looking back

‘Looking Back’: Turtle Sundial

By Kinen Carvala

Before the Panama Canal, who took the long way around South America to sail along the California coast looking for a shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans?

Fortún Ximénez de Bertandoña (also known as “Fortuno Jiminiez”) was the pilot, not the captain, on the ship Concepción, one of various ships dispatched by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés as part of his country’s undertaking “to discover lands and islands along the Pacific coast,” as described by history professor Robert Ryal Miller. 

At the end of October 1533, the Concepción and another flagship left the port of Acapulco on Mexico’s southern shore with 44 men combined, sailing out into the Pacific. The Concepción captain commanded both ships initially, but the other flagship soon became separated from Concepción. Ximénez and his brother organized a successful mutiny on Concepción against the captain. 

Under Ximénez, the Concepción encountered what would be later called La Paz in southern Baja California, though Ximénez thought he discovered an island. Ximénez led about 20 men to scout the land, leaving a few men on the Concepción. Only one scout returned to the ship, reporting that Ximénez and the others were killed by natives.

The Concepción survivors sailed back to report their experiences to Spanish officials, including that the natives had pearls. In 1535, news of pearls motivated Cortés to colonize Baja California. He obtained 40 burned pearls from the natives; the natives had heated the oysters to extract the pearls. Because Baja California natives did not farm or have ongoing agricultural surplus the Spanish could seize, the Spanish abandoned this first attempt to colonize Baja California in 1536.

Later, in 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo used the ships of recently deceased conquistador Pedro de Alvarado for a “casual, unprepared reconnaissance,” as W. Michael Mathes put it. Galleon ships were transporting goods in parts of the Spanish Empire, including Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico. However, Cabrillo sailed up the California coast looking for rich native cities or a shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, finding neither. (Cabrillo did not see the Golden Gate Strait; more than 200 years would pass before the first Europeans stumbled upon the Golden Gate Strait and San Francisco Bay in 1775.) Cabrillo’s casual voyage did not create detailed records of the California coast; his northward voyage may have reached Fort Ross or Drakes Bay.

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake reached what would later be called “Drakes Bay” (near Point Reyes) and claimed it as “Nova Albion” for Queen Elizabeth I of England as part of a voyage around the world. England did not follow up to enforce this claim of Nova Albion as England and Spain fought intermittent wars over the following several decades.

Visitors from Fairfield, Katrina Kossajda (left) and Drew Hill, admire the turtle sundial in front of the de Young Museum. Recent transplants to California, Kossajda is from Michigan and Hill is from Florida. Photos by Michael Durand.

Centuries later, the Panama Canal was built as a shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The canal opened in 1914, and San Francisco hosted the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition as part of the canal celebrations. The California Society of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America decided to create a monument to honor early explorers of the California coast with the inscription carved on a five-foot-tall stone column:

The National Society of the Colonial Dames in Californiato the Golden Gate Park October 12, 1907

To honor the first three navigators to the California coast

Fortuno Ximenes 1534 

Juan De Cabrillo 1542

Sir Francis Drake 1579

Atop the column is a bronze turtle representing the slowness of the passage of time. Atop of the turtle’s back is a vertical bronze hemisphere, with a map of the Americas on the curved side. The flat side of the hemisphere has inscribed portraits of the three explorers above a sundial with the Latin inscription “horam sol nolente nego,” translated by the Colonial Dames as “if the sun is unwilling I don’t tell the time.” 

After the president of the Dames, Mrs. Selden S. Wright, presented the dial to the City, the vice president of the Dames, Mrs. C. Elwood Brown, said: “In the land of sunshine, fruit and flowers, what is so appropriate as a clock of the sun?” 

The monument was draped with American and Spanish flags until the Oct. 12, 1907, unveiling, which concluded with “Portuguese, Spanish, British and American national hymns” performed by the Presidio’s garrison band, according to the San Francisco Call newspaper. (Cabrillo’s nationality has been variously claimed as Portuguese or Spanish.)

The monument cost $1,500, according to The Monumental News in 1908, and was designed by Melvin Earl Cummings (1876-1930), who also sculpted other Golden Gate Park monuments, including statues dedicated to Robert Burns, John McLaren and the Doughboy soldiers.

The Monumental News mentions a carved garland at the top of the column and four stone slabs at the base below the column that are no longer present.

In 1995, the Dames funded a restoration of the sundial, which was also put in storage while the de Young Museum temporarily closed for renovations from 2000 to 2005. A 2007 centennial ceremony for the sundial included British, Spanish and Portuguese consuls general, according to the Dames website.

The sun’s shadow is cast on the sundial face and shows the time, based on how the sun moves. But sundials and our clocks don’t exactly agree on what time they display. Pacific Standard Time isn’t based on solar time in San Francisco but is instead based on the meridian at 120 degrees west, which forms the north-south California-Nevada border between Oregon and Lake Tahoe. Solar noon at the meridian happens almost 10 minutes before solar noon in San Francisco.

Other factors can cause solar time to run several minutes ahead of or several minutes behind clock time depending on the time of year because of changes in how the sun moves across the sky, according to the Royal Museums Greenwich.

Above: A side view of the sundial shows a turtle with the weight of the world on its back. The turtle symbolizes the slowness of the passage of time. The perspective in this photo is looking east-southeast showing the SkyStar Observation Wheel located at the east end of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. Below: A photo of the sun’s shadow indicating the time of a little past 3 p.m. The photo was taken at 3:17 p.m. on Sept. 23, 2022.

The Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted 23.4 degrees towards the sun on the summer solstice in late June, but this gradually changes as the Earth orbits around the Sun so that by the winter solstice in late December, the northern hemisphere is instead tilted 23.4 degrees away from the sun. The Earth’s distance from the Sun also changes in our elliptical orbit; the Earth is about 3.4% closer to the sun around Jan. 3 than around July 4.

The sundial monument is in the Golden Gate Park Music Concourse between Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and the de Young Museum. The sundial is roughly 80 feet south of the east corner of the de Young Museum, the corner closest to the Pool of Enchantment.

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