Enrique of Malacca Completes First Circumnavigation—by Language

World map of Nicolas Desliens, 1566. This version is upside down: North is on top, whereas in the original south is.

On March 28, 1521, Enrique of Malacca became the first person to complete a linguistic circumnavigation of the globe—he traveled so far in one direction that he reached a point where his language was spoken. 

Enrique’s journey began a decade earlier following the sack of Malacca, when he became a slave of Ferdinand Magellan's. A teenager, he accompanied Magellan back to Portugal, then to Spain, and finally on the Armada de Molucca to locate a westward route to the Spice Islands. 

When Magellan’s remaining three ships reached Limasawa Island (Philippines), where Enrique could suddenly converse with locals, he was already about 2,600 kilometers from a full circle of the earth, Malacca being the starting point.

He may well have gone on. After Magellan’s death at the Battle of Mactan, Enrique basically defected from the Spanish fleet, and from history in the process. But journeying on was certainly possible.

Limasawa and neighboring islands were part of a trade network that dealt in gold and slaves as well as spices, and was extensive enough that merchants there knew of Portuguese atrocities at Malacca, Calicut, and greater India. Finding passage from Limasawa to Sumatra or Malacca would not have been hard. And Enrique’s first-hand knowledge of the Europeans would have made him invaluable to merchants and local rulers, giving him something to barter with.

It is also possible Enrique had in fact already reached his home islands. According to Magellan the “captured slave” was from Malacca, and Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler, said Enrique was from Sumatra. But some scholars argue that since Enrique spoke the language at Limasawa, he could have grown up somewhere in that area—the Visayan Islands—and was then brought to Malacca perhaps already a slave.

As for Enrique himself, the feat of circling the earth would have had a very different meaning. For Enrique, reaching Asia, hearing an Austronesian language he knew, meant he had returned or at least nearly returned to his home. As a backdrop he had three years earlier faced the possibility of spending the rest of his life in Portugal or Spain as a slave. 

To Enrique, the circumnavigation wasn’t about finding new lands but about returning to familiar ones.

Today, half a millennium later, debate over Magellan’s legacy is heated. To many in the west and in Asia, Magellan is a hero, the driving force behind the first circumnavigation. He is one of the great “explorers,” a national myth taught to schoolchildren in many countries.

To many others, though, Magellan’s journey serves as an early and ugly landmark of colonization and the imperialism that came to dominate much of the world until the twentieth century, and indeed still does in places, it is argued, in practice if not in name.

So as people argue over the meaning of the voyage—and also who gets credit (Magellan, who was killed in the Philippines, or Juan Sebastián Elcano, or all surviving crew?)—it is fitting that the first circumnavigator turned out to be an unlikely hero, neither Spanish nor Portuguese nor “explorer” nor colonizer, but rather a young Austronesian slave captured in Malacca a decade earlier.

This was a young man who witnessed first-hand the early forays of colonizing by both the Portuguese (in Malacca) and the Spanish (in South America and the Philippines) half a millennium ago. And traveled from one to the other the long way.

While we question the legacy of Magellan, Columbus, and other explorers, we should stop to appreciate the journey of Enrique of Malacca, whose epic feat was accomplished not through war or cunning or wealth, but through unlikely paths that fate dealt him, through tides of the human condition.

By John Sailors [updated]

Enrique's Voyage

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Top Image: World map of Nicolas Desliens, 1566. This one is upside down: north is on top of the picture, while in the original it is south. (This is the preferred orientation of maps in Australia.) Consequently, labels appear here written upside down. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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

See Also:

Ferdinand Magellan’s historic journey swept up several unlikely travelers along the way, among them a seven-year-old boy at Guanabara Bay (Rio de Janeiro). Half-Portuguese, half-Tupi Indian, he is remembered in history as Joãozito Lopes Carvalho. The young boy became the first native of Brazil and likely all of South America to cross the Pacific Ocean—on a year-and-a-half journey that for him ended at Brunei five hundred years ago this summer.

Joãozito was the son of João de Lopes Carvalho and a Tupi Indian woman in what is now Brazil. A Portuguese pilot, João Carvalho had traveled to Guanabara Bay in 1512 on the Bertoa, a commercial vessel sent to pick up dyewood there. A decade earlier a Portuguese fleet had landed at Guanabara Bay and claimed the area for Portugal, naming it Rio de Janeiro for the month they arrived, January 1502. Read more.

Antonio Pigafetta's account of the Magellan-Elcano voyage gives us both first-hand historical detail and color—the human aspects of the journey. The Italian scholar learned all he could about the cultures that Magellan's fleet encountered, even sitting down and recording samples of languages.

An excellent example of Pigafetta's curiosity and fascination is his description of the coconut and the palm tree, which he learned about soon after the fleet's arrival in the Philippines. Like the pineapple Magellan tried in Rio, the coconut was an unknown. "Cocoanuts are the fruit of the palmtree. Just as we have bread, wine, oil, and milk, so those people get everything from that tree. Read more.

A handful of medieval travelogues were the closest thing Ferdinand Magellan had to a travel guide when he sought a westward route to Asia—accounts credited to Marco Polo, John Mandeville, and others, and those all echoed the same monsters and myths repeated since the time of Pliny the Elder, the Roman author whose Naturalis Historiae helped inspire the encyclopedia.

It gets little mention today, but The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was a world atlas of sorts in medieval Europe, essential reading for navigators and explorers. The accounts became circulated widely in Europe in the fourteenth century. They detail travels in North Africa and the Middle East, and in India, China, and even the Malay Peninsula—which would have been of particular interest to Ferdinand Magellan, and also Enrique of Malacca, Magellan’s interpreter-slave. Read more.

Reni Roxas and Marc Singer brought the story of Enrique to life for children in 
First Around the Globe: The Story of Enrique. Twenty years on they released this anniversary edition in 2017 from Tahanan Books, Manila. Read more.

On March 16, 1521, Magellan and his crew reached the Philippines, where they would finally be able to recover after three months crossing the Pacific. They were unable to stop long at Guam—their encounter with the Chamorros they met there did not go well, as seen in their sendoff. As they were departing, more than a hundred of the Chamorros’ outrigger canoes followed for more than a league.

As Pigafetta wrote, “They approached the ships showing us fish, feigning that they would give them to us; but then threw stones at us and fled. And although the ships were under full sail, they passed between them and the small boats [longboats fastened astern], very adroitly in those small boats of theirs. We saw some women in their boats who were crying out and tearing their hair, for love, I believe, of those whom we had killed.” Read more.

What Was Enrique of Malacca's Nationality?
Enrique of Malacca's origin is a subject of debate. Three places are considered possible: Malacca, then a major trade hub on the Malay Peninsula; Sumatra, the large island adjacent to Malacca (modern-day Indonesia); and the Visayan Islands in the (modern-day) Philippines. The following article examines the three possibilities and the evidence available. Read more.

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(C) 2022 by Enrique's Voyage, EnriqueOfMalacca.com. All rights reserved.