Magellan's Nao Victoria Still Dodging Trouble 500 Years Later

Five hundred years later and Ferdinand Magellan's armada still faces unthinkable hazards.

Piloting Error: A 160-foot-long Bulgarian tall ship crashes into the "Nao Victoria," a sailing replica of the Victoria from Ferdinand Magellan's Armada de Molucca.

Crowded harbors were one hazard Magellan didn't have to deal with. It was only after Magellan's death on Mactan (an island in the modern-day Philippines), when the fleet reached Brunei, that they came across a bustling port city.

Cebu, near Mactan, was part of the Asian trade network and had regular contact with merchants, but the islands were somewhat remote. Brunei on the other hand was a wealthy city built partially on the harbor.

Of the armada's five ships, only the Victoria completed that first circumnavigation. Shortly after the fleet left Brunei, Juan Sebastián Elcano was chosen as the Victoria's captain. It was Elcano who made the decision to return home to Europe westward across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. 

Circumnavigating the globe was not Magellan's or the armada's plan. But with the Victoria in poor condition, a return across the Pacific and through the strait was too risky, and riskier still was a return along the Malabar and East African coasts, areas then controlled by the enemy Portuguese, who had standing orders to stop any Spanish ships.

Meanwhile, Magellan and his slave-interpreter, Enrique of Malacca, had already nearly completed a circumnavigation. Ten years earlier, Magellan was serving the king of Portugal as a soldier in East Africa and India. He fought in the bloody battle to take control of Malacca, a trade hub on the Malay Peninsula.

During or after the sack of Malacca, Magellan "captured" (the word he used in his will) a slave, a Malacca teenager who Magellan Christened Enrique. The latter became known in history as Enrique of Malacca.*

Enrique accompanied Magellan back to Lisbon in about 1512 and then to Spain, where Enrique and possibly another Malay, a young woman, were presented to Spain's newly crowned King Carlos I as evidence showing the promises of backing an expedition westward to Asia.

Carlos was then an eighteen-year-old kid from Flanders who barely spoke Spanish. Between the time he agreed to fund Magellan's expedition and the time it departed, the young king, a Habsburg, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and archduke of Austria.

On the Armada de Molucca fleet roster, Enrique was listed as an interpreter earning a salary higher than some of the armada's officers.

Enrique and Magellan then crossed the Atlantic Ocean, sailed south from Brazil to and off the map (they didn't fall off a flat earth, though), and then crossed the Pacific to reach Cebu and Mactan.

There, ithe (modern-day) Philippines, Enrique for the first time earned his keep as an interpreterhe could converse with people in the canoes that rowed out to meet the Spanish ships!

Both Enrique and Magellan had come to within 2,600 kilometers from a full circle of the earth. Enrique may have gone on; Cebu was part of an extensive trade network and transport was available. Scholars also speculate on whether Enrique may have been from the area, since he knew a language or dialect spoken there (though he was very possibly speaking a Malay dialect used regionally in trade).

At any rate, Enrique of Malacca had traveled so far in one direction that he came to a place where he spoke the language (a definite first)—a linguistic circumnavigation.

* Spanish: Enrique de Malacca; Portuguese: Henrique de Malacca.

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And, yes, Enrique might be 500 years old, but he was known as a kid, so of course he's now on Instagram too.

(C) 2021 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.

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