Magellan, Elcano and Their Voyage Around the World

Discover the details of the first circumnavigation of the globe.

By Naval Museum

Museo Naval

The Voyage Around the World

In 2019, Spain celebrated 500 years since 5 ships set sail from Seville, heading west in search of a new route to the spices of the east. Around 250 men from at least 9 different countries began the journey, which was funded by the Spanish monarch King Charles I. It was a journey that would end 3 years later with the arrival of just 1 ship carrying 18 men, having completed the first circumnavigation of the world.

We Were The First: Magellan, Elcano, and the Voyage Around the WorldNaval Museum

Chart of Juan de la Cosa (1500) by Juan de la CosaOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

The World of Magellan and Elcano

Finding a maritime route to the east was a constant preoccupation in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The decline of the overland trade route called the Silk Road forced European powers to look for new ways to the east. Portugal began crossing the Atlantic and Spain's Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II and Isabella I, financed Christopher Columbus' voyage in search of a new route.

When Columbus set sail for the Indies in 1492, sea voyages were an adventure into the unknown. The discovery of new lands helped improve cartography, which was essential for navigation. Claudius Ptolemy's Geography, an ancient Roman atlas, was hugely influential in this, as it was the first example of using a systematic method to map the world.

Ptolemy's Mappamundi (1472) by Claudio PtolomeoOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

The first map to depict the Americas was produced in 1500 by Juan de la Cosa. It represents the limits of European knowledge of this new world by the time Ferdinand Magellan's expedition set sail in 1519.

Chart of Juan de la Cosa (1500) by Juan de la CosaOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

In the east, accounts from merchants and travelers alluded to rich and fertile lands. To the south, Portuguese explorers had provided more specific details of the outline of the African coast. Looking west, the tales of Spanish conquistadors described the recently discovered Americas as a new land full of natural riches.

In 1502, Alberto Cantino's Planisphere, or world map, was the first to depict the meridian designated by the Treaty of Tordesillas. Signed in 1494, the treaty divided the rights to sail to and conquer new lands in the Atlantic Ocean and the New World between the Spanish monarchy and Portugal.

The Cantino planisphere. The original is in the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria library in Modena (1502-1505) by AnonimuosOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

Model of the Victoria (2019) by Francisco Fernández González, Luis Fariña Filgueira, Fernando Sagra Sanz, José Antonio Álvarez ManzanaresOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. All rights reserved.

Inspiration and Preparation for the Voyage

By that time, Europe had begun to realize that the Americas were a new continent rather than part of Asia, and so continued to send expeditions there. During one of these, Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the South Sea (now known as the Pacific Ocean) in 1513. This created new opportunities for navigation on the other side of Panama.

Spain and Portugal began searching for a passage to this ocean to reach the Indies, while adhering to the boundaries established in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Signed in 1494, this treaty comprised a series of agreements between King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile on the one hand, and King John II of Portugal on the other. These established a new line of demarcation between their kingdoms from pole to pole, 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.

Ratification of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494)Original Source: Archivo del Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese-born sailor who knew the Portuguese route to Africa and Asia, having sailed in the service of King Manuel I of Portugal for over 20 years. He wanted to begin a journey that would take a new route to the Moluccas (Spice Islands), but the idea did not get far at the Portuguese court. That is how he ended up in Spain, where he was welcomed by the young monarch Charles I, grandchild of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan (19th Century) by Spanish anonimousOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

In 1518, an agreement (the Capitulaciones de Valladolid) was signed between Magellan, his cosmographer Rui Faleiro, and the Spanish monarch to find a new western route to the Spice Islands that avoided the areas under Portuguese control. They had five ships with which to make the journey (the "Trinidad", "San Antonio", "Concepción", "Victoria", and "Santiago"), which the Casa de la Contratación (House of Commerce) supplied with provisions for a planned two-year voyage.

Model of the Victoria (2019) by Francisco Fernández González, Luis Fariña Filgueira, Fernando Sagra Sanz, José Antonio Álvarez Manzanares.Original Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

Model of the Victoria (2019) by Francisco Fernández González, Luis Fariña Filgueira, Fernando Sagra Sanz, José Antonio Álvarez Manzanares.Original Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

The Voyage (1519–22)

The expedition left Seville on August 10, 1519, arriving in Sanlucár de Barrameda 10 days later to collect the final provisions and equipment. From there, they set sail into the unknown, on a journey that would take three years.

The Familiar: From Seville to Río de Solís

Leaving Seville, they journeyed south and, at the beginning of October, they headed southwest across the Atlantic Ocean, which was already familiar to the experienced sailors. On December 13, they dropped anchor in Santa Lucia Bay (now Rio de Janeiro), where they picked up food supplies. In January 1520, they reached the mouth of Río de Solís (now Río de la Plata).

Map of South America (1630) by Gerardis MercatorisOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

The Unknown: From the Río de Solís to The South Sea

Due to the weather, they decided to stop in Port St. Julian. The "Santiago" was lost on a reconnaissance mission, although the crew and cargo were saved. Discontent was starting to grow among the crew due to the rationing of supplies and not knowing which route to follow. Juan de Cartagena, led a mutiny with the support of the "Victoria" and the "Concepción". Magellan quelled the uprising, killing the captain of the "Victoria" (Luis de Mendoza) and the captain of the "Concepción" (Gaspar de Quesada), and abandoning Juan de Cartagena on an island in Patagonia.

Map of America (Siglo XVI) by Diego GutierrezOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

On August 24, the expedition set off again, but with one less ship after the "Santiago" crashed into a sandbank. “On the 21st of the said month [October 1520] … we saw an opening like a bay … within this bay we found a strait … and passing this strait we found another small bay, and then we found another strait …” (Francisco Albo). They had finally found the passage. What is now known as the Strait of Magellan allowed them access to a new ocean that they called the Pacific.

Tierra del Fuego (18th century) by AnónimoOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

The accounts of Antonio Pigafetta describe the never-before-seen animals they discovered there, such as the penguin, now known as the Magellanic penguin. During this discovery, the "San Antonio" deserted the expedition and turned east, back to Spain.

PenguinOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

The seas gradually became more difficult to navigate. They crossed open waters that were unknown to them, leading to a shortage in supplies and illness among the crew. The expedition landed on islands such as San Pablo, Guam, and the Caroline Islands, signing treaties of loyalty to the king of Spain and spreading Christianity along the way. Finally, in 1521, they reached the Archipelago of San Lazaro, now the Philippines.

Model of a rowboat (rocking boat) (19th Century) by Spanish anonimousOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

Magellan's Death

The commander of the expedition established good relations with the king of Cebu, Rajah Humabon, arousing suspicion in the other local kings. Quarrels broke out, with some in favor of the Spanish and others against, creating a hostile environment. Finally, in 1521, Magellan and 60 men confronted Lapu-Lapu, the king of Mactan. The island's reefs stopped the Spanish artillery boats from landing and they were attacked by 1,500 islanders. Magellan died in the battle.

Kris with wavy blade (c. 1840) by Philippine anonimousOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

Elcano and the Arrival at the Moluccas

The early departure from the Philippines led to a reorganization of the remaining crew. They set fire to the "Concepción", which was in poor condition, and the crew were split between the two remaining ships. The "Trinidad" was commanded by Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, and Juan Sebastián Elcano became captain of the "Victoria". At last, on November 8, 1521, they caught sight of the Moluccas, landing on Tidore.

Primus Circumdedisti Me (2019) by Augusto Ferrer DalmauOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

After arriving at these islands, they discovered the "Trinidad" was no longer seaworthy. Gómez de Espinosa stayed for a few months to repair the ship and wait for more favorable winds to help them sail east and return via the Americas. Meanwhile, Elcano began the return journey across the Indian Ocean towards Africa, setting course for the Cape of Good Hope, which was under Portuguese control.

Juan Sebastián Elcano (1854) by J. DononOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

The Return of the Victoria from the Moluccas to Seville

Following more storms and illnesses, the "Victoria" landed in Cape Verde, in Portuguese territory, in May 1522 to carry out repairs and take on supplies. When the Portuguese discovered their cargo and the origin of the crew, they were forced to abandon the island suddenly, leaving some of the crew on land.

Model of the Victoria (2019) by Francisco Fernández González, Luis Fariña Filgueira, Fernando Sagra Sanz, José Antonio Álvarez ManzanaresOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. All rights reserved.

“On the 4th of the said month [September 1522], in the morning, we saw land, and it was Cape St. Vincent, and it was to the northeast of us, and so we changed our course to the southeast …” (Francisco Albo). They had finally returned home. The "Victoria" reached Seville with 18 survivors, 4 days after catching sight of Cape St. Vincent. They had made it possible to carry out commercial trade around the world. They were the first to circumnavigate the globe.

Juan Sebastián Elcano returning to Seville in 1522 (Ca. 1944-45) by Elías Salaverría InchaurrandietaOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

The king summoned Juan Sebastián Elcano to Valladolid, where he gave him a personal report on the mission and requested the rescue of the crew members held prisoner in Cape Verde. The monarch granted him a lifetime income of 500 gold ducats a year—which he never paid him—and a coat of arms featuring a world globe with the inscription, "Primus circumdedisti me (You were the first to circumnavigate me)."

Charles V welcoming back Elcano (1854) by Carlos Mugica y PérezOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

Elcano died four years later, during a new mission to the Moluccas led by García Jofre de Loaísa. The current Spanish navy training ship bears his name in his honor.

Model of the barquentine Juan Sebastián de Elcano, a training ship for the Royal Spanish Navy (1927–active service) (1982-1987) by José Francisco Arregui ArambarriOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

Descriptio Maris Pacifici (1589) by Abraham OrteliusOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Todos los derechos reservados.

Legacy: A New World

The importance of the Magellan-Elcano voyage far exceeded the original plans for the expedition.

What began as a mission to find a way to the Spice Islands, far from the Portuguese routes, became a successful enterprise for two other reasons: it helped prove the shape of the Earth and showed that the Americas were not part of the Indies, but in fact a whole new continent. It generated numerous economic, geographic, and political changes, and led to the beginnings of globalization.

Universal Chart (1866) by Diego RiberoOriginal Source: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican City)

Credits: Story

Organized by the Naval Museum, Madrid

Curators: Enrique Martínez Ruiz, Susana García Ramírez, José María Moreno Martín

Online adaptation: Blanca Sazatornil, Alicia Suárez. Outreach Department, Naval Museum, 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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