Basque Fact of the Week: The First Person to (Intentionally) Sail Around the World was Basque

In the United States, at least when I was a kid, we learned that the first person to circumnavigate the globe — to sail around the world — was Ferdinand Magellan. In reality, however, Magellan died in the Philippines, and he never made it all the way. He left Spain with 5 ships but only one ship, the Victoria, returned successfully to Spain. After many changes of leadership, it was Juan Sebastián Elcano who was leading the ship and the expedition when it finally arrived. For his efforts, in addition to a monetary reward, he was awarded a coat-of-arms with the slogan “primus circumdedisti me.”

Image of Elcano, from Auñamendi Encyclopedia .
  • Magellan was essentially spurred on by Rajah Humabon of Cebu, one of the rulers of one of the islands in the Philippines, to attack his enemy Datu Lapu-Lapu, on the nearby island of Mactan. Magellan, who had already converted Rajah Humabon to Christianity, wanted to do the same to Lapu-Lapu but failed. In an ensuing battle, Magellan, attacking the island almost single handedly, confident in the superiority of European weaponry, was felled, initially struck by a bamboo spear.
  • Elcano was born on the coastal city Getaria, Gipuzkoa, in 1487. Before participating in Magellan’s expedition, Elcano was part of campaigns in Algiers and Italy. He got into some trouble for surrendering an armed ship to foreign powers. In his later life, he was persecuted for, seemingly, having many love affairs.
  • During the voyage, Magellan’s leadership was questioned and, along with others, Elcano participated in a mutiny against their leader. This was near the southern tip of South America, before they found the passage that would lead them to the Pacific Ocean that is now known as the Straight of Magellan. The mutiny was defeated. Elcano was spared and, after five months of hard labor, restored to a leadership position in the voyage.
  • Elcano may have been the first person to intentionally sail around the world, but he may not have been the first person to do it at all. Laurence Bergreen, author of Over the Edge of the World, notes that one of Magellan’s slaves, Enrique of Malacca, seems to have understood the language of the Philippine’s, suggesting he was originally from there. He may have made his way to Europe as a part of either the spice trade or dealings with Arabs. Thus, the expedition would have taken him near home and possibly made him the first person, though unintentionally, to sail around the world.

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