Magallan and Elcano

The first circumnavigation of the globe in history (otherwise known as the Magellan Expedition) was undertaken by the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan and completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano aboard the Victoria.

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The historical context of the voyage is linked to the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1453, an event that closed off important trade routes between the Western World and the Orient, including the Silk Road and Mediterranean.

Spain and Portugal subsequently set out in search of alternative maritime trade routes. The Portuguese sought the Spice Islands, otherwise known as the Maluku Islands, scouring the coast of the African continent. As a result of these efforts, the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama arrived in India in 1498.

While the Portuguese were already trading in spices, the Kingdom of Castile continued to advance in America, seeking passage between the Atlantic and the ‘new sea’, the Pacific Ocean, discovered by Núñez de Balboa.

Navigator Ferdinand Magellan proposed an expedition to reach the Spice Islands by setting sail to the west to King Charles I of Spain, who would agree to finance the voyage with the aim of expanding his dominion.

It was not the expedition’s aim to sail around the world. Magellan intended to find a new route to the Spice Islands while defending Spanish interests there, reinforced by the Treaty of Tordesillas.

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On the 10th of August 1519 five ships carrying 239 men aboard cast off from Seville, making their first stop in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and another in Tenerife to stock up on provisions, from where they would set sail for their adventure on the high seas. 

The staples of their diet at sea were biscuits, cake and wine. They also brought with them live animals such as cows and pigs.

The voyage in search of passage to the Pacific involved many dangers given that the territory was previously uncharted.

On setting sail, the fleet suffered various days of dead calm. The crew began to despair, as it was impossible to make progress. Soon afterwards, a sudden spell of bad weather incurred the resulting fear of shipwreck.

The voyage’s chronicler, Pigafetta documented how they bore witness to the weather phenomenon St. Elmo’s fire, an intense light glowing like a torch from the ship’s mast. Struck by terror they begged for mercy, interpreting the phenomenon as a divine intervention.

Nearly four months after their departure they finally caught sight of land on the American continent, arriving on the coasts of present day Río de Janeiro.


The fleet reached the river Río de la Plata, travelling the length of the coastline to the south. They then decided to spend the winter in the bay of San Julián, during which food supplies ran short and they were forced to weather a harsh five-month winter.

Desperation led to a mutiny that Magellan quashed with force. Magellan ordered the arrest and execution of Gaspar de Quesada and Luis de Mendoza, taking the decision to leave Juan de Cartagena and the cleric Pedro Sánchez de la Reina behind as punishment. After the rebellion, the San Antonio abandoned the expedition and returned to Spain.

The Santiago was shipwrecked after springing a leak in the hull but the remaining ships, the Concepción, the Trinidad and the Victoria, managed to find passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, now the Strait of Magellan, on the 28th of November 1520.

The risk of running aground made the voyage increasingly perilous. Yet the remaining ships were saved and finally reached what they would go on to call the Pacific as, by chance, on that day the waters were perfectly calm.

Title on full screen: SAILING THE PACIFIC

During the three-month voyage across the Pacific, the remaining crew was decimated by starvation and scurvy, resorting even to eating rats and leather from the rigging.

The fleet proceeded to reach what is now the Philippines, and in Mactan on the 27th of April 1521 Magellan would meet his end during a clash with the island’s inhabitants.

After many a setback, as the sole survivor of the expedition, the Victoria would sail onwards to the Maluku Islands, the original aim of the voyage. There they loaded the ship’s hold with the much-coveted spices, primarily cloves, to be sold for a high price on their return to Spain.

The remaining crew elected Juan Sebastián Elcano as captain for the return voyage. It was at this crucial moment that Elcano decided to return to Spain, not via the Pacific, but via the Indian Ocean, thus conceiving the first circumnavigation of the globe and proving once and for all that the earth was round.

Fearing being taken prisoner by the Portuguese, they maintained a significant distance from the African coast, enduring starvation and tempestuous storms.

After a final untimely incident with the Portuguese in Cape Verde, the Victoria dropped anchor in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Cádiz on the 6th of September 1522. From there she would be towed upriver to Seville, complete with her precious cargo of spices, amounting to more than enough to cover the cost of the expedition and becoming the first vessel in history to sail around the world.

Juan Sebastián Elcano and his men had crossed the world’s three major oceans, sailing some 70,000 kilometres.

Of the 239 men who set sail from Seville, only 18 returned aboard the Victoria.

Following this grand adventure, Elcano provided the emperor with an eloquent summary of his exploits:

“And I pray that Your Majesty also holds in the highest esteem all that we have discovered on our voyage around the entire world, setting sail to the West and returning from the East”.


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