Childhood & Early Life
Juan Sebastián Elcano was born sometime around 1476, in Getaria, Gipuzkoa, Castile, a medieval polity, which was located in modern South West Europe. His parents were Domingo Sebastián Elcano and Catalina del Puerto. He had three siblings, all brothers, namely, Domingo Elcano, Martín Pérez Elcano, and Antón Martín Elcano.
In his early years, he served in the military and also took part in the Italian Wars under the command of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba. He also joined the Spanish expedition in 1509, against Algiers, which was organized by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros.
Later, he chose to settle in Seville, and became a merchant ship captain. However, he soon accumulated too many debts, and companies started demanding that he surrender his ship to cover all his debts. However, by doing so, he broke the law of the land.
When he asked the king for a pardon, the King agreed but only on a condition that he would use his skills as a sailor and navigator to aid Ferdinand Magellan on his voyage. Soon, he signed on as a subordinate officer for the expedition to the East Indies.
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Voyage of Circumnavigation
The expedition began in 1519, with 241 men and five ships, which were ‘Trinidad’, ‘Concepcion’, ‘San Antonio’, ‘Victoria’ and ‘Santiago’. The fleet set sail in September. Though it made its way to Brazil, it avoided the Portuguese settlements as there was a hostility going on between the Spanish and Portuguese.
Soon, Magellan decided to halt due to the bad weather. This left the men idle, and they wanted to return to Spain. Soon, they started a mutiny, along with Elcano. The mutiny was eventually put down, and some of the mutineers were killed or marooned. Though Elcano was pardoned, he had to spend five months of hard labor on the mainland.
The fleet then sailed to the eastern coast of Brazil into Puerto San Julian, in Argentina. After some months, they were able to discover a passage in the southern tip of South America, which later became known as ‘Strait of Magellan’. They sailed through the strait. However, the crew of ‘San Antonio’ mutinied shortly after and returned to Spain.
Magellan also lost another ship, the ‘Santiago’, which sank shortly after. However, he managed to rescue the sailors. During this time, he put Elcano as the captain of the ‘Concepcion’, as most of the other experienced sailors left for Spain, or were either executed or marooned.
According to what Magellan calculated, the fleet should have been only a few days away from the Spice Islands. However, it took his fleet four months just to cross the South Pacific. Several of his men died during this time, before they were able to reach Guam and the Marianas Islands, and resupply.
They continued westward, and in early 1521, they reached a part of Asia, which is the present-day Philippines. One of the crew members was able to interact with the native people, and they soon found out they were on the eastern edge of the world which was known to Europe. They developed good relations with the islanders, after Magellan also became friends with the King of Zzubu but soon they got involved in tribal warfare between rival Filipino groups.
Magellan was eventually killed on 27th April 1521, and the Spanish were defeated in the Battle of Mactan. The surviving members eventually voted that Duarte Barbosa and João Serrão would be the new leaders. However, the King of Zzubu eventually betrayed them, and they were killed too.
Therefore, the rest of the fleet decided to head back to Spain. They headed across the Indian Ocean, and soon reached the Spice Islands, which was their original goal. They loaded themselves with valuable spices, and the ships set sail once again. However, they were soon attacked by the Portuguese, who captured several of their men.
Juan Sebastián Elcano managed to evade the Portuguese somehow, and continued sailing towards Spain. When he eventually reached home on 6 September 1522, the ship had only 22 men, eighteen of the surviving European sailors and four Asians who had joined them en route. The King of Spain met Elcano and granted Elcano an augmentation of his coat of arms with a globe which stated ‘You Went Around Me First’.
In 1525, Juan Sebastián Elcano was chosen as the chief navigator of another expedition being led by García Jofre de Loaísa, a Spanish nobleman. Their main intention was to retrace Magellan’s route in order to establish a permanent colony on the Spice Islands.
During the crossing of the Pacific, Juan Sebastián Elcano passed away with several of the other sailors on 4th August 1526. He wrote a last will and testament, before his death, which stated that his money was left for his two illegitimate children as well as their mothers.