On this day in 1522 the ship Victoria returned to Sanlúcar in Spain. Her sails were in tatters and her small crew were constantly pumping water out of her to keep her afloat. This single ship and her eighteen crew were all that was left of the five ships and 270 men who had set out three years earlier with Ferdinand Magellan on the first ever round the world voyage.
At that time the world had been divided in two, half belonged to Spain and half to the Portuguese. Portugal had control of the eastern shipping routes that led to the Spice Islands, a valuable source of trade. The voyage was largely funded by the Spanish Crown and the intention was that they could gain access to the islands by sailing west. No European had ever sailed beyond the Southern tip of the Americas before, it was uncharted territory. The maps were blank. Magellan though, was confident that he knew of a way through.
They set off in September 1519 and reached the coast of Brazil in December and in January they reached the mouth of the River Plate. Magellan must have thought it was the route beyond the continent that he had been looking for and he must have been extremely disheartened to find himself in a fresh water river. They turned back out to sea and continued southwards down the coast. In March they anchored at a place they named Puerto San Julián in Patagonia. They overwintered there and we are told that they met with a race of giants. Antonio Pigafetta, who was one of the few survivors and chronicled their journey describes them as twice the height of a normal man. Probably they were a tribe called the Teluelches who were unusually tall, but certainly not that big. The idea that there were giants in Patagonia persisted for around 250 years and early maps of the New World often included the Region of Giants.
It was a tough winter and supplies were scarce. Also Magellan had a mutiny to contend with. His crew had begun to think that his crazy obsession with trying to find the route to the east would lead them all to their doom. Three of the ships’ captains were against him. He had most of the mutineers killed. Their bones would be found years later by Francis Drake when he made the same voyage. As the search for a route through to the east continued, one of the ships was wrecked and another turned back for Spain. In October, the remaining three ships arrived at a place they named the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins, an odd name but it is named after a saints’ feast day. There they found a salt water channel that would later be called the Straits of Magellan. It took them more than a month to thread there way through the strait. When they reached the ocean on the other side the water there was so calm the Magellan named it the Pacific Ocean.
Once in the Pacific he assumed that they were close to their destination. He had no idea how big the Pacific was. It was more that three months before they sighted land. The men were forced to eat
rancid biscuit crumbs, leather hide and even the rats aboard the ship. Many starved.
When they arrived in the Philippines in April, Magellan became involved in a war between local kings that was really a result of his desire to convert everyone to Christianity. He was killed there, he never made it back to Spain. The remaining crew sailed on. In May they were forced to abandon another of their ships. They no longer had enough crew and one of the ships was so worm eaten that they set it on fire and left it. They arrived at the Spice Islands in November and loaded up with what seems to have been principally cloves. The Victoria was now under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano. It was he who decided to continue sailing westwards back to Spain. Magellan had never intended to sail right around the world. He had expected to sail back the same way they had come. The second remaining ship, the Trinidad, had to remain behind for repairs but the Victoria sailed across the Indian Ocean, around the cape of Good Hope and northwards back to Spain.
The ship carried 26 tonnes of spices which were worth more that their weight in gold. But all the crew had to eat on the last part of their journey was rice. Twenty of them starved to death before they reached home. The remaining crew were never properly paid for their service. The cargo was siezed by the crown as compensation for the lost ships.
Although Magellan is often credited as being the first to sail around the world, he did not complete the journey. He didn’t even get to the Spice Islands. The credit should more properly go to Elcano and the seventeen other survivors. You could even argue that the first man to sail right around the world was Magellan’s slave, Enrique, who had been with him since 1511 and was born in the Spice Islands. He completed his circumnavigation in 1521, over a year before the Victoria returned to Spain.