The first trip around the world
...and the course that this ship completed was the major and most advance thing since God created the first human being.
Antonio de Herrera, Historia General de los Hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Océano. 1601.
Magellan and Elcano’s expedition was the first to “traverse and discover the roundness of the world”, according to the words of Elcano himself. It happened between 1519 and 1522, when the navigation tools were still incredibly rudimentary, and life on those primitive ships was deprived of any comfort or safety. It was also a trip to the unknown, full of dangers, and where being rescued was not an option.
Por ello, antes de entrar a analizar las claves de este viaje, debemos siempre tener presente que esta hazaña solo fue posible gracias a unos hombres muy especiales, de un arrojo excepcional, con un conocimiento del mar extraordinario, un alto sentido del deber y del honor que les hizo continuar hacia adelante sin abandonar, y de una capacidad de sacrificio que les permitió resistir un modo de vida extremo, casi terrorífico, durante los tres años que duró la expedición. No solo eso, sino que durante el viaje de retorno, la ilusión por poder contarlo, por saberse entrar en la Historia de la Humanidad, y por poder llevar una vida holgada en adelante, tuvo que ser el alimento de todos ellos, más que el arroz hervido con agua de mar que los supervivientes tenían entonces por única comida.
Sin embargo, dar la vuelta al mundo no formaba parte del plan inicial. Vamos a explicar los objetivos fundamentales que el rey Carlos I había encomendado a Magallanes, Capitán General de esta armada. Eran los siguientes:
Continuar la exploración de la costa sudamericana en busca de un paso por mar hacia el Oeste que permitiera avanzar hacia las verdaderas Indias orientales. Este mar al Oeste de América lo había descubierto Vasco Núñez de Balboa tan solo 6 años antes, atravesando por tierra Panamá. Por entonces, la costa atlántica sudamericana ya había sido explorada hasta el Río de la Plata, sin haber encontrado ningún paso al Oeste.
Una vez se descubriera el paso al Oeste, la expedición se debería dirigir a las islas de la Especiería, o Islas Molucas (también llamadas simplemente Maluco o Moluco), en las que se producían las muy cotizadas especias. Al hacerlo navegando siempre hacia el Oeste, se evitaría incumplir el Tratado de Tordesillas, firmado entre España y Portugal tras el descubrimiento de América, que establecía una línea de demarcación en el Atlántico —a 370 leguas al Oeste de Cabo Verde— por el que ambos reinos se repartían el mundo por descubrir: Portugal al Este y España al Oeste de dicha línea.
Instruction to Magellan.
Planisferio de Cantino, de 1502. La línea de demarcación del Tratado de Tordesillas es situada a mitad de camino entre el Cabo San Roque, punto extremo nordeste de actual Brasil, y el estuario del río Amazonas. El mapamundi muestra los descubrimientos españoles y portugueses del siglo XV.
Little was known about the Moluccas but that they were situated on the Equator line, east from India, and that they produced pepper, cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg, etc.- namely the spices that, in the Middle Ages, reached astronomical prices in Europe. The commerce of these spices was traditionally done by the Arabs, who brought them from their origin through the Middle East, and then brought them through the Mediterranean through Venetian merchants, which was now being blocked by the emergent Turkish Empire. The spices were used to cover the taste of the food that was not fresh.
Another important factor that influenced Spain’s interest in going there was that the Portuguese were already arriving to the Moluccas. They had an advantage over the Spanish of almost a century in the trips to the Indies. A reason for it was that Portugal had reconquered their territories before Spain did. They had focused on exploring the African coasts, looking for a strait that would allow them to navigate to the Indies and start a new commercial route. Their strategy was to establish different bases along the route that could be used as harbours that could be used for the logistics of the expedition. In 1498, Vasco de Gama had managed to reach Calicut (also known as Kozhikode), in India.
Clavo, la cotizada especia de la que la nao Victoria trajo 27 toneladas.
The diameter of the World was believed to be smaller (although not as much as we have read in Magellan’s Earth), reason why the Moluccas, which were so far away, could have already been on the other side of the Spanish demarcation. They had to try to reach them, and make sure the islands were inside the Spanish side of the demarcation, and then take the control over the lucrative spices commerce.
Fernando de Magallanes
Fernando o Hernando de Magallanes era portugués, nacido en Oporto, y desconocemos su edad ya que ninguna fuente la menciona. Había participado en la conquista de Malaca (Malasia), y mantenido estrecha amistad con Francisco Serrano, un portugués compañero suyo en Malaca —posiblemente su primo— y que había sido destacado a las Molucas.
Por él, tenía referencias de estas islas, y sabía que se encontraban a la altura del ecuador y tan alejadas hacia oriente que sobrepasaban en antimeridiano portugués. Puesto que sus servicios a la corona portuguesa no fueron valorados como él entendía que merecía, decidió pasar a España y ofrecer su idea a Carlos I, apoyado por un reputado cosmógrafo portugués, Rui Falero. Por los textos que tenemos, Magallanes era un hombre de fuerte carácter, espartano, autoritario, ferviente creyente, valiente hombre de armas y, sin duda, intrépido navegante.
Los españoles que formaron parte de la expedición, en general no parece que entendieran bien la decisión del Emperador de nombrar capitán general de la escuadra a un portugués. Solo por este motivo Magallanes despertó recelos en ellos casi desde el primer momento. Magallanes tampoco parece que pudiera o supiera gestionar esto, como después veremos, y por contra acrecentó los temores de los españoles, que creían que terminaría traicionando a su rey con algunas de sus decisiones. Algo que nunca ocurrió.
Murió luchando valientemente contra los isleños de la isla de Mactán (Filipinas).
Route followed by Francisco Serrano to Moluccas in 1512, from where he wrote to Magellan.
Juan Sebastián de Elcano
Juan Sebastián del Cano, or Delcano, or Elcano, as he would be called centuries later- there is still some controversy about his name- was natural of Guetaria, Guipuzcoa (Basque Country). He was “32 years old, more or less” when he started the expedition.
He kept a low profile on the first months as grand master of the Concepcion ship. It would be after leaving from Brunei when he would take control of the Victoria ship until they came back, with the added difficulty of having to avoid the routes and coasts of the Portuguese in the Indian and the African coasts, an achievement that named him, up to this day, one of the best navigators of all times.
Elcano first obtained great maritime experience in fishing and in merchant boats, and he became a ship operator. However, he had to sell his ship to some Savoyards in order to pay his men, an act that was at the time prohibited by the Crown. Some authors believe he enrolled in Magellan’s expedition partly to be redeemed for his fault, although there is no record of it. What is known is that, at his return, Emperor Charles V expressed his forgiveness for Elcano’s actions.
After circumnavigating the world, he obtained fame and honours, and he was compensated by the Emperor with a life annuity of 500 golden ducats per year, and a coat of arms with the inscription Primus Circumdedisti Me, “the first to circumnavigate me”.
He died in the Pacific Ocean in 1526 by intoxication, caused by the ingestion of a large fish, possibly a barracuda, that had “teeth like a dog” (Andrés de Urdaneta), and “all the men that had eaten with him also died in the course of 40 days” (Juan de Mazuecos). By then, Elcano was in charge of the following expedition to the Moluccas, known as the Loaysa expedition.
Map of the route followed
Access the "Map versions" section to obtain different versions of visualization
The route followed and where they stopped
1. Seville- Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Departure on August 10, 1519- Arrival on different dates depending on the ship
Five ships, named Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepcion, Victoria and Santiago, left on separate days from different points of the Guadalquivir River. They reunited in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where they stayed until September 20, equipping the ships, according to Pigafetta. It is very possible that the delay was a strategy of Magellan to avoid and mislead the Portuguese, as he had heard that they were waiting for his expedition to part to capture them. It is also possible that some important person still had not embarked the ship- Juan de Cartagena, supervisor of the King, was one of the options- but the reality is that the causes for the delay are still unknown.
Fragment of La Torre del Oro, by David Roberts. 1833. Prado Museum.
2- Sanlúcar de Barrameda - Tenerife
Departure on September 20, 1519- Arrival September 26, 1519
244 men -sailors, officers, soldiers, specialist of the most diverse professions, cabin boys, pages and servants- set sail from Sanlucar de Barrameda. They reached Tenerife in 6 days, as was usual in those days, and stayed there for three and a half days. Apparently they load tar, that was used to caulk the ship. As Magellan wished, 4 men joined the crew in Tenerife, while one of the members stayed there. The total crew of the armada was, according to our own calculations, of 247 men
Sanlúcar de Barrameda in 1567, by Anton Van den Wyngaerde.
3. Tenerife- Sepetiba Bay (between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo)
Departure on September 30, 1519- Arrival on December 13, 1519. 75-day journey.
Contrary to what one would have expected, Magellan decided not to head to America once he left the Canaries, as all Spanish ships did to take advantage of the trade winds, but to go south through the Portuguese route. This action not only unsettled the Spanish men, but it made them suspicious of Magellan. But in fact, they never had contact with the Portuguese, and finally, once they had seen Sierra Leone, alongside Guinea, Magellan went west towards America.
Francisco Albo started writing in his Derrotero on November 29, 1519, when they were close to Cape San Agustin (Cape Branco), the most oriental cape in Brazil.
They decided to continue without setting foot in dry land until after they had passed Cape Frio, in the calm Bay of Sepetiba, where they stayed for 14 days. Although all the chronicles about the expedition call this place Rio de Enero (January), or Janeiro in Portuguese, the Derrotero makes us think that they actually were in the following bay, the Bay of Sepetiba, which was on the same latitude.
The five ships of the armada.
Magellan wrote a Memorial to the King describing the location of the Moluccas, in which he provided geographical data to justify that those islands were in the Spanish demarcation. Following Magellan’s calculations, we can find out the position of the demarcation meridian of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Choosing to stop in that point of the Brazilian coast shows that Magellan went west far enough to overpass the demarcation meridian, avoiding any potential problems.
In the Declaration of Deceased during the Trip, we find that, on December 20, the grand master of the Victoria was sentenced to death for sodomy. According to Elcano’s Declarations to the Leguizamo Mayor upon his return to Spain, this prompted a strong argument between Juan de Cartagena, who had been named by Charles V as co-captain with Magellan, and Magellan himself. The conflict ended with the former being arrested.
In this harbour, Juan Lopes Carvalhos’ mestizo son, born from a relationship Juan had in a previous journey, joined the expedition.
People from Brazil. Atlas Miller.
The Atlantic Route from Seville and Sanlúcar, with a layover in Tenerife, to the Sepetiba Bay (Brazil). Francisco Albo’s Derrotero started to provide daily data once he knew he was close to the coast of what is now called Brazil. The route until then has been estimated from the Relation of Pigafetta and the chronicles of Antonio de Herrera.
4. Sepetiba Bay- Rio de la Plata
Departure on December 27, 1519- Arrival on January 11, 1520. 15-day journey.
The trip continued through the Southern coast, until the Rio de la Plata. Only 3 years before, Juan Díaz de Solís had arrived with an expedition that had the same mission- finding a way to the other side of America- but the indigenous people murdered, dismembered, roasted an ate Solís and other members of his crew, and only some made it back to Spain. They were hoping to have found the crossing, and so they thoroughly explored the Rio de la Plata and the Uruguay River for a total of 22 days.
“One day they found water that was so white that they all wanted to experience what it was, and once they tried it, they realised it was fresh water, what caused admiration and some fear, as no land was in sight”. In the Rio de la Plata, Relación of Ginés de Mafra.
5. Rio de la Plata- Port St. Julian
Departure on February 2, 1520- Arrival on March 30, 1520. 57-days journey.
After their disappointment in the Rio de la Plata, they continued south along the coast. From that point, the territory was unexplored. No one had ever arrived to those shores, so every bay had to be explored. The climate was getting colder. They found a place where they could spend the winter and called it Port St. Julian.
Magellan decided to stay in Port St. Julian for 148 days, a very long period, a decision that many crew members did not understand. Many of the officers tried to rise up against him. Actually, the majority of the Spanish officers participated in a complot, with the only exception of Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, who at the time was the master at arms. What is sometimes overlooked is that some Portuguese were also involved. Magellan, however, discovers the complot and, helped by Espinosa, retaliates. On April 7 he orders the severance of the head and the dismemberment of Gaspar de Quesada, captain of the Concepción, and sends Juan de Cartagena, alongside with a priest, Pero Sánchez Reina, to exile in a small island. He had no other choice but to forgive the rest of the men that had revolted against him, as he needed them to run the ships.
Original manuscript with complaints against Magellan.
During this period there was another important event: the ship Santiago, captained by Juan Serrano, a Portuguese man, possibly a cousin of Magellan, had been sent to explore south while the rest stayed at Port St. Julian. Apparently, it ran aground due to the heavy tides. The ship was lost, but they managed to save most of the utensils and supplies, although they lost one slave. Two men had to walk from Puerto de Santa Cruz to Port St. Julian to inform the rest, who went in their aid.
Relation of Pigafetta.
6. Port St. Julian- Port of St. Cruz
Departure on Agust 24, 1520- Arrival August 26, 1521. 2-day journey.
When finally, Magallanes decides to leave St. Julian, they find very bad weather conditions and stop again, this time in Santa Cruz Port for another 53 days.
Sail around the South American Atlantic coast in search of the passage to the West towards the South Sea, making wintering in St Julian Port and in Santa Cruz Port.
7. Port of St. Cruz- Strait of Magellan- Island of the The Thieves (Guam)
Departure on October 18, 1520- Arrival March 6, 1521. 139-day journey.
Only three days after leaving Puerto Santa Cruz, on October 21, 1520, they discovered the Virgin Cape and started to enter, without knowing yet, the longed for strait towards the other side of America.
That same night, a 36-hour storm took the San Antonio and the Concepción towards what seemed the end of a bay. It looked like they were going to run aground. However, there was a narrow strait, and they were able to move forward. After another bay, there was yet another canal. Meanwhile the Victoria and the Trinidad are unable to see the other ships, and they waited for them at the beginning of the first bay. Three days later, “while we were uncertain if the crews of the Concepcion and the San Antonio were still alive, we saw them coming towards us, full sail, flags waving. When they were close enough they saluted discharging their cannons and they scram with joy. We did the same, and when we were told that they had seen the continuation of the bay, or better said of the strait, we all thanked God and the Virgin Mary, and we continued our route” (Pigafetta).
Exploring the Strait was a complicated task, and Magellan again sent the San Antonio and the Concepcion in advance. Esteban Gómez, the renowned Portuguese captain, profited to take control over the San Antonio and abandon the expedition, heading to Spain. It is very possible that they discovered the Falkland Islands, which would be included in the maps from this moment on. When they arrived, they declared that they had come back to rescue those that Magellan has deserted, although they hadn’t succeeded in their mission. They arrived to Spain in May 1521, where they told the Emperor about the discovery of the Strait, and about Magellan’s abuse of authority. Charles V believed them, and stopped providing Beatriz Barbosa, Magellan’s wife, her allowance. Years later he would entrust Esteban Gómez with an expedition that had the mission of finding yet another path to the Pacific, this time through North America. During that expedition, Esteban Gómez would become the first European to visit Manhattan Island, the bay of Boston, and even the lands of Labrador.
Returning to our expedition. After the San Antonio had left, and after the Santiago had sunk, only three ships were left, which would spend several days trying to find the deserting ship, leaving them signals along the coast, in case they had gotten lost. The journey through what would later be called the Strait of Magellan would take them 28 days, and finally, on November 18, 1520, they would reach the ocean they would name Pacific.
"Everyone in the expedition was blissful, finding themselves into something that nobody else had ever seen before. The fleet left the Straight to the Southern Sea and they all thank a lot to God for what had happened." Ginés de Mafra.
The journey through the Pacific started with the search for warmer latitudes, and it took them northwest, northeast and north. They would get very close to the coast where would later be the city of Concepción (Chile), although they did not stop, and they continued northeast to cross the Ocean. Not stopping there to get food supplies would prove to be a big mistake.
Fortunately, the weather was propitious, with constant winds in their favour and no storms, what allowed them to advance at a speed of 70 leagues- 385 km- per day. However, the Ocean seemed to never end.
“Ship Victoria crossing the Strait of Magellan”, a marvellous work from the Chilean painter Guillermo Muñoz Vera.
The tortuous journey through the Strait of Magellan
Islands of Sanson, probably referred to Malvinas.
The Strait of Magellan
Journey through the Pacific Ocean, from the Strait of Magellan to the Island of Thieves, now Guam.
Amidst the Pacific, they were unlucky enough to only find two small islands- the Puka-Puka atoll and the Island of Flint, which they would call St. Pablo and of Sharks, respectively- in which it was impossible to stop.
The route followed by Magellan does not seem logical if the goal was to arrive to the Moluccas, which, as he well knew, were on the Equator line. This will be further explored in the section “Discussion about the route”. In fact, the route taken clearly shows two things: that Magellan knew already that he was facing an enormous ocean- although not as big as it ended up being-, and that he preferred to explore the region north of the Moluccas before heading towards them. Elcano would later say that “Magellan never wanted to follow that path [towards the Moluccas] as this witness, a captain of his ship, saw”.
The journey will turn to be very arduous due to the extreme lack of water and food. The crew members were dying of illnesses, especially of scurvy, an effect of the lack of fresh food. However, if we look at the list of deceased we might be surprised, as in proportion, there weren’t as many as there would be later on in the journey.
Finally, on March 6, 1521, they found an island in which they could stop. It was the island that we now know as Guam. Ginés de Mafra recounts with these words their joy: “As the fleet was sailing, a crew man named Navarro, that was in the topsail, spoke out loudly: land, land. With these words all men cheered out loud in such a crazy way, that the man showing less enthusiasm was considered a mad man.”
The island turned out to be densely populated, and the islanders came to the ship on their canoes. To the astonishment of the crew, they entered the ships and took all they could. “The islanders came to our ships and stole this and that, while we were unable to stop them”. “By how marvelled and surprised these thieves were when they saw us, they must have thought that they were the only inhabitants of this world” (Pigafetta). They called it the Island of the Thieves, and their discovery saved many people’s lives.
They stayed in that island for three days.
Rats became a precious delicacy.
Small boats of the inhabitants of the island of Guam.
8. Island of Thieves (Guam)- Island of Homonhon (Philippines)
Departure on March 9, 1521- Arrival on March 16, 1521. 7-day journey.
They continued east for 7 days, until they saw the Island of Suluan. While they were approaching it, they saw a larger one, the Island of Homonhon, and decided to go there. They found a good harbour, and decided to rest and recover. The natives treated them in an amicable way, and although many of the crew members were starting to recover from their illnesses, it was too late for some of them.
They stayed in the island for 9 days.
Graph that shows the deceases during the journey through the Pacific Ocean, from Desired Cape to their arrival to Cebu, when there were no other deaths due illnesses. In a darker colour are the periods they spent in land, in the islands of Guam, Homonhon and Mazava. There are 19 deaths in total. The fact that the crew found death so early is a sign that it had been long since the last time they stocked up. The desertion of the San Antonio, which was carrying most of the provisions, also influenced.
9. Island of Homonhon, Philippines- Island of Mazava, Philippines
Departure on March 25, 1521- Arrival on March 28, 1521. 3-day journey.
They advanced until the new island of Mazava, now Limasawa, “where people are very kind” (Albo). They met the local king, with whom they bonded, and who offered to guide them towards Cebu, where they were told there would be another king, and a larger population. Magellan Christianised hundreds of natives, and ordered the erection of a cross in the highest point of the island. They stayed in Mazava for seven days.
Magellan had brought a Malay slave who was captured in previous trips of the Portuguese to act as an interpreter once they arrived to the Moluccas. In this island, the slave, whose name was Enrique, could quite easily understand the local language. This led the crew to think they were getting closer. More importantly, this confirmed that the Earth was round.
Arrival to the so called Islands of St. Lazarus (Philippines) from Guam. They stopped in Homonhom, Mazava, Cebu and Mactan, where Magellan died.
10- Island of Mazava, Philippines- Cebu, Philippines
Departure on April 4, 1521- Arrival on April 7, 1521. 3-day journey.
The Armada arrived to Cebu discharging their weapons as a salute, but the islanders reacted with fear. They were quickly convinced that it was an amicable sign, and Magellan started to be trusted by the local king, with whom he exchanged gifts. He would end up Christianising thousands of natives.
However, the king of the neighbouring population of Mactan challenged the expeditionaries. Magellan went with few men, which would prove to have been an act of overconfidence. When they disembarked in Mactan beach, they were surprised by thousands of Indian warriors that were waiting for them. The expeditionaries had to pull back due to the numerical superiority. Apparently, Magellan died bravely defending the retreat of his men. He was reached by a spear, and died there, together with seven other.
The king of Cebu, probably forced by other local kings, and instigated by Enrique the slave, who had stayed with them, betrayed the expeditionaries by inviting them to a meal that was intended to forge better relationships among them after Magellan’s death. They all suspected it could be an ambush, but they also consider it would be coward not to attend, and therefore many of the high ranking officials assisted. Their worst fear became true. Whilst the king distracted the expeditionaries, hundreds of warriors entered the room and killed them all. The result was devastating: none other than 26 men were murdered.
The natives took Captain Juan Serrano to the beach, where the ships were, wounded, his hands tied, and begging not to be abandoned there. However, due to the impossibility of confronting that amount of warriors, they had no other chance but to leave. It was a tough decision the one that Juan Lopes Carbalho took as the new captain, a position that Espinosa would later contest.
The survivors always hoped the rest of the crew was not dead. In fact, Charles V would later ask Hernan Cortes to send to Cebu an expedition that would be led by Alvaro de Saavedra, to look for his men, or in the worst case scenario, to find out what happened to them. Juan Sebastian Elcano left in his will an almanac, an astrology book and some cloth to Andrés de San Martín, one of those who assisted the meal, in case someone were to see him.
They spent 24 days in Cebu.
Magellan gave the queen of Cebu a carving of a Child Jesus. Today it is still commemorated in the Philippines with the Sinulog.
The Battle of Mactan, in which Magellan died.
Signature of Juan Rodriguez Serrano, who was left alive in Cebu after Humabon's betrayal.
11. Cebu, Philippines- Bohol Island- Ponglao- Mindanao- Kagayan Island- Palawan Island- Brunei
Departure on May 1, 1521- Arrival on July 9, 1521
One day after these events, they went south and reached the island of Bohol. The crew had been drastically reduced to 116 or 117 men, which were insufficient to run the three ships that were left. They decided to burn the Concepcion, leaving only the Trinidad and the Victoria.
The new captain Lopes Carvalho demonstrated that he did not know what to do. We do not know what made him leave the route south that would take them to the Equator, where they knew the Moluccas were. They went from island to island in the sea of Jolo, apparently lost and without a clear destination. They distrusted the natives they met, and the lack of resources was starting to be a worrying situation. They were finally able to get sufficient supplies in the island of Palawan. They were told there that Brunei, in the near island of Borneo, was very rich, and there they went.
Brunei indeed had a large population, and it was much more civilised than the places they had previously visited. They were treated well, but when they saw how hundreds of canoes carrying thousands of people approached the ships, they got scared and attacked them, causing several losses and taking prisoners. However, they soon realised that the canoes had no intention of attacking the Spanish, but instead they were celebrating that they had won a war mission. It was a mistake that ended the good relationship they had forged, and the Spanish had to leave hastily, without even waiting for a small group that was in the island at that moment, and that was left there abandoned. Among them was Carvalho’s son from Brazil.
They stayed in Brunei for 20 days.
Chaotic route of the expedition towards Brunei, in the island of Borneo.
Captain Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa coat of arms.
12. Brunei- Jolo Island- Kagayan Island- septentrional Celebes Islands - Tidore, Moluccas Islands
Departure on July 29, 1521- Arrival on November 8, 1521
No one liked what happened in Brunei, and Lopes Carvalho was again harshly criticised. In addition, he kept following a chaotic route that led one of the ships to run aground. They found an appropriate harbour somewhere between Borneo and Palawan, where there was yet another delay- of 37 days, apparently- to repair the ship. During this time, the crew agreed that Lopes Carvalho had to quit, and named Captain Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa, who had already been acting as captain of the Trinidad since they left Cebu. Juan Sebastian Elcano was named captain of the Victoria. The role that the scribe Martín Méndez and the Genovese master Juan Bautista de Punzorol assumed is also worth mentioning.
With these changes, the plan is now clear: find the Moluccas without any further delay, and go back to Spain with spices. They had a combat with a ship that was going to Brunei, and took hostages that knew how to direct them to the Moluccas. Later on, on October 28, they would arrive to the Island of Kagayan, and would pay two of the sailors to guide them. In only ten days they would find themselves sighting the volcanic peaks of the island of spices.
Manuscript with the date that Elcano and Espinosa begin to lead the expedition: September 17, 1521.
The Moluccas Islands, the Maluku or Spice Islands, goal of the expedition, and where the Trinidad and the Victoria arrived on November 1521. Their beauty astonished the expeditionaries. Espinosa would tell the king: “Sir, let not His Majesty think little of the Islands of Maluku and Banda and Timor, because Sir, they are three orchards, the best in the world”.
Route from Brunei to Tidore (Moluccas Islands)
At their arrival to Tidore, the Spanish are well received by the local king Almansur, who was immediately called Almazor. He was Muslim, because the Arabs had arrived much before to commerce with spices. The Portuguese, from whom they had not received any news, must not have treated him very well, since he asked the Spanish to stay and protect him from them. Not only he offered vassalage to Emperor Charles V, but he even offered to namme Tidore as Castile.
Whilst in Tidore, a Portuguese named Pedro Alfonso de Lorosa arrived, behaving in an amicable way. He informs them that Portugal has located the Moluccas ten years before, and although they had not been able to establish their possession yet, they had a warehouse in the near island of Ternate. The Spanish realised they had to leave soon if they wanted to avoid problems, and on November 25 they started filling the ships with clove, and after delaying their departure for almost a week, they left on December 8, with hundreds of canoes surrounding them.
However, as soon as they left, the Trinidad noticed there was a problem. It had difficulties to advance. Both ships came back, and once they were anchored, they discovered that the Trinidad taking on water. King Almansur provided divers to localise the entrance of water, without success. They finally discovered that the problem was worse than a simple entrance of water, since, probably due to the overweight, probably aggravated after having ran aground in the Sea of Jolo, the frame was disarranged. They had to unload the ship, and although the king brought carpenters to help with the repairs, it would still take months.
With this situation, they collectively decided that, in order not to waste time in telling the King about the news, the Victoria would leave to Spain following the western route, whilst the Trinidad, once repaired, would cross the Pacific Ocean until Darien, in what now is Panama, the only place in the American Pacific coast that belonged to the Spanish. This moment will be further developed in the section “The Trinidad’s attempt to return”.
It was a crucial moment, because the men decided to come back following the most dangerous route, only to attempt the first journey around the world. The excitement for such an achievement was a key element when taking the decision of following this route back home, a route that would not allow them to set foot on land until they arrived to Spain.
As a precaution, the amount of clove in the Victoria was reduced from around 7000 lbs to 6000- around 27 tons-, and finally, on December 21, 1521, they left with 47 crew members and 13 natives, with new sails that showed a large Cross of Santiago and that read the inscription “This is the Icon of our Good Luck”. About the farewell to those who were to stay with the Trinidad, Pigafetta says “… and we departed, in the end, crying”. An emotional event for history.
The tragic fate of the Trinidad
We should now take a moment to narrate what happened to those who stayed in Tidore in charge of the Trinidad. At the beginning of April the ship had finally been repaired, and was filled with a thousand quintales (100 lbs) of clove- 200 less than previously. On April 6 the ship set sail with 55 men, leaving behind four Spanish to take care of a deposit of clove, with several artillery machines that could defend them from the potential Portuguese attack Pedro Alfonso de Lorosa, who joined the Trinidad, had told them about.
Showing great intuition, Espinosa and Juan Bautista de Punzorol led the ship through the Pacific until the parallel 42 degrees north, on the route of the usually favourable winds that Urdaneta would later discover. However, a storm that lasted 12 days destroyed the ship and made it almost uncontrollable. They had to return and, after discovering the 14 Mariana Islands, and after 31 men had died due to lack of sustenance, the Portuguese captured the 20 survivors close to Ternate. They towed the ship to Ternate, where it sank while being unloaded. The survivors were made prisoners and treated harshly, forced to doing hard labour that continued in Java, Malaca and Kochi. Almost all of them died. One of them managed to get back to Spain on a Portuguese ship. It was the sailor Juan Rodriguez “The Deaf”. We don’t know if he was really deaf, but what we can imagine is that he was very astute if he managed to return to Spain. Four more were taken to Portugal as prisoners: Espinosa himself, Ginés de Mafra, the Genovese sailor Leon Pancaldo, and the German Hans Vargue, who died there. The Emperor rescued the three survivors, who returned to Spain in 1527.
We will analyse with more depth what happened to the Trinidad in the section “The Trinidad’s attempt to return”, where we can see the extent of their bad luck, as we superpose their journey to that of the first return trip, completed by Andrés de Urdaneta.
Manuscript with the merchandise that Juan de Campos kept in a warehouse in Tidore, and the one known as the Book of Peace, where what happened since the departure from Brunei departure is related.
Kunstmann IV planisphere. A copy of this map was onboard the Trinidad.
Jorge Morisco sent a gift to the widow of Magallanes in the Victoria ship. He would travel in the Trinidad.
The Victoria ship leaving Moluccas Islands.
Sign of Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa.
Maug island at Northern Marianas, where Gonzalo de Vigo fled. He joined to the expedition of Loaysa several years before, when he was found.
Prisoners were tranferred to Banda, Malaca and Kochi by Portuguese.
13. Tidore, Moluccas Islands- Timor Island
Departure on December 21, 1521- Arrival on January 25, 1522
We are back with the Victoria, which has just left from Tidore. For several days they traversed different islands of the Moluccas archipelago, where they took some samples of the species of each island, to take them back to the Emperor, without wasting too much time and always heading south. There were so many islands in that area, that at night they could not advance to avoid running aground. They suffered a big storm. They arrived to the Island of Mallua- now Pulau Wetar- with the aid of Moluccan sailors. They needed to make some repairs to the Victoria, and they stayed for 15 days.
This island was already very close to Timor, where they would arrive on January 25. They did not stay long there, and 11 days after they left, heading to the Ocean.
The name of several people from Moluccas islands is shown here. 13 Indians boarded the Victoria ship.
Quick journey of the Victoria, now in solitude, from the Moluccas to Timor.
14. Timor Island- Islands of Cape Verde
Departure on February 7, 1522- Arrival on July 10, 1522. 153-day journey.
Elcano and his men showed great cleverness when planning how to return. They had a main goal when leaving Timor: arrive to Spain sailing west avoiding the Portuguese routes to avoid being captured, therefore not stopping and avoiding the coasts. If they were to succeed, they would be the first to complete a journey around the world.
Elcano knew it was an almost suicidal mission, in which he was to confront an Ocean which has not been explored in the latitudes they were going to. The route included traversing the Indian Ocean- in fact, he would almost discover Australia-, then pass by the feared Cape of Good Hope, famous for its currents and winds that made of navigating an impossible task, and then traverse the Atlantic, always far from the coasts. But the excitement of going back, and of knowing they would be the first ones to complete a journey around the world and therefore be forever part of history, would lead these men to reach their goal, although not without unforeseen circumstances, and of course, extreme suffering and knowing they were facing an almost certain death.
The ship Victoria. Mares Pacificii, Abraham Ortelius.
The difficult voyage of the Indian Ocean, in latitudes close to the 40º to avoid Portuguese routes, and with adverse climatological conditions. They were a couple of days short of discovering Australia.
The Portuguese route known as Carreida da India, and the Portuguese cities in the Indian Ocean in the year 1522. An enemy territory for Elcano, which forced him to sail for the first time the South Indian Ocean to avoid being captured.
The Indian Ocean initially received them with weak winds, proper of the Equatorial latitudes they were in. They would head southeast, looking for the south that would allow them to avoid Portuguese expeditions, almost reaching Australia.
As they reach south, the sea became increasingly hostile. The winds and current would almost never be favourable in the Indian Ocean. After a journey of a month and a half, they devised an island. They went and surrounded it, but could not find a place to stop and had to continue their journey. It was the now called Island of Amsterdam, very inhospitable, which is still inhabited nowadays.
They had a hard time advancing. They reached parallel 40, where they would find strong and unfavourable winds and currents that would make them stop for several days and would return them east. It was the feared strip known as the Roaring Forties, that would be later be used by the English to reach Australia direction east, but our sailors did it the other way. They would spend 8 days stopped due to two different storms, with a harsh sea and cold weather. After the last one, Elcano decided to leave this parallel and head to the 36. Many days they were forced by the wind to navigate in zig-zag.
Island of Amsterdam.
What was probably the worst effect is that the opposite currents falsified their calculations of the speed they were reaching. They thought they were advancing more than they actually were. On May 4 they thought to have surpassed the Cape of Good Hope further South, as they wanted, and headed northeast, thinking they were in the Atlantic. However, they were deceived when they reached the coast three days later. They realised they were close to the Great Fish River, in the South African coast. This shows that they had Portuguese maps, since the Spanish had never navigated those coasts.
Despite the majority were already ill, they strongly maintained their idea of staying away from the coast, and decided to continue without stopping: "We turned back to the sea to keep our freedom", Albo would say. However, they would soon start to suffer the feared storms proper of the Cape of Good Hope, and he would continue: “In this coast there are too many storms and men can not find shelter at all”. The wind was so strong that it broke the mast and yard of the foremast.
The sea was so harsh they did not think they would be able to go around the Cape. They even thought of tossing their clove supplies, but decided against it. They were reaching for glory, and did not want to return without their precious cargo. It was all or nothing. Pigafetta says: “As most of the crew were leaning towards glory more than life itself, we decided to do every effort we could to return to Spain”.
They estimated to have passed only 8 leagues from the Cape- 44 km,- although they could not see it. Finally, on May 19 they changed their direction to northeast and would finally be in the Atlantic.
Sculptures in the exhibition The Longest Journey, in the General Archive of the Indies, Seville.
Hard time at cape of Good Hope. Kunstmann IV planisphere.
After turning around Cape of Good Hope, they continued their route, full speed, without any intentions of stopping. However, the number of deaths became unsustainable, and at the same latitude as Guinea, they reached for the coast. However, they were very unlucky because they were unable to find a place to drop anchor, as the mangroves made it impossible. They had a vote on whether to go to the Cape Verde islands, which were Portuguese, to ask for help as a trick.
They found propitious winds in the Atlantic Ocean. They advanced with great speed despite not having the foremast. In fact, if the readings of the sun were correct, between May 25 and 26, they sailed around 100 nautical miles- 560 km approx.- thus becoming the day they advanced the most during the whole trip.
However, the route was extremely hard, and the scarcity of food- they now had only rice boiled in sea water- started to have fatal consequences for the crew. There were no deaths registered until May 12, but from that day on the number of deaths would not stop increasing. There were more deaths on May 12, 13, 17, 18 and 20, and June 1st, 7, 8, 9… if that were to continue they would soon be all dead.
Elcano was forced to take a decision against his will: to reach the coast to get supplies. They were close to Guinea. But they were also very unlucky, as they only found mangroves, forests of trees that were resistant to sea water and that grew in the shallows of the rivers estuaries, which prevented them from reaching land. They persisted, dedicating from June 14 to July 1 to navigate the coasts of the African coasts, looking for a place to stop, without success. And the deaths continued.
Graph with the accumulated deaths in Elcano’s trip from the Moluccas Islands to Seville. We can see the length of the journey from their departure from Timor (7 months), in which they only stopped in Cape Verde for three days to obtain some supplies. The number of deaths increased suddenly after the first five months, in which they had enough food. Since the deaths started, the frequency was very high- they did not have enough provisions, and they voted on going to Cape Verde despite the danger it implied.
Due to the situation, Elcano had a vote among the survivors to decide whether to continue to Spain, knowing they might all day trying, or reach the Islands of Cape Verde, to which they were very close, but where the feared Portuguese were. They decided to go to Cape Verde and use a trick, telling them they were returning from America and that the breakdown of the foremast had forced them to ask for help.
On July 9 they arrived to the Islands of Cape Verde. The Victoria dropped anchor, and a part of the crew went to the coast to obtain supplies. The Portuguese helped the expeditionaries and gave them food and water. “They gave us as many provisions as we wanted”, Albo wrote.
They also wrote about their surprise when the Portuguese told them it was July 10, and not July 9 as they thought. They would later figure out that because they had travelled around the world, they had lost one day. To this respect, Pigafetta left us with a nice quote: “We later knew that our calculations were not mistaken, because by sailing always west, following the course of the sun, and returning to the same point, we would have won 24 hours on those who had stayed in the same place; and to be convinced only some reflection on it is needed”.
But the expeditionaries would not find rest here. The Portuguese would quickly discover them.
After three days in Cape Vere, the vessel that had reached the coast did not return. The island authorities had discovered the truth and were retaining the 13 men that were in it. Some months later Emperor Charles V would rescue them. Apparently, the Spanish had pretended to buy some slaves to help them bale out water with the pumps, since they were extenuated from doing that work for days due to a leak in the Victoria they could not manage to repair. However, they made the mistake of trying to pay in clove. The Portuguese discovered them.
The rest of the crew awaited in the Victoria all night, suspecting what could have happened. The following morning they approached the harbour, where a Portuguese ship told them the others had been detained, and that the authorities were asking for them to surrender their ship. Elcano initiated their escape immediately. They were not enough to run the ship, but they had to manage. He decided to trick the Portuguese by heading south.
Rice boiled with sea water: the only food for too many days.
On the African coast they only found impenetrable mangroves.
List of casualties on the expedition.
Cidade Velha, at the island of Santiago, Cape Verde.
Signature of Martín Méndez, the person in charge of the 13 prisoners in Cape Verde.
3 of the prisoners were released by the King of Portugal after 5 months and 22 days "because they had fled on the island". The rest had been after 37 days.
15. Cape Verde Islands - Sanlucar de Barrameda
Departure on July 13, 1522- Arrival on September 6, 1522. 55-day journey.
Sailing, the route to Spain from Cape Verde did not pass by the Canary Islands, which would have been interesting to the Victoria. In that area the trade winds are constant in southwest direction, an impossible route for a sailing boat. The return route is known as volta do mar, volta do mar largo, volta do largo or volta da mina, and was discovered in the 15th Century by the Portuguese during one of their exploration trips along the African coasts. The route back needs crossing the trade winds direction northeast until the Azores, and later on, depending on the anticyclone that is always present there, veer east to Portugal. Elcano followed that route.
He would have to cross the archipelago of the Azores, which were not dangerous despite being Portuguese, since it was the route commonly followed by the Spanish coming back from America. The winds were favourable and they crossed in great speed, without encountering other ships.
But it was August and the anticyclone in the Azores left them without any wind after a couple of days. They spend a whole week without advancing. They are close to glory, but they are exhausted from despair and the pumps, which they have to make work day and night. Finally, the wind got up and they were able to navigate to Cape St. Vincent. 14 days later, on September 4, they sighted the cape, and two days later, September 6 1522, they entered to the harbour of Sanlucar de Barrameda.
The people of Sanlucar saw a keeling ship, partly dismasted, with 18 skinny men, “skinny as men ever were” (Elcano) who said to be the survivors of Magelan’s Armada, who had travelled around the world loaded with spices. They were accompanied by three Natives of the Moluccas Islands of the 13 that had embarked in Tidore 9 months earlier. The news immediately spread through the city, which was ready to take care of them.
Although we can suppose that they were not lacking any commodities, we know the meal the House of Trade bought that same day: 12 arrobas of wine, 75 loafs of bread and one quarter of a cow.
Long route from Cape Verde to Sanlucar de Barrameda, following the path known as “route of Guinea”, that avoids the opposing trade winds.
Typical winds in the North Atlantic during the summer.
Sanlucar de Barrameda.
16- Sanlúcar de Barrameda - Seville
Departure on September 6, 1522- Arrival on September 8, 1522. 2-day journey.
They have already travelled around the world but, proud of their deed, they want to continue to Seville, from where they had left 3 years and 28 days before. Thus, they were towed for two days along the Guadalquivir.
They entered the harbour of Seville among salutes. Our heroes had a pending promise to the Virgin they had made during a storm while they were traveling to Timor, and they asked for paschal candles. They disembarked one by one, in procession, bare footed, and with the candles in their hands, and marched to the church of St. Mary of the Victory, in Triana, do thank the Virgin. They bring a precious load of 27 tons of clove, an incredible fortune at that time. But, as Elcano told Emperor Charles V in the letter he wrote from the Victoria announcing their return, “…what we most esteem is what we have discovered, and that we travelled around the world”.
The Emperor was fascinated by the news, and immediately replied by letter to “thank him infinitely” and ask him to come visit him personally, “because I want you to inform me about the journey you had and about what happened to you, I command you to bring with you two more men of those who came with you, the most sane and rational, and to part and come to me, wherever I might be”, ordering the House of Trade to take care of everything. Elcano chose Francisco Albo and the barber- or doctor- Hernando de Bustamante, to accompany him, in addition to the Molucca Natives “that wished to see the Emperor and these kingdoms” (Herrera).
Certainly, it was a heroic deed, full of sacrifice and audacity. With their return, these 18 men not only entered the harbour of Seville, but they forever entered the history of humankind.