Magellan’s Interpreter, Enrique, Was the First to Circumnavigate the World

The Portuguese claim that Fernão Magalhães (Portuguese orthography) found the route around the world when he circumnavigated it and showed that the Earth was indeed round. Others claim he was killed in a battle with the natives of Mactan, Cebu, so his trip around the world was truncated or not completed.

However, we have verifiable facts that show Fernando Magallanes (Hispanized orthography) did really sail around the world. But it was his Malay interpreter who should truly be credited with the impressive feat.

James Michener, in his Iberia, reported heated arguments with his royal Spanish grandee friends that it was Magellan, not Sebastian del Cano, (also known as Elcano) who first circumnavigated the world. Of course, they cited as proof that King Charles V awarded the noble Basque, del Cano, the family crest that depicted the earth and the declaration: “Primus circumdediste me” (You were the first to circumnavigate me).

Magellan and Elcano's circumnavigation around the world (Source: wikipedia)

Magellan and Elcano's circumnavigation around the world (Source: wikipedia)

The Spanish Armada de Moluccas, consisted of the Trinidad, Magellan’s flagship, the Victoria together with the San Antonio, the Concepcion, and the Santiago. This fleet left Spain in 1519 to reach the Spice Islands by going west, and ultimately found the Philippines instead.

Three years later, only the Victoria, captained by del Cano returned to Sevilla, Spain in 1522 with 18 crewmen, raggedly cadaverous and near death. They had first rounded the world.

They got the royal citation; but the true honor belongs to Magellan and to Magellan’s intrepid servant listed on the ship’s roster as a certain “Enrique, a slave supernumerary.” When they reached Cebu, by sheer accident, he proved to be Magellan’s interpreter.

Let’s review Magellan’s travel campaigns that connect Enrique to his side, and of Enrique vying for the inconvertible proof of being the first circumnavigator of the Earth.

In 1511, the Portuguese fleet captained by de Sequiera captured Malacca.  

In Europe, Enrique was acculturated within the Portuguese and Spanish societies.

Magellan participated in this war campaign. The following year, Magellan further joined the Portuguese navy of Admiral Affonso de Albuquerque in sacking the rich Sultan of Malacca’s palace and its temple environs called Pura. It was in the Sultanate’s Pura complex that Magellan obtained a captured slave, 16-year-old Malay whom he named Enrique. Enrique was at his side in all the war efforts including Ceuta, Mozambique, Goa and Mactan.

A very interesting event took place earlier, back when Magellan was in the port of Malacca. Three ships reconnoitered the Sulawesi/Mindanao/Moluccas seas. A caravel piloted by Abreu went from Malacca to Amboina. A second caravel piloted by Serrano went to Ternate where he anchored and stayed. A third ship reportedly piloted by Magellan went further northeast of Sulawesi to the northeastern coast of Mindanao on 9 degrees north latitude. Nothing has been written about this last third explorative Magellan trip, so many doubt it ever happened.

However, it was through Enrique’s seaworthiness that Magellan realized he was in new territories sailing on the 9 and 10 degrees latitude. Studiously, he kept his southern and northeastern Mindanao portulan charts (coastline maps) updated for further explorations. This explains why on the consequent trip that brought him to the discovery of the Philippines, the Genoese pilot, Albo, of the Magellan Armada, noted in his log that nearing the Spice Islands, he was directed to veer 9 degrees north latitude. He added: “It was as if Magellan knew exactly where he was going.” Indeed, he did. Cebu lies 10 degrees north latitude from the Equator. Enrique assured him of that.

Magellan's Cross when he landed in Cebu (Source: Wikipedia)

Magellan's Cross when he landed in Cebu (Source: Wikipedia)

How did Enrique happen to be in a sultanate court?

Malacca had been an Asian active mercantile trading post in the early 14th to 15th centuries. Many neighboring countries (Pagan in Cambodia, Ayutthaya in Thailand, Annam in Vietnam, Borney in Borneo), established their own regional spheres of maritime influence within Malacca. The traders from Luzon, Cebu and also of Butuan, Mindanao established their own market posts in the city of Minjam, on the island of Sumatra facing the Malacca strait. Historian Donald Lach recorded that Minjam had a population comprising about 500 Sugbuanes and Butuanes families (then lumped geographically together as Luzones). It had an elected commercial representative to the Malacca Sultanate Court.

It was the common practice at that time that leaders or representatives of the different trading posts sent their brightest sons to serve in the Sultan’s court. My own research leads me to suggest a son of Minjam served in the sultanate palace when the Portuguese forces captured Malacca. But, I have no definite proof. Magellan in his will said Enrique was a “captured” slave.  

Enrique was known as Enrique, the Sumatran. In others, he was called Enrique the Malay, or Black Henry. But in truth I suggest that he was Enrique from Minjam of Sumatra, of Mazzaua or Butuan roots. Most likely a Filipino. This of course is meaningless because at that time, the category “Filipino” had not been invented yet.

In Europe, Enrique was acculturated within the Portuguese and Spanish societies. When Magellan sought an audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, making a pitch for the promise of the discovery route to the Spice Island by traveling westward through the Pacific, he presented Enrique to the royal rulers’ court as a human specimen to show he actually came from the nearby Spice Islands.

An illustration of Enrique (Source:

An illustration of Enrique (Source:

When Magellan reached the Philippine islands in 1521, he had crossed the Atlantic through the strait in South America that now carries his name. Then he traversed the wide Pacific. Remember, Enrique sailed in this expedition.

If we consider that when Magellan was in Malacca in 1511, he further sailed to the Visayan islands south of Luzon. Then having returned to Cebu in 1521, he had virtually and geographically circumnavigated the globe.

If on the other hand, Enrique’s original family came from the islands’ trading post/s of Mazzaua/Butuanes, then if they had entered the mercantile trading center in Minjam, Sumatra, it is very likely that his family may have imparted their Filipino influence within the Malay sultanate. We have no direct evidence except historical Southeast Asian documents regarding a rich Filipino trading community in Minjam in the early 16th century.

There are several speculations that Enrique lived in Cebu and was captured by Sulu pirates and sold at the slave market in Malacca. It is possible. However, I do not agree with this view. I contest it on the grounds that slaves in the Sultan’s court seldom come as purchased goods from the marketplace. Most significantly, slaves in many royal sultan courts are captured fighters from battlefields.

The sultan of Malacca’s enemies made regular incursions against the reigning ruler. Records show the Filipinos in Minjam unfortunately often backed the losing sultans. I maintain that Enrique was a soldier in a defeated army (the Sumatrans were always waging war against Malaccan potentates) and hence many Malays were captured and enslaved.

Be that as it may, Enrique, as Magellan’s slave, sailed with Magellan across the oceans back to his South East Asian roots. It was of great surprise and interest that when Magellan landed in Homonhon, Enrique could understand the cognate Visayan dialects spoken. Several realized that Magellan’s interpreter spoke so eloquently and passionately, better than Magellan himself!

Either that or else the chieftains in the vicinity spoke Malay as noted by Magellan’s chronicler Antonio Pigafetta. The Malay language was the lingua franca of commerce at that point in time,

With full astonishment, everyone observed how brilliantly Enrique translated for Magellan and with Rajah Tupas of Cebu. He argued, debated and communicated with the chief of Mactan, Datu Lapu-Lapu. He was almost killed with Magellan in the battle of Mactan in April 1521.

If Enrique was by Magellan’s side in all these voyages of discovery; if Magellan circumnavigated the world before Sebastian del Cano did in 1523; and if Enrique was first domiciled in the Visayan islands and then years later returned to the Visayan islands (including Cebu) with Magellan, then tell me, who really first circumnavigated the world?

“It was Enrique,” wrote the noted author and National Artist Frankie Sionil José, in his article echoing Carlos Quirino’s view about Magellan’s slave interpreter. I support his assertions.

Penelope V. Flores

Penelope V. Flores

Dr. Penelope V. Flores is Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University.

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