Waves Background Created but A big Boat
Challenges Publié le 15 juin 2019

Magellan and Elcano: heading to the unknown 

They sailed blindly to the west, without cartography and without certainties, only with the conviction that they would discover a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and continue their journey to the distant Spice Islands. Magellan and Elcano fulfilled their objective and, although they paid a high price, they completed the first circumnavigation of the globe. Five centuries have passed since the beginning of this adventure.

Five hundred years ago, five ships with a crew of 239 men left the port of Seville in search of a new commercial route. The project they were carrying out, conceived by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan and financed mainly by the Spanish crown, consisted of sailing west to reach America, look for a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (sighted by Núñez de Balboa three years before while he was crossing Panama by land) and continue navigating west until they found the Spice Islands. It was August 1519 and the sailors knew that they were embarking on a voyage towards uncertainty, looking for a sea route nobody else had sailed before.

Three years later, only eighteen of those sailors and one of their ships returned to Seville. They had experienced hunger and betrayal, riots, diseases and had felt the bitter cold. But they had fulfilled their double mission: they had found a natural passage between two oceans which would later be called the Strait of Magellan and had reached the Maluku Islands. Instead of returning home using the same lane towards America, they continued navigating to the West and in the words of Juan Sebastián Elcano, they managed to “sail around and verify all the roundness of the Earth.”

An ambitious and uncertain voyage

Magellan, leader of the expedition from the very beginning, was a skilled Portuguese sailor who had travelled to India before and had fought in several battles to defend the Portuguese crown. He learned about the existence of the Maluku Islands, an Indonesian archipelago where cloves, cinnamon, saffron and ginger grew freely, spices very much valued in Europe. The fact there could be a sea route to the islands would mean an important commercial advantage. But who did those islands belong to? Did they belong to the Spanish or the Portuguese crown? A few years before, both monarchies had divided the planet into halves and the Species Islands could belong to either of the two empires so, it was necessary to determine its exact location with respect to the real dimensions of the globe. It was the ambition of the Spanish monarch that made this adventure possible, and the desire for glory and fortune that encouraged the sailors to take on a challenge that would frighten anybody: to navigate through unknown waters, almost blindly.

The first stage of the trip took eleven weeks of expedition and the sailing ships reached Cape San Agustin, in Brazil. There, they stocked up on food and plucked up their courage to undertake the second stage of the trip, skirting the coast southwards, where they were supposed to find their way to the Pacific. Magellan thought he had found the lane when the ships reached the Río de la Plata and went through the estuary following its course. They were already sailing on unexplored waters! Europeans had never seen an estuary of that size before and it took some time for the expedition to notice Magellan´s mistake: they were sailing on a river. Magellan had lost a lot of time and this mistake had caused a clear discomfort in the crew.

The group reached the sea again and went South exploring every bay, every cape, facing freezing cold and first diseases. His men were discouraged, but Magellan was inflexible. Only when the situation became unbearable, the captain decided to stop in the Patagonia. There, the members of the expedition spent five endless months of loneliness, hunger and cold.

The passage to the infinite ocean

When the trip resumed, the problems continued: one of the vessels was shipwrecked on some rocks of the coastline. It was then that fear gripped the hungry and weakened crews: they had lost hope; their crave for glory had vanished and they wanted to go back to Europe. But the captain was not willing to put an end to his adventure and ordered his crew to continue further south, until they reached the entrance of what would later be called the Strait of Magellan, where he ordered two of his ships to explore the newly discovered channel. One of them moved forward and its crew ousted their leader. They had retraced the lane at night because for them this feat had come to an end: they preferred to return to Spain inglorious, but alive.

It took 28 days for the three remaining ships of the Magellan expedition to cross the strait full of dangerous and irregular coasts, but they managed to get out of the labyrinth and reach the calm South Sea: they had achieved their first objective. Already in the Pacific, the three ships headed north in search of more favourable weather conditions and continued immediately westwards without touching the ground or supplying themselves beforehand. This proved to be a serious mistake because, as they would soon realize, the ocean, which had been previously unexplored by European ships, implied a vastness of water much greater than they had imagined: the globe had larger dimensions than they had calculated so far.

The winds were favourable for the sailors, who moved swiftly despite the fact that the great distances would later leave the crew without food and drinking water. The situation was so terrible that, according to the logbook, rats were a luxury only affordable by those who could pay for them. They fed on sawdust and pieces of leather which covered the main mast.

The arrival to the long-awaited Maluku Islands

Only after weeks of hunger and thirst in the Pacific and after losing many men, the three ships began to encounter several archipelagos where their luck was about to turn. First, they came across what they called the Island of the Thieves (Guam), where they could drink water, eat fresh food and collect firewood but not without battling with the natives. Next, they found the Philippine Islands, which Magellan toured in search of alliances with the local chiefs, earning the trust of some and the disapproval of others. A poisoned arrow ended his life and, a few days later, many leaders of this crew were also killed. Finally, the three ships landed in the Visayas where the expedition burned one of the ships, which was badly damaged by then.

Only two ships remained afloat and with them they completed their objective of reaching the Maluku Islands. The mystery was finally unveiled: the islands were Spanish. The crew arrived at the coveted islands of spices more than two years after leaving Spain. They only had to go back to Europe. It was then that they discovered one of the ships was damaged. Making reparations would take too much time, so they abandoned that ship and part of the members of the expedition inshore (they would later shipwreck in a storm) and the ship Victoria, the only that had endured the whole adventure, would return home with its crew.

Going back through the most dangerous route

It was then that these men, with Juan Sebastián Elcano at the helm, decided that they wanted to go a bit further, despite all they had suffered. They could have returned on their ship with plenty of supplies through the Pacific to Panama, but they had chosen the most dangerous lane: they continued sailing west through a route that did not allow them to touch the ground until they reached Spain. This was more difficult, but it was the only way to make sure they would accomplish the extraordinary feat of making the first round-the-world voyage. And they achieved it.

Out of five galleons that had sailed from Seville with more than two hundred men, only the ship Victoria reached the mainland with 18 crew members after taking the first voyage of global circumnavigation. It was a picture of pure joy. They had brought with them the long-awaited spices, enough to cover the expenses of the expedition. The feat had confirmed empirically that the Earth was round, that the American continent was separated from Asia and that it was possible to reach the Maluku Islands through a strait. The voyage opened the world to new cultures and civilizations, and it was key to understand the dimension of the planet, which implied a great cartographic and technological advance for the time. But, above all, it proved mankind was willing to exceed limits and accomplish the impossible against all odds.

Photo: Jodocus Hondius/Leen Helmink