Question: Who was the real first person to circumnavigate the globe? (Hint: It wasn’t Magellan)
Answer: Enrique of Malacca … maybe.
When the crew of Ferdinand Magellan’s ship Trinidad finally dropped anchor in Spain in 1522, three years after it first set sail, only four of the original sailors remained (and only 18 of all 250 who joined the voyage over time). They were heralded as the first to ever fully circumnavigate the globe. But Magellan was not among them.
Magellan had been killed in a deadly battle in the Philippines, slaughtered while his men watched helplessly. His voyage was completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano, a man so heartless that he ditched two of the original three ships and dozens of his own crew along the way. Though history does not actually record in which order the survivors went ashore, Elcano got bragging rights as the first returned.
But was he? There was a fifth survivor of the original crew, the translator Enrique of Malacca, who lived but didn’t return to Spain. Where he did end up is the heart of the debate.
A Filipino enslaved and sold in the markets of Malacca, Enrique (who could speak Malay, as well as regional languages of Sumatra and the Philippines) was pressed into service as a translator as a teenager. Magellan promised the young man that if he completed the Spice Islands voyage, he would be freed. After Magellan was killed and dismembered in the battle of Mactan in the spring of 1521, Enrique assumed he would be released as promised. When Elcano reneged on the deal, Enrique took matters into his own hands (see below) and freed himself.
If Enrique was in fact from the Philippines, he was at that moment already the first to circumnavigate the globe. If, instead, he was of Filipino descent but had been born in Malaysia, it would require one last leg—Cebu back to Malacca—to complete the journey. The diarist aboard the Trinidad suggests that Enrique set off for Malaysia in May of that year, a 1,500-mile straight shot across the South China Sea. He would have arrived long before Elcano’s crew made their journey—more than four times as long—back to Spain.
It’s not like Enrique could have sent a telegram saying he made it, so we’ll never know for sure. But Malaysia has no doubts: it has erected a statue of him in the Maritime Museum of Malacca.
Don’t Mess with Enrique: Massacre at Cebu
- After Magellan’s death, Enrique wrapped himself in blankets and refused to get out of bed, saying he no longer worked for the sailors.
- When new co-commanders Duarte Barbosa and Juan Serrano insisted he get up, he reminded them that Magellan’s will explicitly stated that he was to be free and
- Barbosa mocked the request, telling Enrique that his servitude would never end, as Magellan’s widow had already been promised his services when they returned.
- Serrano went even further, warning Enrique that if he didn’t get up, they would beat him mercilessly.
- Enrique returned to service, but not as they expected: he convinced locals that the ship’s crew planned to kill their ruler, Rajah Humabon, before fleeing for Spain.
- Under the guise of a farewell dinner, Humabon invited the crew to a banquet in Cebu, and 30 of them attended, completely clueless about Enrique’s claim.
- After the alcohol was flowing, Humabon’s men attacked the guests, killing 27 of them, Barbosa and Duarte among them.
- Only three made it back to the ships, which were now fully under Elcano’s control, and they fled Cebu as fast as they could.
- Enrique reportedly remained behind to make arrangements for his trip home, a free man at last.
Follow in the footsteps of Enrique, Magellan, and countless explorers as you discover The Wilderness Beyond: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego & the Chilean Fjords.