The Longest Voyage: Magellan’s round-the-world expedition 1519-1522

The five ships of Magellan's Spìce Armada in the exhibition at the Archive of the Indies in Seville.
The five ships of Magellan's Spìce Armada in the exhibition at the Archive of the Indies in Seville.

The Longest Voyage: Magellan’s round-the-world expedition 1519-1522

In the 16th century, the port city of Seville was firmly on the world map as a trading centre, with ships sailing across the Atlantic to the New World and bringing back untold wealth in gold, silver, and unusual plants and spices.

One of these fleets was Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition to the Molucca islands, in modern-day Indonesia. His spice flotilla of five ships made an unscheduled round-the-world trip while looking for valuable spices, making the first-ever Pacific Ocean crossing. Spices were highly valuable and sought-after in this era.

Magellan’s three-year voyage (1519-1522, though he himself was killed in 1521) changed the way people saw the world – his expedition sailed 68,000km, of which half was unknown to the crew. These journeys were a huge leap of faith, and crew were often press-ganged into joining.

Now you can discover more about his expedition at an excellent exhibition as part of the 5th centenary celebrations, at the Archive of the Indies in Seville: El Viaje Mas Largo (The Longest Voyage).

The exhibition traces the fortunes of each ship as their crews face storms, starvation and mutiny.
The exhibition traces the fortunes of each ship as their crews face storms, starvation and mutiny.


It is a clever visual representation of the experience of the men aboard five ships, starting with scale models of the five ships: Victoria, Concepcion, Trinidad, San Antonio and Santiago set against a backdrop of Seville port as it was at the time. All their sails bear the distinctive red cross of St James (Santiago). Only one of the ships made the full circumnavigation.

 

The entrance to the expedition - the first section is called
The entrance to the expedition - the first section is called "Dream", about the planning stage.

The exhibition traces the voyage in six sections: Dream, Setting Sail, Exploration, Destination, the Return and Transformation.

Model ships follow timelines along the floor, marking their progress and inclusion (or not) in the fleet.
Model ships follow timelines along the floor, marking their progress and inclusion (or not) in the fleet.

The routes of the ships are traced by lines on the floor, with key dates marked along these timelines, so you can see where each ship is at any point, and when one leaves the fleet. Smaller scale models, on the floor next to the white lines, add a sense of fun for children.

We learn about the historical context for the trip, Portugal’s territorial battles with Spain, and oceanic navigation in those days.

The fleet sailed from Seville down the Guadalquivir river in June 1519, setting off across the Atlantic from Sanlucar de Barrameda in September having stocked up with provisions. The exhibition explains what they took in the ships’ holds, in terms of food supplies and trading goods, as well as who the 270 crew were, their job responsibilities (seamen, officers, royal officials, craftsmen etc) and even their comparative payscale.

These details and personal stories help to bring the voyage to life, showing the human side of these adventurers, brave or foolhardy depending on your point of view. The exhibition uses audio-visual very well, with huge, immersive video screens showing terrifying stormy seas which would toss the ships about, but also smaller TVs where you can hear modern-dayexplorers talk about their experiences

While the main narrative is told on panels (in Spanish and English), this is supported by items such as jars of beans and pulses (the same as we’d eat today), and typical 16th century armour – helmets and swords.

They navigated the perilous narrow straits at the very far south of South America, finding a way through to the Pacific, which were then named after the expedition’s leader. These are physically represented by a narrow space which the model ships pass through - in reality, 570km long and as little as 2km wide.

Moving, visceral culptures show the emotional and physical hardships suffered by the men on board.
Moving, visceral culptures show the emotional and physical hardships suffered by the men on board.

Along the way, perils to be faced included mutinies, executions, shipwrecks and desertions. Scurvy and near starvation, resorting to a diet of rats, sawdust and ox-hide leather, washed down with yellow stinking water, thanks to a four-month stretch at sea. They had to cope with freezing cold and boiling heat. The men were pushed to the limits of human endurance, as shown in exquisite small sculptures of figures suffering extreme weather conditions and exhaustion.

All these extremes are powerfully conveyed, as is the excitement of finding the Indonesian jungle – large video screens with vivid primate and insect sounds offer an immersive experience, along with crafts which they would have found there.

The relative trading value of the goods taken on board ship, and the spice which they brought home to Spain.
The relative trading value of the goods taken on board ship, and the spice which they brought home to Spain.

Magellan was killed in the Philippines, and the ships finally arrived at the Spice Islands in November 1521, filling up with cloves and cinnamon. Eventually only the Victoria returned, captained by Sebastian Elcano, with just 18 survivors of the original crew on boards.

This is one of the best exhibitions I've seen in Seville. It uses highly engaging storytelling, with the effective combination of words, images, video and objects - the model ships whose course you can follow from one point to the next, and all the fascinating facts about what was traded, who deserted, and how they crews navigated their way through the perilous, unchartered waters. Families will enjoy the experience, as the multi-media aspect appeals to children, while imparting key historical material in a fun and easily digestible way.

An interesting fact: in 2019, Spain and Portugal made a joint application to UNESCO to honour the circumnavigation route pioneered by Magellan.

El Viaje Mas Largo is on at the Archivo de Indias, Avemida de la Constitution, 41004 Seville (tel 954 500528) until 23 February 2020.

Opening hours: Tues to Sat 9.30-16.45, Sat&Sun 10.00-13.45.

For more information see here.

Blog published on 30 January 2020