March 8, 2021

Elcano, the man who changed the history of humanity, returns home


On August 4, 1526, the sailor Juan Sebastián Elcano died aboard the Victoria ship in the Pacific Ocean. The obsequies of the men of the sea of ​​those times were made to him, and after a simple ceremony, his body was thrown into the water on a board. That ocean that, thanks in large part to Elcano's deeds, was known for decades as «The Spanish Lake». And these days, during the year in which the commemorations of the first round of the world begin, the school ship of the Spanish Navy, named after the best-known pilot in our history, is located in the northern waters of the peninsula, that Cantabrian that Juan Sebastián Elcano knew well, and that so many times sailed, possibly first as a fisherman and later as a sailor.

Two ships baptized with the name of the Victoria led Juan Sebastián Elcano beyond the limits explored by man. The first, after achieving for the first time complete the return to the globe, returned home after the call by Manuel Lucena "the most reckless nautical adventure in history." And, one may add, the one that had the greatest consequences in the history of mankind. The second ship, also called Victoria, was the deathbed of the pilot who was finally received in his bosom by the sea that was his way of life.

Castile was in the sixteenth century large and powerful at sea, both in its northern lands (today Basque Country), and in the foothills of the south, which looked forward with uncertainty, but without fear, to Africa and the immensity of the Atlantic . And it is that look that led Columbus in 1492 to launch into the "Dark Sea" looking for a route to the islands of the desired spices. At that time, products such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, were even more coveted than gold or silver. They served to flavor, preserve or deceive the palate, disguising the bad taste of food in poor condition. And those spices were only found in some islands of the Pacific, which had to be reached by a route that was not intercepted by Muslims, present in the Mediterranean and on the eastern borders of Europe.

Years before, Columbus, looking for that new route to the East sailing through the West, came across a wall that would later be called America. It was much more the achievement than the project. Spain and Europe opened up to a New World to be discovered. However, the search for the passage to the ocean that bathed the islands of spices continued. Núñez de Balboa, in 1513, took possession in the name of Fernando, regent of Castile, of the South Sea. But this discovery, being important, did not satisfy the desire to navigate in one direction towards the East. You had to find a navigable passage.

The Maluku Islands

And it was Carlos I, recently arrived to take possession of the Hispanic Monarchy (already reunited the Castilian-Aragonese inheritance of his grandparents, the Catholic Monarchs), who, in spite of his youth and ignorance of the Hispanic reality, supported that feat that proposed a Portuguese recently arrived in Castile, Hernando de Magallanes. The Portuguese, after a series of disagreements with his monarch, offered to the King of Spain to seek the desired step, respecting the previous agreements between Castile and Portugal, who had divided their areas of influence and trade in navigation in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Convinced that the Moluccan Islands, or the Spirits, entered the Castilian zone indicated by the Treaty, raised the possibility of achieving the equivalent of the Portuguese route that bordered the south of Africa: had to try to travel south to the American coast to to find out if there was a step that would allow navigation from the Peninsula to the "Moluco".

Portuguese was the captain, but Castilian the expedition. Carlos wanted that along with Magallanes was a man of full confidence of the monarch, Juan de Cartagena, with whom Magellan had to share his knowledge and decision making. Finally, five ships with about 250 crew departed from Seville, but not before attending mass, confessing and swear allegiance to Carlos, King of Castile.

The crossing to America was complicated, the defeat towards the south at times exasperating. Riots and disagreements were distancing part of the crew, and Magellan punished Juan de Cartagena, who was abandoned in unknown lands and which was never heard. Disappointing was discovering that the great estuary of the Río de la Plata, the so-called Rio de Solís until then, was that, the mouth of a great river, but in no case the passage towards the South Sea. But if all those milestones were complicated, the worst came later, when they entered the "Strait of All Saints", which would later receive the name of its discoverer. By then, November 1520, one ship had been lost and another had turned around, deserted, and returned to Spain.

Finally, three ships: the Concepcion, the Trinidad and the Victoria, after 38 days of complicated navigation, entered the calm waters of which Magallanes renamed the Pacific Ocean. The joy of having discovered the passage was overshadowed when they were aware that a long and uncertain voyage awaited them. Scurvy made prey easy in exhausted men, poorly nourished and, above all, with absolute lack of vitamin C.

Hard section that traveled until finally, on March 17, 1521, they spotted the island of Guam, in the Marianas Archipelago. At that time it received the name of "Islands of the Thieves", because its inhabitants, friendly at first, and welcoming, did not hesitate to take everything they could from the ship. Guam, and its Chamorro settlers, would be part of the Spanish Crown for 300 years, until the war of '98 against the United States, and since then it has been under US sovereignty. They continued the journey to the Philippine Islands. There, Captain Magallanes, in an excess of confidence and recklessness, became involved in struggles among the Indians, and lost his life. The Holy Child of Cebu is in that archipelago the emblem of the first attempt of evangelization of those lands.

But it was necessary to continue, despite the bewilderment caused by the death of the head of the expedition. The Spice Islands had not been reached, although the navigators were aware of their proximity. And that is when the man who will gain universal fame emerges, and to whom History has as its protagonist a feat that would transform forever the knowledge of the world, with all the human, scientific and economic consequences that derived from this discovery.

Wineries loaded with cloves

Two ships, the Trinidad and La Victoria, the latter under Elcano, arrive at Tidor Island, in the Moluccas, and finally find the object of their search. The two ships load their cellars, especially clove, the most precious spice, in exchange for merchandise that had embarked in Castile in order to market. However, the Trinity is very deteriorated, and it is necessary to restore it. The proximity of the Portuguese danger will cause that Elcano, to the front of the Victory, takes a risky decision: they will return to Castile sailing by the Portuguese route, but avoiding to be detected by the armies of the Portuguese country, since if they were discovered, it would suppose the loss of all the merchandise, with so much effort achieved, in addition to the prison for the crew.

They skirt the south of Africa and, again, the scurvy is fattened in the crew. Finally, on September 6, 1522, eighteen cadaverous men disembarked in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. La Victoria, unable to navigate more by itself, was dragged by another ship to Seville, where the survivors fulfill their vow to go barefoot carrying candles to thank their final triumph to Our Lady of Victory, in the neighborhood of Triana. Thus ended a very hard expedition, but a new stage of history began, in which it had been shown that the sea did not separate, but was the means through which there was full communication between the men who inhabit this planet.

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