Voyages of Discovery – The Forgotten Hero

Voyages of Discovery – The Forgotten Hero
Voyages of Discovery – The Forgotten Hero

If you look for the “first circumnavigation of the world” on the Internet, you will automatically come across Ferdinand Magellan. In many school books, the Portuguese seafarer (1480 to 1521) is described as the first person to circumnavigate the globe. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig also celebrates him as a heroic circumnavigator in his novel “Magellan: The Man and His Deed”, published in 1938.

“Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Magellan neither planned to circumnavigate the earth, nor did he ever manage to do it,” clarifies Spanish historian Daniel Zulaika. In fact, Magellan died halfway through this historic orbit on April 27, 1521 in a hail of arrows from Filipino islanders on Mactan.

Only in Getaria is the true hero of the first circumnavigation present. – © Manuel Meyer

The Portuguese seafarer was actually only looking for a western sea route to Asia in 1519 on behalf of the Spanish crown. His destination: the Indonesian spice islands of the Moluccas. Pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were as valuable as gold in Europe in the 16th century.

Significant discovery

Magellan finally found a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific at the tip of South America. So his expedition became one of the greatest voyages of discovery in history, ending exactly 500 years ago with the first circumnavigation of the world. It was proof that the earth is indeed round.

But it was the Spanish seafarer Juan Sebastián Elcano (1486-1526) under whose command the never-planned circumnavigation of the earth was completed. The adventurer, who came from the Basque fishing village of Getaria, was hired as shipmaster on the “Concepción”, one of the five ships with which Magellan left the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in southern Spain on September 20, 1519. “Elcano was broke at the time and felt compelled to take part in the expedition,” explains Elcano expert Daniel Zulaika.

Previously, Elcano was looking for big money, became a merchant, but was also hired as a mercenary and smuggler, explains historian Zulaika, who has already published three books about Elcano. Elcano even got his own merchant ship, but lived a lavish life. Eventually, Italian trading partners asked him to hand over his ship to pay off his debts. That was against Spanish law. “In order to avoid total bankruptcy and gain pardon from the Spanish king, Elcano undertook to take part in Magellan’s expedition,” Zulaika said.

Elcano becomes commander

After Magellan’s death and that of many captains and officers, the remaining crew gave Elcano command. Although he had been demoted and no longer an officer since his involvement in a mutiny in March 1520, other captains were regarded by the sailors as incompetent.

They trusted Elcano. “He was a skilled seafarer and a born leader,” assures historian Daniel Zulaika. As a young man, he learned navigation from his father, a ship master. He was a smuggler, fought with the Spanish Armada in Algeria and Italy, and eventually became captain of a merchant ship before joining the Magellan fleet.

After a six-month odyssey, Elcano finally reached the Moluccas with the two remaining ships and picked up the coveted spices. The ships parted. It is uncertain what became of the “Trinidad”, which was heading back towards South America. She never returned to Spain.

Elcano chose the return route around Africa with Magellan’s flagship, the “Victoria”, and thus completed the circumnavigation of the earth. In order not to be intercepted by the Portuguese, who were jealously guarding their spice route, he did not drive along the coast as usual, but took the more dangerous but more direct route through the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope. From there it went along the west coast of Africa to Spain.

The Odyssey was one of the toughest sea adventures ever. “I truly believe that such a voyage will never be undertaken again,” wrote the ship’s chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, one of the few who survived. Those who did not die of hunger, thirst, or scurvy fell victim to disease or skirmishes with the natives.

On September 6, 1522, under Elcano’s leadership, after two years, eleven months and two weeks, only 18 emaciated and ragged figures of the 247 expedition members returned to Sanlúcar de Barrameda in southern Spain. Nobody had expected the return of one of the ships of the Magellan fleet.

Elcano was received with all honors by King Charles I of Spain, but was also subjected to severe questioning for his part in the mutiny against Magellan. Elcano could make excuses. The king knighted him, gave him a lavish pension and a coat of arms crowned by a globe with the Latin inscription “Primus circumdedisti me” (“You circumnavigated me first”).

In Getaria’s 15th-century Church of San Salvador, where Elcano was baptized and his parents are buried, there is this inscription on an ancient stone slab in memory of the hero. “Many therefore think that Elcano is buried here. But he died of scurvy in 1526 on a second expedition to the Spice Islands and was thrown into the sea,” explains historian Zulaika.

In Spain, Elcano is still a folk hero today. Concerts, exhibitions and festivals will be held in Geatria this weekend to mark the 500th anniversary of its historic orbit. Amateur actors reenact his return and the reception of the king in the medieval streets of the fishing village. Squares and streets in Getaria are still dedicated to him today. Its statues dominate the main squares. A huge monument over the foundations of an ancient bastion commemorates Elcano’s historic voyage of discovery.

All eyes on Magellan

But outside of Spain Elcano is rather unknown. All glory goes to Magellan. A Chilean province is named after him, a space probe, penguins, lamb dishes, lunar craters and even dwarf galaxies near the Milky Way are called “Magellanic Clouds” because his men were the first Europeans to sight them in the southern hemisphere sky.

Zulaika admits that Elcano could hardly win the fight against the “Magellan myth”. The entire expedition was the idea of ​​the charismatic seafarer, who also died a heroic death fit for film and found the all-important east-west passage at the southern tip of America, the Strait of Magellan named after him.

While Magellan made history for the first circumnavigation of the world, Elcano was largely forgotten. “A historical injustice. After all, he not only ended the journey, but also led almost half of the voyage of discovery,” says historian Daniel Zulaika.

The article is in German

Tags: Voyages Discovery Forgotten Hero

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