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16th-century engraving by Joannes Stradanus depicting Magellan surrounded by mythological characters and fantastic animals. It represents the discovery of the Magellan Strait and European views of the still-mysterious Americas. (Public domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: The First Circumnavigation of the World Happened by Accident, Not Design

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In 2022 Spain went all out to celebrate the quincentennial of the arrival of the so-called ‘Spice Route Armada’ which reached Spain on September 6th, 1522, after completing the first recorded circumnavigation of the world. What many people don’t realize is that the brains of the expedition, Ferdinand Magellan , never actually meant to sail around the world. He was actually looking for a trade route to reach the lucrative Maluku Islands of Indonesia, known as the Spice Islands.

The Portuguese explorer was sailing under the Spanish flag, due to a falling out with King Manuel of Portugal, while the Treaty of Tordesillas had effectively carved up the world between the Spanish, who controlled trade routes to the west, and the Portuguese, given control of trade routes to the east.

16th-century engraving by Joannes Stradanus depicting Magellan surrounded by mythological characters and fantastic animals. It represents the discovery of the Magellan Strait and European views of the still-mysterious Americas. ( Public domain )

This was an era when spices were hugely important commodities. Pepper, nutmeg, ginger and cloves were used in food preparation and medicine, while some spices were worth more than their weight in gold. Attaining cloves and nutmeg, native to the Maluku Islands, was one of the main driving forces behind Magellan’s expedition and he decided to lead his fleet west around the Americas to reach the Spice Islands without encroaching on Portuguese waters.

Recreation of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation crossing the Strait of Magellan. (grechsantos / Adobe Stock)

Recreation of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation crossing the Strait of Magellan. ( grechsantos / Adobe Stock)

Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in 1519, crossed the Strait of Magellan in November 1520 and reached Guam in March 1521. While the original fleet was made up of five ships and a roughly 270-strong crew, the only ship to make it back to Spain was the Nao Victoria, with just 18 people on board led by Juan Sebastián Elcano, who took over after Magellan met his untimely demise.

The harrowing voyage had discovered a new route to the Spice Islands and they arrived laden with a valuable cargo of spices. The historian Ramón María Serrera, who took part in the quincentennial celebrations, explained in El País that the Magellan expedition had accidentally revealed “the full spherical dimension of our planet” even though “the circumnavigation was only made possible because they didn’t know how to return the way the had come.”

Actors recreating the arrival of the 18 survivors of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation of the globe. (Courtesy of Fundación Nao Victoria)

Actors recreating the arrival of the 18 survivors of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation of the globe. (Courtesy of Fundación Nao Victoria )

Culminating several events which began in 2019, a year which marked 500 years since the expedition first set sail, the celebrations in September 2022 kicked off in Sanlúcar de Barrameda with a huge naval parade. Several ships then headed up the Guadalquivir River to Seville.

On reaching the docks, actors recreated the arrival of the surviving sailors, who then processed through the city to give thanks to the Virgin de la Victoria. The celebrations included a performance of Esfera Mundi by the Spanish theatre group La Fura dels Baus, along with family events, concerts, guided tours, and informative talks presided over by King Felipe VI of Spain.

Replica of the Nao Victoria arriving in Seville. (Courtesy of Fundación Nao Victoria)

Replica of the Nao Victoria arriving in Seville. (Courtesy of Fundación Nao Victoria )

Moored at the Muelle de las Delicias, a replica of the Nao Victoria has become a permanent tourist attraction, alongside an interpretation center – Espacio Primera Vuelta al Mundo . The Nao Victoria Foundation is responsible for the construction of various ship replicas, including another fully seaworthy replica of the famed ship built in 1991 for the Seville Expo ’92 which later completed a world tour and circumnavigated the globe between 2004 and 2006. This first replica was present for the celebrations before departing once again to continue its journey.

Top image: Composite image cloves layered over map representing the Magellan-Elcano expedition in the Nao Victoria. Source: Benjamin LEFEBVRE / Adobe Stock & Public domain

By Cecilia Bogaard





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