The Basque Men in the Magellan-Elcano Expedition

Who were they, what did they do, and what happened to them?

By Fundación Elkano

Fundación Elkano

Getaria Port. Net Maker (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Twenty-two men from Biscay, nine from Gipuzkoa, and three from Navarre set off from Seville on the Magellan-Elcano expedition.

Of those taking part, the second largest group was from the Basque Country, after Andalusia, which sent 73 men. There were also 27 crew members from Italy, 24 from Portugal, and 21 from France.

Only six of those from the Basque Country completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.

Composition: Boats (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

A Long History Looking Out to Sea

Basques learned to make seaworthy vessels very early on.

Figure. Ondarroa (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

In the late 15th century, the Basque Country had one of the best fleets in Europe. They sailed between northern Europe and the Mediterranean, transporting iron, wool, wheat, cloth, and many other goods.

The early days of the Age of Exploration presented a great opportunity for those seamen, transporters, and merchants.

Seville became the final destination for many of those trade routes.

Figures (Elkano, 5) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Two officials from Seville's House of Commerce (Casa de la Contratación) played a key role in the Magellan-Elcano expedition: Juan López de Recalde from Azkoitia, in Gipuzkoa; and Domingo de Ochandiano from Durango, in Biscay.

They both took part in preparing the fleet, and Ochandiano assisted the carrack Victoria when it arrived back in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, having completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.

Figures (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Basque Ships and Crew

The Basque contribution to the expedition was significant, both in terms of ships and crew members.

Getaria Fisherwoman (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

The Basque Carracks

Three of the five ships that set sail on the Magellan-Elcano expedition were from the Basque coast; specifically, from Biscay.

The carrack Victoria, which was the only one to return, was purchased from Domingo de Apallua (from Ondarroa). The Trinidad was bought from Juan de Leguizamon, acting on behalf of Nicolás de Artieta (from Lekeitio), and the San Antonio was bought from Diego de Asua (from Erandio).

Figure. Getaria (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Once acquired, the ships were dry-docked to clean the keels and caulk them.

This work involved 57 shipwrights and 66 caulkers, 22 of whom were from the Basque Country.

Four of them—Domingo de Yarza, Pedro de Sautua, Pedro de Bilbao, and Antón de Basozabal—went on to be part of the expedition.

Fisherman. Getaria (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

The Basque Crew Members

The crew members came from coastal and inland areas.

Of all the towns and cities in the Basque Country, Bermeo sent the largest number of men (seven), followed by Bilbao (six).

In total, there were two masters, a boatswain, seven seamen, nine cabin boys, two pages, three shipwrights, three caulkers, a storekeeper, a medic, a man-at-arms, and a second-in-command (or right-hand man).

Figures (Elkano, 5) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Of the expedition's 11 shipwrights and caulkers, 6 were Basque, showing the region's expertise in these professions.

The roles of shipwright and caulker were technical trades that were highly prized on board the ships. They were specialists who carried out any necessary repairs to the ship while at sea and in dry dock. They earned 1,875 maravedis (old Spanish coins) a month, which was 50% more than the seamen.

Fisherman (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Juan de Zubileta

Juan de Zubileta was the youngest Basque on the expedition. Born in Barakaldo (Biscay), he joined the crew aged 13 as a page on the Victoria. Three years later, he returned to Seville with Elcano on that same ship.

He knew how to sign his name, which was unusual among seafarers. He gave evidence at the Conference of Badajoz–Elvas, to prove the Crown of Castile's right to possession of the Maluku Islands, stating that he had met Charles V.

Fisherman. San Sebastián (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Juan de Acurio

Juan de Acurio was from Bermeo. He joined the expedition as a crew member on the Concepción, captained by Elcano. In 1524, he stated that he was a little over 30 years old, meaning that he must have been around 25 when the expedition set sail.

His role required an ability to read and write, and he could do both. He earned over 231,223 maravedis over the course of the whole expedition.

Figure (Fisherman) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Pedro de Tolosa

Pedro de Tolosa shared his name with his native town of Tolosa, in Gipuzkoa. He was 20 years old when he joined the crew of the carrack Victoria. Initially a cabin boy, he later became the Victoria's storekeeper, with responsibility for provisions. He was a key witness to the events that took place throughout the ship's voyage, and played an important part in them.

Alongside Elcano, he was the only person from Gipuzkoa to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe.

Fisherman With Chalupa (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Pedro de Olabarrieta

From Galdakao (Biscay), joined the crew as a barber (medic) on board the San Antonio. His salary was 1,200 maravedis per month.

When he first joined the expedition, he was given an advance of four months' salary, plus 1,125 maravedis to buy a grindstone and a whetstone, which he would need for his work. He returned to Seville on his ship in May 1521.

The Return of Elcano (Elkano, 3) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

The Shifting Fortunes of the Crew

Several Basque crew members returned to Seville on the San Antonio in 1521. The remaining men experienced numerous misfortunes in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and many died.

The Return of Elcano (Elkano, 6) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

The Desertion of the San Antonio

The San Antonio deserted the expedition in the Magellan Strait, returning to Seville. Ten men from Biscay and one from Gipuzkoa were on board.

On arrival in Seville, they were arrested and questioned to try to ascertain what had happened in the mutiny in Port St. Julian, and why they had deserted.

In the end, they were released. They didn't sail all the way around the world, but they did return with their lives.

The Return of Elcano (Elkano, 2) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

The 11 Basque crew members who returned to Seville on the San Antonio consisted of two seamen, three cabin boys, and a crossbowman, as well as another five men who were key to the smooth running of the ship: the storekeeper, barber, shipwright, and two caulkers assigned to the ship.

The Return of Elcano (Elkano, 1) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

The Return From the Maluku Islands

Following the death of Magellan and the dismissal of the Portuguese captain Carvalho, the crew members chose Elcano to captain the Victoria. He did not leave the ship until the journey came to its end in Seville.

The decision was made on September 16, 1521, on an island to the north of Borneo in what is now Malaysia.

From then on, the fleet was led by three men, including Elcano and Gómez de Espinosa.

Juan Sebastián Elcano, captain of the Nao Victoria (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

On December 21, 1521 (the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle), the two surviving ships were separated.

The Victoria set off from the Maluku Islands for Sanlúcar de Barrameda, heading west across the Indian Ocean.

The Trinidad remained in Tidore to be repaired, then headed east for home.

Of the 12 remaining Basque crew members, nine left with the Victoria, and three remained on the Trinidad.

Figure Two (Man) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Over the three years that it took to circumnavigate the globe for the first time, 14 Basque crew members died.

Seven of them died of scurvy, four met violent deaths, one died suddenly, and two were taken prisoner and never heard from again.

The Return of Elcano (Elkano, 10) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Arriving Home

Only six of the more than 30 Basque crew members made it home.

The Return of Elcano (Elkano, 9) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Of the 18 men who completed the circumnavigation on board the Victoria, 4 were Basque: the captain, Juan Sebastian Elcano (from Getaria); the boatswain, Juan de Acurio (from Bermeo); the cabin boy, Juan de Arratia (from Bilbao); and the page, Juan de Zubileta (from Barakaldo).

Pedro de Tolosa (the storekeeper, from Tolosa) and Pedro de Chindarza (a page from Bermeo) arrived several months later, after they were taken prisoner in Cape Verde.

The Return of Elcano (Elkano, 7) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

On arrival in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Elcano wrote his famous letter to the king in his cabin on the Victoria. In it, he reported that they had fulfilled the expedition's aim, and gave an account of the hardships they endured, “being as exhausted as any man has ever been.”

He ended the letter by describing the most important part: “having set off to the west, we returned from the east.”

The Return of Elcano (Elkano, 8) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Eight crew members, five from Biscay and three from Gipuzkoa, had stated that they were married. Two of them returned to Seville on the San Antonio. The remaining six died.

Three widows were left behind in Bermeo: María Ochoa de Acurio, María Ochoa de Artaeche, and Madalena de Marcaida.

Getaria (Elkano, 4) (1929/2015) by Julián UgarteFundación Elkano

Six men from the Basque Country circumnavigated the globe

The 238 crew members were from different nations, regions, and communities. Among them were men from the Basque Country, for whom that expedition represented a link in a chain that was hundreds of years old. The first link had been made when, driven by poverty and need, they had looked to the sea for a way out.

It was a shipmaster from Getaria, Juan Sebastián de Elcano, whose leadership, and knowledge of the sea and of men, proved that the Earth was round by sailing all the way round it for the first time in history.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curator:

Daniel Zulaika
History graduate
Advisory Committee, Fundación Elkano 500

Works of art (oil paintings, drawings, and prints):
Julián Ugarte Munozabal (Zarautz, 1929 – San Sebastian, 2015)

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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