Juan Sebastián del Cano

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Juan Sebastián Elcano (whose surname is sometimes spelled as del Cano) was a Basque navigator who completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth. [1]

Early Life Before His Navigation

Elcano came from Getaria, a coastal town in northern Gipuzkoa, Spain. He was born into a noble family that made its fortune in trade and shipping. His mother was Dona Catalina del Puerto and his father, Domingo Sebastian, was one of the most powerful merchants in Getaria. It was believed that his family had ties with Gaiza de Arzaus and the Ibarrola family who held key positions in Casa de Contratacion or the House of Trade in the city of Seville in Spain. [2][3]

Elcano's nautical, technological, and financial skills are intrinsically part of his Basque lineage. He and his brothers became seafarers and started learning the ropes of sea navigation by transporting goods to the French port. He later became a captain and owner of a merchant ship. He also had the opportunity to offer maritime services using his 200-ton carrack. He borrowed a sum of money to cover the expenses of fortifying and refining his vessel. However, he was not able to settle his loans because he did not receive his compensation on time. He incurred a huge debt and his foreign creditors confiscated his carrack.  He moved to Seville to seek for better opportunities. [2][3]

Others sources say that Elcano lived his life obstinately and this was the reason why he had unpaid dues and liabilities. He was then forced to surrender his vessel but this act was founded to go against the Spanish law. He sought for the king's pardon and King Charles V absolved him under the condition that he will take part in Magellan's expedition. [3]

His Voyage With Magellan

At the height of the rivalry between Portugal and Spain, Ferdinand Magellan proposed to the Portuguese government, who was then under leadership of King Manuel I, that sailing towards the west was a shorter and more feasible route to the Spice Islands. However, the proposal was declined and Magellan headed to Spain to reach out to King Charles V about the expedition. The latter agreed to finance the voyage and the Portuguese navigator was commissioned to lead his Spanish crew. [4]

About 502 years ago, on September 20, 1519, Ferdinand Magellan sailed west from Spain with the goal of reaching the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) in the East. Elcano was one of the ship's masters on board the Concepcion vessel, which was included in the fleet of five ships. After the winter season forced the ships to halt in Argentina, some of Magellan's crew mutinied. Some abandoned the ships and went back to Spain and one vessel was severely ruined. Elcano participated in the uprising but he was later pardoned by Magellan after he underwent a period of forced labor. Some sources say that instead of rendering force labor, he was just demoted but he later regained his former rank after Captain General Juan Lopez de Carvalho was removed from his post. [4][3]

After Magellan regained control over his crew, he continued his voyage and managed to navigate several islands and waterways at the southern tip of South America. They successfully passed through a precarious water channel, which was named after him and now called the Strait of Magellan. After this triumph, the fleet went under extreme turmoil. Magellan's crew suffered extreme hunger and many of his men had died even before reaching Guam and the Marianas Islands. [4][3]

In March 1521, Magellan's ship reached the Philippines. A month later, a battle ensued between him and the local chieftain named Lapu-Lapu. The latter defeated Magellan on April 27, 1521.

The Expedition After Magellan's Death

After Magellan’s death in the Philippines in April 1521, several men took command of the expedition, but none of them stayed in charge for a long time. As one of the few remaining men in the fleet, Elcano took charge of Victoria, one of the two surviving ships. Due to lack of people, they were forced to abandon the Concepcion vessel and journeyed back to Spain. [3][4]

On December 21, 1521, his brilliance in maritime navigation stood out when he made the momentous decision to sail from Tidore and traveled to the west and crossed unknown waters that fall under the jurisdiction of Portugal under the Treaty of Tordesillas. [2]

Heading across the Indian Ocean, the two vessels momentarily took a break in Borneo before they find themselves at the Spice Islands. The Trinidad vessel sank along the journey and some of its crew were captured by the Portuguese while others were able to seek refuge in India and flew back to Spain thereafter. [3]

In September 06, 1522, Elcano momentously brought the expedition back to Spain. Only 18 men had survived the voyage, which constituted the first journey around the globe.

Loaisa Expedition

Three years later, Elcano was appointed as chief navigator of the García Jofre de Loaisa’s expedition to claim the Moluccas Islands for Spain. The voyage aimed to traverse the route that Magellan had mapped out and to establish a permanent colony in the Spice Islands. Due to several obstacles that impeded the quest, the expedition did not prosper and both Elcano and Loaisa lost their lives at the Pacific Ocean in 1526. Sources say that Elcano's last will and testament indicated that all his possession shall be entrusted to his mother primarily because after the death of Elcano's father and male siblings, his mother took over the finances of their household and their family business. [1][3]

Primus Circumdedisti Me

To commend the success of his voyage, the Spanish king granted him a coat of arms that had a globe with a Latin phrase inscription, Primus circumdedisti me, which meant “You Went Around Me First." Despite Elcano's historic achievement as the first person to circumnavigate the globe, Magellan has received more credit and has been widely lauded in most historical books. [2][4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Juan Sebastián del Cano." Britannica Website, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Juan-Sebastian-del-Cano. Accessed on 14 January 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Elkano Foundation.  [https://artsandculture.google.com/story/juan-sebasti%C3%A1n-elcano-fundacion-elkano/zAUxC9qUHA2hGQ?hl=en “Juan Sebastián Elcano.”] Google Arts and Culture. Accessed on 14 January 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Juan Sebastián Elcano, Magellan's Replacement." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-juan-sebastian-elcano-2136331. Accessed on 22 January 2021.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Blakemore, Erin. "Magellan was first to sail around the world, right? Think again." National Geographic Website, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/09/magellan-first-sail-around-world-think-again/. Accessed on 22 January 2021.



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