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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 went on an unscheduled round-the-world trip while searching for valuable spices, making the first-ever Pacific Ocean crossing. Spices were highly valuable and sought-after in this era, and an important trading good.

Magellan’s three-year voyage (1519-1522, though he himself was killed in 1521) changed the way people saw the world – his expedition sailed 68,000 km, of which half was unknown to the crew. The journey constituted a huge leap of faith, and many of its crew were 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.


The exhibition offers a clever visual representation of the experience of the men aboard the five ships, starting with scale models of them: Victoria, Concepcion, Trinidad, San Antonio and Santiago set against a backdrop of Seville port at the time. All their sails bear the distinctive red cross of St James (Santiago). Only one of the ships achieved 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 times.

The fleet set sail from Seville in June 1519, down the Guadalquivir river, heading 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 pay scale.

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 makes clever use of audio-visual resources, with huge, immersive video screens showing terrifying stormy seas which tossed the ships about, but also smaller TVs where you can hear modern-day explorers talk about their own experiences

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

The ships navigated the perilously 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. They are physically represented by a narrow space through which the model ships pass - 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 sculptures 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 without setting foot on land. The men had to cope with freezing cold and boiling heat, and they were pushed to the limits of human endurance, as shown in tiny, exquisite 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 hand-crafted pieces that 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 spices 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 carefully chosen objects, including the model ships whose course you can follow from one point to the next, as well as all the fascinating facts about what was traded, who deserted, and how the crews navigated their way through 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 at the Archivo de Indias, Avenida 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