In the Wake of Juan Sebastián Elcano

What do historical documents tell us about Elcano, the first circumnavigation of the globe, and what the world was like at the time?

By Fundación Elkano

Itsasmuseum Bilbao

Vista de la exposición (2019)Original Source: Itsasmuseum

This is an online adaptation of the exhibition of the same name, organized and produced by the Itsasmuseum in Bilbao. It brings together unpublished documents from a range of international libraries and archives, including the General Archive of the Indies, the Torre do Tombo National Archive, the Basque Historical Archive, and the National Libraries of Spain, Portugal, and France. Visitors to the exhibition can learn all about the Basque explorer, what he achieved, and the context in which those achievements took place.

Relación de gastos Relación de gastosOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

Elcano Steps into History

Juan Sebastián Elcano was born in Getaria in the late 15th century, during an era of great nautical exploits. In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the South Sea. This presented a new challenge for explorers of the time: to find a route to the South Sea (as the Pacific Ocean was known at the time) from the Atlantic, and a new route to Asia. It was the Portuguese-born Ferdinand Magellan who won the support of Charles V of Spain to take on the challenge.

In early 1519, Juan Sebastián signed up to Magellan's expedition in Seville. According to this document, he was assigned to the carrack Victoria as a boatswain. "Juan Sebastián del Cano, boatswain of the carrack Victoria, began his service on Saturday 8th January 1519, and will receive 1,500 maravedís per month as salary and maintenance."

Calderos (1600)Original Source: Museo Vasco

Biscay and the Spice Islands

The first entry in the expenses book for Magellan's fleet was for 1,500 gold ducats, sent to Biscay for Captain Artieta, an inhabitant of the town of Lekeitio. The payment was ordered by the King, who told officials at the House of Commerce (Casa de la Contratación) that they would find the best supplies for the fleet there, at the best prices. Particularly interesting items among the equipment and supplies included the Biscayan iron instruments, which were highly prized at the time.

Expropiación de la Nao Victoria (1518)Original Source: Archivo Histórico Provincial de Sevilla

Of the five ships in the fleet, three were from Biscay: the Trinidad, the San Antonio, and the Santa María, renamed the Victoria. The Victoria was an 85-tonel ship. It was seized from Domingo de Apallua of Ondarroa, Biscay, for 800 ducats. “All those who read this letter should know that I, Pedro de Arismendi, son of Domingo de Apallua, resident of the town of Ondárroa, in the county of Biscay … state that you, the official judges of the house of commerce of the Indies of the oceanic sea, have taken from me a carrack named Santa María for the service of the queen and of the king her son … .”

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

The Departure

Destined for the Maluku Islands (Moluccas), the expedition left Seville on August 10, 1519. Of the approximately 243 men on the expedition, 31 were Basque. The five ships (Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria, and Santiago), set off from Sanlúcar on September 20, headed for the open sea. A week later, they reached Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain). After restocking, they sailed around the coast of Guinea and headed across the Atlantic for Brazil. They reached Rio de Janeiro on December 13, where they bought fresh produce in exchange for trinkets such as playing cards.

Indios nativos de Tierra de Fuego (1883/1960) by Alberto Maria de AgostiniOriginal Source: Museo Nazionale della Montagna

Patagonia and the Tierra de Fuego

From Brazil, the five ships headed for the Rio de la Plata. This river was the dividing line between charted and uncharted lands. Having sailed the length of this vast river, they entered the unknown, reaching what we now know as Patagonia. In a port they named St. Julian, the explorers encountered some indigenous people whom they named Patagonians. Due to the weather conditions—and against the wishes of the Castilian officials—Magellan decided that they should remain there for the winter. Three ships mutinied, but Magellan successfully suppressed the rebellions. They were put to an end with the executions of the captains Quesada and Mendoza.

Declaration of Elcano, Albo, and Bustamante on the details of the first voyage across the world / Page 01Archivos Estatales

On the Other Side of the Pacific

On November 27, 1520, they discovered the Strait that would take them to the South Sea. They named that sea the Pacific, due to the absence of storms. Magellan was welcomed on the island of Cebu and, as they wanted to conquer the islands, they took the decision to attack the neighboring island of Mactan. The indigenous people were far more numerous and more successful in battle, managing to kill Magellan. Juan Sebastián had made it clear that he opposed this decision. Carvalho was appointed Captain-General, but was soon dismissed for irresponsible conduct and, following a vote, replaced by Espinosa. Elcano was appointed Captain of the Victoria.

He was asked 12 questions. He answered that "the aforementioned Magellan went to wage war against and burn the houses of the town of Mactan so that the King of Mactan would kiss the hands of the King of Cebu, because he would not send a bushel of rice and a goat as payment …"

Especias (2019)Original Source: Itsasmuseum

Tidore: Land of Cloves

On November 8, 1521, the Trinidad and the Victoria reached Tidore, one of the spice islands.
Juan Sebastián was surprised to find that, although there was an abundance of spices, the islanders lived in poverty. Despite the setbacks, they loaded up their holds with thousands of quintals of cloves and set off again. The basic unit of currency at that time was the maravedí. An investment of 1000 maravedís spent on cloves in the Spice Islands could be turned into 100,000 maravedís when they were sold in Europe.

Primera circunnavegación (2019)Original Source: Itsasmuseum

The Circumnavigation

The fleet took advantage of the winter monsoon and its winds propelled them toward Africa. However, soon after they had set off, a leak was discovered on the Trinidad. The Victoria continued the journey alone, accomplishing one of the most extraordinary feats in navigation: crossing the Indian and the Atlantic oceans to Cape Verde without stopovers, and from Cape Verde to Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 5, 1522. Of the nine Basque crew members who had boarded the Victoria in Tidore, four completed the journey around the globe.

Carta escrita por Elkano a su llegada a Sanlúcar de Barramenda (1522) by Juan Sebastian ElcanoOriginal Source: Itsasmuseum

The Captain's Letter

Elcano wrote to the king to tell him what the expedition had accomplished. The letter was copied and sent to several European chancelleries. Although the original was lost, 300 years later, five copies were discovered in various European cities. What is especially remarkable is the shared vision shown by the captain in his brief account of the journey. “… your Majesty will know that … we have discovered and traveled around the entire circumference of the earth, setting off to the west and returning from the east … .” Sanlúcar, September 6, 1522. —Captain Juan Sebastián del Cano.

Carta del emperador Carlos V (1522) by Emperador Carlos VOriginal Source: Archivo Htco. de Euskadi (EAH-AHE)

The Court of Valladolid

Although the emperor was pleased by the news, Elcano could not evade a court appearance.
The King of Portugal demanded his punishment, accusing him of having broken his word by straying into Portuguese territory. The emperor convened the Kingdom's Council of Justice, and Elcano was unanimously absolved. “ … I saw the letter which you wrote to me from Sanlúcar in which you told me of your safe arrival with the carrack Victoria … I command that after seeing this letter, you should take two of the people who came with you, the most rational and soundest of mind, and bring them to where I am … .”

El perdón (1523) by Carlos IOriginal Source: Archivo Htco. de Euskadi (EAH-AHE)

In January 1523, the emperor announced that Elcano was to be paid an annual salary of 500 ducats, although he never received it. Payment of this salary depended on the new House of Commerce for Spices in the Spanish city A Coruña raising sufficient revenue. He was also presented with a coat of arms commemorating his achievement: “Primus Circundedisti me.” The crime he had committed several years earlier—selling his ship to foreign merchants—was pardoned. “… I hereby remit and pardon you of any punishment, whether civil or criminal, that you have incurred through the selling of the aforementioned carrack to the aforementioned foreigners and I regard you and your heirs as free, henceforth and forever … .”

Vista general de Badajoz (1806/1820) by François Jacques DequevauvillerOriginal Source: Biblioteca Nacional de España

Juan Sebastián, Commissioner of the Emperor

In late 1523, Charles V ordered Juan Sebastián to gather all the men that he could of those who had returned with him on the Victoria, to appear before the Court. The Crowns of Castile and Portugal had agreed to hold a meeting with a delegation of scholars, cosmographers, and pilots, aiming to resolve the issue of the rights of the two kingdoms over the newly discovered Spice Islands. These sessions took place in the towns of Badajoz and Elvas.

Junta de Badajoz-Elvas (1524) by Archivo de la Torre de Tombo?Original Source: Archivo de la Torre de Tombo

Those appearing before the Conference included Ferdinand Columbus (the son of Christopher Columbus), Juan Sebastián Elcano, and Juan Vespucio (the nephew of Amerigo Vespucci). Both the Castilians and the Portuguese used maps to claim that the Maluku Islands fell into their own areas of influence. After months of discussion, no agreement was reached. "… standing on the bridge on the bank of the Caia, which is the line between these kingdoms of Castile and the kingdom of Portugal, were present and together the most noble and virtuous gentlemen Messrs Ferdinand Columbus, Simón de Alcazaba and Captain Juan Sebastián del Cano."

Armadura del siglo XVI (16th century)Original Source: Museo de Armería de Alava

The Second Expedition to the Spice Islands

On December 22, 1522, the Crown established the House of Commerce in A Coruña to deal with trade with the Spice Islands and the organization of its fleets and expeditions. After the Conference of Badajoz, Juan Sebastián moved to Bermeo, where he was second-in-command of the new fleet to the Spice Islands. García Jofre de Loaysa was Captain-General. In Bermeo, Captain Artieta had been working on the preparations for some time. They stocked up on artillery and ammunition.

Carta al Rey de Portugal (1525) by Antonio RibeiroOriginal Source: Archivo de la Torre de Tombo

Four of the expedition's seven carracks were built in Biscay: Victoria, Sancti Spiritus, Anunciada, and San Gabriel. The emperor informed Artieta that a 350-tonel carrack of high-quality wood was being built in the shipyard at Bermeo, and urged him to take possession of it. The carrack was requisitioned. The ship's capacity was four times that of the Victoria, and they gave it the same name for good luck. "These are the new ones that are now on this land: the four carracks that the emperor ordered to be built in Bilbao for India are expected soon."

Salida del puerto de A Coruña para las Islas Molucas (1854) by J.J. MartinezOriginal Source: Biblioteca Nacional de España

The seven ships of the second expedition to the Spice Islands left A Coruña on July 24, 1525.
In total, about a hundred Basques were among the crew, including two of Juan Sebastián Elcano's brothers. Andrés de Urdaneta, a 17-year-old from Ordizia, joined the crew as Juan Sebastián’s servant. This young man, who would go on to discover a key oceanic route, wrote a diary containing an extremely valuable account of the events on the expedition.

El sueño de Cipango (1536/1580) by Andres de UrdanetaOriginal Source: Real Biblioteca, Palacio Real

In Search of Cipango

Only four of the seven ships entered the strait. On May 26, they sailed into the Pacific, and into a storm that separated the ships. They did not find each other again, and the Victoria continued its journey alone. Loaysa died in July and Elcano, who was ill, was appointed Captain-General. Elcano changed Magellan's route, heading north. Urdaneta's view of these plans was unequivocal: according to him, the intention was always to travel in search of Cipango.

"I believe that if Juan Sebastián de Elcano had not died, we would not have reached the Islands of the Thieves so soon, because his intention had always been to go in search of Cipango; it was for this reason that he sailed so close to dry land in New Spain." Account given by the knight commander Loaisa of the events that occurred during the expedition to the Spice Islands.

Andrés de Urdaneta, un testigo de excepción (1580) by Andres de UrdanetaOriginal Source: Real Biblioteca, Palacio Real

On Monday, August 6, eight degrees above the line of the equator, Captain Juan Sebastián Elcano died. Three days later, the ship's officials decided not to continue traveling north. Of the seven ships, only the Victoria reached the Maluku Islands. Once there, they set fire to the ship so that they could make use of the ironwork, which would be essential for building a new ship in which they could return home. “Monday 6th August, the magnificent gentleman Juan Sebastián de Elcano, Captain-General and Governor, died.”

Elcano's Last Will and Testament / 08VOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

Last Will and Testament

Juan Sebastián's will was handwritten by Urdaneta. In his will, Juan Sebastián remembered relatives, servants, and fellow crew members, leaving them clothing and food. He recognized his son and daughter, born to different mothers. He had a daughter, who remained in Valladolid, with María de Vidaurreta. He left 400 ducats to his daughter, on the condition that she went to live in Getaria and married well. The son that he had with Mari de Getaria was named as his main heir. If his son had died, his legacy would have gone to the boy's grandmother, Catalina (Juan Sebastián's mother) as the beneficial owner of the legacy.

María, primera mujer que cruzó el Pacífico (2019)Original Source: Itsasmuseum

The First Woman to Cross the Pacific

When Elcano died, around 120 men were left on the Victoria; or rather, 120 men and a black woman called María, along with her son. The existence of this woman was confirmed by the Spanish captain Saavedra. On his way from Mexico to the Maluku Islands, while coming to the assistance of Loaysa's fleet, he took in a shipwreck survivor in the Philippines. The witness, Sebastián del Puerto, testified to a number of things, including the fact that a black woman had been traveling on Loaysa's ship.

Euskera en las Islas de las Especias (2019)Original Source: Itsasmuseum

A King who Spoke Basque

Following Elcano's death, just over 100 men managed to reach the Spice Islands, where they lived for seven years. While there, they spent time in the company of Prince Mira, who later became king. The Portuguese diarist Fernao de Castanheda reported that King Mira of Tidore, having grown up with the Castilians, prided himself on being able to speak their language, as well as Biscayan and Portuguese.

Elkano (2019)Original Source: Itsasmuseum

A Legacy

This exhibition aims to look in greater depth at the life of Juan Sebastián Elcano. It shows the significant role that the historic land of Biscay played in the logistics of the two expeditions. Based on evidence from historical documents and items from collections and museums, our aim has been to enhance what is already known about the life of this explorer, the outcomes of the two expeditions to the Maluku Islands, and the experiences of those who took part in them.

Credits: Story

An exhibition organized and produced by Itsasmuseum Bilbao.

Adaptation of the In the Wake of Juan Sebastián Elcano exhibition
Curator: Julían Díaz

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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