Death and Disease on the First Circumnavigation of the World

Of the 243 men who set sail for the Spice Islands, only 35 returned home. What happened during the expedition?

By Fundación Elkano

Fundación Elkano

Freti Magellanici (1628) by Jodocus HondiusFundación Elkano

Five ships left Seville on August 10, 1519. The surviving crew returned three years later, having been the first people to sail all the way around the world.

The expedition across the seas succeeded in finding a connecting route—the Strait of Magellan—between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. At the time, they did not realize the sheer scale of the Pacific Ocean. It led to connections with different cultures, in which trade and the exchange of technological knowledge played a central role.

However, the journey was by no means easy. Of the 243 men who left, just 35 managed to sail all the way around the world.

A sail! Look! (1866) by Gustav DoréFundación Elkano

The numbers break down as follows:

There were initially 243 men on the expedition; 56 returned to Seville on the San Antonio, which deserted in the Strait of Magellan. Of the remainder, 103 died and 49 were assumed to be lost.

Of those who died, 80 did so as a result of illness, 18 died fighting, and five were drowned.

Thirty-five men managed to complete the circumnavigation: 18 on board the Victoria, and later, the 12 men who were held prisoner in Cape Verde by the Portuguese, as well as five survivors of another of the carracks, the Trinidad. This ship had unsuccessfully attempted to return home by crossing back over the Pacific Ocean.

View of the port of Seville (ca. 1600)Museo de América

Preparing for the Journey: Diet and Health

Medical professionals on board the ships and the planned diet for the expedition.

Ancient barber-surgeon (1500/1600)Fundación Elkano

The following individuals were among those on board the ships that set off from Seville: Juan de Morales, a physician and surgeon who was in charge of all health-related matters for the fleet; and three barbers: Pedro Olabarrieta of Galdakao, Marcos de Bayas of Sanlúcar de Alpechín, and Hernando de Bustamante Carrero of Mérida. The last of these was one of the 18 Castilians who returned on the Victoria.

The Instruments of Anatomy (1543) by Andrés VersalioFundación Elkano

As in the army, barbers were the first people to attend to any sort of health issue. Barbers, along with surgeons, were the most highly trained individuals in this area on board the ships.

The surgeon and his assistant would set up in the infirmary, a space located among the stores in the hold. The infirmary had bunks, a brazier and tools for lighting it, irons, burlap, eggs, turpentine, and linen cloths to be used as bandages, and the staff were ready to attend to the sick and injured.

The Beaneater (Mangiafagioli) (1584/1585) by Annibale CarracciFundación Elkano

A sailor's daily ration consisted of one pound of ship's biscuit (a type of long-lasting, twice-baked bread), one fluid ounce of oil, 30 fluid ounces of wine, and 50 fluid ounces of water. They also had small quantities of other foods, such as garlic, onions, pulses (chickpeas, lentils, and broad beans), dried meat and fish, cheese, and honey.

Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, was found in just a few of those foods (onion and garlic), but in insufficient quantities to prevent scurvy if they did not obtain fresh food while on the voyage.

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

The Expedition

A detailed look at the deaths that occurred on the different stages of the expedition.

Americae Sive Quartae Orbis Partis Nova Et Exactissima Descriptio (1562) by Diego GutiérrezOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Winter in Patagonia

The fleet passed through the Canary Islands and the Gulf of Guinea, then crossed the Atlantic Ocean, reaching Rio de Janeiro, where they were able to stock up on fresh food. They spent the winter in very harsh conditions in Port St. Julian, in the place they called Patagonia.

They did not suffer from scurvy, although they were living in conditions typically associated with the disease. Different accounts refer to them having consumed shellfish and mussels, as well as certain root vegetables and tubers that the Tehuelche people of Patagonia showed them.

The Strait of Magellan

In November 1520, they crossed the Strait of Magellan into the vast Pacific Ocean.
Magellan decided to continue despite the advice of the pilot and cosmographer, Andrés de San Martín. The crew members were thin and weak. By then, the caravel Santiago had been shipwrecked and the carrack San Antonio had deserted.

They had already lost 18 men: six had been killed while fighting, five had died of illness, five had drowned, and two had deserted in St. Julian.

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

In the Pacific Ocean

While crossing the Pacific Ocean, they began to run out of food and see signs of scurvy.

The expedition's main record keeper, Antonio Pigafetta, described it in his journal:

"For three months and twenty days we had no fresh food … But the greatest misfortune of all was that the gums of some of the men swelled so that they could not eat and they died. Because of this malady, nineteen of our men died, and the giant and an Indian from the land of Verzin. Twenty five or thirty men suffered pain in their arms, in their legs, or in other parts of the body, so that there remained very few healthy men."

Ginés de Mafra, another of the men who kept a journal on the expedition, described the events similarly.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1832-1883) by Gustave DoréFundación Elkano

Scurvy is a nutritional disease, caused by a lack of ascorbic acid (otherwise known as vitamin C). This vitamin is mainly found in fresh fruit and vegetables such as oranges, lemons, limes, strawberries, peppers, onions, garlic, potatoes, and parsley.

Scurvy led to casualties in every fleet over a period of 300 years, especially on long voyages across the vast Pacific Ocean, without supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Reserves of vitamin C will only last for one or two months if no more is consumed.

Natives of the Mariana Islands (1845) by H. R. SchinzFundación Elkano

Islands of the Thieves

On March 6, they discovered the islands that they named the Islands of the Thieves (Islas de los Ladrones), or the Islands of the Lateen Sails (Islas de las Velas Latinas), now called the Mariana Islands. There, they were able to stock up on food.

Antonio Pigafetta,who kept a journal on the expedition, described it as follows:

"One of the men who was on the topsail who was called Navarro, shouted: 'land, land.' With this loud word everybody brightened up so much that the smallest demonstrations of happiness looked quite mad, as anyone in that condition would feel upon seeing it."

New description of Asia (1610) by Jodocus HondiusFundación Elkano

The St. Lazarus Archipelago: the Philippines

They continued along that route and on April 7, they entered the port of Cebu in the Philippines. They had been told that the kingdom was the most powerful in the region:

"The kings made the people bring us coconuts to refresh us … a bowl of rice with eight or ten bananas on top."

Nineteen men had died between the Strait and Cebu, all from illness.

Magellan's death in the Battle of Mactan at the hands of Lapulapu (2008) by Carl Frances Morano DiamanOriginal Source: Museo Ayala

The Disaster of Mactan and Cebu

A series of unfortunate decisions led to a defeat at the hands of an enemy who was poorly equipped but numerous.

Eight people died on the island of Mactan, including Captain-General Ferdinand Magellan, and several others were injured.

Their misfortunes did not end there: on May 1, they were surprised by an ambush in Cebu, by the people who had been their allies up to that point. Twenty-seven men died or were taken prisoner: "while they were eating, a group of armed men came and killed them all."

New description of Asia (1610) by Jodocus HondiusFundación Elkano

The Maluku Islands

The survivors left in just two ships. They sailed around the Sulu Sea, stopping in Borneo, and finally reaching the Maluku Islands on November 8, 1521.

"We discharged all our artillery. It need not cause wonder that we were so much rejoiced, since we had passed 27 months less two days always in search of Maluco among the islands."

Between Cebu and the Maluku Islands, four men had perished from their battle wounds, one had died suddenly, and another five had been left to their own fate in Borneo.

Map of the Maluku Islands (1760) by Jacques-Nicolas BellinOriginal Source: Geographicus Rare Antique Maps

Return Journey via the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans

On December 21, 1521, the carrack Victoria left Tidore (an island in the Maluku Islands) alone, since a leak had been discovered on the Trinidad, forcing them to discharge the ship's cargo and repair it.

With the carrack loaded up with precious cloves and fresh food, 18 men from the fleet as well as 47 indigenous men from Borneo, with Juan Sebastián Elcano as captain, crossed the Banda Sea as far as Timor, where they entered the Indian Ocean.

Two sailors deserted in Timor.

Americae Sive Quartae Orbis Partis Nova Et Exactissima Descriptio (1562) by Diego GutiérrezOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Cape Verde

Fifteen men from the original fleet and several of the indigenous people died between Timor and Cape Verde. "Having left the last of those islands, in five months, without eating anything but wheat and rice and drinking only water…twenty two men died of hunger; for this reason and for the lack of provisions we landed on the Island of Cape verde."

Twelve men were detained by the Portuguese in Cape Verde.

Elcano's Gift (1922) by Elias SalaverriaOriginal Source: Centro de Colecciones Patrimoniales de Gipuzkoa - Gordailua

The Return Journey

The journey came to an end on September 6.

"We entered the bay of Sanlúcar with just eighteen men, and most of them were sick. Of the 60 men with whom we had left Maluco, some died of hunger, some had fled at the island of Timor, and some had been condemned to death for their crimes. From the day when we left this bay until our return thither, we had completed going round the earth from east to west."

The Ancient Mariner (1866) by Gustav DoréFundación Elkano

The Trinidad's Unsuccessful Return Journey

The carrack Trinidad remained in the Maluku Islands so that the leak that had prevented it from going with the Victoria could be repaired.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1832-1883) by Gustave DoréFundación Elkano

The First Autopsy Recorded at Sea

In April 1522, once it had been repaired, the carrack Trinidad left Tidore for the east, traveling via the Pacific ocean in search of the New World. In the words of the Jerez-born Ginés de Mafra:

"They sailed north east, as far as 42 degrees north… Then people began to die, and on opening one to see why they were dying, they found that in all their bodies it seemed as though all their veins had opened and all the blood had spilled throughout the body."

This was the first autopsy recorded at sea.

The Ancient Mariner (1866) by Gustav DoréFundación Elkano

They experienced powerful storms that damaged their masts, and they were tormented by hunger and scurvy, leaving them with no other option but to return to the Maluku Islands.

It was then that they experienced the greatest losses, with 31 deaths and three desertions. Just 17 men survived and returned to the Maluku Islands, where they were taken prisoner by the Portuguese Antonio de Brito.

Five of them, after suffering unimaginable hardship, were able to return. They included captain Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa and Ginés de Mafra himself.

The Ancient Mariner (1866) by Gustav DoréFundación Elkano

Those who returned from Magellan's expedition had hoped, if successful, that it would be a way to increase their wealth or social standing.

But the risks they took were very high and the reality was that only a very small number managed to come home alive.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curators:

Daniel Zulaika
History graduate
Advisory Committee, Fundación Elkano 500

Javier Almazán
Doctor of Medicine and Surgery, Autonomous University of Madrid.

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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