The journey

The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 forbade Spanish ships from travelling to the home of spices by sailing east around Africa, which was under Portuguese domain.

Many sailors had offered to sail West, in search of an alternative route to the Mollucas. In fact, that was Christopher Columbus' goal in 1492.

When Basque Núñez de Balboa discovered that the West side of the continent bordered another sea in 1513, there were even more initiatives to find a passageway to the "south sea" from the Atlantic. 
Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan thought the passageway might be at the southernmost tip of the continent, and convinced the King of Spain to allow him to oversee an expedition. 

The House of Trade of Seville organised the journey. Of the five ships participating in the expedition, three of them were of Basque origin.

They were selected and purchased from trade ships in Cadiz. They were all smaller-sized: San Antonio (120 tonnes), Trinidad (110 tonnes), Concepción (90 tonnes), Victoria (85 tonnes) and Santiago (75 tonnes). A large part of the supplies for the ships, bladed weapons, artillery, gunpowder and other iron goods, such as nails and anchors, were procured in Euskadi, because their quality was higher and the price more affordable than in Andalusia. All supplies were collected at the Port of Bilbao, then shipped to Seville by sea. 
Moreover, 14% of the 238 sailors on the expedition were Basque. The rest came from different territories and European countries: Andalusia, Castile, Portugal, France, England, Italy, Germany and Greece. 
The trip had two important parts. On one hand, the expedition to the Mollucas, and on the other, the first circumnavigation around the globe. The main driver behind the first part was undeniably Ferdinand Magellan. The driver behind the second was Juan Sebastián Elkano.

The expedition to the Mollucas.

26 September, they docked in Tenerife and followed the African coast to Cape Verde and Sierra Leone, to begin their ocean crossing from there. 

29 November, they reached the coast of Brazil after crossing the ocean and taking the path toward the south. 

13 December, they made another stop at what is today Rio de Janeiro. 

12 January 1520, they reached Rio de la Plata. They thought it was the straight they were looking for and sailed for 15 days until they realised it was the mouth of a river and continued on southward.  

31 March, they reached Puerto San Julian, in southern Patagonia, where they spent a harsh winter. They could not find the strait they were dreaming about, so captains Juan de Cartagena, Antonio de Coca, Gaspar Quesada and Luis de Mendoza revolted. Elkano himself was with the mutineers, and Magellan treated them harshly.

22 May, while searching for the strait, the Santiago sunk in the mouth of the river Santa Cruz de Patagonia.

21 October, the found the entrance to the Strait of Magellan and began the difficult crossing.

1 November, the San Antonio quit the expedition and reached Seville 6 May 1521.

28 November 1520, they managed to complete the crossing of the strait and followed it to the Pacific Ocean. For three months, they could not find a suitable place to disembark, and the sailors suffered hunger, thirst and illness.

6 March 1521, they finally reached the Mariana Islands and could land.

16 March, they reached the Philippines. Magellan's plan was to convert the locals to Christianity, in disobedience to the agreement he had made with the King.

7 April 1521, they reached Cebu. Once again disobeying the King's orders, instead of continuing on his way to the Mollucas, Magellan got involved in local fighting and died on the island of Mactan, along with other men, in a battle against the leader. Duarte Barbosa, a relative of Magellan, took command of the expedition and returned to Cebu. The king of the island invited them to a banquet, where they poisoned and killed 24 members of the crew. The remaining members of the expedition, upon seeing that they did not have enough hands to man the three ships, decided to burn the Concepción and continued with the other two to the Mollucas. Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa took command over the expedition and Elkano was appointed captain of the Victoria.

8 November 1521, two years after leaving Seville, they made the Mollucas. But they still had to find a way back for it to be an effective sea route.

Circumnavigating the globe.

Although Magellan was given the merit for the first global circumnavigation, the feat was thanks to Elkano's initiative. In fact, sailing back to the west of the Mollucas was a decision that went against the expedition's main objective: finding a viable seaway for Spain for the spice trade. Returning by way of Portuguese waters disobeyed this objective. Circumnavigating the globe was a truly brave decision. The journey was rife with danger, sailing through unexplored waters in the Indian Ocean with a small ship, the Victoria, risking a death sentence if found by the Portuguese. However, Elkano , taking advantage of the winter monsoon blowing from the East, decided to continue West.

Thus, the first circumnavigation around the globe was the result of a decision made by Juan Sebastián Elkano, along with Captain of the Trinidad Gómez de Espinosa to return from the Mollucas. 

21 December 1521, the Victoria left Tidore under Elkano's command. The Trinidad had faults, so it remained in Tidore to be repaired and then return by crossing the Pacific. It set sail once repairs were finished, but it found no favourable winds or currents, so returned to the Mollucas. It was finally seized by the Portuguese.

25 January 1522, the Victoria had a layover in Timor. This was the beginning of another awful crossing: the ship, led by Elkano, crossed the Indian Ocean alone, without touching dry land.

19 May, after spending three months without touching dry land, they reached the Cape of Good Hope, in southern Africa. However, fear of being taken prisoner by the Portuguese made them push onward without landing, toward the Atlantic Ocean.  

2 July, they had no choice but to stop in Cape Verde, a Portuguese colony, to purchase food. While closing the deal, the Portuguese realised that they had come from the Far East and took the 12 sailors who were on land captive. Elkano ordered the other men, who were on board the Victoria, to flee and continue on their seemingly endless journey.

6 September 1522, three years after leaving the same port, 18 men reached Sanlúcar on board the Victoria. Of the five ships that had set sail, one came back. Of the 238 men, 18 returned, including four Basques:

Juan Sebastián Elkano, captain of the Victoria, from Getaria. 

Juan Akurio, pilot, from Bermeo.

Juan Arratia, cabin boy, from Bilbao.

Juan Zubileta, page, from Barakaldo.

As soon as they arrived, Elkano wrote two letters to the King. In the first, he requested freedom for the men arrested in Cape Verde, and for the spoils that the expedition owed the King to be shared amongst the sailors. In the second, he proposed that the King create a New House of Spice Trade in La Coruña, so that traders who came from northern Europe to Lisbon to purchase spices could obtain them from a closer source. 

Life on-board.

Living conditions on 16th-century ships were very harsh. The ships were small, but many sailors were needed to sail them. Sailors lived side-by-side, without any privacy or hygiene. This led to a rapid spread of illness and parasites.

To deal with damage caused by storms and other calamities, all they had were the resources on board the ship. Obviously, they could not request aid on the radio, and rescue resources were very limited. Sailing tools were also very basic: they calculated the direction and latitude with a compass and astrolabe. The longitude calculation was a mere estimation: they measured time with an hourglass and distance with a calibre.

Daily nutrition consisted of a sort of bread called biscuit or tack, that was cooked twice. To prepare the biscuit stews, which were the basic daily food, they added salted bacon, meat and cod, or dehydrated vegetables such as onion and garlic. Additionally, they tended to have legumes and dry grains: small beans, peas, rice, etc. When inclement weather prevented them from lighting a fire on board, they made their meals with cheese and biscuit. Fresh food did not last long without spoiling, so it had to be consumed immediately. The most typical drinks were wine and water.

During the first expedition to the Mollucas under Magellan's command, the sailors suffered great hunger and thirst while crossing the Pacific. As Pigafetta recorded in his journal:


“... The biscuit we were eating had ceased to be bread; rather, it was dust mixed with worms that had devoured its entire substance. Furthermore, it bore an unsupportable stench, impregnated with rat urine. The water we were forced to drink was also spoilt and reeked. To stave off death from hunger, we were forced to eat pieces of cowhide that had been used to line the yardarm to prevent the wood from destroying the ropes. So tough was this leather, ever exposed to water, sun and wind, that it had to be immersed for four to five days in the sea so as to soften it a bit; to eat it, we then forthwith placed it on the coals. We were often reduced to eating sawdust, and even the rats, so repugnant to men, had become such a delicacy that one paid half a ducat for each."


The lack of fresh food led to serious illness, especially the dreaded scurvy. Urdaneta himself wrote in his log:

...All these men perished of gums so swollen that no food could pass, together with a pain in the breast; I witnessed them remove flesh as thick as a finger from a man's gums, only for the gum to burgeon once more the following day as if nothing had been removed...”.

Obtaining fresh food was fraught with danger. It appears that, on the second expedition, within a few short days, Loaysa, Elkano and the other officers died, probably by scurvy.

There were normally surgeons, barbers and a priest on board the ship, to meet the needs of "body and spirit" of the sailors. However, medicine was in its early stages and they could not do much with serious accidents and diseases. One of the barbers’ weekly tasks was to cut the entire crew's hair and shave them. As far as the spirit was concerned, religion in 16th-century Europe was hugely important. They considered themselves Christians, and given that death was a constant possibility, they placed great importance on the will of God and the salvation of the soul. For this reason, having a priest on board the ships was essential, so they could confess their sins. In the face of any difficulty, they placed themselves in God's hands. Once overcome, they were certain that it had been thanks to His aid.