Standing before this sign, I winced rather predictably as I read ‘discovery’. But simmering beneath my displeasure with this word was a deeper conviction that Sebastián Vizcaíno’s voyage was, indeed, significant, though not in the ways that the sign suggests. Thousands of miles to the east, in Seville, the old centre of the Spanish Empire, I had stumbled upon Vizcaíno’s voyage in the dusty volumes of treasury records for the port of Acapulco, Mexico. Buried in line after line of winding, Baroque script were curious notations – ‘chino’ and ‘japón’ – next to the names of seven sailors that Vizcaíno had recruited for his voyage up the North American coast. To the tune of carriages rumbling through Seville’s cobbled streets and the crinkle of centuries-old pages turning, I read the names again and again:
Seven Asian sailors – entombed by an archive and forgotten by human memory – had sailed with Vizcaíno to what is now Oregon. Where in the chronology of Asian American history could these sailors fit? Flip to the beginning of most books on Asian America, and you will find no content earlier than the 19th century. You will be in the world of the Gold Rush, the transcontinental railroad, indenture, and the San Francisco and Los Angeles Chinatowns.
These seven names transport us to a different world, a different timeline, a different Asian America. These sailors’ presence off the coast of Oregon predated not just the entire Asian American canon but also the founding of the United States and even of the Thirteen Colonies. The histories of the first Asians in the Americas do not take place in the nations born from the fires of British colonialism but, rather, they guide us to a region rarely considered relevant to Asian American history: Latin America.
It is often forgotten that today’s western and southwestern states had once belonged to the Spanish Empire and then to independent Mexico until 1848. During the colonial period, they were part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, ruled from the global hub of Mexico City. New Spanish territory extended not only into Central America and the Caribbean but also across the Pacific Ocean, and included such distant lands as the Mariana Islands, the Philippines and occasionally parts of present-day Indonesia, Taiwan and Cambodia. From 1565 to 1815, Spanish vessels sailed nearly every year between the ports of Cavite in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico to connect this vast expanse. They are known today as the Manila galleons, and it is through these ships that the first Asian populations (both free and enslaved) arrived in the Americas during the 16th century. They landed in Mexico in the thousands, and uncovering the details of their many lives is the quest of my forthcoming book, The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History (2024).