The Ocean Before and After Elcano

Find out how the ocean became the epicenter of modern geopolitics.

By Fundación Elkano

Fundación Elkano

Stormy sea (1626) by Abraham WillaertsOriginal Source: Hermitage Museum

The voyages and expeditions of the 16th century—in particular, the first circumnavigation of the globe—transformed the way people viewed the ocean.

Perceptions of the ocean shifted from it being seen as an expanse that was off-limits to humankind, to being the ideal way of forging links with faraway worlds.

Since then, the idea of navigating—traveling through an element that isn't solid (water, air, space, or even the internet)— has been associated in Western culture with the search for adventure, new experiences, discovery, and inquiry; and with risk-taking, enterprise, and technical innovation.

Saint Brendan and the Whale (1460)Original Source: Universidad de Augsburgo

The Medieval Ocean

A forbidden, uncharted expanse.

Nautical chart (1695) by Van KeulenOriginal Source: Instituto Geográfico Nacional

In the classical and medieval periods, the Pillars of Hercules in what is now the Strait of Gibraltar symbolized the limits of human travel.

Beyond them lay what the Italian poet Dante Alighieri described, in The Divine Comedy, as a "mondo senza gente": a world without people.

The classical world, and much of the medieval world, was essentially focused on the Mediterranean.

Lucifer, King of Hell (1861-1868) by Paul Gustave DoréFundación Elkano

The sense of alienation from the ocean was not just due to technical limitations, but also cultural distance.

This was underpinned by Biblical imagery, which posited that humankind's natural surroundings were on dry land, and that those who entered the realms of the ocean did so out of greed.

The worst dangers awaited them there. The most fearsome Biblical monster—the Leviathan—lurked beneath the waves. Similarly, Dante imagined the devil's dwelling place to be a frozen sea.

In the same cultural context, the Bible's Book of Revelation describes the arrival of the Messiah following the Last Judgement. It was believed that this would usher in a new era in which—significantly—the sea would no longer exist.

Carta Marina (1539) by Olaus MagnusOriginal Source: James Ford Bell Library

Throughout the Middle Ages, people imagined the ocean to be a great unknown, full of potential dangers in the form of monsters. One such monster appears in the legend of St. Brendan: what appears to be an island is actually the back of a giant whale.

Although this attitude changed in the Renaissance, this characterization of the open sea as a no-man’s-land filled with invincible creatures persisted into more recent times (for example, in Moby Dick, the novels of Jules Verne, and the film Jaws).

Psalter World Map from Westminster Abbey (1265)Original Source: British Library Add. MS 28681

Until the mid-15th century, the ocean was a great unknown. As a result, nobody knew just how much of the Earth's surface it covered. This was reflected in T and O world maps (also known as Isidoran maps).

The "T" represented the three parts of the world that were known about at the time, separated by a vertical line (the Mediterranean) and two horizontal lines (the Nile and the Don rivers).

The "O" was a narrow, circular strip around the orb's edge: the ocean. The entire map was under Christ's command, with Paradise at the top (Asia) and Jerusalem in the center.

Atlas Novus (1737) by Heinrich Scherer, Johan Kaspar Bencard, and Johan DeglesOriginal Source: Biblioteca Nacional de España

The Renaissance Ocean

The knowable Ocean.

Fra Mauro's mappa mundi (1459) by Fra MauroOriginal Source: Museo Correr

In the 15th century, new features were added to the T and O maps, as a result of Iberian expeditions.

An example is the map that Italian cartographer Fra Mauro produced in 1459, which clearly shows the Indian Ocean, as well as the fact that Africa can be circumnavigated.

Paradise is again marked on this map, which still depicts a world with far more dry land than water.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1588) by Abraham OrteliusOriginal Source: The Library of Congress

A century later, cartographic depictions began to resemble modern-day maps, reflecting the extraordinary progress made during the Age of Exploration.

Nonetheless, there were still uncertainties about what proportions the bodies of water had in comparison to land masses.

Abraham Ortelius' maps reflect the expectation that a "fifth part of the world" would also be dominated by land masses: the terra australis, which was discovered around that time.

Illustration from The Art of Navigation (Arte de Navegar) (1545) by Pedro MedinaFundación Elkano

Since it was not possible to access the land of spices in the east via the Mediterranean, navigators looked for a route over the Atlantic. However, sailing across the ocean would require a very different class of vessel to those used on the Mediterranean, or the Mare Nostrum as the Romans named it.

The progression from Mediterranean faluchos (traditional wooden sailing boats) to the various types of 17th-century galleons, caravels, and carracks, shows how ships evolved to sail on the open sea, able to carry large quantities of goods and act as floating military fortresses.

Astrolabio astronómico (1598) (1598) by Miguel CoignetNaval Museum

During the Middle Ages, people continued to refine the navigational equipment needed for sailing, often based on eastern influences, as in the case of the lateen sail, sternpost rudder, and compass.

However, sailing on the open sea meant they had to adapt these instruments, and other types of equipment, such as navigational charts and sounding lines. They also had to learn how to orient themselves by reading the stars using an astrolabe, cross-staff, or quadrant. Speed was calculated using a chip log.

Portuguese nautical chart (1472) by (s.n)Original Source: Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Módena, 2003

It was the Portuguese who first began exploring the Atlantic in the 15th century, in search of gold, spices, and the mythical lands described in the legend of Prester John.

They had to master the art of managing the wind and tides, while learning how to sail back and forth along different routes.

It also enabled them to experiment with ways of colonizing new lands, adapting to their environment, and making contact with new cultures.

The voyages of Columbus (by that time sponsored by the Crown of Castile) can be seen as the culmination of that process.

The Spice Shop (1637) by Paolo Antonio BarbieriOriginal Source: Palazzo Comunale

When Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1486, it opened up the route to the east, and toward the land of spices. Vasco da Gama reached India in 1497, returning a couple of years later.

The success of these journeys instilled in many people an idea that philosophers had already proclaimed in theory: humans had the ability to confront and dominate nature.

Although fear and fantasy still overshadowed ocean travel, the idea that the seas could also be spaces suitable for humans was gaining ground.

Portolan atlas dedicated to Hieronymus Ruffault, abbot of Saint Vaast and Saint Adrian (1544) by Battista AgneseOriginal Source: Library of Congress

The Ocean After the First Circumnavigation of the Earth

The ocean network.

Allegorical print of Magellan (1580-1590) by Adriaen Collaert, Jan van der Straet, and Phipippe GalleOriginal Source: Biblioteca Nacional de España

The first circumnavigation of the Earth (1519–22) was described by the historian Roland Mousnier as “a sporting feat of mediocre commercial value.”

Today, however, it is viewed as a turning point in the way the human race viewed the ocean.

Specifically, it showed that it was possible to sail around the world; that the oceans were interconnected; that it was possible to sail across them in their entirety; and that it was the oceans themselves that connected land masses. Just as important, it showed Europeans that the entire planet was surrounded by a breathable atmosphere (Peter Sloterdijk).

Primus circumdedisti me (2020)Fundación Elkano

The seaman Juan Sebastián Elcano (from Getaria in northern Spain) led the expedition after Magellan's death, and was responsible for its successful completion.

His observations on his return show that he truly understood the scale of their achievement, for example, in proving that the Earth was spherical:

"What we should value most highly is that we have discovered and traveled around the entire circumference of the world, setting off to the west and returning from the east."

They now had a sense of the globe as a whole.

The Pacific Ocean (1589) by Abraham OrteliusFundación Elkano

The chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, meanwhile, noted their astonishment as they realized the true scale of the ocean:

"Wednesday, the twenty-eitghth of November, 1520, we came forth out of the said strait, entered into the Pacific sea, where we remained three months and twenty days without taking in provisions … During those three months and twenty days … we ran fully four thousand leagues in the Pacific sea. This was well named Pacific, for during this same time we met with no storm, and saw no land except two small uninhabited islands, in which we found only birds and trees.”

Elcano's Last Will and Testament / 08VOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

Andrés de Urdaneta, originally from Gipuzkoa in the Basque Country, took part in Elcano's second expedition to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia (1525–36). He wrote an account of the journey—an invaluable chronicle written with the keen eye and sense of curiosity, adventure, and pragmatism that characterizes so many explorers.

Years later, in 1568, he discovered the return route from Asia to the Americas (known in Spanish as the Tornaviaje). This made it possible to establish global connections across the oceans.

His biography is typical of a Renaissance novus homo: he was a seaman, monk, conqueror, and scientist. He also held the Spanish colonial titles of protector of the Indians, and encomendero—meaning he was granted land and entrusted with its native inhabitants.

Terra Brasilis, Atlas Miller (ca. 1519) by Pedro Reinel, Jorge Reinel, and Lopo HomemOriginal Source: French National Library

The accounts by Pigafetta and Urdaneta are rich in geographical annotations, descriptions of places and landscapes, and almost anthropological observations of the cultures they encountered. They reveal a new way of discovering the world—an empirical approach, based on notes, observations, and accurate information.

It was a far cry from the theories and speculation that dominated the received wisdom of the day. This new way of thinking had much in common with the birth of modern science.

San Sebastián (1572) by Georgius HoefnagleOriginal Source: Museo Maritimo Vasco

What had previously seemed out of reach to the human race would now have a direct impact on many people. This "oceanic thinking" (philosopher Peter Sloterdijk) and the "unshackling of the world" (Sallmann) did not just affect those who set sail on these voyages, but also those who were left behind.

According to historian Serge Gruzinski, the global perspective influenced local ones, and all members of society—individuals, families, and political communities—were forced to redefine and reposition themselves on this new geopolitical stage.

Every part of the world was transformed as a result of coming into contact with others.

The Triumph of Death (1562) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderOriginal Source: Museo del Prado

On a planetary level, the oceans became the backbone of communications. Nothing was possible without them.

Although the planet was still viewed as vast and immeasurable, and circumnavigating the globe still took more than a year in 1800, societies began to organize themselves around the oceans.

In the words of the historian William H. McNeill, those maritime worlds formed “communities of communication, information, and infection.” Today, we understand that capitalism, imperialism, and globalization would not have been possible if no one had taken those first steps.

Mappa Mundi by Battista Agnese (1536-1564) by Battista AgneseFundación Elkano

Who Owns the Seas?

The Ocean as the Epicenter of Modern Geopolitics.

Battle of Gibraltar in 1607 (ca. 1621) by Cornelis Claesz van WieringenOriginal Source: Rijksmuseum

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, great strides had been made in our understanding of the planet as a whole, and as a series of interconnected worlds. Those connections were made possible by spaces—particularly the seas—that had always been a source of fear.

The seas were now seen as expanses that would enable contact and communication, making them desirable and conquerable.

The Landing of Columbus (1893) by Albert BierstadtOriginal Source: City of Plainfield

A common law for the sea had developed in the Middle Ages, based around freedom of passage, the prosecution of offenses, and arbitration by coastal authorities.

It was considered legitimate to strip infidel princes of their possessions and replace them with Christian rulers. Similarly, uninhabited lands were considered res nullius, or not subject to private ownership, meaning that their discoverers could take possession of them.

All of this was endorsed by higher authorities such as the king or the pope.

The Cantino Planisphere (1502)Original Source: Biblioteca Estense Universitaria

The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas was drawn up as a result of the Crown of Castile and Portugal acquiring possessions in the Atlantic. It was the first time the ocean had been divided up between two powers, and was endorsed by the pope.

A meridian (370 leagues to the west of the Azores) would act as the border between the current and future possessions of Castile (to the west of the meridian) and Portugal (to the east). In 1529, the Treaty of Zaragoza completed the division, setting the equivalent boundary line on the other side of the world.

The treaty was disputed right from the start and was ignored by the other European powers.

Mare Liberum (The Freedom of the Seas) (1609) by Hugo GrotiusOriginal Source: Peace Palace Library

There were competing principles at play in the battle to control the seas.

On the one hand, there were those such as Francisco de Vitoria and Hugo Grotius who were proponents of the idea of a mare liberum, and argued in favor of free passage on the oceans.

On the other were those such as Serafín de Freitas and John Selden who advocated marking out ownership of maritime spaces, as was done on land, to create a mare clausum.

Modern international law began to take shape against the backdrop of these debates, not all of which were merely theoretical.

Battle between Lieutenant-Admiral Tromp's flagship Aemilia and the Santa Teresa commanded by Admiral De Oquendo (1642 - 1665)Original Source: Rijksmuseum

“Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself" (Sir Walter Raleigh, 1552–1618).

Sentiments such as this are what drove development of the naval industry, and the substantial navies built by the great powers of the time.

These were the days of the invincible Spanish Armada and great naval battles such as Los Abrojos and Las Dunas, as well as privateers, and piracy.

The crossing of the Channel in balloon (18th Century)Fundación Elkano

As we've already seen, in Western culture, the idea of seafaring was associated with the search for adventure, new experiences, and risk.

It was also linked to danger, the very real possibility of shipwreck, and death in no-man's-land, away from the comfort of family.

Conexiones (2020)Fundación Elkano

It was no coincidence that those early days of globalization and new navigational methods were also a time of great uncertainty. There were many instances in which human reason and determination was seen to triumph, but others that brought tragedy for individuals, countries, or entire civilizations.

However, that was nothing new. In the words of the Latin saying Nihil novum sub sole, there is nothing new under the sun.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curator:

José Ángel Achón Insausti
Doctor and Professor of History University of Deusto*

*These reflections were written in the context of the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry, and Competitiveness research project, The Changes of Modernity and Resistance to Change: Social Struggles, Cultural Transformation, and Conflict, 15–19th Century, as well as research by the Basque Studies team at the University of Deusto.

This exhibition is part of the First Voyage around the World project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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