5th centenary of Juan Sebastian Elkano's journey around the world
What have we got to celebrate? What have they got to hide?
  • If you take a quick look around the Internet you will only find praise for Juan Sebastian Elkano. Spanish websites remind us of his contribution to opening the world up to globalization and new trade routes. On Basque sites, on the other hand – and once you get beyond references to restaurants, txakolina and tourism – he becomes a fetish to the idea that we Basques were the greatest on the high seas. They all underline the fact that he was the first man to travel around the world. The 5th centenary machinery has got the Elkano brand ready. But history, like journalism, is never neutral, so what are they keeping back? What do they want us to buy?

Axier Lopez @axierL 2018ko irailaren 13a
Illustration: Xabier Sagasta

The square in front of Getaria town hall. Wednesday, 08:20. Few people about. I go up to the second person taking photos of the statue opposite me: "Excuse me, do you know who that is?" “No idea, but I like the photo”, an Australian tourist who has come to Juan Sebastian Elkano's birthplace from Donostia tells me. In the Basque Country we know very little about Elkano, so what can we expect from people who come to visit us? The mayor, Nikanor Lertxundi (EH Bildu) says that lack of knowledge is very usual: "There is very little knowledge about him, there are huge stereotypes, both here in Getaria and elsewhere. The only thing people know about Elkano is that he went around the world, but that's almost all we know." And, in fact, that too is up for debate. Many historians believe that the voyage which Magallanes started in 1519 and Elkano finished in 1522 was not the first circumnavigation. 100 years earlier, between 1421 and 1423, an expedition sent by  Chinese emperor Zhu-di was the first to prove that the world was round.

One thing is much more certain than whose chest we should pin the medal on: between now and 2022 we are going to hear, read and see more things about Elkano than ever before. Spain and its institutions have started to prepare speeches, products and activities in connection with the fifth centenary of the circumnavigation. They are going to make the Elkano brand known at home and abroad, their starting points being each one's political, economic and general understanding of the world.

Elkano's “deeds”

Illustration: Xabier Sagasta

There is very little information about Juan Sebastian Elkano's life. His will is one of the main sources, but there are many gaps. Not even his birthplace is clear. He was born around 1487, being one of Getaria's Katalina Portu and Domingo Sebastian Elkano's nine children. His father was a man of the sea who had become one of the richest men in the town thanks to trading on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Juan Sebastian Elkano's family was one of the first to open businesses in those initial years of conquest and genocide in America.

He built a ship which could hold 200 barrels. He took part in several military expeditions for the kingdom of Castille and in favour of Christian interests. He fought alongside powerful, merciless people. One of them was Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a fierce defender of the Spanish Catholic empire. It is known that he believed, amongst other things, that all Arabians should become Christians, and he was in favour of attacks on Navarrese independence, amongst other things. When Cisneros was the head of the Spanish Inquisition he tried to conquer northern Africa and took part in the massacres at Oran, Bugia and Tripoli, with Elkano at his service. 4,000 people were killed during the conquest of Oran, although other sources make the figure 10,000. The Catholic monarch's leading soldier was Gonzalez Fernandez de Cordoba, under whom Elkano also served during the conquest of Naples and the surrounding area and other military campaigns.

Elkano was also an expert at clocking up debts. He asked Savoyan merchants or Genovese bankers - it is not clear exactly whom he asked - for money. Unable to pay his debts, he paid them with his ship. That was why he had to flee from Getaria, selling ships to foreigners being a serious crime in the kingdom of Castille. He took to the hills and reached Seville.

Thanks to the Basques working at the Seville Contracts House - one of whom may have been a relative - he was recruited for an expedition which was to become famous. As well as being a fantastic opportunity for Elkano, one of the agreed advantages for members of Magallanes' expedition is that previous crimes would be pardoned.

Spices were as valuable as gold at the time, and the main objective was to reach the Spice Isles. And so it was that on 10th August, 1519, five ships set sail with 234 men of several different nationalities (including a Malaysian slave). Elkano was put in charge of the Concepción. We know most about the three-year journey thanks to the diaries which Italian Antonio Pigafetta and Castilian Francisco Albo wrote.

It is hard for us to imagine what it can have been like to go on a long journey like that using the technology of the time and without any set sea routes. They were put to the test: hunger, thirst, illness, attacks, mutinies, storms… But they too, like the conquistadors of the same period, made sure that the people they came across suffered, using people as if they were merchandise or animals.

According to the chronicles, killings and kidnappings were usual on journeys.  The Tehuelches in southern Argentina were the first to come into contact with the Europeans. They called them the Patagons and, seeing their "savage appearance", wanted to teach them to pray, and also took away two prisoners to give to the king. On Guam, one of the Mariana Islands, which they called the 'Islands of Thieves', they burned down 50 houses and canoes and killed seven people. According to the chronicle, "as the people there did not know what arrows were, it was easy to kill them". At Cebu in the Philippines they burned down the town of Bulaia for not submitting to the king of Castile. Magallanes was killed shortly afterwards during an attack on local indigenous people. At Brunei they killed many and made 19 people slaves. At the same time, having taken over from Magallanes in charge, Juan López de Carvalho took three women "for himself". When only one of the five ships was left, Elkano became the captain of the Nao Victoria, which was full of spices. With him there were 43 other Europeans and 13 people they had kidnapped. When they reached Cabo Verde Elkano bought some slaves to help them repair the ship.

And so, after numerous misfortunes, they reached Sanlucar de Barrameda on 6th September, 1522. Only 18 of the 234 men who had set out returned; four of them were Basques. Well, that is what the official story tells us, but in fact 21 people arrived. Because three of the indigenous people who Elkano had captured were also still alive. Apparently they were "savage Indians". Euro-centric history not leaving names, origins and faces unchanged.

Elkano wanted to obtain financial gains as well as fame from the journey. He made his request to emperor Charles 5th: he wanted to be the captain of another Spanish armed expedition, take it to a fortress which had been built on colonised land on the Moluku Islands, and be named a knight of the Santiago religious and military order.  He was granted none of that. The king of Castile gave him a pension of 500 ducats and the mottoprimus circumdedisti me - which can be read at the entrance to Getaria - for his coat of arms.

Before setting sail once more, Elkano was involved in the negotiations with the Portuguese to decide to whom the Maluku Islands belonged and, along with Columbus' son Hernando, it was up to him to defend Spanish interests. No agreement was reached. In 1525 he set out for the Maluku Islands once more, this time as second-in-command. Elkano died on the journey. As the captain and officers had the right to eat better than the sailors, and they thought that it was better to eat tropical fish than meat, he died of Ciguatera fish poisoning. They threw his corpse into the sea.


“Elkano's expedition was one of the Spanish armed forces' exceptional deeds” is how the king of Spain put it when expressing his support for the 5th centenary of Elkano's voyage at an act held at Zarzuela Palace in Madrid. Elkano has always been a useful figure for Spanish nationalism, including Franco's dictatorship. At that time everything which might speak of the grandeur of the Spanish empire was made use of. Which is the only way to explain why the Spanish Government commissioned the Ministry of Defence rather than the Ministry of Culture to organise Elkano's 5th centenary. In November, 2017, Odon Elorza, member of parliament for Donostia, made it very clear on his blog that the Elkano brand was going to be used for political purposes: "This important episode, which is shared by the peoples of Spain, must be made the most of. It is well worth reminding people that Basques were leading players in it, part of a shared project promoted by the Crown of Spain, and, in general, their role in the Kingdom of Spain's (military) maritime campaigns."

The Spanish Government has proclaimed the centenary to be of "special public interest" and has offered it tax breaks of up to 90% to companies and associations which organise or publicize events about the circumnavigation. The first project for selling Elkano's deeds to the world is already up and going: The 25 million Euro budget Sin límites film, involving professionals who worked on super productions such as The Hobbit and Game of Thrones, is to be directed by Englishman Simon West. In the words of Bilbao producer Miguel Menéndez de Zubillaga: "Elkano is the cleanest of the Spanish conquistadors: there is nothing negative about him. He did nothing wrong, he was a discoverer, anoutsider, like Blas de Lezo and Don Pelayo. Our work will not be historical, it will be an adventure and action film."

In parallel, the Basque and Andalusian autonomous communities have decided to celebrate the centenary in their own way.

No contemporary drawings or portraits of Elkano have survived. So, as with many other historical characters, Elkano is shown physically in terms of different people's interests. In May, 2016, Getaria's Balentziaga Museum showed him one way. They linked him with a particular Renaissance aesthetic, something like Shakespeare, wanted to connect him with a world of wisdom and concern for the world. In the picture: Markel Olano, Iñigo Urkullu and Nika Lertxundi at the “Munduari lehen bira - Elkano 500” institutional event.
Photo: Irekia - Eusko Jaurlaritza

“Elkano represents what we Basque were, and what we are today”

‘Mundu bira 500: Elkano Fundazioa’ was set up last year, and has been at work since then. Members of the board include: Arantxa Tapia, head of the Basque Government's industry department; Bingen Zupiria, head of the culture department; Markel Olano, head of the government of Gipuzkoa; Denis Itxaso, head of culture in Gipuzkoa; Igor Iturain, head of the Urola Kosta man-community; Getaria councillors Aitor Urresti (PNV) and Floren Iribar (EH Bildu), and mayor Nikanor Lertxundi. For the moment the Foundation has a single employee, director Ion Irurzun, who was previously employed by Gipuzkoa Berritzen.

Irurzun has stated that the foundation will underline the fundamental issues from 500 years ago. For instance, "at the time 90% of ships were made here; Basque sailors were reputed all around the world; we want to work on the maritime culture which we Basques are connected with, and Elkano is something exceptional there, a brand." Encouraging research, knowing more about Elkano, is, he says, one of the first tasks, and to be done "without preconceptions". To do so, he stated at the foundation's presentation, "culture, tourism, industry, trade and education will be our objective and basis, underlining the value of the Getarian sailor's deeds".

The foundation has adopted Zarautz historian Xabier Alberdi's historical perspective, discourse and teachings. He is the head of research at the Donostia Ship Museum and Pasaia Albaola Factory. Albaola has become well-known over recent years due to its educational work about the exceptional importance of Basques in maritime culture and technological development. Alberdi includes Juan Sebastian Elkano in that discourse, and Mundu Bira Fundazioa has presented him as a symbol for the deeds of the men of the sea. In an interview inDeia in July, 2017, he defined Elkano in this way: "I see Elkano as a great strategist, an exceptional businessman, something like a chairman of ADEGI. A man of action with a sense of adventure. A Jose Luis Korta who thinks and says how to achieve success. We don't realise the scale of what Elkano achieved and, what's more, we Basques don't know how to sell our achievements". Asked about the importance of the anniversary of the circumnavigation, Alberdi toldDiario Vasco in 2016: "Developed nations have political prestige. If a country wants to do business abroad, being a prestigious country or an unknown one is not the same thing". An example of Alberdi's thesis is that Albaola has received an order to build a replica of Elkano's Victoria from the government of Gipuzkoa, supported by the town councils of Pasaia and Getaria.

But there is a "peculiarity" to the epic tale about Elkano. One thing is praising the skill and work involved in the Basques sailing to far-off lands when they were motivated to do so by having exterminated the whales in the Bay of Biscay. But it is quite another thing to want to turn a man who was a loyal servant of the one of the most powerful and bloodiest empires into an ambassador.

Marketing will be hard-pressed to cover up that contradiction. For instance, this is how Aitzol Azurtza, a Basque in the diaspora, put it to Berria: "Elkano may be a model of daring, adventurous hero for Basques, but those of us who live in the diaspora cannot take Elkano as a model because he was very much like the Spanish conquistadors." The Basque Government celebrates Basque Diaspora Day on 8th September - the day on which Elkano and the other sailors reached Seville - is another cause for concern.

The people of Getaria act out "Elkano's Landing" every four years, based on what is believed to have happened in San Lucar de Barrameda 500 years ago. It is collective praise for the town's favourite son, the suffering on the voyage, and, consequently, praise for the Castilian empire. It is more to do with folklore than historical interpretation or moral reflection. Elkano is a very well established symbol of maritime culture in Getaria, and, in general, the people of Getaria see it as an honour to act a members of his crew. The main roles are drawn for amongst the townspeople, the 18 sailors; the three indigenous people brought back do not appear; and women have no place in order to "respect historical gender-role". This year is will be held on 7th December.
Photograph: Irekia - Eusko Jaurlaritza

The whole political class has bought this non-critical version

The idyllic version far-removed from war and conquest; it is supported from EH Bildu (leftist Basque pro-independence coalition) to the PP. In 2015 the Basque Autonomous Parliament unanimously passed a motion for the Basque Autonomous Community's public institutions to give strategic importance to the centenary, making use of Elkano's figure to make the Basque Country better known world-wide. In the text which was passed, and in the political parties' words, there is no critical mention of Elkano being in the employ of the Spanish empire. PNV, PSOE, EH Bildu, PP and UPyD all agreed. 73 votes, 73 in favour. An unequalled consensus in today's politics about that dark period which is so hotly debated.

"The official message reeks of Eurocentricity", says Getaria historian Miguel Jimenez. "They always say what great navigators they were, and how skilful they were. But everyone who wasn't a white European man - the indigenous crowds and women, for instance - as seen a second-rank at best, and, in most cases, are anonymous. Back then, and now too".

Getarian historian Idoia Arrieta sees it as a disgrace when it is argued that the context was different 500 years ago in order to justify what happened. "They forget that that context exists today too, there are wars everywhere and not all of us are in favour of them, we don't all go around the world to kill people in order to help the economic and political powers that be. Are we going to justify the Spanish Civil War too? Are we going to have to understand all those women being kidnapped and used as sex-slaves? Where is the limit?" Jimenez believes that seeing what happened back then as normal can only be done from a conquistador point of view: "Mental schemes from back then are being repeated now, they say that Elkano and his kind helped bring globalization and development to the world. Ask people with origins from Patagonia, for instance, about the development brought from the West."

Elkano is not Agirre, Cortes or Pizarro.

 They have linked Elkano's voyage with trade objectives in order to separate it from war and violence. But there is significant data which puts that in doubt. For one thing, the equipment they took with them on the voyage. "What Magallanes and Hernan Cortes - to mention a conquistador whose genocides nobody questions - took with them was similar", says Arrieta. "Let's look at what Magallanes and Elkano's five ships' cargoes, and there is specific information. In addition to food and maritime equipment for two years, they took "knives for seducing the natives", mirrors, scissors, needles, clothes and necklaces. And, for when those ruses didn't work: 110 pieces of artillery, cannons, bombards, gunpowder, 50 shotguns, 60 crossbows, 1,000 lances, 360 dozen arrows, 95 dozen darts and many other war devices and arms.

The Catholic Monarchs' Indian Contracts House was also used to have a monopoly with the colonies, and Elkano's expedition was organised with that in mind. The sailors were given specific objectives: bringing back all the "new plants, animals and humans" they found.

And, finally, the contract between king Charles 5th and Magallanes had highly significant characteristics and terms. It stated that the heads of the expedition were to be the "governors of the lands they conquered". A usual reward during military campaigns. "Putting new lands under the king is what is called colonisation. Trade was not the sole objective of Elkano's expedition, that couldn't be clearer", says Idoia Arrieta.

A well-known drawing criticises the self-interested, Eurocentric official history of genocide and the conquest of America.

History, prêt-à-porter

In 1992, during the 5th centenary of Christopher Columbus' voyage, the Spanish Government celebrated the "Discovery of America" rather than its conquest. That was no matter of chance. It is crude example of how to use the past in your own political, economic, ethical and aesthetic interests. They took advantage of the centenary to spread a particular way of seeing the world, as well as fantastic way to transfer public money into private hands.

Idoia Arrieta sees history as a point of view about something which is living, and, so, "people who have a project for the future will always try to adapt the perspective on the past to their point of view." But if their aim is to achieve fame or obtain profits, she says that they inevitably have to stick close to power. Which is why, she says, for some people Elkano will be a way to "strengthen links between continents" or "set up trade networks", but "what I see is destruction, conquest and violence. If we want to imagine a better world, Elkano is not a point of reference for me."

The main historiographies take empires, states and rich traders as their basis. We Basques haven't written our own history either. That is one of the consequences of having been dominated by other empires and states for many years. We have seen ourselves in the writings of the authorities who have exploited our own lands and people. In recent years, however, there have been many more attempts to rewrite our history, other points of view are developed, remembering people who have been punished by official histories. The main messages around Elkano, however, whether Spanish supremacist or Basque hero-worship, do not seem to be taking the same route.

It isn't a matter of us taking the blame for what happened some 500 years ago. It isn't a matter of blame.  It's a question of how to use what happened in the past now. Because for many people that is the main purpose of history: a basis for building a fair, inclusive future based on solidarity, a mirror for learning and improving. That route does not seek anybody's exclusion, and, inevitably, an exercise in decolonisation has to be carried out. By bringing pariahs, women and original inhabitants to the centre, giving a voice to the people who have suffered as a result of the "Discovery of the New World" until the present day.