The First Ships to Circumnavigate the Globe

Learn about the five carrack sailing ships involved in the Magellan-Elcano expedition.

By Fundación Elkano

Museo Marítimo Vasco

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1588) by Abraham OrteliusOriginal Source: The Library of Congress

Five hundred years ago, five ships set sail on Ferdinand Magellan's expedition in search of a new route to the Maluku Islands and their highly prized spices.

The ships' names were Trinidad, Santiago, Victoria, Concepción, and San Antonio.

Only one of the five returned to port in 1522: the Nao (the Spanish word for carrack) Victoria was the only survivor. With Juan Sebastián Elcano in command, the ship traveled west on its return journey, making it the first vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

16th-century Basque ships in the port of San Sebastián (2014) by Juan Carlos ArbexOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Four of the ships were medium-sized and designed to carry goods, coming in at around 85 to 120 tons.

The fifth ship was smaller, more agile, and intended for exploration.

Three carracks from Biscay represented the best of the Basque Country's merchant fleet. Although modest in size, they were particularly suitable for transatlantic crossings.

This major achievement for the Basque Country was possible because it was home to nautical skills and naval technology that had dominated the main maritime routes in Western Europe for a century.

Over 80% of the boats involved in trade between England and the Iberian Peninsula, and along the Indies run, were Basque.

Leaving the Moluccas (2019) by K6 Gestión CulturalOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco

Nao Trinidad

One of two ships (the Victoria was the other) to achieve their goal of reaching the Maluku Islands.

Nao Trinidad, Lekeito

62 tripulantes
Capitán de la flota: Fernando de Magallanes
Piloto: Estêvão Gomes
Maestre: Juan Bautista
Capacidad: 110 toneles
Propietario original: Nicolás de Artieta
(Lekeitio, Bizkaia)

Moluccæ Insulæ Celeberrimæ (1630) by Willem Janszoon BlaeuFundación Elkano

The Basque carrack Santa Catalina de Siena had been renamed Trinidad and made the expedition's flagship when it reached the Maluku Islands along with the Nao Victoria.

However, once loaded with spices, it didn't manage to retrace its outbound route across the Pacific Ocean and return to Spain.

Map of Tidore (1720) by François ValentijnFundación Elkano

The Trinidad moored off the island of Tidore for four months while a major defect was repaired before resuming its attempts to find a return route sailing east via the Pacífic.

Having been battered by a storm, and with supplies running out, it returned to the Maluku Islands, where it was seized by the Portuguese and dismantled to build a fort in Ternate.

Zarpe de Magallanes del Puerto de Sevilla (1920) by Manuel García y RodríguezOriginal Source: Club Naval de Vaparaiso, Chile

Nao San Antonio

The expedition deserter.

Description of Biscay (1707) by Pieter Van Der AaOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Fifty-seven crew members

Captain and King's Overseer: Juan de Cartagena
Pilot: Juan Rodríguez Mafra
Master: Juan de Elorriaga
Tonnage: 120 tons
Original Owner: Diego de Asua (Erandio, Biscay)

Bilvao: Illustration from the Book Civitaes Orbis Terrarum (1575-1617) by Georg Braun Franz HogenbergFundación Elkano

The Santa María was renamed San Antonio for the expedition. Records say it had been seized by officials from the House of Commerce (Casa de Contratación) in Seville for 880 ducats against the will of its owner Diego de Asua, who lived in Santa María de Erandio (Biscay).

The San Antonio in the Strait of Magellan (1606) by Jodocus HondiusOriginal Source: Library of Congress

While the San Antonio was exploring the strait, those onboard were concerned that Magellan wouldn't be able to find a way out. The ship deserted the fleet and returned to Seville, sailing alone for over five and a half months across the Atlantic Ocean.

Antonio Pigafetta's diary reports:

"The Captain-General sent the San Antonio and the Concepción to the south-east to discover if the channel came out into the open sea. The first ship left immediately … not wanting to wait for the second, which was staying behind because the pilot hoped to use the cover of darkness to follow back along the outbound route and return to Spain …
The Concepción, being unable to keep up with the San Antonio, could only sail about in the channel and await its return, although this was in vain."

The Victoria arriving in Sanlúcar (2019) by Sebastián GómezOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Nao Victoria

The first carrack to circumnavigate the globe.

Ondarroa, views from the port (1850) by Blanche Hennebutte-FeilletOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Forty-five crew members

Captain: Luis de Mendoza
Pilot: Vasco Gallego
Master: Antonio Salomón
Tonnage: 85 tons
Original Owner: Domingo de Apallua (Ondarroa, Biscay)

The Pacific Ocean (1589) by Abraham OrteliusFundación Elkano

The Nao Victoria was the protagonist of the first global circumnavigation between 1519 and 1522. The ship came from Ondarroa (Biscay) and was the only one of the five involved in the expedition to complete it.

Originally known as the Santa María, it was owned by the Ondarroan shipowner and shipper Domingo de Apallua and renamed Victoria after it was acquired by the Casa de Contratación.

The carrack Victoria arriving at Cape St. Vincent. (1985) by Guillermo González de AledoOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

Incredibly, the Victoria was in such a good condition after its challenging voyage around the globe that it continued to cross the oceans afterwards.

In February 1523, it was sold to a private buyer and then used for commercial trips to America. It was lost on one of these voyages in 1525.

Ships passing by Tierra del Fuego (2019) by Sebastián GómezOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Nao Concepción

The carrack they had to sacrifice due to a lack of crew in Cebu.

General maps of Galicia (1611) by Mercator/HondiusOriginal Source: Instituto Geográfico Nacional

Forty-four crew members

Captain: Gaspar de Quesada
Royal Pilot: João Lopes Carvalho
Master: Juan Sebastián Elcano
Tonnage: 90 tons
Original Owner: Juan Montero (Galicia)

Juan Sebastián Elcano (1921) by Ignacio ZuloagaOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Although we don't know what the ship Galician Nao was originally called, we do know that it was renamed Concepción and acquired for 600 ducats, according to the cost breakdown for the expedition.

Juan Sebastián Elcano was Master of this ship until it was burnt by expedition members in the Philippines because there weren't enough crew members to manage three boats.

The island of Borneo (1521) by Antonio de PigafettaFundación Elkano

Antonio Pigafetta explains:

"We left the island of Zubu and set out to drop anchor at the head of an island called Bohol,
which was 18 leagues away, and seeing how our crews were so reduced in number that they could not manage all three ships, we decided to burn the Concepción after transporting anything serviceable it contained onto the other vessels. We then took the south/south-west course, coasting an island called Panilongon, where the people were as black as in Ethiopia."

Shipwreck of the Santiago (2019) by Sebastián GómezOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Nao Santiago

The ship that was wrecked off the coast of Patagonia.

Seville (2019) by K6 Gestión CulturalOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco

Thirty-one crew members

Captain and Royal Pilot: João Serrão
Master: Baltasar Genovés
Tonnage: 75 tons
Original Owner: Unknown (from Brittany?)

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

As the smallest of the five ships involved in the expedition, the Santiago was tasked with exploring the coast. It could carry 31 sailors and 75 tons.

While at work on May 20, 1520, it hit the rocks in Argentina's Río de la Plata estuary and was shipwrecked.

Shipwreck of the Santiago (2019) by Sebastián GómezOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Antonio Pigafetta reports in his diary:

"The Santiago, which had been sent to explore the coastline, was shipwrecked on the rocks, although the crew was miraculously saved. Two sailors traveled overland to the port where we were to inform ourselves of the disaster, whereupon the Commander in Chief sent out men with sacks of cake."

The Loaisa Expedition (1921) by Pablo UrangaOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

A Second Expedition to the Maluku Islands in 1525

The Loaísa fleet set sail with six carracks and a patache. Juan Sebastián Elcano was Head Pilot and Second in Command.

Bilvao: Illustration from the Book Civitaes Orbis Terrarum (1575-1617) by Georg Braun Franz HogenbergFundación Elkano

The vessels were built in Portugalete (Biscay). Three of the carracks were substantially bigger to make them more suitable for long ocean voyages and able to transport more cargo. Two had twice as much tonnage as the biggest carracks involved in the first expedition, and the third had three times as much.

Although this second expedition failed, it still represented progress in the 16th-century Great Exploration Era.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curator:

Xabier Alberdi Lonbide
Doctor of History
Basque Maritime Museum

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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