The sailor who turned history

Today marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Victoria ship in Sanlúcar de Barrameda under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano almost three years after setting sail

Before shipment to the expeciería

The first 32 years of the life of the navigator from Getaria are a series of unknowns

During a large part of the expedition to the Spice Shop, a commercial trip whose objective was to open a route to obtain the precious spices, avoiding passage through the Portuguese domains, Elcano remained in the background. The navy left on September 20, 1519 from Sanlúcar de Barrameda and reached the bay of Rio de Janeiro on December 13. By then discontent had spread among the crews, who were unaware of the route Magellan intended to follow, and among the officers.

The situation degenerated into mutiny on April 1, 1520, in the bay of San Julián, in Patagonia. It seems that Elcano aligned himself with the rebels, or at least obeyed his orders, by arming the artillery of the San Antonio. Magellan was rigorous, but Elcano was not counted among those retaliated against. The fleet entered the Pacific on November 28, after the loss of the San Antonio, which turned around and deserted, and the Santiago, which ran aground. After suffering all kinds of hardships, the expedition reached Guam, in Micronesia, on March 6, 1521, and Zamal, one of the Philippine islands, on March 16.

On April 27, one of the key episodes of the trip took place, the death of Magellan in the battle of the island of Mactán, in which Elcano did not participate because, as he would later declare, "he was ill." On May 2, Concepción, infested with worms, had to be set on fire. The two remaining ships arrived in Brunei on July 8, 1521. Elcano and Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa acted as ambassadors to the king of that country.

On September 21,_Elcano finally came to the fore by becoming captain of the Victoria, while Espinosa, captain of the Trinidad, became captain general. The expedition finally reached Tidore, in the Moluccas, on November 8, where it was very well received by the local king, Al-Mansur. Elcano was surprised that the inhabitants of these islands lived in poverty: "They are very poor and in need of everything, because on their land nothing else is born but spices."

return by west

It was time to return with the two surviving ships loaded with nails. But the Trinity was leaking and she had to stay in Tidore. "We resolved to leave with a single ship, being in such a state that only God knows." On December 21, the ship Victoria, commanded by Elcano, left the Moluccas to return home. The sailor from Getaria decided to do so by sailing west, towards the Cape of Good Hope. Going around the world. Y_crossing seas under Portuguese rule.

Above, a replica of the Nao Victoria; in the center, a monument to Elcano in Getaria; and below detail of the boat, in the port of Tarragona. / EFE/J. Usez

The Victory crossed the Indian Ocean to pass the Cape of Good Hope on May 22, "without eating anything but rice for five months, and drinking only water," as Elcano would write in his letter to the emperor. “We did not touch any land for fear of the King of Portugal. Thus, 22 men starved to death." But the boat leaked. There was no choice but to stop in Cape Verde to buy supplies and slaves to use in the bilge pump.

It was Portuguese domain and Elcano decided to lie:_he said that the ship came from America. But the Portuguese were suspicious: where had they gotten the nail with which they wanted to pay for supplies? Elcano was forced to flee, leaving twelve companions on the ground, who were held. Without slaves and without supplies, the Victoria covered the last leg of its journey, arriving in Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 6, 1522, almost three years after setting sail, with 18 crew members dead of hunger, but rich thanks to the part that they received. corresponded of his millionaire load, and two natives of the Moluccas.

circumnavigating elcano

The end of a recognized and respected seaman aboard a new Victoria

On August 9, 1519, the day before setting sail for the Speciería (the current Molucca Islands), in Seville, Juan Sebastián Elcano declared that he was 32 years old “a little more or less”. So when he died, in 1526, Elcano was 40 years old “a little more or less”. This means that we hardly know anything about most of his life, of those first 32 years, because the sailor from Getaria (Guipúzcoa) barely left a trace of his adventures and circumstances until he enlisted in Magellan's expedition to the Moluccas.

His mother was called Catalina del Puerto and his father Domingo Sebastián Elcano, married to a progeny of nine siblings. Juan Sebastián was baptized in the church of San Salvador de Getaria, in which “my father and my ancestors are buried”, as he himself would say in his will. At the end of the 15th century, Getaria had about 370 homes, about 1,500 people. According to a fiscal census of the year 1500 that is preserved, Juan Sebastián's father, Domingo, was the thirteenth richest neighbor.

In the Mediterranean

Nothing is known of Elcano's first years at sea. He must have started, like everyone else, as a cabin boy, when he was 15 years old, and he ended up sailing and fighting in the Mediterranean. In the certificate by which Carlos V forgives him for having sold a ship to some foreigners –it was a crime–, the emperor says «I have been told that you, being master of a ship of two hundred barrels, served us in Levante and in Africa".

The aforementioned certificate details that Elcano was a master, the head of a merchant ship and the second, after the captain, when the ship depended on the crown. It seems that he was in financial trouble and sold his ship – which indicates that it was his owner – to get out of the doldrums. This has caused him to be spoken of as an outlaw, although the fact that he was in Seville when Magellan's fleet was being assembled and enlisted without difficulty reflects that he did not live like a fugitive. Elcano was enlisted as boatswain of the ship Victoria, in which he began to work on Saturday, January 8, 1519, but was immediately promoted to master – his first salary as such was received on February 7 – under the orders of Captain Gaspar de Quesada, from the ship Concepción, the fourth largest in the fleet, which was made up of five ships.

When the expedition left, Elcano was not married, but he had a son, Domingo, with María Hernández de Hernialde, also from Getaria.

The second expedition to the spice shop

A commercial adventure becomes the first circumnavigation of the world

The survivors of the army to the Spicery had not returned even when the emperor had already ordered the organization of a second expedition. Elcano wanted to embark again, despite having become rich with his share of the cargo of the first expedition and living as a notable in Valladolid, where he had a daughter, again out of wedlock, with María de Vidaurreta. Elcano asked the emperor for several favors, including being granted the captaincy general of the new army and the habit of the Order of Santiago. Both were denied.

On January 23, 1523, the emperor assigned him a pension "for his whole life" of 500 ducats per year (about 83,000 euros) and shortly after, his famous coat of arms. He also obtained another favor from Elcano that concerned him: the royal pardon for the sale of his ship to foreigners. After participating in the unsuccessful meeting in Badajoz between Castilian and Portuguese representatives to try to resolve the division of the world again, Elcano was sent to supervise the preparations for the second expedition.

Now with seven ships

Under the command of the nobleman Francisco José García Jofre de Loaísa, captain of a new Victoria, and with Elcano as second, it was made up of a fleet of six naos and a patache, with a total of 450 men, including three brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law of the sailor from Getaria. Elcano captained the 240-ton ship Sancti Spiritus.

The fleet sailed from La Coruña on July 24, 1525 and reached the coast of Brazil on November 19. After the defections of two ships, on May 26, 1526 the fleet rounded Cape Deseado and left the Strait of Magellan after 48 days of extremely painful crossing. The Pacific did not live up to its name and the ships scattered. In the Victoria, Loaisa fell ill and with him, several officers, including Elcano, who made his will on July 26.

Four days later the captain general died and the instructions of the emperor were opened: "Dying the said Commander Loaísa, we ordered Juan Sebastián del Cano to come as captain general of the said army." But the one from Getaria would succumb a few days later, on August 6. In his will, he left his son Domingo as his sole heir and his mother, his two partners and his daughter as beneficiaries. Of the seven ships that had left La Coruña, only the Victoria reached the Moluccas Islands.

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