MEXICO CITY – Disease, mutinies and uncharted waters nearly sabotaged the global circumnavigation of the expedition led by Portuguese mariner Ferdinand Magellan. Five centuries later, the pandemic looms as a Spanish navy tall ship sails to commemorate the feat.
The Juan Sebastián de Elcano, named for a Basque captain who completed the 1519-1522 circumnavigation with 17 of the roughly 240 crewmembers who began it, docked around Latin America after leaving Europe in August. Visitors were not allowed on board and the crew disembarked in just a few places, including the Chilean island of Dawson in the Strait of Magellan and San Lorenzo island in Peru.
“This was possible after confirming that the environments were completely free” of COVID-19, Lt. Luis Martínez García, the ship’s public information officer, emailed from the vessel. The ship departs across the Pacific from Mexico on Friday.
Magellan’s expedition for Spanish trade and imperialism opened a westward route from Europe to the Spice Islands, the Maluku archipelago in today's Indonesia. The epic story invites appreciation for conflicting, overlapping perspectives on history as well as the rewards and perils of a connected world.
It was “the first action humans took on a literally planetary scale,’’ said Joyce Chaplin, a professor of early American history at Harvard University and author of “ Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit.”
“Only by the 19th century was it a safer kind of journey, and this was when it became a popular pastime, as in Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days,‘” Chaplin said. “Now, we worry, like those early circumnavigators, that maybe taking on the entire planet is a deadly business, given how our collective impact on the globe is destroying species and ecosystems.”
Magellan crossed the strait between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that has his name in modern Chile, where President Sebastián Piñera recently said the voyage was about “knocking down walls and building bridges where today ideas, people, knowledge and culture flow freely.″
Magellan, a daring navigator with Portuguese military experience in Africa and Asia, was later spurned by Portugal, Spain's rival, and distrusted by Spanish sailors in his fleet. While Magellan's expedition exploited Indigenous people, Christopher Columbus is a far more divisive figure today for his role in the violent colonization of the Americas.