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  • Writer's pictureMaría Molina

THE FIRST ROUND-THE-WORLD TRIP. A race between Spain and Portugal

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Do you know this important episode in the history of Spain and the world? On the 6th of September 501 years ago, a Spanish expedition went around the world for the first time, looking for a route to bring spices to Europe.


Spices became known in Europe after the Crusades and reached great value. They arrived in the Mediterranean from the Moluccan Islands, one of the Indonesian archipelagos, through various land and sea routes.

Spice entry routes to Europe
Spice entry routes to Europe

But in the s. XV all these routes were controlled by the Ottoman Empire so they were very dangerous. That is why Portugal and Spain looked for other maritime routes to reach the spices, in a race that lasted for decades.

Spain chose to cross the Atlantic, based on the roundness of the Earth, but Columbus met America in 1492. Portugal chose to go around Africa and into the Indian Ocean.

Due to the rivalry between the two countries, Pope Alexander IV mediated to sign the Treaty of Tordesillas, in 1494, in which both powers divided the world yet to be known. The dividing line is a meridian in the Atlantic that passes through present-day Brazil. For Portugal everything to the east of that meridian and for Spain everything to the west. This consolidates the two possible routes (west for Spain and east for Portugal).

Treaty of Tordesillas: Distribution of the new lands
Treaty of Tordesillas: Distribution of the new lands

The treaty is clear in the Atlantic, but it does not solve the opposite side, so the race continues and the Portuguese Vasco de Gama arrives in India in 1498


Portuguese route to India
Portuguese route to India

In 1517 the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan arrived in Seville, after falling out with the King of Portugal, with a new project for a route to the Moluccas: bypassing America to the south and reaching the Pacific. The Pacific was discovered in 1514 by the Spanish explorer Núñez de Balboa after crossing Panama on foot.


The project convinced Carlos I, King of Spain, and a Spanish expedition under the command of Magellan was set up, leaving Seville in August 1519. The expedition was made up of 5 ships and 288 men and was commissioned to reach the Moluccas and going back the same way since continuing through the Indian Ocean and Africa would make Spain an enemy with Portugal.

Expedition fleet
Expedition fleet

On September 6, after three years, only one ship returns, the Nao Victoria, with only 18 starving and sick men under the command of the Spanish sailor Juan Sebastián Elcano, after SEVENTY-FIVE THOUSAND KILOMETERS OF NAVIGATION! And they return, disobeying the king's order, through the Indian Ocean and Africa, giving THE FIRST ROUND-THE-WORLD TRIP


The Return to Seville of Juan Sebastián de Elcano, by Elias Salaverría, Museo Naval, Madrid.Madrid.
The Return to Seville of Juan Sebastián de Elcano, by Elias Salaverría, Museo Naval, Madrid.

Narrating in this post what happened in these three years is impossible. Imagine storms, endless days of calm, hunger, thirst, fights with natives, in one of which Magellan dies, desertions, internal conflicts, fear of the Portuguese fleet after reaching the Indian Ocean... But on the trip, very important discoveries were made both geographically such as the passage through South America, called the Strait of Magellan, the exploration of the Moluccas, the discovery of the Malvinas, the Marinas, the Philippines and Borneo, and the navigation through the South Indian Ocean, such as zoological and anthropological .


The route followed by the expedition
The route followed by the expedition

It seems impossible that this could be done with ships like this.


Reproduction of the Nao Victoria
Reproduction of the Nao Victoria

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