The sailor who turned history


Fifth centenary of the first circumnavigation of the Earth

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 its departure

During much of the Expedition to the Spice Shop, a trade journey whose purpose was to open a route to obtain the precious spices, avoiding passage through the Portuguese domains, Elcano remained in the background. The navy departed from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 20, 1519 and reached Rio de Janeiro Bay on December 13. By this time, discontent had spread among the crews, who were unaware of the route Magellan intended to take, and among the officers.

The situation degenerated into a mutiny on April 1, 1520, in the Bay of San Julián, in Patagonia. It appears that Elcano joined the rebels, or at least followed their orders, by arming the artillery of the San Antonio. Magellan was stern, but Elcano was not among the reprisals. The fleet entered the Pacific on November 28, after losing the San Antonio, which turned around and deserted, and the Santiago, which ran aground. After enduring many 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 most important episodes of the journey 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 state, “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 for the king of that country.

On September 21, Elcano finally came to prominence 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 need everything, because on their land nothing is born but spices.”

It was time to return with the two remaining ships loaded with nails. But the Trinity leaked and had to stay in Tidore. “We decided to leave with a single ship, in a state 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 this by sailing west, towards the Cape of Good Hope. Go around the world. Y_crossing seas under Portuguese rule.

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 have not touched any land for fear of the King of Portugal. So 22 men died of starvation.” But the boat leaked. There was no other option but to stop in Cape Verde to buy supplies and slaves for use in the bilge pump.

It was Portuguese domain and Elcano decided to lie: he said the ship was from America. But the Portuguese were suspicious: where did they get the nail with which they wanted to pay for the supplies? Elcano was forced to flee, leaving twelve companions on the ground who were detained. Without slaves and without supplies, the Victoria completed the last part of her voyage and arrived at Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 6, 1522, almost three years after departure, with 18 crew members who were starving, but rich thanks to the part that she corresponded from his millionaire cargo, and two natives of the Moluccas.

On August 9, 1519, the day before his departure for the Speciería (today’s Moluccan 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 joined Magellan’s expedition to the Moluccas.

His mother was named Catalina del Puerto and his father Domingo Sebastián Elcano, married with 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 would say in his will. At the end of the 15th century, Getaria had about 370 houses, about 1,500 people. According to a preserved fiscal census dating back to the year 1500, Juan Sebastián’s father, Domingo, was the thirteenth richest neighbor.

Nothing is known about Elcano’s early years at sea. Like everyone else, he must have started out as a cabin boy at age 15 and ended up sailing and fighting in the Mediterranean. In the certificate with which Carlos V forgives him for selling a ship to some foreigners -it was a crime-, the Emperor says: «I am told that, as captain of a ship of two hundred barrels, you served us in Levante and in Africa”.

The above certificate mentions that Elcano was a captain, the head of a merchant ship and second, after the captain, when the ship was dependent on the crown. It appears that he was in financial trouble and sold his ship – indicating that he was his owner – to get out of the doldrums. This has led to him being talked about as an outlaw, although the fact that he was in Seville when Magellan’s fleet was assembled and enlisted without any problems indicates that he was not living as a fugitive. Elcano was enlisted as boatswain of the ship Victoria, where he began work on Saturday 8 January 1519, but was immediately promoted to captain – his first salary as such was received on 7 February – by order of Captain Gaspar de Quesada, of the ship Concepción, the fourth largest in the fleet, which consisted of five ships.

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

The survivors of the Spicery army had not returned, even after the Emperor had already ordered the organization of a second expedition. Elcano wanted to get on board 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 obtaining the captaincy of the new army and the habit of the Order of Santiago. Both were refused.

On January 23, 1523, the emperor awarded him a pension “for his whole life” of 500 ducats a year (about 83,000 euros) and shortly afterwards his famous coat of arms. Elcano also received another favor that concerned him: the royal pardon for the sale of his ship to foreigners. After participating in the failed meeting in Badajoz between Castilian and Portuguese representatives to try to re-establish the division of the world, Elcano was sent to oversee preparations for the second expedition.

Commanded by the noble Francisco José García Jofre de Loaísa, captain of a new Victoria, and with Elcano second, it consisted of a fleet of six naos and a patache, totaling 450 men, including three brothers, a cousin and a brother-in-law of the sailor from Getaria. Elcano was captain of the 240-ton ship Sancti Spiritus.

The fleet departed from La Coruña on July 24, 1525 and reached the coast of Brazil on November 19. After the overflowing 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 dispersed. 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 Emperor’s instructions were opened: “On the death of the said Commander Loaísa, we have ordered Juan Sebastián del Cano to come as Captain General of the said army.” But Getaria’s would collapse a few days later, on August 6. In his will, he left his son Domingo as 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.

Source: La Verdad


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