Elcano's big decision

Few stories can be as rich and exciting as that of the expedition of Magellan and Elcano. However, despite the great achievement of the first circumnavigation, the classical historiography of the trip has used to detract in a certain way to Elcano and his family. Although fortunately we read less and less frequently that of "Magellan's first round-the-world tour", it is still common to consider valid arguments lacking the proper basis, according to which the choice of the return path followed by Elcano from the islands Moluccas was something natural, logical, become, the result of the inertia of having traveled half the globe in that sense, or decided without more. Little less than Elcano was simply "the one who completed Magellan's journey" and also the one who did it on the side of the already known world. Elcano is thus distorted and reviled to irrelevance.

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We also sometimes find that this decision is attributed to more or less logical or reasoned reasons, with greater or lesser success, but in some cases lacking a real basis in the sources. In my opinion, this type of reasoning usually has a common denominator by leaving the crew of the Trinidad ship in a bad place, which was under the command of Captain Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, in such a way that when they decided to return to Spain via the Pacific they began a chain of errors destined inevitably to failure, before the option of a natural, logical, turned, and evident return followed by those of nao Victoria. In summary, we have a bad sailor like Espinosa who sought failure - because he was a military man and had no nautical experience, as we will have read repeatedly - and a good sailor who continued his journey forward, as if that were what he had to do. do, without further ado. Can it be seen in another way? There is no doubt that it is, and we are going to deal with that.

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If we carefully analyze what the original sources tell us about this crucial decision that allowed the expedition to become the first to go around the world, we will realize that there is only one that expressly mentions it, and that fortunately results from a meridian clarity and rotundity. Captain Juan Sebastián de Elcano directed it to Carlos I to give him notice of his arrival in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. In that letter, Elcano briefly summarized everything that happened, but emphasized like this:

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Detail of the world map of Guillaume Le Testu, year 1566.

Your High Majesty will know more, what we most appreciate and have is that we have discovered and rounded all the roundness of the world, going from the West and coming from the East.

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Thanks to this appointment we are aware of the enormous importance that for Elcano having completed the first circumnavigation supposed: after having finally managed to pass by sea at the swords of America, reach the Species, and tell that those islands belonged to the Castilian demarcation according to the The distribution of the world made in Tordesillas with the King of Portugal, the most important thing for him of all that trip had been to go around the world.

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Since Elcano placed so much value on it, then it is worth asking ourselves, did those men do anything to achieve this achievement that was not to act logically according to strict criteria of survival? In other words, when deciding on the way back, did you have any other easier alternative, or that entailed less risk, that you could consider shorter or safer for your trip back to Spain from the Moluccas? Because if that were the case, what Elcano and his men achieved would have even more merit, given that they would have deliberately and consciously taken risks in order to go around the world. This is exactly the conclusion we are going to reach, sticking to what the sources about the trip tell us, and this is the merit that is customary to subtract from Elcano and his men.

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Before entering the matter, we must look at a very relevant detail, and that is that the idea of ​​going around the world was assumed by the entire surviving crew in the Moluccas, under the last command of Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa. Although the sources do not state it explicitly, they do so implicitly, since a good number of them tell us that the Victoria and Trinidad ships sailed together from the Moluccas, although a breakdown was discovered in the latter, and it was in that moment when it was determined that it would go to Panama after being repaired, while the nao Victoria would set sail alone following the journey that we all know. Since the return to Spain by way of the Pacific was only assumed by those of Trinidad after the breakdown, it is logical that, before that, the intention was to set sail together in the opposite direction, to go around the world.

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Elcano affirmed after his return that the Moluccan islands were within the Castilian demarcation, according to the division of the world agreed between Castile and Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas. He also wrote it in his famous letter written in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, before having received any hypothetical pressure for the convenience of defending that idea before the Portuguese. This brings us closer to a certainty, and that is that the return route through the Portuguese hemisphere was not chosen because it was considered shorter than the return route through the Pacific.

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In addition to this, if we do the exercise of representing the defeats foreseen by both routes of return in the cartography that they handled, both before leaving and after their return, we will verify that, indeed, the route followed by the Victoria nao is not be shorter than the one devised by those of the Trinity. Both are of a very similar length and, therefore, this factor does not seem to be determining.

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Alternativas_Vuelta_Kunstmann.jpg

Alternatives back to Spain from the Maluco considered by Espinosa and Elcano on the Kunstmann IV planisphere, of which they most likely carried a copy on board.

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Alternativas_Vuelta_Ribero.jpg

The length of the return defeats predicted by Elcano and Espinosa, on the world map of Diego Ribero, a copy of the year 1529, made after the end of the trip at the Casa de Contratación de Indias. Elcano's was not chosen because it was shorter.

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On the other hand, we must look at the winds, which for them were an essential conditioning factor when determining the way forward, and especially those prevailing in the surroundings of the Moluccas. Did they know the wind regime typical of those regions? Elcano's letter gives us the key again:

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Wanting to leave the islands of Maluco on the way back from Spain, […] and after the time when the ships go to Java and Malacca, we determined to die and, with great honor at the service of your High Majesty, for making her aware of said discovery , with a single ship to leave.

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Elcano here is telling us that he knew about the monsoon cycles, which in the environment of present-day Indonesia generates winds from the west in winter, and which alternate in the opposite direction in summer. Since they were in December at the time of deciding the way back, the winds were contrary to sail west. That is why Elcano affirmed that it was no longer time to sail to Java and Malacca.

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The winter and summer cycles of the monsoon around present-day Indonesia. At the time of deciding the routes to follow they were under the winter monsoon, with contrary winds to go west. Despite this, Elcano risked trying to avoid them.

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It should be clarified that Pigafetta heard about this, but did not understand it, leaving us in his famous relationship a phrase that is contrary to what Elcano affirmed, to the monsoon cycles as we know them, and very confusing:

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We could make the trip with Victoria alone, which would soon leave taking advantage of the east winds that were beginning to blow; During this time, the Trinidad, which could take advantage of the westerly winds to go to Darien, would be careened.

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Actually, there were no easterly winds at that time for those from the Victoria ship, but from the west, the same ones that those of Trinidad could take advantage of to go to Panama, if they did not delay too much with the repairs that the ship was going to require. . The Trinidad ship ended up setting sail from Tidore on April 6, 1522, and at that time the winter monsoon was still maintained, as confirmed by the Roteiro of a Genovés Pilot, that with respect to the first days of navigation of the ship Trinidad told us that they found favorable winds:

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And ruling east […] following this course, they sailed for several days, always finding the wind very favorable.

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The monsoon cycle was undoubtedly a determining factor for them, and in this case it was the opposite to choose to sail to Africa, that is, to choose to go around the world. The prevailing wind at the time of sailing the ship Victoria was a factor against making that decision. We find more references to him in the sources, and especially a very interesting one that the testimony of cabin boy Martín de Ayamonte left us to the Portuguese:

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A pilot took them to Timor because it was the monsoon […] and the master and the pilot, who were Greeks, wanted to go to Malacca, and the captain, who was from Biscay, did not want to.

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This appointment confirms again that they knew the monsoons, and that since it was not possible to navigate west, they determined to head south, for which they had the help of a local pilot from the Moluccas, an expert in this complicated navigation.

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If they wanted to go around the world, they had two options, either wait for summer to arrive and thus the wind would turn favorable to head west ―option on which the Greek officers Miguel de Rodas and Francisco Albo were betting―, or set sail immediately to the south, since, although with difficulty, the ships could be propelled with a lateral wind, thereby hoping to reach latitudes where the effect of the monsoon would disappear and the winds would allow them to go to the Cape of Good Hope. This was Elcano's bet.

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Sailing to Java and Malacca, then to India and later along the eastern coast of Africa would have been a great advantage, because it would have been a coastal navigation, close to the coast and therefore much safer. It was the most reasonable given the poor condition of the Vitoria ship, which had waterways that forced the crew to permanently drain because of the joke, that wood parasite that Elcano said that the Victoria ship was such a joke as God wanted , and Martín de Ayamonte who took them to hit the bomb twelve times during the day and twelve times at night .

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On the contrary, this route presented the great danger that it was the usual Portuguese route and, if they were detected, they knew that the rival kingdom was not going to allow a Castilian ship to cross its waters laden with spices. If they crossed paths with the Portuguese they would be captured. The Greek officials preferred to take this risk rather than go down due to the poor condition of the ship in the open sea and, for more safety, they spoke of making an intermediate stop in the Maldives islands, southwest of India, to carry out maintenance work:

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Their intention of them was, according to the saying Martín [from Ayamonte], to go to the islands of Maldiva to correct their nao.

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It was Elcano who refused, imposing his criteria of entering unknown latitudes of the southern Indian Ocean. In view of the ensuing defeat, their intention was to always sail away from the coast, thereby minimizing the risk of being caught. To dare to do so, he had to trust that his ship and its crew would endure, since he did not intend to approach known lands. He was determined to travel half the world without stopovers.

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It is essential that we also ask ourselves why Elcano did not choose to go back where those of the nao Trinidad wanted to. Sources tell us that that route through the Pacific was chosen mainly because of the help they hoped to obtain in Panama from other Castilians. Having discarded the option of returning through the Strait of Magellan, probably considering it more difficult, they found a shortcut when thinking of going to Panama, where they knew that the expedition of Gil González Dávila and Andrés Niño was exploring the Pacific coast. They all knew each other, as both expeditions coincided in Sanlúcar de Barrameda before setting sail - that of Gil González Dávila and Andrés Niño set sail in Sanlúcar only a week before that of Magallanes. Thus, with this help they planned to move the cargo of nails overland from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast, and from there they would return to Spain with total normality in other ships. Antonio de Brito, the Portuguese captain who would end up capturing them months later, told it like this:

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From the Darien they planned to pass the nail on camels to the other band, because they assured me that ships from Castile were armed, and that they would transport it on them.

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The greatest difficulty these men would have to face was to cross the Pacific, where the winds had always been favorable during the outward journey with Magellan, and now it would be logical for them to be contrary. They should have counted on it. However, they preferred to take that risk after finding that their ship was damaged, as is clear from the sources for considering this trip as more conservative in the face of all the risks that those of the Victoria ship would assume. Elcano did not know what winds he would find in the South Indian Ocean, and he would never intend to touch the African coast, so his navigation was considered more uncertain than that of the Trinidad and, no matter how long the Pacific seemed, it was no more. to travel half the world without stopping until reaching Spain.

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As we can see, neither option was easy, but Elcano's approach was to trust the success of his return to the resistance capacity of the ship and its crew. He bet on his trade, on what they did best, in seas as far from shore as possible. The familiar got in the way. He preferred to face the sea alone, rather than the Portuguese. And given that if he was successful he would achieve what for him was the greatest achievement of that trip, he did not do so because his return option was shorter or safer, but because of his desire to complete the first round the world.

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