Spain celebrates 500 year anniversary of explorers who made first round-world trip

Five centuries ago a fleet set sail from Spain on a voyage that would become the first trip right around the world.

Spain celebrates 500 year anniversary of explorers who made first round-world trip

It was an adventure fraught with danger, death, and disputes.   

Here are the dramatic highs and lows of a feat that changed history:

Not everyone was on board

Spain's king, Emperor Charles V, backed the voyage after the lead adventurer, Ferdinand Magellan, could not convince the king of his native Portugal to support his ambitious project.

On August 10, 1519, Magellan set off with five ships and 237 men in a quest to discover a new route to Indonesia's spice-rich Moluccas Islands. But his crew was pessimistic about the trip and he faced mutinies organised by his Spanish captains.

Just a year into the voyage, Magellan had already lost two of the vessels. 

One of them sank south of the American continent and the other fled back to Spain instead of risking the heavy storms in the southern seas.

Death of the leader

The adventure wrote Magellan's name into the history books, but the lead explorer did not even finish the journey.

He was killed in a fight with indigenous people on the island of Mactan in the Philippines in April 1521.

Spaniard Juan Sebastian Elcano took the helm and completed the voyage with 18 other survivors from Magellan's crew. They returned to Seville in September 1522 aboard the only surviving ship, the Victoria.

Magellan-Elcano voyage. Credit: Wikipedia Commons


Disputed triumph

Magellan was a pioneer in the golden age of exploration that contributed to Portugal's colonial expansion. But the Spanish have insisted the triumph was theirs.

Spain's Royal Academy of History said in March the circumnavigation of the globe was an “exclusively Spanish” venture.

The two neighbours have agreed to jointly commemorate this year's quincentenary.

Disobeying the king

The original instructions from Charles V were for the fleet to reach the Moluccas Islands and return to Spain by sailing back east, not to try and make it full-circle around the world.

Two ships made it to the Moluccas Islands. One of them perished in a storm in an attempt to return to Spain by crossing the Pacific. The other, captained by Elcano, defied the king of Spain's orders and succeeded in its gamble to sail west, avoiding Portuguese waters.

'Conceptual revolution'

In spite of the setbacks and the dispute as to who should claim the glory, the story itself sailed into history.

“Magellan marked a conceptual revolution,” said Jose Manuel Marques, who is leading the Portuguese commemorations to mark the 500th anniversary.   

“He gave us for the first time a complete vision of the world, which showed us that there is only one ocean and that the sea is the link between peoples.” 

Inspiring even to this day

The voyage marked human history and continues to inspire scientists and explorers today.   

It was a turning point in history, as unique as the first manned journey into outer space and the later moon landings, said NASA scientist Alan Stern, leader of its New Horizons interplanetary space probe, at a conference to mark the anniversary in Lisbon in August.

“When the first one circled the planet, (that) sort of meant that we now had our arms around the planet for the first time,” he said.   

“That just transformed humanity in my view. I would call it the first planetary event, in the same way that Yuri Gagarin was the first off-planetary event” when the Soviet cosmonaut went into outer space.

The monument to Juan Sebastian Elcano in Seville. Photo: AFP

Magellan's voyage rewrote the maps and geography books. He was the first to discover the strait, which now bears his name, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the tip of South America.


“Perhaps his greatest feat, and still considered today one of the greatest feats of the history of navigation, was negotiating this strait, of which there were no maps and whose existence was vaguely rumoured,” said US historian Laurence Bergreen, author of a biography of Magellan.

The voyage transformed humans' own conception of their place in the world.

“It wasn't just geography and anthropology, it showed something philosophical: that it's all one world,” said Bergreen.   

“Before Magellan people didn't really know that. They didn't know how the world was connected or how big it was.”

The voyage contributed to Europeans' knowledge of the universe and has marked the worlds of space exploration and astronomy to this day.   

While crossing the Magellan Strait, the explorer and his crew observed two galaxies visible to the naked eye from the southern hemisphere, now known as the Magellanic Clouds.

Some recently-designated areas of the surface of Mars have been given the same names that Magellan gave to parts of South America, with Bergreen's help.

A giant telescope being developed in Chile will also bear the explorer's name.

Magellan's achievement was a landmark in the history of exploration still hailed by his modern-day successors.

“In the space program, to prepare for these long duration missions, we say 'the lessons for the future are written in the past',” said Dafydd Williams, a former NASA astronaut, now 65, who went on two space missions.

“So many in the space program have read about Magellan.”

How Spain is celebrating the 500 year anniversary of the voyage

Two exhibitions charting the journey are currently running, one in Seville at the Archivo General de Indias  and the other at Madrid's naval museum, an exhibition entitled Fuimos los Primeros. Magallanes, Elcano y la Vuelta al Mundo – We were the first. Magallanes, Elcano and the round-the-world trip, was opened on Thursday by King Felipe.

The Spanish Navy Frigate Mendez Nunez is currently half way through a trip to re-trace the voyage of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation of the world and a group of volunteers are also undertaking the same voyage in a 21-metre sailboat named Pros.

Spain's Royal Mint is producing a special edition coin to commemorate the fifth centenary, minting 5000 silver 8 Reales – Pieces of Eight – coins.

READ ALSO: Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?


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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner