Enrique of Malacca Becomes First to Circumnavigate Globe

Map of Enrique of Malacca's circumnavigation
Map of Enrique of Malacca's circumnavigation: Malacca, Lisbon, Seville,
Rio de Janeiro, Puerto San Julián, Guam, Limasawa, Cebu.[1]

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 own language was spoken. 

Enrique’s journey began a decade earlier following the sack of Malacca, when he was taken as a slave by Ferdinand Magellan. 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. 


Malacca Sultanate, late 15th century.
Malacca Sultanate,
late 15th century. (Source.)

When the Portuguese invaded in 1511, Malacca was an ultrawealthy city state with a population of over 120,000. It was possibly the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Tomé Pires, a Portuguese merchant, counted eighty-four languages spoken in Malacca. Even the parrots, it was said, were multilingual.

Traders and merchants came from Cairo, Ormuz, Goa, Timor, and Ceylon, as well as China, Cambodia, Java, and Brunei. Peoples became known for the goods they traded: the Gujaratis, Tamils, and Bengalis for cloth; the Chinese for silk, camphor, and porcelain; and the Malays and other Southeast Asians for spices. Malacca’s sizable Chinese population had their own quarter on one side of town, Bukit China (“Chinese Hill”).


Malacca is a city made for merchandise, fitter than any other in the world; the end of the monsoons and the beginning of others. Malacca is surrounded and lies in the middle, and the trade and commerce between different nations for a thousand leagues on every hand must come.


Malacca after Portuguese conquest, drawn by Gaspar Correia (Source.)
Malacca after Portuguese conquest,
drawn by Gaspar Correia (Source.)

At the time Pires was writing this in 1513, Malacca’s fortunes were waning. The Portuguese wanted the city to survive as a trade hub, but news of their brutal assaults there and around the Indian Ocean spread throughout the region, and many merchants took Malacca off their itineraries.

Conquest of Malacca (Source.)
After defeating the Sultan's forces, the Portuguese systematically sacked the city. The Chinese, Hindus, Javanese, and others who had aided the Portuguese were spared from pillaging, their residences marked with flags, but the invading troops slaughtered Malacca's Muslim population. They also hauled away huge amounts of wealth plundered from underground cellars around the city, including gold bars and dust, rare gems, perfumes, and spices. It was likely around this time that Magellan "captured" Enrique and took him as a slave

Enrique of Malacca’s First Journey

In 1512 or 1513, Magellan and Enrique made the long voyage to Lisbon, possibly stopping at Cochin (Kochi), Portugal’s main stronghold on the Indian coast, and other spots such as Malindi (beach and supplies) on the coast of modern-day Kenya along the way. 

Enrique likely had a talent for languages; numerous Malay dialects were spoken among merchants, and Enrique learned Portuguese and later mastered Spanish.

On departure Enrique was forced to learn a lot and learn quickly, beyond just language. He had to learn shipboard routine and get accustomed to the clothes worn and the sparse foods available at sea. He had to find meals and spots on or below deck to sleep. They had at best roll-up straw mattresses, and at times were lucky to find somewhere dry to lay those out. Then there were ever-present smells, the stench of bilgewater and livestock, those as a backdrop to constant pitching and rocking on the waves. 

And while surrounded by water in every direction for months, Enrique likely missed water—freshwater, that is, for drinking and bathing in. Europeans considered bathing unnecessarily dangerous, while peoples in Southeast Asians considered it essential for purification and cooling. Whereas the Chinese drank tea and the Europeans wine, the common drink in Southeast Asia was water, fresh and purifying. Among the fleet's supplies, the most important provision was not water but wine. 

The Armada de Molucca

Enrique and Magellan probably arrived in Lisbon in 1513, meaning Enrique spent close to six years in Europe. In September 1519 as they prepared to sail on Magellan’s great enterprise, Enrique was one of the more-experienced crew members on board, and also one of the more-highly paid.

Enrique was enlisted as an interpreter with a monthly salary of 1,500 maravedis. That’s the same amount that Duarte Barbosa, Magellan’s relation by marriage, was earning and 300 maravedis more per month than Cristovão Rebêlo, possibly Magellan’s illegitimate son.

Of course, when valuing Enrique’s work skills, no one knew the fleet would have to travel for a year and a half before the young man could do any interpreting.

Enrique’s Circumnavigation

A Disney film about Enrique of Malacca would certainly be built around the fleet’s arrival at Limasawa Island as a triumphant climax. The armada had just spent three harrowing months at sea, losing some twenty crew members to scurvy and starvation, and at the third or fourth island they called on in the Visayas, they were met by eight men in a canoe—and presumably to everyone’s surprise and delight, Enrique could converse with them.

Enrique and Magellan traveled 2,600
kilometers from a full circumnavigation

Enrique had circumnavigated the globe linguistically; he and Magellan had just produced empirical proof that the world was round. The two had come about 2,600 kilometers (1,615 miles) from a full circle of the earth, Malacca being the starting point.

Enrique may well have gone on. After the massacre at Cebu, he basically defected from the Spanish fleet and from history in the process. But journeying on was possible, as Limasawa and neighboring islands were part of the regional trade network. 

Enrique of Malacca’s Origin

It is also possible Enrique had already reached his home islands. Some scholars in the Philippines argue that since Enrique spoke the language at Limasawa, he could have grown up in the region—the Visayan Islands—and was brought to Malacca perhaps already a slave. Malacca did in fact import slaves from as far as the Visayas.

Most likely, though, Enrique was speaking Malay at Limasawa—the language long used in Southeast Asian trade. Pigafetta’s accounts at both Limasawa and Cebu point to that.

As for Enrique himself, the feat of circling the earth would have had a special 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 two years earlier faced the possibility of spending the rest of his life in Portugal or Spain as a slave. 

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

So as people debate the meaning of the voyage and 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 Italian, 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.


1. The map at the top is the cartographer Diogo Ribeiro's 1528 version of the Padrón Real (Vatican Library, Source), the map Spain sent with ships' captains on expeditions. It is the first to detail the extent of the Pacific Ocean, relying on data from Ferdinand Magellan's expedition. The map is ideal for tracing Enrique of Malacca's route, since it shows also the extent of Magellan's and Enrique's worldview in 1521. Rabeiro's map puts the Atlantic Ocean in the middle. I resituated it to put Enrique's starting and end point, Malacca and Cebu, at the center, along with the Pacific Ocean (which I've always liked anyway). I was able to join the two ends together using Photoshop's Clone Stamp and other tools (a work in progress). [Correction: Spain.]

By John Sailors

Enrique of Malacca's Voyage

(C) 2023 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.