Magallan and Elcano

It was the greatest maritime adventure of all time, a human epic that began with the Portuguese navigator Francisco de Magallanes and culminated with the Basque from Guetaria, Juan Sebastián Elcano, completing, on the nao Victoria … the first circumnavigation of the Earth in history – Primus circumdedisti me (“you were the first to turn me around”), was the legend that the King granted to Elcano on his coat of arms, along with the spices brought from the East Indies.


Of this great voyage, two testimonies of the 18 who returned have allowed us to know in detail the circumstances in which the great deed took place… that of the Greek Francisco de Albo, expert pilot of the ship Victoria, Magellan’s right-hand man and Elcano’s right-hand man, who wrote the logbook, technically impeccable, recording the latitude at which they were during the entire voyage, as well as the course of the course followed.

Another very important testimony was that of Antonio Pigafetta, Italian explorer and writer, who wrote in first person a detailed account of everything that happened during the three-year expedition. Other documents that illustrate the voyage include those of the sailor Ginés de Mafra, the cabin boy Martín de Ayamonte and the letter that Elcano wrote to Charles I at the end of the voyage.


<In the year 1453 the Turks took Constantinople and closed the way to the Christians and to all the West…with the Great Silk Road and the trade with the East. >

Spain and Portugal then set out in search of an alternative sea route to get there. The Portuguese sought the Spice Islands, i.e. the Moluccas, sailing parallel to the African continent.

In 1498 the Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama reached India and in 1512 the Portuguese reached the Moluccas and traded spices.

Meanwhile, Spain continued to advance in America and sought passage to the East and the new South Sea, discovered by the Spanish explorer and conqueror Núñez de Balboa…the Pacific Ocean,

Ferdinand Magellan proposed the project to his king, Manuel I of Portugal, and when he did not receive the compensation he thought he deserved, he asked him to leave to serve another king. It was the young king of Spain who accepted and organized the armada through the Casa de Contratación de Indias in Seville. It was not the round-the-world voyage that the Portuguese navigator was after, but to find a new route and to demonstrate to whom the Moluccas Islands – located in the Indonesian archipelago – belonged, according to the Treaty of Tordesillas.


On August 10, 1519, the five ships cast off in Seville.
The Trinidad was the captain ship and was accompanied by the San Antonio, the Concepción, the Victoria and the Santiago.

A total of 245 men were enlisted, not only Spaniards but also Portuguese, Italians, English, Greeks, Flemish….

Most of them were expert seafaring professionals with great ambitions. The basis of the seafaring diet was cookie, sponge cake and wine. They also carried live animals, cows and pigs, on their ships.

The expedition costs were estimated at more than eight million maravedies, a real fortune for the time.

It is estimated that the Victoria sailed 70,000 kilometers across the three oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian.


After leaving Seville, in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, they stayed for a month and on September 20, 1519, they set out on the adventure. They stopped in Tenerife and then Magellan ordered them to follow a southerly course, always parallel to the African coast, towards the Gulf of Guinea.

They immediately suffered great calms and days in which they made no progress. In addition to the bad weather and Magellan’s refusal to share his decisions with the captain Juan de Cartagena, who was obliged to do so by order of the king, disagreements began.

Almost four months after their departure, they finally sighted American land, arriving at the coast of the current city of Rio de Janeiro.


The fleet reached the Rio de la Plata and sailed southward along the American coast. Every inlet and inlet to the west was a possible passage to the Pacific Ocean, the first objective to be pursued, so it had to be explored.

They continued sailing until they reached what they called Puerto de San Julián, in southern Argentina.

Magellan decided to spend the winter there, with scarce food and inclement weather.

Two days later the mutiny took place, some officers asked to continue in search of the strait and others to go to the Cape of Good Hope, by the Portuguese way without landing.

Magellan reprimanded them harshly, ordering the arrest and execution of Gaspar de Quesada and Luis de Mendoza and the banishment of Juan de Cartagena and the clergyman Pedro Sanchez de la Reina.

In the Port of Santa Cruz, the Santiago ship wrecked when it ran aground against the coast and the San Antonio abandoned the expedition and returned to Spain with more than 50 sailors.

The crossing of the Strait of Magellan took almost a month and, finally, on November 28, 1520, they landed in the ocean they called the Pacific, since fortunately they did not encounter any storms and the wind was always favorable.


During the three-month voyage across the Pacific, many men died of hunger and scurvy. They came to eat sawdust, rats and the leather of the rigging.

They reached the Philippine Islands and on April 27, 1521 and in the battle of Mactan, fighting against the islanders, Magellan died. After his death and that of the other sailors, they decide to burn the ship Concepción because of the scarce crew that remained.

It is Borneo where Juan Lopez Caravallo, at the time captain, is prosecuted by his companions, who elect Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa, captain of the Nao Trinidad, and Juan Sebastian Elcano, captain of the Nao Victoria, to replace him.

The expedition continues sailing and finally on November 8, 1521 they reach the Spices, the initial objective of the voyage, where they load the coveted spices, especially “the clove”, which they will sell very expensively when they return to Spain.

Just as they were about to leave, the ship Trinidad had a leak, so its captain, Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, decided to stay, repair it and try to return across the Pacific again to Panama, where they hoped to receive help from other Spaniards.

To avoid the risk of being located by the Portuguese, it was Elcano, in command of the Victoria, who continued with the first plan to return across the Indian Ocean, thus conceiving the first round-the-world voyage and demonstrating with facts that the Earth was round.

However, this option entailed the danger of entering areas controlled by the Portuguese, which meant that they would not be able to stop on land and sail halfway around the world without stopovers. For this reason, Elcano decided to sail away from the coast.

On the voyage back to Spain they pass close to Australia, being on the verge of discovering it. They managed to round the Cape of Good Hope, even though the mast and foremast were broken. In the Atlantic they sailed faster, but the harshness of the voyage and the scarcity of food did not cease to claim victims. They decided to land on the island of Cape Verde. There, the Portuguese detained thirteen men and Elcano had to flee, quickly setting sail.

On September 6, 1522, the ship Victoria arrived at Sanlucar de Barrameda, in Cadiz, and was towed up the Guadalquivir River to Seville, where the 18 survivors disembarked barefoot with candles in their hands in procession, fulfilling the promise… It had become the first ship in history to circumnavigate the world.

Elcano and his crew had crossed the three largest oceans on the planet: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Of those 244 men who left Seville, minus the half hundred who deserted and returned to Spain on the nao San Antonio, as well as the 13 arrested in Cape Verde, finally, on the nao Victoria, only 18 men returned to Spain. Of the companions of the Nao Trinidad, only 4 managed to return years later. The valuable cargo of spices covered the costs of the expedition and earned a 4% profit.

Juan Sebastian Elcano wrote to the Emperor Charles I:

“And more Your High Majesty will know, what we should esteem and have is that we have discovered and rounded the whole roundness of the world, going for the West and coming for the East”.
Text elaborated with the collaboration
of Tomás Mazán and Sol de la Quadra-Salcedo.

Voice-over: Bob Steane

Translated with (free version)


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