Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano 0121
Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano Image Credit: Getty Images

GETARIA, Spain: On September 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.”

But another country has at least as strong a claim on the circumnavigation, in the name of another sailor.

On the 500th anniversary of the expedition’s departure, Spain — whose king sponsored the voyage — is seeking to reassert its role, and that of the Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano.

Magellan set sail from Spain with a fleet of five ships, but he himself only made it halfway around the world. After crossing the strait at the southern tip of the Americas that now bears his name, he was killed in battle in the Philippines.

Only one of the ships completed the three-year circumnavigation, guided home by Elcano, a Spanish officer from the Basque Country.

From Spain Juan Sebastián Elcano 0012
From Spain Juan Sebastián Elcano left with 250 men in five ships and under the command of Fernando de Magallanes. They only intended to reach the islands of the species, through the Philippines, opening a new route through the Atlantic, because the only one known until then was a Portuguese monopoly. Magellan, instead of going below Africa to the Indian Ocean, changed his mind and wanted to go in the opposite direction. The trip took three years and 12 days. It was all bad. The return was without Magallanes and commanded by Juan Sebastián Elcano. Image Credit: Real Instituto Elcano

“The focus has always been on Magellan, but everybody should know that this was the project of a Spanish king, financed with Spanish money and completed by a great Spanish navigator whose role has unfortunately been forgotten,” said Carmen Iglesias, the president of Spain’s Royal Academy of History.

“This commemoration should absolutely serve to rebalance the relationship” between Magellan and Elcano, she added.

The commemoration events in both Spain and Portugal will mostly focus on the achievements of Magellan and Elcano. But the three-year journey also contained episodes of violent conflict between the navigators and local people. Lapu-Lapu, the ruler whose troops killed Magellan, is celebrated in the Philippines as a hero of resistance to European imperialism.

European colonial dominance

The expedition helped consolidate European colonial dominance, departing 25 years after Spain and Portugal had signed a treaty to divide control over the vast territories that they had already conquered.

Iglesias acknowledged that Elcano was playing catch-up to Magellan in part because Spain itself had failed to highlight his achievements.

His birthplace, the scenic coastal town of Getaria, has a glossy, recently built museum, but it is dedicated to another famous son, the fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga.

The town has a monument to Elcano and a couple of statues, but the most prominent use of his name is a Michelin-starred restaurant, Elkano, which at present probably draws as many pilgrims as the navigator himself.

“We have simply not done enough to honour Elcano, who also represents our love and understanding of the sea,” said Emeterio Urresti, the president of a guild for Getaria’s 400 fishermen.

After a diplomatic spat, Portugal and Spain submitted a new joint application to Unesco this year to honour the circumnavigation route.

Over the coming three years, the two countries are staging dozens of events, some of them jointly, to commemorate the anniversary of the circumnavigation, including a current exhibition in Seville, Spain, and another one in Porto, Portugal, next year.

On Friday, a celebration was held in Sanlucar de Barrameda, the port where the expedition set off exactly 500 years earlier.

“We started with a misunderstanding, because this is an episode of history in which each country has its own narrative,” said Camilo Vazquez Bello, a former deputy director in the Spanish Education Ministry who started the commemoration project.

Early globalisation

“For us, Magellan is very important as the starting point, but he never planned to sail around the world,” he added. “We certainly want to highlight Elcano’s pioneering contribution to globalisation, as the first who got all the way round.”

Magellan wanted to open a new route to the Spice Islands. His plan was rejected by the king of Portugal, Manuel I, so he persuaded King Charles I of Spain to finance the trip.

Magellan captained a multinational crew on a journey that was chronicled by an Italian scholar, Antonio Pigafetta.

Elcano also achieved a major sailing feat, while struggling to avoid Portuguese checkpoints as he sailed around Africa to return to Spain.

But Portuguese historians mostly focus on Magellan as the mastermind of the expedition and first explorer to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which he named.

Elcano enlisted as a second-tier officer and also took part in a mutiny in Patagonia in 1520 that Magellan managed to put down.

“There is a continuation from Magellan to Elcano, but with the understanding that the deeds of Magellan came from his own will, while Elcano finished a job he did not start,” said Joao Paulo Oliveira e Costa, a Portuguese historian.

He added: “Elcano achieved a record, but Magellan changed the knowledge of geography. That is why since those times Magellan got more recognition.”

Who was Elcano?

In Spain, those who have promoted Elcano’s name acknowledge that it has been an uphill struggle. “Everybody knows Magellan — and I’m just tired of telling people who was Elcano,” said Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, the chairman of the Elcano Royal Institute, an international affairs research group based in Madrid.

In March, the Spanish Royal Academy of History issued a paper that aimed to set the record straight about Elcano’s importance.

It also underlined that “the completely and exclusively Spanish nature of the venture is indisputable.” Iglesias, the academy’s president, said that Elcano had long been neglected “through inertia” and that it was “time to teach and talk a lot more about him.”

But Elcano may have also suffered from the divisive politics of Spain. Politicians in Getaria complained when the Juan Sebastian Elcano, a four-masted training ship of the Spanish Navy, visited the port in July at the invitation of a local association.

The sailing event drew a large crowd, but the mayor stayed away and some residents held a protest during the celebration.

“Elcano was Basque, and this commemoration should serve to highlight the singularity of our lands,” said Haritz Alberdi Arrillaga, Getaria’s mayor, who represents E.H. Bildu, a Basque separatist party.

Xabier Alberdi, a Basque historian who is the director of the naval museum in San Sebastian, about 15 miles east of Getaria, said that “political nonsense” had undermined the memory of Elcano since the 19th century, when Antonio Canovas 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,” Alberdi said.

There are very few documents about Elcano’s life, but Alberdi said that Getaria should at least renovate the washed-out plaque that marks the spot of his family home. Nobody is planning an Elcano museum in the town, which is reeling from a fraud scandal involving the Balenciaga museum. In June, a former mayor received a prison sentence for falsifying documents and misusing public funds to build the museum, which cost 30 million euros, about $33 million — six times its initial budget.

“We decided to give Balenciaga rather than Elcano a museum, to discover that we are now left with this big problem,” said Urresti, the president of the fishermen’s association.

—New York Times News Service