Juan Sebastián Elcano
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Famous person: Juan Sebastián Elcano

Spaniards are used to “controversial” figures from their history, and they have learned to make a distinction between “conquistadors”, “discoverers”, and “explorers”. This last category has a better reputation than the first group, as the conquerors were fully committed to satisfying their craving for gold, and they are held in higher esteem than the discoverers, as explorers don’t seize land that belongs to others. With all this in mind, Juan Sebastián Elcano is one of the most valued figures from the period when Spain was building its empire.

Juan Sebastian

The first Spaniard to travel around the world was born in 1476 in Guetaria (Basque Country). This Basque adventurer and skilled seaman quickly gained extensive experience that earned him an important position among the crew of the Portuguese sailor Fernando Magallan, who was searching for a way to reach India from the west. He then left Sanlúcar de Barrameda in 1519 bound to make history.

Given the uncertain nature of the mission (remember that at that time much of the world was unknown to Europe), it is not surprising that there was constant fighting among the crew due to lack of supplies, the hardships of the journey and strict leadership that was often misunderstood. At first, Elcano sided with Magellan, but he later took an opposing position which ended up with him as the leader of the voyage, although Magellan maintained a certain rank due to his essential knowledge.

There were also conflicts with indigenous people of the areas explorers traveled to. Magellan in fact died during one of these disputes in the Philippines in 1521. The death of the head of the expedition (although his position had been reduced to “honorary”) resulted in a power struggle which Elcano ended up benefitting from. With the seizure of power and the arrival in the Moluccas islands (famous for its spices) all seemed to be going well.


However nothing could be further from the truth: a malfunction in one of the two ships meant that the crews began to separate. One returned to Spanish ports in America and another, that of Elcano, continued along the Portuguese route surrounding Africa. This meant skirting the Indian Ocean to reach the Atlantic without stopping. A faster trip... but much harder.

An impatient crew, the harsh climate and threatening Atlantic, diseases, lack of food, even an arrest in Mozambique, all could have turned the trip into a disaster, but Elcano did not let it get in his way. Finally, in 1522 the ship arrived in Sanlúcar de Barrameda with only 18 of the 265 crew members that had left three years earlier. In the midst of all these historic events, Elcano seemed not to have noticed one: he had managed to go around the world... and this was the sixteenth century, and he did it in a wooden boat.

This achievement has become history; even with all of its ups and down, there is no doubt that few people deserve fame like this Basque explorer. 

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