Biography of Juan Sebastián Elcano

The ship Victoria in Seville. Engraving, 1807. Colored.
The ship Victoria sited in Seville, Spain, having been around the world. Engraving, 1807. Corbis via Getty Images

Juan Sebastián Elcano (1486-1526) was a Spanish (Basque) sailor, navigator, and explorer best remembered for leading the second half of the first round-the-world navigation, having taken over after the death of Ferdinand Magellan. Upon his return to Spain, the King presented him with a coat of arms that contained a globe and the phrase: “You Went Around Me First.”

Soldier and Merchant

In his early years, Elcano was an adventurer, fighting with the Spanish army in Algiers and Italy before settling down as captain/owner of a merchant ship. When he was forced to surrender his ship to Italian companies to which he owned money, he found he had broken Spanish law and had to ask the King for a pardon. Young King Charles V agreed, but on the condition that the skilled sailor and navigator serve with an expedition the King was funding: the search for a new route to the Spice Islands, led by Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan.

The Magellan Expedition

Elcano was given the position of ship’s master on board the Concepción, one of five ships making up the fleet. Magellan believed that the globe was smaller than it actually is and that a shortcut to the Spice Islands (now known as the Maluku Islands in present-day Indonesia) was possible by going through the New World. Spices such as cinnamon and cloves were immensely valuable in Europe at the time and a shorter route would be worth a fortune to whoever found it. The fleet set sail in September of 1519 and made its way to Brazil, avoiding Portuguese settlements due to hostilities between the Spanish and Portuguese.


As the fleet made its way south along the coast of South America looking for a passage west, Magellan decided to call a halt in the sheltered bay of San Julián, as he feared continuing in bad weather. Left idle, the men began to talk of mutinying and heading back to Spain. Elcano was a willing participant and had by then assumed command of the ship San Antonio. At one point, Magellan ordered his flagship to fire on the San Antonio. In the end, Magellan put down the mutiny and had many of the leaders killed or marooned. Elcano and others were pardoned, but not until after a period of forced labor on the mainland.

To the Pacific

Around this time, Magellan lost two ships: the San Antonio returned to Spain (without permission) and the Santiago sank, although all of the sailors were rescued. By this time, Elcano was captain of the Concepción, a decision of Magellan’s that probably had much to do with the fact that the other experienced ships captains were executed or marooned after the mutiny or had gone back to Spain with the San Antonio. In October-November of 1520, the fleet explored the islands and waterways at the southern tip of South America, eventually finding a passage through that to this day is known as the Strait of Magellan.

Across the Pacific

According to Magellan’s calculations, the Spice Islands should only be a few days’ sail away. He was badly mistaken: his ships took four months to cross the South Pacific. Conditions were miserable on board and several men died before the fleet reached Guam and the Marianas Islands and were able to resupply. Continuing westward, they reached the present-day Philippines in early 1521. Magellan found he could communicate with the natives through one of his men, who spoke Malay: they had reached the eastern edge of the world known to Europe.

Death of Magellan

In the Philippines, Magellan befriended the King of Zzubu, who was eventually baptized with the name of “Don Carlos.” Unfortunately, Don Carlos convinced Magellan to attack a rival chieftain for him, and Magellan was one of several Europeans killed in the ensuing battle. Magellan was succeeded by Duarte Barbosa and Juan Serrao, but both were treacherously killed by “Don Carlos” within a few days. Elcano was now second in command of the Victoria, under Juan Carvalho. Low on men, they decided to scuttle the Concepción and head back to Spain in the two remaining ships: the Trinidad and the Victoria.

Return to Spain

Heading across the Indian Ocean, the two ships made a stop in Borneo before finding themselves at the Spice Islands, their original goal. Packed with valuable spices, the ships set out again. About this time, Elcano replaced Carvalho as captain of the Victoria. The Trinidad soon had to return to the Spice Islands, however, as it was leaking badly and eventually sank. Many of the Trinidad’s sailors were captured by the Portuguese, although a handful managed to find their way to India and from there back to Spain. The Victoria sailed on cautiously, as they had gotten word that a Portuguese fleet was looking for them.

Reception in Spain

Miraculously evading the Portuguese, Elcano sailed the Victoria back into Spain on September 6, 1522. The ship was crewed by only 22 men: 18 European survivors of the voyage and four Asians they had picked up en route. The rest had died, deserted or, in some cases, had been left behind as unworthy of sharing in the spoils of the rich cargo of spices. The King of Spain received Elcano and granted him a coat of arms bearing a globe and the Latin phrase Primus circumdedisti me, or “You Went Around Me First.”

Death of Elcano and Legacy

In 1525, Elcano was picked to be chief navigator for a new expedition led by Spanish nobleman García Jofre de Loaísa, who intended to retrace Magellan’s route and establish a permanent colony in the Spice Islands. The expedition was a fiasco: of seven ships, only one made it to the Spice Islands, and most of the leaders, including Elcano, perished of malnutrition during the arduous Pacific crossing.

Because of his elevation to noble status upon his return from the Magellan expedition, Elcano’s descendants continued to hold the title of Marquis for some time after his death. As for Elcano himself, he has unfortunately been mostly forgotten by history, as Magellan still gets all the credit for the first circumnavigation of the globe. Elcano, although well-known to historians of the Age of Discovery, is little more than a trivia question to most, although there is a statue of him in his hometown of Getaria, Spain and the Spanish navy once named a ship after him.

Source: Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.