top of page

Episode 76: SPECIAL! Elcano Day in Basque Country

I know, I know, this episode didn't come out on Monday. But doesn't it seem more fitting that it come a day later, after the Labor Day Holiday, and on the particular day that we want to talk about? After all, today's episode focuses solely on Elcano Day, which is celebrated today, September 6, 2022, by Spanish-speaking Basque! So let's dig into what this holiday is and why it's so important!

Also, on a random note (but one I couldn't resist, being a bookworm/bibliophile and all!": Happy National Book Day!


What is Basque Country?

Before we dive into what Elcano Day actually is, we first need to explain what Basque Country is, which is where this holiday is celebrated. This unique place is actually multiple things. You have the actual Basque Country, or Euskadi, which is an autonomous community in Spain, and the ethnological/cultural location, which is more like Zazpiak Pat, or 7 provinces in one. This is because the historical and cultural location of Basque Country, covering the Bay of Biscay and the western Pyrenees Mountains, actually spans two countries: Spain and France. While we might not know the full history of the Basque people, we do know that there are historical records dating as far back as the Romans talking about them. But from a few things I've read, the Basque people could be much, much more ancient. Within Spain, this historical area encompasses four provinces (Álava, Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya, and Navarra), while in France it covers three historic provinces that are colloquially called Pays Basque (Basque Country), but which after the French Revolution became officially a part of the French département Pyrénées-Atlantiques. (See the map below for a better idea of what the area looks like.)

("Basque Country Location and Provinces in Europe Map" by Gabriel Trisca, uploaded and modified on Wikimedia Commons May 23, 2014)

Euskadi, the autonomous Basque community of Spain, comprises the three Spanish provinces of Álava, Guipúzcoa, and Vizcaya. It was created in 1979, after the end of Franco's dictatorship and the establishment of the monarchy in 1975. It has its own regional government, and the official languages are Euskara (Basque) and Spanish. While Navarra has significant historical ties to Basque culture, as well as many Basque citizens, the modern cultural ties are not as strongly felt. So while the area was given the option to join Euskadi, they decided instead to be a separate, also autonomous, entity. Yet apparently the Spanish Constitution still provides a loophole for them, should they ever wish to join, and the Euskadi Coat of Arms has a special space for Navarra on it. It was created in 1936 and had symbols representing the four Spanish Basque provinces, but after it was adopted by the Euskadi government in 1978, Navarra filed a lawsuit. The end result was that the Navarra symbol was removed in 1986, although they left a blank section, almost as if they are just waiting for Navarra to change its mind and join them.

Even today, there is still an odd tension between Euskadi and the Spanish government as both entities try to navigate how much autonomy Euskadi should have.

Basque Language: Euskara

What's fascinating about the Basque language is that it just might be the oldest spoken language in Europe! It's not an Indo-European language, like most major languages in Europe; in fact, it's a language isolate, meaning it is not related to any currently-spoken language. From what I've read, we have no idea what other languages it came from or is related to. I mean, we've got guesses...but they don't seem to be panning out.

While there are several different dialects of this language, there is a movement to accept Euskara Batua (a.k.a. Unified Basque) as the standard.

(If you're interested in learning Basque, check out Esther Ciganda's website! She spoke at one of the Women in Language conferences, and I loved her passion and enthusiasm for life and the Basque culture.)

What is Elcano Day?

Now that you have some context, we can talk about the actual holiday! To begin with, you've probably heard of Magellan's amazing trip that was the world's first circumnavigation of the world, right? What you might not have realized (I certainly didn't!) is that Magellan died en route. He never finished his mission. Instead, a man named Juan Sebastián Elcano did, along with 17 other survivors of a voyage that originally began with 5 ships and 270 men.

Some History

Ferdinand Magellan, or Fernando de Magallanes, as he is known in Spain, was actually born Fernão de Magalhães in Sabrosa, Portugal. Remember that, as it is important for what happens later on! One other thing to note: Spain and Portugal were intense rivals for lucrative spice trade in the East Indies, as well as in sea expeditions and conquering new lands (seriously, they even got the Pope involved! His solution was to create a dividing line on the map, giving Spain the rights to the lands west of the line and Portugal the right to the lands east of it).

Magellan wanted in on the action, so to speak, but could not convince the Portuguese king, King Manuel, to provide support for a western trip to the Spice Islands (the only known routes at the time were to sail via Africa and go east). Frustrated, Magellan renounced his Portuguese nationality in 1517 A.D. and went to Spain, where he met Diogo Barbosa, married his daughter Beatriz, and through them gained access to the Spanish royal court. King Charles 1, the grandson of the same royal couple who funded Christopher Columbus on his famous voyage, followed in their footsteps and agreed to support Magellan. Thus Magellan and his five ships, the Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria and Santiago, all set sail to find a western route to the East Indies on September 20, 1519, from the Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain.

So where does Elcano come in? He was born in Getaria, in Basque Country, around 1486. He, too, became an experienced seaman, but ran into trouble with the monarchy when he tried to sell a ship that technically belonged to them (yeah...they don't like that!). In order to escape punishment and receive a royal pardon, he joined Magellan's expedition in 1518 and sailed on the Concepción.

It took them a month to cross the Atlantic Ocean and reach South America. They sailed south, searching every strait to see if they could use it to reach the East Indies. Tensions were high among the ships' leaders, as three of the five captains were Spaniards, the other two (including Magellan, who was in charge of the entire voyage) were Portuguese. Finally, on Easter Day in 1520, there was mutiny. Yet Magellan managed to squash the uprising. While he executed one captain and marooned another, he also imprisoned 42 mutinous crew members. Elcano was one of these, and was forced to do hard, chained labor for five months.

The Santiago was shipwrecked soon after during a storm, trying to scout ahead. Thankfully, the crew was saved. After waiting for five months (due to seasonal storms), the remaining ships set sail again. It was then that Magellan found the strait he is known for, the Strait of Magellan, on October 21, 1520. Considering that this is located on the southern tip of Chile, which is close to Antartica, you can imagine how cold the month-long trip through the strait was! The crew of the San Antonio decided they had had enough and forced their captain to return back to Spain.

When the rest finally reached the other side, they beheld the Pacific Ocean (named by Magellan as the Mar Pacifico, since it looked so peaceful compared to the strait). As far as we know, they were the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean, and they had no idea how long it would take to cross it. While Magellan thought it would be quick, it actually took 99 days, with the crew having to deal with thirst, scurvy, and starvation. Thankfully, they reached Guam and replenished their supplies on March 6, 1521.

After this, perhaps with the intention of setting up a base before reaching the Spice Islands, Magellan headed to the Philippines. There, on Cebu Island, he created the first Spanish alliance in the Pacific Ocean and converted the chief to Christianity. This same chief then asked him to help him settle a dispute with a neighboring island. Overconfident, Magellan agreed and actually led the attack. He was shot with a poisoned arrow and died on April 27, 1521. To make matters worse, the crew soon after had to burn the Concepción, as they could no longer man her and did not want any of their enemies to gain control of her.

Finally, the remaining two ships, the Trinidad and the Victoria, reached the Spice Islands of Indonesia, a.k.a. the Moluccas, or the East Indies, on November 5, 1521. While trying to return home, the Trinidad became unseaworthy and its captain, Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, was imprisoned by Portuguese officials.

This left just one ship: the Victoria. And guess who captained her? Elcano! After his 5 months of hard labor, he was pardoned and eventually made captain of the Victoria in September of 1521. He traveled west through the Indian Ocean, up the coast of Africa, evaded the Portuguese, and finally arrived back in Spain, on September 6, 1522. The entire voyage had taken 3 years, and they returned with only 18 survivors and some Indonesians who had voluntarily joined them. Yet despite this, the spices they brought back covered the journey and then some! (It's hard to imagine now, but at this time, spices were worth more than their weight in gold!)

Elcano received his royal pardon and was also presented with his own coat of arms: a globe with the words, "Primus circumdedisti me" on it. Translated, it means "You were the first to encircle me." One of his fellow survivors, the Venetian Antonio Pigafetta, kept meticulous records of the journey. He is the reason we know what we do about the journey today.

Why the Holiday?

Now, Elcano Day is not a normal holiday. In fact, it is only celebrated in the Basque Government for the year 2022 to celebrate and honor the 500th anniversary of the Magellan-Elcano Expedition. Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, the Basque Government does what it usually does - it established another public holiday (to maintain the total number of annual holidays) that has some important meaning for the Basque people. And what better thing to celebrate this year than Elcano, a Basque navigator, who completed the first circumnavigation of the entire globe?

So while there are no official ways or traditions to celebrate this day, take a moment to contemplate this momentous feat and say, "Well done!" (Or, better yet, join in the National Read A Book Day celebrations and start reading a book on the event!)

Remember, learning a language is a lifelong journey.

¡Aprovéchalo, Disfrútalo y Compártelo!


Cultural Tip: None



Intro and Closing Music by Master_Service from Fiverr

Cultural Tip Transition Music edited from song by JuliusH from Pixabay

Resource Links

Episode Content

Cultural Tip

  • None

14 views0 comments


bottom of page