Elcano: The first person to decide to circumnavigate the globe.
This achievement made the Basque sailor Juan Sebastián Elcano famous. He was part of the expedition to the Spice Islands (another name for the Maluku Islands) that set sail in 1519, captained by Ferdinand Magellan. After Magellan's death, Elcano took command of the Nao Victoria as it traveled west on its return to Spain from the Maluku Islands. The ship arrived home in September 1522, making Elcano and his crew the first people to circumnavigate the globe. This was a historic feat.
Route of the first circumnavigation of the world. by Sebastián GómezOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco
Juan Sebastián Elcano
Elcano was one of the main protagonists involved in Europe's expansion from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Juan Sebastián (born in Getaria, Gipuzkoa, 1487 and deceased in the Pacific Ocean, 1526) led trade expeditions from a young age and eventually owned a large 200-ton carrack. Having embarked as Master of the Nao Concepción, he was made Captain of the Victoria in September 1521. The Victoria was the only carrack that managed to return to Seville loaded with cloves and other spices.
Juan Sebastián Elcano by Ignacio ZuloagaOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa
Elcano inherited his nautical, technological, and financial skills from his seafaring Basque ancestors. His brilliance shone through when he made the momentous decision to set sail from Tidore on December 21, 1521 and travel west, crossing unknown waters belonging to the Portuguese under the Treaty of Tordesillas—and therefore out of bounds to Castile. In doing this, he managed to turn an expedition that seemed doomed to failure into one of the biggest feats in human history.
Zumaia Votive Panel by DesconocidoOriginal Source: Parroquia de San Pedro de Zumaia
His natural authority stemming from an egalitarian understanding of economic and human relationships was another factor key to the success of his endeavor. What's more, he was always trying to learn more and improve. This was reflected by the decisive role he played in creating the House of Commerce for the Spice Trade (Casa de Contratación de la Especiería) in La Coruña and by his attempts to find a return route from the Far East retracing the outbound journey.
Salida del puerto de A Coruña para las Islas Molucas by J.J. MartinezOriginal Source: Biblioteca Nacional de España
Juan Sebastián Elcano came from Getaria, a coastal town in northern Gipuzkoa.
Elcano was born in 1487 in Getaria. This was one of the main anchorages in Gipuzkoa, being an excellent place of refuge protected from northeasterly winds by the island of San Antón. It is now a major inshore fishing port on the Basque coast. In 1397, the Gipuzkoa Brotherhood (Hermandad de Gipuzkoa) was founded at the church of San Salvador de Getaria. This association was made up of representatives from local towns who met to write the first bylaws, which would later develop into the Historical Territory's regional charters.
Furthering the Lineage
Meet one of Getaria's most distinguished families.
Juan Sebastián was born into a noble family that made its fortune in trade and shipping. His father, Domingo Sebastián, was one of the most powerful carrack masters and merchants in Getaria. A document from 1500 shows Domingo Sebastián to be the thirteenth highest tax payer in the town. Juan Sebastián's mother, Catalina Portu (or del Puerto), came from an influential family of clerics and notaries.
Elcano's Gift by Elias SalaverriaOriginal Source: Centro de Colecciones Patrimoniales de Gipuzkoa - Gordailua
Elcano's will stated that his mother "should be mistress and beneficiary of all my possessions for as long as she shall live." Catalina had nine children. When her husband and all her male offspring died, she became head of the family, making her responsible for looking after the house and business matters. She received the wages of her sons, who died while serving the Crown, until she herself passed away in 1538. By 1567, Catalina's grandson, as heir to his grandmother and uncles, was still locked in a legal battle with the Council of the Indies (Consejo de Indias) regarding his uncles' salaries and unpaid debts.
Juan Sebastián Elcano's will by Juan Sebastián ElcanoOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias
As we have seen, the Elcano family married into other important lineages associated with maritime activities and ecclesiastical and municipal power to improve their financial and social positions. Juan Sebastián's role was to help further his lineage by devoting himself to maritime business and catering to the Crown's naval requirements. He never married or set up his own home, and his earnings and honors went to those in the main trunk of the family tree.
Zumaia Votive Panel by DesconocidoOriginal Source: Parroquia de San Pedro de Zumaia
The Importance of Contacts
The Basques had an influential social circle.
Juan Sebastián Elcano served in the fleet with his large 200-ton carrack. He used a loan to arm the vessel but couldn't pay it back because payment from the Crown for his services had been delayed. His carrack was therefore seized by his foreign creditors, which could be seen as a violation of the law at the time. This could be one of the reasons why he moved to Seville in search of new opportunities.
Seville by Claudio CoelloOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco
From January 1519, Juan Sebastián worked as Boatswain on the Victoria, meaning he managed the staff carrying out repairs and reconditioning the carrack. Thanks to his contacts in the fleet and Seville's merchant networks, Elcano's employment terms were better than those of other officials. He earnt the same as the Master or Senior Officer on the San Antonio and 40% more than the Boatswain on the Concepción.
Juan Sebastián Elcano by Luis Fernandez NoseretOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco
Elcano on Magellan's Expedition
Elcano went from master, to mutineer and demotee en route, before becoming captain of the first global circumnavigation.
In March 1519, Elcano was appointed Master of the Concepción, making him the official responsible for readying the ship and recruiting the crew. When they set sail from Seville in August, then from Sanlúcar in September, he was the final authority on anything to do with navigation.
Carta Universal by Diego de RiberoOriginal Source: Biblioteca Nacional de Australia
Unhappy with Magellan's refusal to show them the route, he took part in the San Julián mutiny. Although condemned to death along with many others, he avoided this sentence because his nautical skills were needed for navigation. He was, however, demoted. When Magellan died and Captain-General Juan López de Carvalho was removed from his post, Elcano regained his former rank. He was appointed Captain of the Victoria and took charge of the ship's journey to the Maluku Islands alongside the Trinidad.
The Removal of Carvalho by K6 Gestión CulturalOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco
On arrival, with just 40% of the expedition's human and naval resources remaining, it was almost impossible to find a return route to Spain that crossed the Pacific and the Strait of Magellan. The decision was made to navigate towards the Mexican coast, but when the ships set sail, the Trinidad started taking on water.
Moluccæ Insulæ Celeberrimæ by Willem Janszoon BlaeuFundación Elkano
The repairs would take months, and they knew a Portuguese fleet was after them. So, they agreed to split up the expedition, with Elcano entering Portuguese waters on the Victoria, despite this being prohibited by the king. In the end, Elcano's tremendous skill meant he completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, arriving in Seville on September 8, 1522.
Leaving the Moluccas by K6 Gestión CulturalOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco
"Primus Circumdedisti Me"
These words appear on the coat of arms awarded to Elcano by the Spanish king when the seafarer finished his round-the-world trip.
Although Elcano disobeyed royal rules, he made up for it by being the first person to circumnavigate the globe. In doing so, he brought the king prestige, honor, and glory, which were much more valuable than any spice. The king gave him a coat of arms featuring a globe with the words Primus Circumdedisti Me (You were first to circumnavigate me) and a lifetime pension of 500 ducats a year, which he never collected.
Juan Sebastián Elcano's coat of arms has a golden castle on a gules background (the original Elcano family crest), 2 cinnamon sticks in an "x" shape, 3 nutmegs, and 12 cloves.
The coat of arms is topped by a helmet and globe with the words Primus Circumdedisti Me and supported by two Maluku kings holding spice sticks.
Juan Sebastián Elcano's Coat of Arms by K6 Gestión CulturalOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco
Elcano's Final Voyage
His scientific legacy endures thanks to Andrés de Urdaneta, who discovered the return route across the Pacific from the Philippines later in the 16th century.
Despite all of Elcano's achievements, the king didn't make him Captain-General of the next expedition to the Maluku Islands. This expedition was even organized by the Casa de Contratación de la Especiería, in whose creation Elcano had played a major role. Six carracks and a patache, all built in Bilbao, set sail in 1525 under the command of the aristocrat García Jofre de Loaísa. Elcano was Head Pilot, making him the final authority on navigation.
The Loaisa Expedition by Pablo UrangaOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa
When Loaísa passed away on July 30, 1526, Elcano became Captain-General, although died himself just a few days later on August 6. Elcano's brothers were also on the expedition. Ochoa Martínez de Elcano was Master of the Nao San Gabriel, Martín Pérez Elcano was Pilot of the Nao Sancti Spiritus, and Antón (Martín) was Pilot's Assistant. They all died on the expedition too. Elcano's brother-in-law Santiago de Guevara (Captain of the Patache Santiago) and nephew Esteban de Mutio (Sailor) also went on the expedition.
America, Newly Delineated by Jodocus HondiusFundación Elkano
Juan Sebastián was accompanied by a young page called Andrés de Urdaneta, who was Basque like him, came from Ordizia (Gipuzkoa), and would become famous years later for discovering the return route across the Pacific from the Philippines. Urdaneta was a signatory for Elcano's will and also wrote in his diary: "Monday, August 6—the excellent gentleman Juan Sebastián de Elcano passed away."
Andrés de Urdaneta by Valverde casas, Antonio "Ayalde"Original Source: Kutxa Fundazioa
The Elcano family
They live off and for the sea. And they died in it.
As we have seen, the Elcano family were members of maritime society who lived off and for the sea. This meant they were constantly at risk and in danger. 1526 ruined the Elcano family line's promising future, taking away their superior social status and utmost prestige. That said, the universal legacy of the Getaria seafarer Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Primus Circumdedisti Me, remains to this day.
Elcano Lineage by K6 Gestión CulturalOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco
Xabier Alberdi Lonbide
Doctor of History
Basque Maritime Museum
This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.