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Portuguese Conquerors

Enrique of Melaka
Was the first man to sail around the world a Malay?

Over the years, there has been considerable debate about who actually was the first man to sail around the world. We were all taught this historic honour belongs to Ferdinand Magellan (Fernao de Magalhaes, in his native Portuguese) who led the expedition of five ships and over 270 men out of Spain in 1519 and sailed westwards, reaching the Philippines, where he was killed. However, Magellan was thought to have travelled to as far as Sabah before, and one can argue that he had indeed actually completed circumnavigating the globe. There are also those who argue that the accolade should rightly belong to Sebastian del Cano, a mutineer from Magellan's crew, who led the one surviving ship, Victoria, and 17 other men, and limped back to Spain on September 8, 1522.

However, only one individual can truly claim to have been the first man to leave his home, sail around the globe and arrive at a part of the world where his mother tongue was spoken. That man was a Malay, Magellan's able servant and interpreter, called Enrique of Melaka or Henry the Black.

If there is any single Malay ever who has had the greatest impact on world history, it would probably be Enrique. It is therefore ironic that we know so little of the man. He is called Panglima Awang in Malay literature but there is no mention of him in any credible Malay historical records. There is brief mention of Enrique in the official Spanish crew lists, as well as Magellan's last will and testament. Almost all of the certain facts that we know of Enrique come from the most comprehensive chronicle of Magellan's voyage, the narrative by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian volunteer who joined Magellan's crew.

Pigafetta does briefly mention Enrique's origins - he was a Malay who had lived in Melaka but was originally from 'Zamatra' (Sumatra). Magellan was among the crew of the Portuguese squadron of five ships under Diego Lopez de Sequeira which sailed into Melaka on September 1, 1509, and became the first Europeans to have contact with the Malay Peninsula. Magellan also took part in the capture of the city by the Portuguese in 1511 and it was probably then that he acquired a Malay slave, whom he gave the name Enrique.

The young Enrique may have been about 18 at the time - Magellan's will and testament made eight years later cited Enrique as being "of the age of twenty-six years, more or less". The will also stated specifically that Enrique was a "captured slave" - indicating that Enrique was not bought in a slave market by Magellan. He may have been one of the defenders of the city who was taken captive in the final Portuguese assault. Prisoners of war would have been regarded as slaves and could be divided as booty among the officers and men of the victorious Portuguese expedition. He may also have been a slave before the fall of the city. There were thousands of slaves in Melaka belonging to the merchants and Malay nobility, and Portuguese records indicate that Sultan Mahmud of Melaka alone had over three thousand 'ambarages' ('Hamba Raja' or royal slaves). Many of the 'hamba raja' were in fact prisoners of war brought back from Melaka's successful campaigns against the kingdoms of Sumatra, Enrique's birthplace.

The new slave must have been a useful guide and interpreter when Magellan then travelled to different parts of the East Indies after Melaka's capture, reaching as far as Sabah. He then sailed back to Lisbon in 1512, with his loyal Malay servant in tow, and was dispatched to the Portuguese campaigns against the Moors in Morocco. There, Magellan was wounded in battle and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Accused of corruption while he was there, he bitterly left the service of the King of Portugal and offered his services to King Charles I of Spain in 1517. Portugal controlled all the eastward routes to the rich Spice Islands of the Malay archipelago and Magellan presented the King of Spain with his daring plan - to find a route sailing westwards to the Spice Islands, avoiding the Portuguese. It is said that he even had Enrique presented to the King and his Privy Council, to convince them that accompanying him on the voyage would be a man with the local language, knowledge and experience needed to make the voyage a success.

Up to then, it does appear that Enrique was a loyal and able servant, and that his relationship with his master was a good one - perhaps even one of friendship. It was certainly good enough for Magellan to declare in his will and testament that, upon his death, Enrique "shall be free and manumitted, and quit, exempt, and relieved of every obligation and subjection, that he may act as he desires and thinks fit." Magellan even left Enrique a comfortable share from his estate, "the sum of ten thousand maravedis in money for his support".

The Spanish king was won over with the plan. Magellan was provided with five sailing ships - San Antonio, Conception, Victoria, Santiago and his flagship Trinidad - and crews comprising over 270 men. They left the Spanish port of Sanlucar de Barrameda on September 20th, 1519 and began perhaps the most daring and historic voyage of exploration ever - a voyage whose significance can only be equaled to Man's landing on the moon 450 years later.

Across the Atlantic, down the coast of South America and upwards across the Pacific, they sailed and suffered many hardships - thirst, starvation, disease, storms, desertion, hostile natives, even mutiny. Finally, on March 16th , 1521 - eighteen months after they left Spain - they sighted Samar, the most easterly of the Philippine islands. They continued their exploration of the islands and encountered a number of natives - but Enrique's Malay was unintelligible to them and they had to communicate using sign language. Magellan must have despaired, thinking that they were still far from their goal - the islands of the Malay archipelago.

But on March 28th, a momentous event occurred. Pigafetta wrote: ".... we saw approaching two long boats, which they called Ballanghai, full of men, and in the larger was their king seated below an awning made of mats. And when they came near the captain's ship, the said slave (Enrique) spoke to that king, who understood him well."

From that moment onwards, Enrique became the sole ears and voice of this band of explorers. As they continued their voyage to the surrounding island kingdoms, it was Enrique alone who, on behalf of Magellan and the Spanish crown, spoke with kings and traders - requesting provisions, bartering goods to trade, offering messages of peace, delivering threats of war.

It was after delivering one such threat that Enrique lost his master and friend, Magellan. Magellan had befriended the ruler of Cebu, Raja Humabon and was asked to punish a large band of rebellious natives in the village of Mactan, under the leadership of a warrior named Lapu Lapu. On Saturday, the 27th of April, Magellan attacked Lapu Lapu's village with 60 men-at-arms - cannon, muskets, crossbows and steel swords against bamboo spears and poison-tipped arrows. But the small Spaniard force suddenly found itself overwhelmed by over 1,500 of Lapu Lapu's warriors.

Pigafetta noted that Lapu Lapu's men were converging their attacks on the Spanish captain himself - Magellan was first struck in the right leg by an arrow and later a spear stabbed him in the arm. For some reason, his cannon had now stopped firing and, despite being pressed by attacks for nearly an hour, no reinforcements had arrived from his waiting ships. Then, many of his men began to flee for the safety of their ships. The Filipinos rushed forward and, with a wounded arm that was barely able to raise his sword in defence, the limp Magellan trailed behind his fleeing soldiers. Wading knee-deep in the surf, he was finally pierced by a spear in the right leg and he collapsed face down. A wall of spears converged upon the fallen captain and he was dead.

Enrique himself was wounded in the battle. Devastated by the death Magellan, he went into deep mourning. Pigafetta writes that "he no longer went ashore to do necessary business but was always wrapped in a blanket." A new commander was elected to replace Magellan - a Portuguese by the name of Duarte Barbosa - and he was determined to show the Malay slave that the new captain would not tolerate such behaviour. Shouting at Enrique, Barbosa told him that although his master was dead, he was not to be freed but was to remain a slave. Duarte ordered him to go ashore whenever he was needed or he would be driven away.

Pigafetta then writes that Enrique was then suspected of plotting the downfall of his ship mates but he did not elaborate on the reason behind this conspiracy. Enrique may have suspected that the captains who remained on the ships may have plotted the death of his master during the battle - intentionally not sending him any reinforcements or supporting cannon fire. He may have been enraged at Barbosa for denying him his liberty - having been promised by his master that he should be set free upon his death. He may have felt that a master whom he had loved and admired was now dead, and there was no longer any reason to remain a slave - it was now time to start a new life as a free man.

Whatever the reason - whether it was loyalty, revenge, rage or just an attempt at freedom - the plot was hatched just three days after Magellan's death. Pigafetta writes that Enrique went ashore and told Humabon that the Spaniards were about to depart immediately "but, if he would follow his advice, he would gain all their ships merchandise ... and so they plotted a conspiracy."

The next day, Enrique told the Spaniards that Humabon had prepared jewels and presents to be brought to the King of Spain and asked them to come ashore to receive these. A party of Spaniards led by Barbosa did come, accompanied as usual by Enrique, but they were attacked. A lone survivor fled back towards the ships and, when asked if there were any others who survived the attack, he said all were dead, except the interpreter.

Official Spanish records list Enrique of Melaka as one of the 27 men massacred in that attack, so we really do not know if Enrique did survive that attack, as Pigafetta claims. What we do know is that was the last we hear of Enrique in Pigafetta's diary - and he disappears into the mists of history. No one knows if he remained in Cebu, or found his way back to Melaka or maybe even returned to his homeland in Sumatra. If he had indeed made his way home, he would have arrived there much earlier than del Cano - making the Malay slave the first man ever to have sailed around the world, rather than Magellan or del Cano

One could also argue that the Spaniards may have indeed changed the official crew lists to ensure that this was not a possibility - how could a Malay slave have beaten the flower of Spanish manhood in the race around the globe? Certainly, Enrique was to be just a footnote to the heroic deeds of Magellan and del Cano that were told in countless books about this remarkable voyage written over the next few hundred years. It was only in this century that questions were raised about this Malay interpreter and his role in this historic achievement. Little was known about him even in Malaya until, in 1958, the writer Harun Aminurrashid published one of the greatest historical novels in modern Malay fiction, "Panglima Awang".

Despite there being no written evidence indicating that Enrique had any origins in or connections with the Philippines - and Pigafetta's quite clear statement that he was from Sumatra - Filipino writers and historians are now claiming Enrique as one of their own countrymen. Some suggest that he may have been abducted from Cebu and brought to Sumatra or Melaka as a slave. Others think that he may have been a member of the small Filipino community living in Melaka at the time of its fall to the Portuguese. The most convenient feature of these theories is that if Enrique was indeed from Cebu, that would without any doubt make a Filipino the first man to have sailed around the world.

The main argument behind these theories is that Enrique could speak in the language of the people inhabiting the islands around Cebu - Bisayan - and therefore must have been from Cebu himself. There is a fatal flaw in this argument - Pigafetta's narrative above does show that Enrique could not communicate at all with the natives in his first encounter with them. It was only when he spoke with royalty - in this case, their king - or with traders that they suddenly found a common language among them. This is certainly not surprising - Malay was, by then, the 'lingua franca' of the whole Archipelago, and the official language of international diplomacy and trade for the whole region. All references to Enrique in Pigafetta's chronicle have him speaking with kings, chiefs or traders - rather than the common folk who may not have known the international language of Malay.

But the continuing controversy of whether he was Malay or Filipino does not detract from the monumental achievements of this man. Burning with the unquenchable wanderlust and seafaring passion of his race, Enrique of Melaka had sailed the seas of the East Indies with his master; followed him across the Indian Ocean and around the rim of the African continent; loyally fought alongside him in North Africa; lived in the splendour of the royal courts of Portugal and Spain. He embarked upon the greatest adventure ever - to circle the globe, the final frontier; to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Having done that, he had returned full circle, to a land where he could understand the people and they could understand him. And there is just still the possibility that this humble Malay slave was indeed the first human ever to have sailed around the world.


Pigafetta, Antonio, journal, quoted in Skelton, R.A., 'Magellan's Voyage--A narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation', New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969

Zweig, S. Magellan. 'Der Mann und seine Tat', Wien-Leipzig-Zürich, 1937 and Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1983

Pintado, M J, 'Portuguese Documents On Melaka', National Archives of Malaysia, 1993.

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