The Longest Journey: The Exploration

Discover the highs and lows of the expedition that marked the first circumnavigation of the world.

By Acción Cultural Española, AC/E

Antonio Fernández Torres, Guillermo Morán Dauchez (General Archive of the Indies) and Braulio Vázquez Campos (General Archive of the Indies).

The Exploration by Lola Bermúdez (Tannhauser Estudio)Acción Cultural Española, AC/E

"… there are … utopias that occupy a precise and real place, a place that can be located on a map."

Michel Foucault, French philosopher.

Europa and Asia by Lola Bermúdez (Tannhauser Estudio)Acción Cultural Española, AC/E

About 500 years ago in Seville, Europe's long-awaited dream of reaching the unexplored, mythical lands of the Orient and the Spice Islands became a reality.
Ferdinand Magellan set off on his voyage in 1519, and three years later it became the longest voyage of the era: the first circumnavigation of the world was completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano, captain of the Victoria, and his crew in 1522.

Storm in Puerto Deseado (1769) by Alejo BerlingueroOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

Sailing South: The Time for Navigation 

Sanlúcar de Barrameda—Río de la Plata | September 20, 1519—February 10, 1520 (143 days)

The Unknown by Braulio VázquezAcción Cultural Española, AC/E


With the ships at the ready and the crew on board, the Captain-General ordered the sails to be dropped, and the five ships sailed into the ocean. Magellan wanted to cross the Atlantic and reach the edge of the explored territories as soon as possible. However, he was a distrustful man and hid the details of the passage from his captains. Every change in direction made the other captains suspicious. The Atlantic, with its mix of calm and stormy conditions, brought out the Armada's strengths and weaknesses: they had good ships and good men, but a seed of discord had started to grow among those in command.
>Take a virtual tour of the exhibition in the General Archive of the Indies.

Order by Charles I to Ferdinand Magellan and Rui Faleiro / Page 01Archivos Estatales

In the Charters of Valladolid (Capitulaciones de Valladolid), the King had given detailed, written instructions to Magellan and Faleiro, though Faleiro never made it to sea.
The structure of the activities of the expedition was laid out in 74 highly detailed articles. The articles addressed topics such as how they were to navigate and what the rules of living aboard the ships should be. The articles also stressed the importance of maintaining peace and harmony with the people native to where they landed in order to keep trade relations flowing.

Order by Charles I to Ferdinand Magellan and Rui Faleiro Order by Charles I to Ferdinand Magellan and Rui Faleiro / Page 11Archivos Estatales


Every member of the expedition party also had the right to document the events of the voyage in order to communicate them to the Crown. This undoubtedly fostered the myriad first-hand accounts of the voyage, however, in reality, it was the Monarchy's means of exercising its control over its own representatives and commanders. If anyone could communicate directly with the King, everyone would make sure they carefully abided by his orders.

The Victoria by Antonio Fernández Torres (Tannhauser Estudio)Acción Cultural Española, AC/E

The Calm

With no speed, no command, dead sails, and the ships' bows at the mercy of the currents, they did not sail in the ocean, but rather floated there. Heat and inactivity settled over the ships, the days went by, the voyage became longer, and water and food was rationed. The inactive crew thought and whispered about the impotence of the navigators and captains. This long period of unsettled calm was a breeding ground for indiscipline and rebellion.

Map of the Government of the Río de la Plata (1683)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

Finally, the fleet reached Río de la Plata and sailed along the coast of America. For every mile they traveled south, the wind became harder, colder, and more hostile—this was the most dangerous and inhospitable coastline. Exhaustion and doubt invaded the minds of the crew. How far did they have to sail until they found a way through?

Figurative drawing of the difficulties faced by two boats at the command of frigate lieutenant Manuel de Pando (1769) by Alexo BerlingueroOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

In the bay of los Trabajos (possibly current-day Puerto Deseado, Argentina), the crew had to take shelter due to a terrible storm as the Trinidad was in danger."They at last petitioned their admiral, Magellan … to think about going home, to turn back to where the winter was not so harsh … and to be satisfied and content himself with having gone farther than either the boldness or rashness of mortals had ever dared to go as yet." Maximilianus Transylvanus.

Terra Brasilis and the South Atlantic (ca. 1519) by Lopo Homem, Pedro Reinel, Jorge ReinelOriginal Source: Biblioteca Nacional de Francia

Sailing Into the Unknown: The Extreme South

Río de la Plata—Strait of Magellan | February 2, 1520–November 28, 1520 (300 days)

From the Río de la Plata to the Magellan Strait by Lola Bermúdez (Tannhauser Estudio)Acción Cultural Española, AC/E

Magellan decided to sail as far south as needed, but the southern fall hit them with force and the crew were exhausted and divided. They quickly decided to take shelter in a bay which they named San Julián, and the food supplies were rationed. While there they met the Patagones people, a bloody mutiny took place, and they endured a long and harsh winter that lasted five months. The men were suffering from the cold and hunger, but above all, they feared their captain's determination and silence. This fear spread throughout the crew, and a mutiny eventually broke out.

What do explorers fear?

The scientists and explorers Pedro Duque, Tomás Mazón, Tomás Echegoyen, Kitín Múñoz, Íñigo Múñoz, Matthias Mauer, and Ignacio Orcada, among others, speak of their fears as they embarked on a voyage into the unknown.

Coat of arms of Gonzalo Gómez Espinosa (1528)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

Coats of arms of Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa

Many of the coats of arms bestowed upon explorers depicted events from their adventures and featured on their furniture. Such items have become important symbolic artefacts of the events. One example of this is the coat of arms bestowed upon Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, the chief constable who squashed the mutiny against Magellan in San Julián. This coat of arms depicts his participation in the circumnavigation of the world as well as particular events that occurred during the expedition.



Map of the Kingdom of Chile (ca. 1646)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

The Strait: The Point of No Return

Strait of Magellan | October 21, 1520–November 28, 1520 (37 days)

The Strait by Braulio VázquezAcción Cultural Española, AC/E

With the arrival of a southern spring, the four ships set course to the south. After only three days sailing, they found a bay, and behind it lay a maze of canals and expanses that disappeared into the mountains. Could this be the pass into the South Sea they had hoped for?

Maritime Map of the Magellan Strait (1769) by Juan de la Cruz Cano y OlmedillaOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

A map created by the cartographer Juan de la Cruz Cano y Olmedilla shows the labyrinth of the Strait of Magellan, made up of a maze of canals. The expedition party crossed dense, frozen waters in the daunting silence of the wilderness. Their solitude was only broken by bursts of flame in the night in the southerly lands Magellan named Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). Battling a glacial ocean, successive explorations were undertaken in search of the open waters of the Pacific.

Map of the former Kingdom of Chile (1646)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

This map of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Chile (which is in an unusual orientation) depicts the so-called giants (large Patagones natives), who the crew were astounded by, and tailed people (known as rabudos). This gives some insight into the myths that spread throughout the continent of America.

Map of the extreme south of the American continent (1671-08-29)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

For over a month, and with guns raised, Magellan's fleet explored and crossed the maze of tides and winds of the strait that would one day bear his name. They finally succeeded in finding a pass on November 28 and ventured into a new sea. They had achieved their first goal, but by then only three ships remained: the Trinidad, the Victoria, and the Concepción. The San Antonio had deserted them.

Information from Álvaro de la Mezquita on the takeover of the San Antonio Information from Álvaro de la Mezquita on the takeover of the San Antonio / Page 03Archivos Estatales

The San Antonio arrived at the port of Las Muelas in Seville in May 1521 under strange circumstances: in addition to deserting the expedition, the crew had taken their captain, Antonio de Mezquita, prisoner following a mutiny against him for having refused to abandon Magellan, to whom he was related. It was clear to officials at the House of Trade that they needed to question all those involved in order to unravel the story of what lead to such an unprecedented turn of events.

Letter from Juan López de Recalde to Juan Rodríguez Fonseca Letter from Juan López de Recalde to Juan Rodríguez Fonseca / Page 01 by Juan López de RecaldeArchivos Estatales

The head bookkeeper, Juan López de Recalde, undertook the arduous task of interrogating the sailors one by one, and the outcome was outlined in this letter dated May 12, 1521, which he sent to the Bishop of Burgos, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, who was head of the Council of the Indies.

The sailors testified before López de Recalde, stating that they had decided to abandon the expedition because they believed—in error—that the passage Magellan was looking for was inviable, and they presumed the rest of the ships had been lost to their exploration into the strait. The Spanish authorities were not very optimistic about the expedition given these were the first reports they received on the fate of Magellan's voyage.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1588) by Abraham OrtelioOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

The Pacific: The Endless Ocean

Strait of Magellan—Mariana Islands | November 28, 1520–March 6, 1521 (a 99-day crossing)

The Pacific Ocean by Braulio VázquezAcción Cultural Española, AC/E

Leaving the pass in their wake, the three ships entered what they knew as the South Sea. They imagined they were sailing toward India, near the Moluccas, unaware that they were crossing the largest ocean on earth. Europeans had never crossed this ocean before, and their maps were of no use to them there.

The Pacific Ocean by Braulio VázquezAcción Cultural Española, AC/E

It took them 100 days to cross the Pacific Ocean. The crew suffered from hunger, disease, and confusion as they sailed. For 100 days and 100 nights, the ocean and the earth showed humans just how vast it really was. Magellan was aware of his mistake: no one would ever wish to undertake the same voyage again.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1588) by Abraham OrtelioArchivos Estatales

The map of the known world that was used up until the early 16th century came directly from the classical tradition of the Greek geographer and mathematician Ptolemy (2nd century AD). Spurred on by the first expeditions beyond Europe, humanists found a more accurate way to describe and map out the relief of the earth. Using astronomical calculations and observation, they discovered how to use longitude to determine the position of ships at sea in relation to a specific point.

In the 16th century, the Flemish scholar and merchant Abraham Ortelius (Amberes, 1527–98), cosmographer to King Philip II of Spain, published an atlas that brought together all the maps of the known world as well as new discoveries. In doing so, he portrayed America, the discovery of the Pacific by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513, and the strait discovered by Magellan. In total, Ortelio used 87 maps which had been created by other voyagers and mapmakers.

NightAcción Cultural Española, AC/E

The night. Darkness and silence.

Through the night, the ships sailed in darkness. Watchmen manned the ships and followed the captain's lantern. To prevent any fires, only a small lantern was used to light the compass that was housed in the binnacle. A vigilant pageboy stood next to the lantern, looking after it and the only clock aboard the ship: an hourglass. The watchmen followed the sounds of the sheets, sails, and the bow of the flagship as it chopped through the waves. They could make do without light—they just needed silence, which was broken every half-hour by a child's voice shouting out the time as he turned the hourglass.

The Longest Voyage. SeaAcción Cultural Española, AC/E

Continue to the next stage of the adventure: The Longest Voyage: The Destination.

Credits: Story

Adaptation of the exhibition "The Longest Journey: The First Around the World".

Organizers: Spanish Cultural Action, Ministry of Culture. General Archive of the Indies
Curated by: Antonio Fernández Torres, Guillermo Morán Dauchez, Braulio Vázquez Campos
Program: Raquel Mesa
Images: Archivo General de Indias, Tannhauser Estudio

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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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