Magellan got the credit, but this man was first to sail around the world

Juan Sebastián Elcano completed the first known circumnavigation of the globe in September 1522. The Basque navigator led the tattered remains of Magellan's fleet back to Spain after the commander's death in 1521.

By Pablo Emilio Pérez Mallaína
Published 1 Sept 2022, 09:39 BST
Juan Sebastián Elcano is shown in a 1791 engraving in Retratos de los españoles ilustres.
Photograph by Album, Universal Images

Mooring at the southern Spanish port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 6, 1522, the Victoria’s hull was so rotten that it could only stay afloat by continually operating the pumps. Three years before, the ship had set out from port as part of a proud, five-ship flotilla under the command of captain-general Ferdinand Magellan. Since then, of the four other ships, three were lost and one had deserted. Of the 250 men that had formed the flotilla’s original crew, only 18 returned that September day.

The man who had captained these survivors on their long journey home, however, was not Magellan—killed in the Philippines more than a year before—but a Basque seaman named Juan Sebastián Elcano. By steering the frail Victoria across the Indian Ocean and around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope back to Spain, Elcano completed the first known circumnavigation of the world, a total journey of 45,000 miles marked by hunger, scurvy, murder, and mutiny.

J.S. Elcano and his ship Victoria are celebrated on this postage stamp issued by Spain in the late 1970s.
Photograph by Stamps, Alamy

Elcano did not suffer from a lack of fame in his country on his return. Europe’s most powerful man, Charles V, the king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor, duly praised and rewarded the captain who had so heroically completed the voyage. Nevertheless, outside Spain, Elcano’s name has been much less known. His feat is often popularly attributed to Magellan—and many believe eclipsed by Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe nearly 60 years later.

Juan Sebastián Elcano was born in the port of Getaria, in the Basque Country on Spain’s northern Atlantic coast. Details about his early life are hazy; until recently many thought he was born in 1476 but more recent scholarship puts the date as late as 1487. Based on the limited sources on his life, historians know he was one of eight siblings in a family that was wealthy enough for him to have an elementary education.

Young men in Getaria and along the Basque coast had the sea in their blood: Many fished and whaled, reaching as far as the cod-rich waters off Newfoundland. It’s likely that Elcano undertook such work, because he gained enough experience and acquired enough money to buy a 200-ton ship (twice as large as the Victoria).

Information on Elcano’s dealings is scant. Historians can infer that something went awry, because Elcano was forced to sell the ship. Records show that he sold it to Italians, which was against the law. Years later, when Elcano became a national hero, King Charles pardoned him for his past crime. It is thanks to that pardon that historians know anything at all about Elcano’s fleeting early days as a shipowner.

Going around the world

It was probably as a direct result of having lost his ship that Elcano enlisted in 1519 as second-in-command on the Concepción. This ship was one of the five readying for a long and hazardous voyage under the command of the Portuguese-born Magellan. The mission’s objective was not the circumnavigation of the globe, but a daring trade coup against Magellan’s native Portugal. Spain and its neighbour were economic rivals at the time, both laying claims to the Americas and their resources. Portugal controlled the eastern trade routes to the Indian Ocean and the Moluccas, or Spice Islands (today a part of Indonesia). Magellan’s plan was to find Spain a westward route to the Spice Islands.

Photograph by Album, Prisma

The five-ship flotilla set out from Seville on August 10, 1519. Sailing west to South America, Magellan sought a waterway that would connect the Atlantic to the other great ocean sighted by Vasco Núñez de Balboa from Panama six years before.

Frustration soon beset the expedition. Failing, at first, to find a sea passage, Magellan was forced to sail very far south along the continent’s coast. Tensions between the Portuguese Magellan and the Spaniards in the crew led to a mutiny in the Patagonian port of San Julián. Two (and perhaps as many as four) of the other ships’ captains mutinied against Magellan, and so Elcano—as the Concepción’s second officer—took part. Magellan gained the upper hand, executed two of the mutinous captains and marooned another leader of the rebellious crew. He refrained from executing Elcano, and instead stripped him of his post. Elcano was forced to maintain a low profile, but this demotion would later be responsible for saving his life.

Heavy losses

In November 1520, having lost two ships, Magellan and his diminished crew became the first Europeans to enter the Pacific from the Atlantic after sailing around the tip of South America. Following a gruelling crossing of the Pacific, they reached the Philippines, where, in April 1521, Magellan was killed in a skirmish by the people of Mactan. Days later, the king of Cebu, who was considered an ally by the Spanish, invited the surviving captains of the expedition to a meal. They were killed while they ate.

Elcano, thanks to his lowly, post-mutiny status, was not invited to the banquet, which saved his life. After the slaughter, only about a hundred crew were left. The survivors burned the Concepción, leaving them with just two ships, the Trinidad and Victoria.

The two vessels pressed on. In September 1521 Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa was elected as captain-general and captain of the Trinidad, and Elcano as his deputy, in charge of the Victoria. The ships finally reached the Molucca Islands in November.

The fortress of San Pedro on Cebu in the Philippines was first built by the Spanish in the mid-16th century, just decades after several of Elcano’s fellow crew members were massacred at a feast there in 1521.
Photograph by Age Fotostock, Philippe Turpin

In the weeks that followed, Elcano and his commander dedicated themselves to formalising treaties with kings of the nearby islands and preparing their boats for the long journey home. Entitled to 20 percent of the cargo, the sailors had a clear incentive to fill the hold with valuable cloves, selling their capes, shoes, and even their shirts to make room.

While the two ships were being loaded and readied for the long voyage home, the Trinidad sprang a serious leak. It was agreed the two ships would separate. The Victoria would head west toward Africa, while the Trinidad, following repair, would strike east to Panama. The Trinidad struggled, turned back to the Spice Islands, and was eventually destroyed.

Then there was one

On December 21, 1521, the Victoria’s anchor was finally raised. Under Elcano’s command she headed southwest through the Malay Archipelago with 60 men on board, 13 of them indigenous islanders from the Moluccas. By February Elcano had entered the Indian Ocean to embark on one of the greatest nautical feats in history. It was the first time a European had crossed this enormous body of water at its widest expanse.

Spices—especially cloves, the aromatic buds of a myrtle tree native to the Moluccas, Syzygium aromaticum—drove Spain and Portugal to fight over the so-called Spice Islands. In 1521 a Spanish quintal (100 pounds) of cloves cost a little over half a ducat in the Moluccas. In Seville the same quintal was worth a whopping 42 ducats. An 1843 illustration shows the plant that produces cloves.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

For months, without making landfall, the crew was forced to ride out furious gales, always under threat of Portuguese capture. There were many deaths. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the crew nearly starved to death, forcing Elcano to stop in the Cape Verde Islands. Several crew members were taken hostage by Portuguese forces there. Fearing the loss of his precious spice-laden cargo, Elcano rapidly put out to sea. The bedraggled and much-reduced crew finally spotted the coast of southern Spain in fall 1522.

Granted an audience with the Spanish king, Elcano was ennobled and presented with a shield on which a globe bore the Latin legend “Primus circumdedisti me—You were the first to encircle me.” Despite this achievement, Elcano left historians very few documents of his own: the account of the voyage in a letter written to King Charles on his return, and the answers he gave to a questionnaire presented to him by an imperial official. The only substantial chronicle of the great voyage was written by Antonio Pigafetta, one of the 18 original crew members who returned with Elcano. Pigafetta’s account, however, contains no reference to Elcano at all.

The father of two illegitimate children who both died young, Elcano never married, and the born sailor would not opt to stay long ashore. In 1525 he took part in another expedition to the Moluccas; and a year later, without having reached the Spice Islands again, Elcano died of scurvy, the disease that would carry off so many in that age of longer voyages. In a simple ceremony, with his shroud weighed down by cannonballs, his body was buried at sea in the Pacific.


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