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Juan Sebastián Elcano

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Juan Sebastián Elcano
Juan Sebastián Elcano statue in Getaria (Spain)

Juan Sebastián del Cano, then Elcano ( Getaria (in the Basque province Guipúzcoa, Kingdom of Castile, now part of Spain), 1486/ 1487 – Pacific Ocean, August 4, 1526) was a Basque (Spanish) navigator. He completed the first world circumnavigation in history.

A son of Domingo Sebastián del Cano and wife Catalina del Puerto, he was the older brother of Domingo del Cano, a Priest, Martín Pérez del Cano and Antón Martín del Cano.

Elcano was a naval commander subject of Charles I of Castile and he completed the voyage that the Portuguese-born (and trained) naval commander and navigator Ferdinand Magellan inspired, planned, organized and led for Castile to reach the Spice Islands sailing westwards from Europe. He brought one of Magellan's ships, the Victoria, back to Seville with eighteen surviving men, on September 8, 1522, after a journey of three years and one month.

Elcano led the sailing home to Spain after Magellan was killed during a fight with natives in the Philippine Islands on April 27, 1521. Actually the Victoria was the only ship of Magellan's original expeditionary fleet to make it back to Europe after crossing the Pacific Ocean. Hazards that Elcano and his crew faced on the voyage home from the Philippines included crossing the Indian Ocean and rounding the Cape of Good Hope and the stormy southern tip of Africa, at a time when Portugal considered any European ship's entry into these waters to be sufficient reason to sink it.

For completing the first world circumnavigation in History and the unprecedented final sailing from Philippines to Spain, Charles I awarded Elcano a coat of arms with the words Primus circumdedisti me (Latin: 'You went around me first') surrounding a world globe, and an annual pension.

Elcano died while attempting a second voyage to the Spice islands as sea captain in Loaísa expedition, which eventually led to the second world circumnavigation.

He never married but he had a natural son by María Hernández Dernialde named Domingo Elcano.


An adventurer, he fought under orders of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba in Italy and, in 1509, he joined the expedition organized by Cardinal Cisneros against Algiers. Later, he settled himself in Seville and became a merchant ship captain.

After violating Castilian law by surrendering a ship of his to Genoan bankers in repayment of a debt, he sought a pardon from the Spanish King Charles I, by signing on, as a subordinate officer, to Ferdinand Magellan's expedition to open a westward route to the Spice Islands. He was spared from execution by Magellan after taking part in a failed mutiny in Patagonia and, after five months of hard labour in chains in Patagonia, Elcano was made captain of Concepción, one of five vessels.

Elcano went on to take command of the fleet when Magellan was killed in the battle of Mactan, the Philippines, on April 27 1521. Only three ships of the original fleet survived by then, but there were insufficient hands to man them, so Elcano set the Concepción on fire and continued the voyage with the Trinidad and the Victoria.

They first, confused on what direction to take, sailed west towards Borneo, where they contacted the Sultan of Brunei. After a confused conflict with the Sultan's men, they sailed back eastward and then southeast towards the Spice Islands.

After arriving in the Molucca islands November 8, 1521, and loading the ships with spices, he divided the fleet: the Trinidad was to sail back through the Pacific Ocean, while the Victoria, captained by Elcano himself, would risk the passage of the Indian Ocean, a Portuguese controlled area. The Trinidad was left behind for repairs and was later stripped by the Portuguese and destroyed in a squall.

While Magellan did not intend to circumnavigate the World and died half way, he is much more famous than Elcano
Route of Magellan and Elcano through the Spice Islands

In order to avoid conflict with the Portuguese, Elcano sailed directly from Timor through the Indian Ocean without approaching the coast. They discovered Île Amsterdam on March 18, 1522 and reached Cape of Good Hope on May 6, 1522.

After two months without resupplying, on July 1522, the Victoria, without enough water or other necessary supplies, arrived at the Cape Verde islands, a Portuguese base in the Atlantic coast of Africa. Elcano lied to the Portuguese authorities pretending that he was sailing from the Castilian territories in America. Yet one of the sailors eventually revealed the fabrication and Elcano had to part hastily from Cape Verde.

On September 6, 1522, Elcano sailed into Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, aboard the Victoria, after a 78.000 km trip around the world, along with 17 other European survivors of the 240 man expedition, and 4 (survivors out of 13) Tidorese Asians aboard.

The king Charles I of Spain conceded him a coat of arms picturing a globe with the motto: Primus circumdedisti me (in Latin, "You went around me first"). It may in fact have been Enrique of Malacca, a Southeast Asian native and servant of Magellan, who became the first man to circumnavigate the world when the fleet arrived at his home country. He never married but he had a natural son by María Hernández Dernialde named Domingo Elcano, whom he legitimized in his last will and testament. In 1572 King Philip II of Spain awarded the male heirs of Del Cano with the hereditary title of Marques de Buglas.

In 1525, Elcano was a member of the Loaísa Expedition. He was appointed along with García Jofre de Loaísa as sea captains, who commanded 7 ships and sent to claim the Spice Islands for King Charles I of Spain. Both Elcano and Loaísa, and many other sailors, died of malnutrition in the Pacific Ocean, but the survivors reached their destination and a few of them managed to return to Spain, completing the second world circumnavigation in History.

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