Magellan and Elcano – The First Circumnavigation of the World

The First Circumnavigation of the World Happened by Accident, Not DesignThe First Circumnavigation of the World Happened by Accident, Not Design

Tabula Magellanica qua Tierra del Fuego
. Amsterdam: Schenk and Valk, [1709?]. Hand-colored engraving. Geography and Map Division, Title Collection, Chile-Magellan Strait.

In 2022 Spain went all out to celebrate the quincentennial of the arrival of the so-called ‘Spice Route Armada’ which reached Spain on September 6th, 1522, after completing the first recorded circumnavigation of the world. What many people don’t realize is that the brains of the expedition, Ferdinand Magellan , never actually meant to sail around the world. He was actually looking for a trade route to reach the lucrative Maluku Islands of Indonesia, known as the Spice Islands.

The Portuguese explorer was sailing under the Spanish flag, due to a falling out with King Manuel of Portugal, while the Treaty of Tordesillas had effectively carved up the world between the Spanish, who controlled trade routes to the west, and the Portuguese, given control of trade routes to the east.

16th-century engraving by Joannes Stradanus depicting Magellan surrounded by mythological characters and fantastic animals. It represents the discovery of the Magellan Strait and European views of the still-mysterious Americas. (Public domain)

16th-century engraving by Joannes Stradanus depicting Magellan surrounded by mythological characters and fantastic animals. It represents the discovery of the Magellan Strait and European views of the still-mysterious Americas.

This was an era when spices were hugely important commodities. Pepper, nutmeg, ginger and cloves were used in food preparation and medicine, while some spices were worth more than their weight in gold. Attaining cloves and nutmeg, native to the Maluku Islands, was one of the main driving forces behind Magellan’s expedition and he decided to lead his fleet west around the Americas to reach the Spice Islands without encroaching on Portuguese waters.

Recreation of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation crossing the Strait of Magellan. (grechsantos / Adobe Stock)

Recreation of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation crossing the Strait of Magellan.

Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in 1519, crossed the Strait of Magellan in November 1520 and reached Guam in March 1521. While the original fleet was made up of five ships and a roughly 270-strong crew, the only ship to make it back to Spain was the Nao Victoria, with just 18 people on board led by Juan Sebastián Elcano, who took over after Magellan met his untimely demise.

The harrowing voyage had discovered a new route to the Spice Islands and they arrived laden with a valuable cargo of spices. The historian Ramón María Serrera, who took part in the quincentennial celebrations, explained in El País that the Magellan expedition had accidentally revealed “the full spherical dimension of our planet” even though “the circumnavigation was only made possible because they didn’t know how to return the way the had come.”

Actors recreating the arrival of the 18 survivors of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation of the globe. (Courtesy of Fundación Nao Victoria)

Actors recreating the arrival of the 18 survivors of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation of the globe.

Culminating several events which began in 2019, a year which marked 500 years since the expedition first set sail, the celebrations in September 2022 kicked off in Sanlúcar de Barrameda with a huge naval parade. Several ships then headed up the Guadalquivir River to Seville.

On reaching the docks, actors recreated the arrival of the surviving sailors, who then processed through the city to give thanks to the Virgin de la Victoria. The celebrations included a performance of Esfera Mundi by the Spanish theatre group La Fura dels Baus, along with family events, concerts, guided tours, and informative talks presided over by King Felipe VI of Spain.

Replica of the Nao Victoria arriving in Seville. (Courtesy of Fundación Nao Victoria)

Replica of the Nao Victoria arriving in Seville.

Moored at the Muelle de las Delicias, a replica of the Nao Victoria has become a permanent tourist attraction, alongside an interpretation center – Espacio Primera Vuelta al Mundo . The Nao Victoria Foundation is responsible for the construction of various ship replicas, including another fully seaworthy replica of the famed ship built in 1991 for the Seville Expo ’92 which later completed a world tour and circumnavigated the globe between 2004 and 2006. This first replica was present for the celebrations before departing once again to continue its journey.

The travel after Magellan’s death

After Magellan’s death, the Portuguese Duarte Barbosa, a relative of Magellan, was appointed captain general, but he was also killed in Cebu together with Captain João Serrão, of the Trinidad, in a dinner-trap organized by the Hindu leader of the island, the rajah called Humabon. In that ambush on May 1 and in Mactan, several sailors lost their lives, about 35 people.[ In this situation, on May 2, 1521, it was decided to burn the ship Concepción because there were not enough sailors, some 116 or 117, to take charge of the 3. Thus, the expedition was reduced from five to two vessels.

They only had two vessels to return to Seville: Victoria and Trinidad. However, Elcano was not immediately appointed captain. First another Portuguese, Juan Lopez de Carvalho, was installed in May 1521. In disagreement with Carvalho’s manner of command, the sailors at the stern dismissed Carvalho and put Elcano as captain of the ship on September 17, 1521.

After arriving in the Moluccas and loading the clove, once in South Asia Captain Elcano changes his original plan. He will propose to go forward, to continue westward, to return to Europe through southern Africa, without turning back or passing through southern America. And this change of plans will be the culmination of the first round-the-world voyage.

From Tidore to Cape Verde

They finally reached the Molucca Islands, specifically the island of Tidore, in present-day Indonesia. There they found the precious spice they were looking for, the clove. They made a deal with the king or rajah, who they called Almansur of Tidore Island, who brought them tons of cloves. The Victoria, for example, brought 27 tons of cloves to Seville. As there were not so many cloves on Tidore Island, they had them brought from the neighboring islands as well.

In the meantime, the Trinidad broke down. As they heard that the Portuguese were approaching, because of the danger of waiting, they decided to return alone on the Victoria, with Elcano as captain. However, they had the exact order to return by the way they had gone, an order they did not comply with. They took the westward course with the idea of sailing around the world. Elcano proposed to sail around the world because, as he indicated, “They were going to do what could be narrated”. Some say that he did it precisely for that reason, because Elcano had that historical conscience, as is clear in the letter he wrote to the newly arrived King:

Your Majesty will know that we should have the highest esteem for having discovered and encircled the roundness of the world, for we have gone to the West and returned by the East.

Elcano allowed the sailors to choose their ship. After all, they were to circumnavigate the waters belonging to Portugal. 47 sailors chose to return with Elcano aboard the Victoria, and 13 members decided to stay in the Moluccas. At that time there were twelve Basques left in the expedition, of whom eight decided to return with Elcano, the other three remaining on board the Trinidad. The ship Victoria left Tidore Island on December 21, 1521, bound for Seville. Immediately a strong storm hit them and ruined the ship. On the nearby island of Mallua (today called Pulau Wetar) they had to stay 15 days for repairs. From Tidore they sailed to the island of Timor, and after spending a few days there, they set sail on February 7, 1522. From that day until July 9, when they reached Cape Verde, they would not set foot on land again.

The journey from Timor to Seville was 27,000 kilometers long, and they planned to sail without making a stopover. They will not succeed, of course, because after over 20,000 kilometers, the sailors will have to decide to stay in Cape Verde, by vote, because the situation was impossible. In order not to meet the Portuguese on the way, they crossed it to the southern hemisphere, far south, avoiding India. Moreover, by going so far south, they also managed to avoid the opposing monsoon winds that at that time of the year came from Africa.

They sailed very close to Australia, about 500 km away. If instead of sailing southwest they had sailed south in a straight line, they would have reached Australia in two or three days of sailing. As the days went by, the food also began to run out. When they had only rice cooked in seawater to eat, scurvy began to make the sailors seriously ill. Under these circumstances, the idea of making landfall in Mozambique spread on the ship. It was dangerous to dock, however, because the armies of Portugal could capture them. Elcano asked all the sailors and, surprisingly, it was decided by vote to go ahead, without staying in Mozambique.

Crossing the southern tip of Africa, the perilous Cape of Good Hope, was very difficult for them. The Portuguese called it ‘the cape of storms’. At first they headed south, to take advantage of the wind, but the ship could not move forward because they had been hit by extreme bad weather (the usual in those parts). For nine weeks they stayed there, frozen to death, with their sails lowered. 

At last Elcano made the sailors a very dangerous proposition: to pass the cape close to the coast. One danger was that the storms would push the proud. To find the Portuguese on the other. But they did so, and at last managed to turn the cape and head northward past Africa.

Landing in Cape Verde

They could not make it directly to Seville because the situation on board was already absolutely deplorable. They needed to stop somewhere. In desperation, and in search of food, they first tried to call at the African coast (off Guinea Bissau and Senegal), but could not find a suitable place to dock. Desperate, they decided to call at Cape Verde, voting among all the sailors. It was the last part of the voyage, and although the Portuguese were in charge in Cape Verde, they had not made landfall for months, with two or three deaths a week. Because of the mollusk called Teredo navalis was eating the wood of the ship, water was getting in through the holes in their vessels, and as they had nothing to eat, and there were fewer and fewer of them, they did not have the strength to pump the water out of the ship. Determined to need food and help, they decided to ask for it in Cape Verde.

To make matters worse, they had nothing with which to make the exchange, for they had nothing but cloves. But the exhibition of the clove would reveal the origin of the expedition (i.e., that the ship was not returning from America, but from Asia) and the Portuguese would come out against them. Somehow they were able to pay for the first two cargoes in search of food, but when paying for the third they used cloves. They then had to flee, followed by the Portuguese. They were going to leave 13 sailors, prisoners of the Portuguese, in Cape Verde.


They didn’t make the passage from Cape Verde to Seville in a straight line because the wind was pulling them down. They turned around by ‘Volta do mar largo‘, taking a wide course to the west, to go up almost as far as Galicia and from there down to enter Seville. They returned to Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 6, 1522, and two days later, they entered Seville on September 8, after almost three years of crossing. Of the 234 (or 247) sailors who set sail, only 18 arrived.

As soon as the ship Victoria arrived in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Elcano set down on writing a 700-word letter addressed to Charles V, where he never mentions himself. He emphasized on it that they had achieved their goal to carry back the spices, “brought peace” to these islands, and obtained the friendship of their kings and lords, also bringing along their signatures. He went on to highlight the extreme hardships undergone during the expedition. Elcano did not forget the members of the crew captured in Cabo Verde by the Portuguese, begging the emperor to initiate all necessary actions leading to their release. He ends the letter with commentary about their discoveries, the roundness of the world, setting sail to the west and coming back from the east.

Adapted from:

Elcano’s letter
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