The San Diego was formerly known as San Antonio, a trading ship built in Cebu under the supervision of European boat-builders. It was docked at the port of Cavite to undergo reconditioning and repair but at the end of October 1600, Don Antonio de Morga, Vice-Governor General of the Philippines, ordered it converted into a warship and renamed it San Diego.
People in Manila knew that the Dutch were planning to invade the Philippine waters at that time. In response to it, Manila immediately set about preparing its defense. Simultaneously, it took measures to fortify the Capital and Cavite, its port and arsenal, and armed several ships to pursue the enemy.
Morga commanded the operation. The Spanish fleet set sail on December 12, 1600. The fleet was composed of two ships and supported by smaller native boats.
On December 13, the battle plan was prepared and the battle between the San Diego under the command of Antonio de Morga and the Mauritius under the command of Olivier van Noort began at dawn on December 14, 1600 in a strong wind and heavy seas about 50 kilometers southwest of Manila near Fortune Island, Nasugbu, Batangas. All odds were in favor of the Spanish. The San Diego was four times larger than the Mauritius. It had a crew of 450 rested men and massive fire power with 14 cannons taken from the fortress in Manila.
Since San Diego couldn’t handle the extra weight of her cannons, which led to a permanent list and put the cannon portholes below sea level, she was sunk without firing a single shot in response. The Dutch were later reported firing upon and hurling lances at the survivors attempting to climb aboard the Mauritius.
The San Diego sprung a leak beneath the waterline either from the first cannonball fired by the Mauritius or from the impact of ramming the Dutch at full speed. Because of inexperience, Morga failed to issue orders to save the San Diego.
Nearly 400 years later in 1991, Franck Goddio and his team, in coordination with the National Museum and financially supported by Foundation Elf, conducted underwater explorations to find the San Diego. They discovered the wreck about 50 meters deep near Fortune Island, outside of Manila Bay. It was undisturbed and formed a sand-covered hill of 25 meters long, 8 meters wide and 3 meters high. A cannon rising out of the sand with the inscription “Philip II” made the identification easier.
At enormous expense and with modern underwater technology and a team of 50, the San Diego was recovered. From the start, scientists from the National Museum of the Philippines and the Musée national des arts asiatiques in Paris, inventoried all the artifacts and took care to ensure the best possible conservation condition.
During the entire period of the project, more than 34,000 artifacts and ecofacts were recovered from the shipwreck, including more than five hundred blue-and-white Chinese ceramics in the form of plates, dishes, bottles, kendis, and boxes which may be ascribed to the Wan Li Period of the Ming Dynasty; more than seven hundred and fifty Chinese, Thai, Burmese, and Spanish or Mexican stoneware jars; over seventy Philippine-made earthenware potteries influenced by European stylistic forms and types; parts of Japanese samurai swords; fourteen bronze cannons of different types and sizes; parts of European muskets; stone and lead cannonballs; metal navigational instruments and implements; silver coins; two iron anchors; animal bones and teeth (pig and chicken); and seed and shell remains (prunes, chestnuts, and coconut). An official seal belonging to Morga was also among the recoveries. Worthy of note among the metal finds are a navigational compass and a maritime astrolabe. Also retrieved from the site is a block of hardened resin that was noted in historical accounts to have been used for caulking and for making fire in stoves. A majority of the ceramic wares recovered were intact and many pieces are restorable.
All artifacts recovered from the wreck site were desalinated. Concretions were removed mechanically and the remaining calcareous materials were subjected to chemical cleaning. The objects were chemically stabilized after all the organic and inorganic impurities had been removed. This is done to prevent further corrosion and damage.
To date, it remains the country’s most important submarine archaeological findings representing a time capsule of Asia, Europe and the Americas. According to the National Museum of the Philippines, the wreckage contained some of the world’s best preserved astrolabes.
The San Diego exhibition has been on tour around the globe before it started to permanently be displayed at the National Museum of Anthropology in Manila. There is also a display at the Naval Museum in Madrid.
The artifacts were exhibited in France in 1995 and Germany in 1996, returning to Manila for the celebration of the centennial of Philippine independence in 1998. Today, the San Diego collection remains the most extensive collection in the National Museum, occupying a large portion of the building’s first floor and the whole second floor. It is Nasugbu’s greatest contribution to the archaeological world, discovered by a group of scientists in 1991 with the cooperation of the governments of France, the United States and the Philippines.