) the Rio de San Antonio (Merrimac River), and the site of present-day Newport, Rhode Island.  It is possible he went as far south as New Jersey.  Disappointingly, he found neither a northwest passage to Asia nor the fabled Norumbega.  Remembering the Spanish king's admonition to bring back treasure, he filled his ship with Native Americans in the hope that Charles V would consider slaves to be suitable treasure.  (He didn't.)  In August, 1525, Gomez returned to Spain.

    Gomez later was the first European to map the reefs and land area of Bermuda and, in 1632, appeared in Cabo Frio, Brazil.  In 1633, Charles V knighted him, despite his seemingly lackluster accomplishments. Estevan Gomez deserves credit for his pragmatism in an age of credulousness. Long after Gomez gave up on the feasibility of a far-north route to Asia, other explorers continued to seek it, and he never mentioned the fabled city of Norumbega.

    The Portuguese chose to concentrate their efforts on developing their colony in Brazil, and the Spanish focused on other parts of the Western Hemisphere, abandoning any effort to explore the northern reaches of North America.   

Compiled by Ann Rea

Sources:

Compton's Online Encyclopedia
Giovanni da Verrazano's report to Francis 1, July 8, 1524
Library of Congress
Maine Insiders Guide
Portuguese Times
Duncan. Roger F.  Coastal Maine, a Maritime History.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.
Morison, Samuel Eliot.  The European Discovery of America.  New York:   Oxford University Press, 1971-1974.

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