TABLE OF CONTENTS • Biography • Soldier and merchant • The Magellan expedition • To the Pacific • Across the Pacific • Death of Magellan • Return to Spain • Commemoration
Biography • Juan Sebastián Elcano (1486-1526) was a Spanish (Basque) sailor, navigator and explorer best remembered for leading the second half of the first round-the-world navigation, having taken over after the death of Ferdinand Magellan. Upon his return to Spain, the King presented him with a coat of arms that contained a globe and the phrase: “You Went Around Me First.”
Soldier and Merchant • In his early years, Elcano was an adventurer, fighting with the Spanish army in Algiers and Italy before settling down as captain/owner of a merchant ship. When he was forced to surrender his ship to Italian companies to which he owned money, he found he had broken Spanish law and had to ask the King for a pardon. The KingCharles v. Young King Charles V agreed, but on the condition that the skilled sailor and navigator serve with an expedition the King was funding: the search for a new route to the Spice Islands, led by Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan.
The Magellan Expedition • Elcano was given the position of ship’s master on board the Concepción, one of five ships making up the fleet. Magellan believed that the globe was smaller than it actually is, and that a shortcut to the Spice Islands was possible by going through the New World. Spices such as cinnamon and cloves were immensely valuable in Europe at the time and a shorter route would be worth a fortune to whoever found it. The fleet set sail in September of 1519 and made its way to Brazil.
To the Pacific • Magellan lost two ships: the San Antonio returned to Spain (without permission) and the Santiago sank, although all of the sailors were rescued. By this time, Elcano was captain of the Concepción. In October-November of 1520 the fleet explored the islands and waterways at the southern tip of South America, eventually finding a passage through that to this day is known as the Strait of Magellan.
Across the Pacific • According to Magellan’s calculations, the Spice Islands should only be a few days’ sail away. He was badly mistaken: his ships took four months to cross the South Pacific. Conditions were miserable on board and several men died before the fleet reached Guam and the Marianas Islands. Continuing westward, they reached the present-day Philippines in early 1521.
Death of Magellan In the Philippines, unfortunately, Magellan was one of several Europeans killed in the ensuing battle. Elcano was now second in command of the Victoria, under Juan Carvalho . They decided to destroy the Concepción and head back to Spain in the two remaining ships: the Trinidad and the Victoria.
Return to Spain • Heading across the Indian Ocean, the two ships made a stop in Borneo before finding themselves at the Spice Islands, their original goal. Packed with valuable spices, the ships set out again. About this time, Elcano replaced Carvalho as captain of the Victoria. Trinidad soon sank and many of the Trinidad’s sailors were captured by the Portuguese. Elcano sailed the Victoria back into Spain on September 6, 1522. The ship was crewed by only 22 men:18 European survivors of the voyage and four Asians they had picked up en route.
Commemoration • Elcano has unfortunately been mostly forgotten by history, as Magellan still gets all the credit for the first circumnavigation of the globe. Although there is a statue to Elcano in his hometown of Getaria, Spain and the Spanish navy named a ship with his name.