Spain is ship-shape for a host role at a global party to celebrate the 1st Circumnavigation of the Globe. Belinda Beckett charts the course of the epic three-year voyage which set sail from Sevilla 500 years ago this month and previews some of the highlights planned between now and 2022.

In 1492 Columbus discovered Caribbean Vacations, according to the writer P.J. O’Rourke. It was the Magellan Expedition, three decades later, that proved the earth was spherical. But the Portuguese explorer who set sail from Sevilla in 1519 with five ships and 239 men to find a westward passage to Indonesia’s Spice Islands can’t take all the credit. He was speared to death by native arrows and never made it back.

Homage is also due to Spanish captain Juan Sebastián Elcano, who limped back to Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the Cádiz coast, three years later, with one ship and 17 crew; and to Venetian adventurer and scholar Antonio Pigafetta, a diarist to rival Samuel Pepys, without whom we would never have known in such detail about the mutinies, shipwrecks, diseases, strange lands, curious creatures and indigenous people they encountered. “I believe that nevermore will any man undertake to make such a voyage,” Pigafetta reported on the First Voyage Around the World.

Yet, incredibly, it was one of the most successful voyages in seafaring history. Not only did Elcano return in the Nao Victoria (U-shaped Captain Pugwash boat) with a hold of exotic spices that more than paid for the expedition. He had the coordinates to a passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans connecting Spain to all the treasures of the East Indies (previously hogged by Portugal).

As well as pretty decisive proof that the earth wasn’t flat, the 70,000 kilometre voyage gave scientists a better idea of its dimensions, introduced the concept of time zones (the returning heroes couldn’t fathom out why they had ‘lost’ a day) and opened up communication on a planetary scale. It also added to the world data bank of languages, flora and fauna and put new territories like Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia and The Philippines on the map.

Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Chile – all the countries along the route and everywhere and anyone connected to the expedition, be they a sherry supplier or the birthplace of one of the explorers, will be holding V Centenary celebrations. Sevilla, the departure city and Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the Cádiz coast whose fruit, wine and fish provisioned the expedition, will play starring roles. A touring opera devised by Plácido Domingo and a round-world trimarán bid by world champion yachtsman Alex Pella are among hundreds of events planned internationally. Locally, expect fireworks on this year’s big commemorative days (August 10 in Sevilla, September 20 in Sanlúcar), and themed events going on until September 2022 (the 500th anniversary of the fleet’s return). For the next three years everyone will be spicing up their repertoires with V Centenario twists. I wonder who will be the first chef to put hard tack on the menu!

Spicy Times

In 1519 Spain and Portugal were at daggers drawn on the high seas over trade routes to the New World. Both had their eyes on Indonesia’s Maluku Islands for their nutmeg, cloves and mace. Europe’s elite had the hots for spices as a flavouring, a health remedy and an aphrodisiac and their price was more than their weight in gold.

The Treaty of Tordesillas had divided up the new lands along a line west of Africa, giving Portugal everything to the east and Spain everything to the west. So when an experienced Portuguese navigator who had already sailed there from the east for the Portuguese king defected to Spain with a workaround – sail from the west – Carlos l of Spain opened his purse strings. Magellan even had an interpreter – Enrique, a captive Malaccan slave. What could go wrong?

The fleet must have been a spectacular sight that Monday morning, August 10, sailing down the River Guadalquivir from Sevilla. They spent another month in Sanlucar de Barrameda confessing their sins and loading provisions – seven cows, three pigs, more barrels of sherry than weapons and membrillo (quince jam) for the officers which saved them from scurvy, though they didn’t know it – setting out for the Atlantic on September 20.

Christmas in Rio

By a stroke of luck, the expedition made first landfall here in December as the heavens opened, ending months of drought. The locals thought they were rain gods and welcomed them – a good thing, Pigafatta noted, as ‘they eat the flesh of their enemies’. Consummate traders, ‘for a comb they gave two geese, for a small mirror or a pair of scissors, so much fish that ten men could have eaten of it, for axes and knives, one and even two daughters’. The fleet spent 13 days in Brazil repairing their ships, stocking up with yams, cassavas and pineapples and indulging in (as one historian puts it) ‘a saturnalia of feasting and lovemaking’. It didn’t last long…

Fantastical Fauna

The voyagers came across animals unknown to science. Pigafetta’s ‘camel with no hump’ which had ‘ears of the size of a mule, the legs of a deer, the tail of a horse, and it neighs like a horse’ was a guanaco, related to the llama. Other curiosities were ‘a black goose that doesn’t fly’ and ‘had to be skinned instead of plucked’ (Magellanic penguins), a ‘sea wolf with feet which resemble a human hand’ (sealion), and ‘tiburoni’ (sharks) which have teeth of a terrible kind, and eat people when they find them in the sea either alive or dead.’


After three months of sailing up dead ends, Magellan dropped anchor to ride out the Patagonian winter but three of the ships’ captains wanted to go home. One was killed during the ensuing mutiny, Magellan had the other two beheaded and marooned respectively. In his defence, Pigafetta tells us, ‘The masters and captains did not love him, the captain-general being Portuguese and they Spaniards or Castilians who for a long time have been in rivalry and ill will with one another.’

The Ships

Victoria The only ship to complete the virtually uncharted round-trip was captained by one of the pardoned mutineers, the Basque Spaniard Elcano.

Santiago Wrecked in a storm off South America while scouting for a passage to the Pacific. The crew survived.

San Antonio Deserted the expedition, returning to Spain empty-handed. The renegades were exonerated after giving a distorted account of the mutiny.

Concepcion Scuppered in The Philippines after the Battle of Mactan left the expedition too shorthanded to sail three ships.

Trinidad Magellan’s flagship, wrecked in a storm on the return leg after being captured by the Portuguese. Four of the crew eventually made it home.

Patagonian Giants

Patagonia is named after ‘giant footprints’ Magellan’s men discovered on an Argentina beach which lead them to ‘certain Indians of great stature, one so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist.’ Averaging two metres (6ft 7), they would have seemed massive to diminutive Europeans who were nearly two feet smaller. ‘These giants run faster than a horse,’ wrote Pigafetta. ‘And they are very jealous of their wives.’

Strait Ahoy

A year and a month to the day the expedition set sail, the explorers found their passage to the Pacific – a 570 kilometre channel separating Chile from Tierra del Fuego. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the Magellan Strait remained the principal commercial shipping route between the world’s two greatest oceans, avoiding South America’s treacherous Cape Horn.

The Pacific is HOW big?

The ocean beyond the Strait was ‘pacific’, as Magellan christened it. But the Spice Islands were not three or four days away, as everyone thought. During a harrowing three months and 20 days without sight of land, Pigafetta writes: ‘We ate only old biscuit turned to powder, all full of worms and stinking of the urine which the rats had made on it… and of the rats, which were sold for half an écu apiece, some of us could not get enough.’ Scurvy spread among the crew, their gums so swollen and painful that many died of starvation.

Battle of Mactan

On Cebú in The Philippines, the voyagers palled up with the local chief, trading goods for Christian conversions. History still wonders why they decided to fight rival island chief Lapu-Lapu with so few men but they were outnumbered 50 to 1,500 and Magellan went down in a hail of spears. Pigafetta wrote: ‘They all at once rushed upon him with lances of iron and of bamboo and with these javelins they slew our mirror, our light, our comfort and our true guide.’

Lapu-Lapu was retroactively honoured as the first ‘Philippine national hero’ to resist foreign rule’.

Hero or Villain?

Enrique of Malacca (1497-unknown) was the young Malaysian slave captured by Magellan on a previous voyage who acted as interpreter in return for his freedom, promised in his master’s will. After Magellan was killed, the captains reneged on the deal and Enrique was blamed for the ensuing slaughter of 30 crew at a beach banquet thrown by their hosts. He was last seen leaving Cebú, presumably for home. If he got there, he would have been the first man to circumnavigate the globe. He was also co-author, with Pigafetta, of the world’s first native language phrase book.

Homeward Bound

Two ships reached the Spice Islands. One made it home. Before the Victoria’s new captain got there, Elcano lost 13 men in hostile Portuguese territory and almost all hope rounding the Cape of Good Hope. On September 6, 1522, emaciated, sick and exhausted, the 18 survivors sailed into Sanlúcar, got a tow up river to Sevilla and walked barefoot to the Cathedral to give thanks for their lives. Elcano wrote to the Spanish king: ‘Your Majesty will know better than anyone that what we ought most to value and hold on to is that we have discovered and sailed the whole roundness of the world, that going to the West, we have returned from the East.’

After math

Although he has galaxies and space programmes named after him, for a long time Magellan’s reputation was trashed in Spain by exaggerated stories of his cruelty. In his Portuguese homeland, where he is now a hero, he was once branded a traitor. The Order of Magellan was created in 1902 to honour those who complete a circumnavigation and make other contributions to humanity.

Pigafetta returned to Venice, published at least two books and has a palm named after him in the Maluku Islands.

Elcano was rewarded with an island in The Philippines and a coat of arms inscribed: ‘You went first around me’. During a disastrous follow-up expedition he died of scurvy in the Pacific.

V Centenario Celebrations

They’re so big in Spain that a National Commission of seven Spanish government ministries are coordinating the major projects – documentaries, books, opera, replica voyages, even board games and escape rooms – with emphasis on the homecoming Spanish captain’s view from the crow’s nest.

Basque hero Juan Sebastián Elcano from Getaria in Gipuzkoa is not well-known outside his homeland. But Madrid is erecting its first monument to his memory and Sevilla is getting a permanent replica of his ship, to float on the Guadalquivir next to a new experiential Interpretation Centre. Iberia has christened a new Airbus after him, top yachties are competing for the Juan Sebastián Elcano trophy, Spanish Navy training tall ship Juan Sebastián de Elcano is following the ‘Magellan-Elcana Route’ for the next three years and, so as not to deprive campo dwellers, a touring replica of the Victoria will visit 13 Spanish inland cities.

Also touring the world in Elcano’s wake is a Spanish opera composed with input from Plácido Domingo that has eight changes of stage set: Magallanes: There are no roses without thorns, tuning up in Sevilla on August 10; and two modern circumnavigations, one in a trimarán skippered by Spanish round-the-world speed sailing champion Alex Pella, already underway, the other in 21-metre sailboat with a volunteer crew, the Pros will set sail from Sevilla on August 10, and on from Sanlúcar on September 20, calling at all ports to the Spice Islands, collecting samples for ocean plastics research en route.

The national website invites users to experience the voyage virtually via an interactive map, pore over 16th century nautical charts, follow Pigafetta’s personal notes and stay updated on national events:

In Andalucía, August 10 and September 20 are the big dates in Sevilla and Sanlúcar respectively, with costumed re-enactments, spicy street food, fireworks and a 16th century vibe but the fun doesn’t stop there:

Follow the voyage along the new signposted trail between Sevilla and Sanlúcar, Magellan en Route, then do it all again on water with a guided river trip along the Guadalquivir.

Check out What Magellan Didn’t See, Sevilla Aquarium’s new deep sea attraction.

Go to a V Centenario-themed theatre night in Sevilla Alcazar’s gorgeous gardens, Thursdays to Sundays with four nightly shows until October 31.

Don’t miss The Longest Journey, an exhibition that brings together original documents and testimonies from the voyage for the first time in history, held in Sevilla’s magnificent General Archive of the Indies, September 12 – February 2020.

For news of all local events keep your eye on and