Enrique of Malacca's Circumnavigation

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. 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 (the Moluccas). 

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 Elcanol, 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.

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) 2023 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.