From 1519-1522 a fleet of Spanish ships sailed round the world for the first time ever.

Magellan’s Molluca Fleet

Five hundred years ago, a fleet of five ships with 245 men on board, led by Portuguese mariner Ferdinand Magellan, set off from Seville. Their goal? To find a new trading route to the Molluca Islands, in modern-day Indonesia.

These islands were famed in medieval times for their spices. Back in the 16th century, dealing in such highly-valued luxuries as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and saffron was vastly profitable, although risky due to risky oceanic ventures.

Trade routes operated by Portugal (east) and Spain (west).

Magellan knew that the islands lay to the east of Iberia. But the Portuguese had already claimed the eastern trade routes, so the only possibility was to sail westwards. King Carlos V of Spain agreed to fund the expedition

Three years later, in 1522, only one ship returned – the Nao Victoria, with just 18 men, captained by Juan Sebastian Elcano. Magellan had died in the Philippines. The remaining few stalwart men had sailed around the world for the first time, discovering the Magellan Straits and making the maiden crossing of the Pacific Ocean.

One of the survivors was a Venetian, Antonio Pigafetta, whose detailed journal provided a huge amount of information about every aspect of the voyage, from the weather conditions, to the mood among the crew.

See their exact route, complete with snippets about sailing conditions, ports of call and dates, here.

The 5th centenary of this historic voyage, 1519-1522, is being celebrated in Seville with exhibitions, full-sized replicas, routes and other events.

The visitor centre, looking onto the river upon whose waters the ships sailed, explains the rationale behind this ambitious voyage.

First Trip Around the World Visitor Centre

The best way to start off your own Magellan explorations of Seville is at the new visitor centre, Espacio de la Primer Vuelta al Mundo (First Trip Around the World), appropriately located by the river Guadalquivir, close to where the ships set off.

This is how Seville looked in the 16th century. Can you see the city wall with its gates?

The view over the river towards Triana, home to many sailors.

This small but informative centre explains the historic context and purpose of the voyages, with images of Seville at the time, how the ships were built, and fascinating details about each vessel – its weight, value (in maravedis), and the number of crew, as well as their nationalities. A small scale model of the Nao Victoria, its sails emblazoned with the cross of Santiago, holds pride of place.

Apart from Spain and Portugal, the five crews came from eight other countries: Belgium, Holland, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, and England – Chief Gunner Andrew from Bristol was responsible for firing the cannons on Nao Trinidad, Magellan’s ship.

Follow the fleet as its sails westwards from Europe to Asia.

The centre’s long main gallery shows a map of the voyage, from Spain to South America, and across the Pacific to Australia and Asia, with relevant snippets for each country, such as where and how Magellan met his fate.

You get the feel of the oceans with their surges and swells, thanks to films shown on huge TV screens, as well as video loops on smaller porthole-shaped screens showing sailors climbing the rigging on a latter-day RTW voyage.

Read about the hardships, from hunger to disease; which instruments they used to navigate; the common misconceptions regarding world geography back then – the oceans aren’t connected, the Pacific is a small sea – and how this voyage shattered them.

Children will enjoy collecting an ink stamp in each section, to add to their “First Trip Around the World” passport.

The visitor centre is located on the riverside promenade – you can see the Torre de Oro behind it.

A full-size replica of the Nao Victoria, built for the Seville World’s Fair 1992 and the first historical replica to circumnavigate the earth, will be moored outside the centre from January 2020.

More maritime marvels

If you’re interested in finding out more about Spain’s sea-faring adventures, pop across the river to the Pabellon de Navegación (the Navigation Pavilion) near the Torre Sevilla, a ship-like space with an exhibition themed around life on board, with plenty of interactive exhibits and games, plus some great animated films.

Further down river, towards the modern port, the Seville Aquarium has sea life displays from the route taken by Magellan’s fleet.

Other events and activities in Seville

You can also follow a route through the centre of Seville themed around Magellan, which takes in important locations such as the Archivo de Indias (then the trading house),a key location where all imported produce was registered on arrival; and the Plaza de Contratación, next to the Alcázar, and formerly home to the Casa de Contratación, centre for maritime research, navigation and map-making, and from where naval expeditions were organised; as well as many other interesting locations.

At the Archivo de Indias you can see two exhibitions – El Viaje Mas Largo (The Longest Voyage, on till February 2020), with documents relating to the voyage, and showing the human side of this great adventure.

The other, entitled Nuestra Isla de la Especias (Our Spice Island, on till 31 March 2020) shows works by 20 artists who spent time aboard the Swiss sailing ship, Fleur de Passion. This 33-metre vessel also completed a round-the-world voyage, returning to Seville this month. Following Magellan’s route – which took four and a half years – its combined  cultural, socio-educational and scientific role included «mapping» the state of the ocean – researching environmental damage to marine life, while also hosting disadvantaged youngsters, who helped with projects such as collecting microplastics and observing coral.

Every Sunday until 24 November, you can enjoy free family activities (in Spanish) such as storytelling and treasure hunts in Parque Magallanes (Magellan Park), between Torre Seville and the river. Find out more here.

You can also see regattas on the river, concerts and plays themed around the voyage in Seville. Get more details here.

The V Centenary around Spain and Portugal

A programme of events is also taking place in Sanlucar de Barrameda in Cadiz, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river. This was the fleet’s final stopping point on mainland Spain before sailing across the ocean.

To find out what’s happening in other cities around Spain and Portugal, see the V Centenario 1a Vuelta Al Mundo website.