Magellan's Expedition and Elcano's First Circumnavigation of the Globe

Follow the steps of the first circumnivagation of the globe in this interactive map.

By Fundación Elkano

Fundación Elkano

The route of the first circumnavigation of the world (1519/1522)Fundación Elkano

The Spanish expedition to the Spice Islands set sail with five ships in 1519, led by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan. The journey was completed in 1522 with a single carrack, the Victoria, captained by Juan Sebastián Elcano. By constantly heading west, they managed to circumnavigate the globe for the first time, marking a watershed in the history of navigation.

The expedition, driven by Magellan, had not set out to travel all the way around the world. They set sail in search of a new route to the Maluku Islands, and it was thanks to Elcano that it became one of the greatest exploratory feats of all time, comparable with the moon landings.

Two Powers, One Dividing Line

The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) prohibited Castilian ships from sailing to the Spice Islands via the east and around Africa, which was under Portuguese control. Several people had offered to sail to the west in search of an alternative route to the Maluku Islands. In fact, this had been Christopher Columbus' aim in 1492.

In Search of a Route to the West

Having reached the American continent in search of the East Indies, many people believed that the route lay in the far south of the Atlantic. In 1516, Juan Díaz de Solís reached the Rio de la Plata; however, the expedition did not manage to find the passage. Magellan convinced Charles V to allow him to keep trying.

The Expedition

On August 10, 1519, the expedition left Seville, finally reaching the sea at Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 20. The fleet consisted of the Trinidad, which was the flag ship, as well as the San Antonio, Victoria, Concepción, and Santiago.

On September 26, they stopped off in Tenerife, setting sail again on October 3. The crew would undergo some changes during the course of the expedition.

They followed the African coast to Cape Verde and Sierra Leone, embarking from there on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

On November 29, they reached the coast of Brazil, stopping between 13 and 27 December in the bay of Santa Luzia, in what is now Rio de Janeiro. On this first stop in the Americas, they made contact with indigenous people, trading items for food.

On January 12, 1520, they reached the Plata estuary, where they explored the area around the river, hoping to find the passage to the South Seas.

They reached Port St. Julian in southern Patagonia on March 31, where Magellan decided that they would spend the winter. A mutiny by the other ships' captains was suppressed harshly.

Shortly after, on May 3, the carrack Santiago sunk while exploring a river.

On October 21, the fleet found the entrance to the strait, and began to travel across it. They sailed around the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins, and through a labyrinth of islands. They saw bonfires that had been lit by the indigenous people, naming the archipelago the Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). A few days later, the carrack San Antonio deserted, leaving the expedition behind. It arrived back in Seville in May 1521, claiming not to know what had happened to the rest of the fleet.

On November 28, the Trinidad, the Concepción, and the Victoria found the passage to the South Seas at Cape Desire. The Strait of Magellan, which connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, is 350 miles long. It took the expedition's three ships 38 days to cross it.

For 100 days, they sailed across the largest ocean on the planet (63.8 million square miles), seeing no land other than a few isolated atolls. They named it the Pacific. They were hot and hungry, and beginning to see signs of scurvy.

Finally, on March 6, 1521, they saw dry land, having reached the Mariana Islands. Shortly afterward, on March 16, they arrived in the Philippines.

They spent two months sailing around the numerous islands, making contact with the indigenous people. Magellan attempted to convert the inhabitants to Christianity, defying the terms of the capitulation treaties signed by Charles V.

They reached Cebu on April 7. Magellan became embroiled in various local disputes (in yet another breach of the terms), dying in battle along with several other men on April 27. Other, similarly violent, events followed this one in Cebu, leading to more casualties.

The fleet arrived in Borneo on July 8, setting sail again on July 29. By then, there were not enough crew to operate three ships, so they decided to burn the carrack Concepción and continue their quest to find the Maluku Islands with just two ships.

While traveling this uncertain route, on September 16, 1521, Elcano was appointed captain of the carrack Victoria.

On November 8, 1521—two years and three months after setting sail from Seville—they finally reached their destination: the Maluku Islands.

On December 21, the carrack Trinidad was forced to remain in Tidore, in order to have a significant leak repaired. They decided that it should return to Spain via the east. It was unsuccessful.

Elcano began the return journey via what he thought seemed to be the most practical western route. It was this decision by Elcano that led to the first circumnavigation of the globe.

On January 25, 1522, the fleet stopped off in Timor, resuming their return journey west via the Indian Ocean, along the Portuguese demarcation line. They traveled in isolation for several months without stopovers.

On May 19, 1522, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope. It had taken them a month and a half. Hunger and illness led to several more casualties.

From the moment they left Timor, they sailed far from the coast to avoid capture by the Portuguese.

On July 9, after five months without setting foot on land, they stopped off in the Cape Verde islands for provisions. Since the islands were Portuguese, they did not mention that they had come from the Maluku Islands.

However, they were found out and 12 of their crew as well as a Malukan were captured. The Victoria, however, managed to flee back to Spain.

Following a storm in the Azores, the 18 surviving crew members and three Malukans reached Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 6, and Seville on September 8, three years after they had set sail.

As well as having found a western route to the wealth of the Maluka Islands, the first circumnavigation of the globe proved without a shadow of doubt that the earth was round, as Elcano himself stated in his letter to the Emperor Charles V.

The world had changed forever.

Credits: Story

Mundubira 500 Elkano Fundazioa
Fundación Elkano

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

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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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