The National Geographic website has regaled us with an article on how Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is not the person who should be credited with making the first trip round the world, but rather Juan Sebastián Elkano.

This Gipuzkoan sailor was the captain of the only ship and of the 18 sailors who reached Sanlúcar de Barramenda on September 6, 1522.  Two days later, they “completed the circuit,” when the reached Seville, whence they had set sail with five ships and 240 seamen.  They had taken 3 years and 27 days to circumnavigate the globe.  They had proven, by doing it, that the Earth was round, and they opened new sailing routes.

The timing could not be better, just a few days away from the Day of the Basque Diaspora which is being held on September 8th after a popular vote chose that day to remember the presence of Basques all over the world.

There are some discrepancies in the number of crewmen who set sail for the Moluccas, or “Spice Islands,” to find a westward route.  This discrepancy in the number of crewmen may be due to the fact that sometimes slaves who sailed were not counted and, as we’ll see, it would seem their role in history has also been stolen and forgotten.

Un grabado de la nao 'Victoria' fechado hacia 1580, con los retratos en medallón de Fernando de Magallanes (arriba a la izquierda) y Juan Sebastián Elcano (arriba a la derecha). Pero en la que se habla de la gesta de mMgallanes
An engraving of the ship ‘Victoria’ dated 1580, with the portraits of Ferdinand Magellan (upper left) and Juan Sebastián Elkano (upper right), but which speaks of the feats achieved by the former

The article, written by Pablo Emilio Pérez-Mallaina, a professor of New World History at the School of Geography and History at the University of Seville, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of that feat, means to highlight Elkano’s role in the same, because it would seem that, outside our country, this feat is usually attributed to Magellan.

There must be some truth to it when both National Geographic and The New York Times write about it.

The erasure of Elkano

This can also be found in an interesting article published by The New York Times (again our dear New York Times and its correspondent Raphael Minder are cited on our blog) which can be found below.  In it, he highlights the sailor from Getaria, and recalls some interesting facts.  It also gives an excellent explanation as to the reasons why Juan Sebastián Elkano’s memory has been downplayed and indeed erased.

Xabier Alberdi, a Basque historian who is the director of the naval museum in San Sebastián, about 15 miles east of Getaria, said that “political nonsense” had undermined the memory of Elcano since the 19th century, when Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, a historian who also became leader of the Spanish government, described Elcano as little more than “an adventurer.”

The fear of Basque nationalism during a period of civil wars within Spain meant that “Spaniards felt more comfortable putting Magellan instead of Elcano near the top of their list of great explorers, just behind Columbus,” Mr. Alberdi said.

This image set itself as the official version told in Spain, which we Basques and our institutions have not been freed from.  This means that we’ve been deprived not only of getting to write our own history, at least officially, but also of getting to teach it to our youth, and to get the recognition that our people have had in world history.

Standing up for Elkano

That is why we need to applaud, until we break our hands, the work carried out in the past few years by the Elkano Foundation.  We love everything they do, even their slogan, Basques around the world, again.  Their website is a gem.

Even so, it’s not the most important thing they’re doing.  Their reach goes far beyond a nice website, as we can see with some examples:

In 2020, we brought you an entry on how the Guinness Book of Records recognized Elkano’s Basque nationality.

In Google Arts and Culture, an extraordinary repository of information, if we look up this historical figure, we come across a great deal of information, much of it provided by the Elkano Foundation.  That’s how we need to go about ensuring that we are the protagonists in our own history.

  • These pages not only stand up for the Basque sailor, they also reveal data we’re sure many of us did not know, such as, for example, that three of the five ships that set sail from Seville in September 1519 were Basque (two from Ondarroa, one of which made it home, and the other from Erandio).
  • We also discovered that 10% of the seamen, that’s 24, were Basque, and that six of the 18 survivors were Basque.
  • In conclusions, what we have before us is a world to explore and stand up for Juan Sebastián Elkano, the Basque sailor who managed to make it so that this expedition was able to make it back to its home port.
The footprint of the “Bizcainhos” in the Moluccas

Back in 2017, we brought you an article about how the 16th-century king of one of the Molucca islands who spoke lingoa Bizcainha.

As we said:

Living with those Basques, the then prince of the island learned Lengua Bizcainha, as we’re told by Fernão Lopes de Castanheda in his chronicle, História do descobrimento e conquista da Índia pelos Portugueses when he talks about the then king, as Julián Díaz writes in his blog:

E el rey seria de xvij. annos, & era aluo & gentil home : estaua vestido muy ricamete, & tinha grade magestade & estado,estaua acõpaniiado de seus jrmãos , & de muytos mandarins.E como se criara co os Castelhanos sabia bem a sua lingoa: & Bizcainha, & Portuguesa: & prezauasemuyto de as falar.
(The king would have been 27 years old, and was a white and gentle man.  He was dressed very richly, and had great majesty and status; he was accompanied by his brothers and by many mandarins.  And since he had grown up with the Castilians, he knew their language well: as well as Biscayne and Portuguese, which he very much appreciated speaking.)

As Díaz well reflects:
The conclusion that can be reached is that the three languages, Spanish, Basque, and Portuguese, were the languages of daily use during the expedition; otherwise, the prince wouldn’t have bothered learning them.  Castanheda gets excited when the king speaks Portuguese, as he is an enemy of Portugal.  The same excitement the Basques must have felt to hear Basque in such a remote place, or not?

But, were Elkano and his crew the first European expedition to circumnavigate the globe?

Well, there does exist the technical possibility that they weren’t.  There is no doubt that they were the first who meant to do it.  Earlier, we mentioned that among the more-or-less volunteers on the expedition, there were also slaves.  One of them was Enrique de Malaca or de Molucca, also known as Enrique el Negro, who was Magellan’s slave and interpreter who accompanied him on the voyage.

Malacca. Grabado portugués
Malacca. Portuguese engraving

Enrique was captured in Sumatra in 1511 and was purchased by Magellan, who took him back to Europe, and therefore completing the first part of the journey around the world.

Then, aboard the expedition, he made most of the rest of the trip, returning to Philippines.  There, he left the expedition (or was left behind) on Cebu, one of the main islands in the archipelago.  If he did make it from there to his native Molucca island, he would have completed the journey.

But that’s not all.  In a publication by historian and novelist Enrique Santamaría, published by the Elkano Foundation, another possibility is put forward.  Aboard the expedition was another of Magellan’s slaves and interpreters who was also native to Micronesia.  If that’s true, then she was undoubtedly the first person to circumnavigate the globe.

So, as we can see, there are many stories here woven together: forgotten stories, ignored protagonists, sense of adventure, pursuit of wealth, all at a time when the world got very, very big.

Getting from Europe to the Moluccas at that time was not any easier than it was for us to get to the moon in the 1960s.  Certainly it was harder than it is today.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the stories and adventures these true protagonists of the Age of Discovery lived for almost two centuries.  Among them are the many Basques who turned the North Atlantic into “their sea“, who sailed round the world on boats made in Basque shipyards, or who discovered a way to travel between Asia and the Americas along the Manila-Acapulco route.

National Geographic – 30/8/2022  – USA

Magellan got the credit, but this man was first to sail around the world

Juan Sebastián Elcano completed the first known circumnavigation of the globe in September 1522. The Basque navigator led the tattered remains of Magellan’s fleet back to Spain after the commander’s death in 1521.

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New York Times –  20/9/2019  -USA

Who First Circled the Globe? Not Magellan, Spain Wants You to Know

On Sept. 20, 1519, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out on what was to become the first circumnavigation of the world. The expedition helped reshape world trade and wrote Magellan’s name into the history books. It remains a major point of pride for Portugal, which two years ago asked UNESCO to grant world heritage status to what it called “the Magellan route.”

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Last Updated on Dec 3, 2023 by About Basque Country

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