Juan Sebastián Elcano is shown in a 1791 engraving in "Retratos de los españoles ilustres."

Magellan got the credit, but this man was first to sail around the world

Juan Sebastián Elcano completed the first known circumnavigation of the globe in September 1522. The Basque navigator led the tattered remains of Magellan's fleet back to Spain after the commander's death in 1521.

Juan Sebastián Elcano is shown in a 1791 engraving in Retratos de los españoles ilustres.
Album/Universal Images

Mooring at the southern Spanish port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 6, 1522, the Victoria’s hull was so rotten that it could only stay afloat by continually operating the pumps. Three years before, the ship had set out from port as part of a proud, five-ship flotilla under the command of captain-general Ferdinand Magellan. Since then, of the four other ships, three were lost and one had deserted. Of the 250 men that had formed the flotilla’s original crew, only 18 returned that September day.

The man who had captained these survivors on their long journey home, however, was not Magellan—killed in the Philippines more than a year before—but a Basque seaman named Juan Sebastián Elcano. By steering the frail Victoria across the Indian Ocean and around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope back to Spain, Elcano completed the first known circumnavigation of the world, a total journey of 45,000 miles marked by hunger, scurvy, murder, and mutiny.

Elcano did not suffer from a lack of fame in his country on his return. Europe’s most powerful man, Charles V, the king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor, duly praised and rewarded the captain who had so heroically completed the voyage. Nevertheless, outside Spain, Elcano’s name has been much less known. His feat is often popularly attributed to Magellan—and many believe eclipsed by Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe nearly 60 years later.

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