Basque town of Getaria remembers the first circumnavigator Elcano


Elcano assumed command of the remaining vessels after Magellan's death, sailing on from the Philippines to the Spice Islands. And he kept heading westwards - rounding the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, and from there sailing northwards back to Spain. Photo: Handout

The Basque town of Getaria is one of the most beautiful coastal villages in Spain. But its real claim to fame is a man from this town who became the first to voyage around the world 500 years ago.

Counter to what most people believe, that man wasn't Magellan.

Visitors to the Basque seaside town of Getaria might be puzzled by so many references to the name "Elcano" seen all around, but then might also be all the more surprised when they have to unlearn some history that they had been taught back in school.

2022 marks the 500th anniversary of the first voyage to circumnavigate the globe, and the man who did it was not Ferdinand Magellan, but instead a native of Getaria, Juan Sebastian Elcano (1487-1526).

While it was the Portuguese navigator Magellan, the commander of the expedition, who is credited with the first-ever circumnavigation, the folks in Getaria point out that he actually never completed the journey, since he was killed halfway through the voyage. The man commanding the last remnants of what had initially been a five-ship expedition was Elcano when he returned to Spain in 1522.

After three years of hardship, hunger, disease, fighting and mutinies it must have been a welcome sight to Elcano's eyes when he saw the unique cliff formations of his home village - located on Spain's northern coast, about 50 kilometres east of Bilbao - and then sailed past the forest-covered island mountain of San Anton towering over the Getaria harbour.

When he arrived back in Getaria, Elcano had accomplished one of the greatest navigation feats in history - the first circumnavigation which brought final proof that the earth is round. All throughout Getaria there are streets and squares named after him, as is the local fishery association.

Statues of him have been erected on several squares of the village which beautifully lies between two beaches. There's great swimming at the Malkorbe Beach, while higher waves at the Gaztetape Beach is for the surfers. A huge monument at the old bastion is dedicated to Elcanon's historic voyage.

On Sept 20, 1519, an expedition left the southern Spanish port of Sanlucar de Barrameda under the command of Portuguese mariner Ferdinand Magellan. The aim was to find a western route to the "Spice Islands," the Molluccans of Indonesia. Elcano was captain of the vessel "Concepcion," one of the five ships of the expedition.

"Today, virtually everyone thinks of Magellan in connection with the first circumnavigation," notes historian Daniel Zulaika, author of a book about Elcano.

"But this is a historic injustice. Magellan neither planned to circle the globe, nor did he achieve it."

Magellan only led the expedition up to what was the halfway point, dying in a hail of arrows shot at him by inhabitants of the Philippines. That was on April 27, 1521.

In death, Magellan's legend was established, one which Elcano could not compete against, Zulaika noted.

"But in fact, it was Elcano under whose command the circumnavigation was completed."

But at what cost: Of the original 247 men who began the expedition, only 18 emaciated souls were on board the "Victoria" when it reached Spain on Sept 6, 1522. Scurvy, storms, starvation, mutinies and battles took the lives of almost all the crew members.

Elcano assumed command of the remaining vessels after Magellan's death, sailing on from the Philippines to the Spice Islands. And he kept heading westwards - rounding the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, and from there sailing northwards back to Spain.

After a voyage of almost three years he completed the globe-circling feat - one which had not even been intentioned. The Spanish king bestowed on Elcano a coat of arms topped by a globe with the Latin inscription "Primus circum dedisti me" (You circled me first").

This inscription is engraved in a stone slab of the Gothic church San Salvador where Elcano had been baptised and his father buried.

"Many people therefore think that Elcano is buried here," Zulaika said. "But it isn't true. He died in 1526 of scurvy during a second expedition to the Spice Islands."

Today, Getaria still presents much of the Middle Ages look it had during Elcano's day. A major fire in 1597 destroyed the house where he was born, but a plaque now stands at the exact spot where the house had stood.

Historian Zulaika, leading visitors around, points to the church, the many picturesque alleys leading to the port and the defensive tunnels beneath the city walls - all still intact since Elcano's time.

Visitors can still feel the town's deep seafaring and fishing traditions, from the light tower where locals kept an eye out for whales and for enemy sailing vessels, to the many restaurants featuring grilled fish delicacies - sardines, tuna, seabream and others. Not to mention the tasty "pintxos" - the Basque region's answer to the traditional Spanish tapas, washed down by the local white wine called "Txakoli."

Looking out across the Bay of Biscay, a visitor might wonder whether Elcano also downed a few glasses of Txakoli when he returned home from his round-the-world voyage. Folks in Getaria would agree that if so, then he had earned them. - dpa

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Getaria , Spain , history , Elcano , Magellan , globe , journey , circumnavigate


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