Juan Sebastián Elkano. Following his trail

Welcome to this exhibition, put together by the Itsasmuseum Bilbao.

The idea behind this exhibition is to celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the First Circumnavigation of the Globe. It takes a closer look at the life of our most famous navigator, and attempts to get to know the people who made this feat possible, five centuries ago.

A world awaiting discovery

Juan Sebastián Elkano was born at the end of the fifteenth century, when the Europeans only knew a very small part of our planet. When Juan Sebastián was a child, Christopher Columbus set foot in a new land, unaware that it was part of a vast continent.

A year before the century was out, Vasco da Gama conquered the Indian Ocean on the first European voyage to India. Vasco Núñez de Balboa was to wait another fifteen years before he managed to reach, on foot, the shores of another sea: The South Sea (known today as the Pacific Ocean).

This new sea posed a new challenge to the seamen of the day - they wanted to find a way to sail to the South Sea from the Atlantic, and map out a new route to Asia. It was the Portuguese explorer Hernando de Magallanes (known in English as Ferdinand Magellan) who won the support of Carlos I, the young king who ordered a fleet of five ships to be readied for the voyage.

When was Juan Sebastian born?

The document you see here, document number 1, is the only remaining evidence of the year of his birth. The day before he set sail with the expedition in search of the spice islands, Juan Sebastián declared he was thirty-two years old, more or less.

The document was drawn up in August 1519, so a quick calculation puts Juan Sebastián's birth somewhere between the beginning of 1487 and the first few months of 1488.

Juan Sebastian Elkano´s father

Document number two shows the civil register for Getaria in 1500, when Juan Sebastián was twelve or thirteen years old. The register names one Domingo Sebastián del Cano and, although it does not say as such, we will soon see that this is indeed his father. Domingo Sebastián del Cano is recorded as having to pay twenty-seven and a half maravedis.

Comparing this amount to the taxes the other neighbours of Getaria had to pay, it appears that Juan Sebastián's father had a good income. Every little helped as Domingo Sebastián's household included at least eleven hungry mouths.

What was Elkano´s trade?

According to this writ, signed by the Emperor Carlos, document number 3, Elkano had previously been master of a ship.
These ships were robust sailing ships, but what exactly did a master do? Elkano would have been responsible for the ship and his duties would have been set out by law.

Sailor and soldier

Look carefully at this painting of the conquest of Oran.

Even though the mists of time now cloud Juan Sebastián's adventures before the expedition that would make him famous, the royal writ we have just seen credits the fact that he took part in various military campaigns on behalf of the crown of Castile. Everything indicates that, among other battles, he took part in the conquest of Oran in 1509, at the age of twenty-two.

In this painting, set in the Cathedral of Toledo, we can see Cardinal Cisneros dressed in red - the man who advanced the funds which made the conquest possible. Next to him, astride his horse and dressed in a splendid suit of armour, is General Pedro Navarro, of Roncal, the man responsible for the victory. The existing documents about the expedition give details about the participation of an important number of Basque ships, sailors and even crossbowmen. On one of these ships was Juan Sebastián.

Can you imagine what those battles were like? To get an idea, take a look at some extracts from two letters written by Cardinal Cisneros and General Pedro Navarro.

Letters from Navarro General and Cardenal Cisneros

Letter from General Pedro Navarro.
Guided as if by a miracle by our saviour Jesus Christ and by his glorious mother and by the blessed Santiago, we landed with the first boats approximately one hour after midday on the western part of the city where there is a mountain or cape known as Buzacate.

The Moors poured down from the mountain top to confront us at the port. There must have been three thousand of them.

Henceforth I can tell You no more, since only he who experienced it could explain how he did it, and we can do little more than offer our fatigue.

I throw myself of your infinite mercy today to teach us the way to serve you, and to forge our salvation as you prosecute this miraculous, sainted conquest...

Letter from Cardenal Cisneros.
…it was marvellous to behold how, high up in the mountains the sun seemed to set, yet the day lasted five hours more, and every man there marvelled at it...

…and though some of the Moors within were fighting, finally they were all killed or captured; between dead and captured there were more than twelve thousand Moors - eight thousand alive and more than four thousand dead in the streets and houses. It is true to say, My Lord, that this was more mysterious an occurrence than an act of strength on our behalf, since the city is the most fortified in the world... more than Toledo...

It was impossible to gallop through the streets for the numbers of corpses strewn around the city.
We fear infection from the corpses, though many have been thrown into pits, and though many have been burned and buried, but I believe this is not enough, given the numbers of dead bodies. We must be diligent.

The loot we plundered was so great, and the gold and silver jewellery and silks and coins and slaves, that it must be worth more than five hundred thousand ducats.

There were soldiers who took more than ten thousand ducats in coins and jewellery.

The crime

Juan Sebastián knew that the Catholic monarchy had forbidden the sale of ships to foreigners.

Nonetheless, as the Crown did not pay him for his services, he was forced to sell his ship to pay his debts. He handed her over to foreign buyers and thus committed a crime.

Let us invite you to retrace your steps and continue your visit at the moment Juan Sebastián Elkano enters our story. We'll be waiting for you at Number 6.

Joining the navy

In Seville at the beginning of January 1519, Juan Sebastián signed up for Fernando Magellan's expedition. The accountant's note here in Number 6 is the first document which places Juan Sebastián Elkano in our story. As you can see, he was assigned to the Victoria as boatswain, the master's assistant.

You might wonder why a man who had served as master of a ship would take an inferior position - one hypothesis is that in order to be accepted as master, he would have had to give details of the ship he had sailed in previously. It seems reasonable to hazard that the man from Getaria preferred to keep his crime under wraps.

Juan Sebastian´s mother. Catalina

Document Number 7 introduces us to Juan Sebastián's mother, Catalina.

As this document served to identify the heirs of each member of the expedition, and no sons or daughters are named for Juan Sebastián, we assume that he had no children at this point.

Working on board

Juan Sebastián directed operations to empty the ballast from Victoria's hold and substitute it, most probably, for something much heavier. He would soon be transferred to the Concepción, where he rose to the position of master. There we find him stowing the cargo, distributing the weight and securing it well.

Later we will see him buying almagra - a red ochre clay they used to paint the sails and mast to protect them from the elements and also to fire-proof them.

The sailors were conscious of the danger they faced. Before setting sail they signed proxies so that, should they die, their wages could be drawn by a person they trusted.


One month before the expedition departed, the Portuguese consul in Seville, Sebastiao Alvarez, wrote this letter (number 9) to King Manuel of Portugal, revealing the complicated relationship between Magellan and the Contracting House.

Thanks to this document, centuries later we discover that on board Juan Sebastián's ship, the Concepción, was a spy in the pay of the King of Portugal.

Instructions from the emperor

Document number 10 shows the instructions given by the Emperor regarding the code of conduct the expeditionary forces should abide by, including the Captain General. The code includes the express prohibition to abuse indigenous women.

Behind you are some displays related to food on board ship


In time, the bread on board ship was as hard as nails. Anyone without a decent set of teeth would have had a hard time chewing it. In addition, it was baked from a dough which had been left to rise for only a short time, which did not aid digestion. Nevertheless, it was a food full of nutrients and in fact no voyage was complete without the ships' biscuit.


To get an idea of the importance the men of the sea gave to wine, we can tell the tale of a Portuguese ship that sank on its way to India. The survivors managed to salvage some of the barrels of wine, and even though it was mixed with sea-water, they drank it. After imbibing this mixture, many men fell sick, and so it was decided to mix one part of the contents of the barrel with three parts of fresh water, so that they could drink it all.


When the seas were very rough it would have been extremely dangerous to light a fire in the ship, and so cheese was a staple diet on board.