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da Gama was the first European to find a route to the Far East in 1497.

"THE first Malay to circumnavigate the globe: Panglima Awang or Enrique de Mallaca – Between Reality and Illusion. The talk on this interesting topic will be held next week at Universiti Putra Malaysia's Malay Heritage Museum. I’m driving there; you’re welcome to tag along," quips my friend, who’s attached to the Kedah State Library.

Elaborating, he adds: "The keynote speakers taking the stage on July 29 will be Dr. Shariful Bahari Md. Radzi (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), Dr. S. Suryadi (Leiden University) and Prof. Emeritus Datuk Dr. Wan Hashim Wan Teh (Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia)."

He looks forlorn when I confide about my packed work schedule in the days leading up to the date as well as after. "Can't you get away for just a day," he quizzes sceptically before finally giving up on his attempts to sway my decision.

Unperturbed, he proceeds to share his knowledge on a subject that has obviously captured his interest – beginning with the common misconception that Ferdinand Magellan was the first man to sail around the world.

Pulling a chair up to my table, he continues: "Actually, Magellan died in the Philippines and didn’t complete his voyage. It was only because he was head of the expedition that history recorded him as the first person to have achieved that feat!"

Artist interpretation of Enrique.

Adding, my friend shares: "Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammed, during his first tenure as Prime Minister, reiterated this fact at a United Nations meeting on Dec 4, 1997. Mahathir took everyone present by surprise when he proudly declared that a Malay was the first person to sail around the world!"

Turning the hands of time back further, he adds that the Portuguese explorer was born Fernando de Magalhaes in 1480 at the town of Sabrosa. His father, Pedro de Magalhaes, was a minor member of the Portuguese aristocracy and town mayor. Under the watchful eyes of his mother, Alda de Mezquita, Magellan grew up with his siblings, brother Diego de Sosa and sister Isabela.


Early maps used by explorers like Magellan were very different from the ones we know today.

Soon after turning 12, Magellan was sent to Lisbon to perfect his education as a page of Queen Eleanor, consort of King John II. It was during his time at the Portuguese Court that Magellan witnessed the pomp and splendour that welcomed Christopher Columbus when he sailed triumphantly into Lisbon Harbour in 1493 after returning from a successful voyage to the Americas.

Four years later, when he was serving King Manuel I, John II's successor, Ferdinand joined members of the Portuguese Court in celebration when news arrived of Vasco da Gama's success in conquering the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and arriving safely in India.

The golden age of exploration and colonial expansion captured the imagination of the teenage Magellan. His time at court also exposed him to various political intrigues, especially the intense Portuguese-Spanish rivalry for maritime supremacy and control over newly-discovered lands.

Eventually, the quest for fame and riches in the East proved too great for Magellan to resist. In March 1505, at the age of 25, he embarked for India in a 22-ship fleet commanded by Viceroy Francisco de Almeida, the first Governor of Portuguese India. The flotilla had orders to secure control of the Indian Ocean by dominating key port cities that surrounded it.

Together with Francisco Serrao, his friend and possibly cousin, Magellan served alternately between India and Africa for the next four years. During that time, he participated in several battles, including those in Cannanore (March 1506) and Diu (February 1509).

Magellan and Serrao set sailed under Diogo Lopes de Sequeira to Melaka, an international commercial centre that was so important and famous that Portuguese writer and trader Tome Pires once said: "Whoever is lord of Malacca shall have his hands on the throat of Venice."

The Portuguese entourage received a warm welcome upon arrival on Sept 11, 1509. Relations, however, soured very quickly and the expedition ended in retreat. Magellan played a crucial role of warning Sequeira and risking his life to rescue Serrao and several others. Greatly outnumbered by the Malay warriors, the fleet weighed anchor and quickly pulled away, leaving some men captive in Melaka.

In November 1509, Afonso de Albuquerque succeeded de Almeida as Governor. After the capture of Goa a year later, de Albuquerque set his sights on Melaka with Magellan and Serrao joining the expedition.


A Famosa is one of the few remnants of Portuguese influence in Melaka today.

The Portuguese armada of 19 ships arrived in Melaka on July 1, 1511. The Melaka warriors fought tooth and nail and only relented after the city was sieged for six weeks. Melaka was, to the Portuguese, a means to an end as it was the key to total domination of the spice trade in the Far East.

Excitedly, my friend continues: “This is the point when things become of interest to us. There are researchers who say that Magellan indentured Enrique after receiving a promotion and rich plunder after the fall of Melaka while others claim that the slave, most likely a Malay, was bought during Magellan's first trip to Melaka in 1509 and given the name as he was purchased on St. Henry's Day." Adding, he says: "Despite that ambiguity, there’s more than sufficient proof that Enrique followed Magellan back to Portugal in 1513.”

Melaka was so important that Pires once said that whoever controlled the Far East emporium would have his hands on the throat of Venice.

A scheduled meeting awaiting him, my friend begins to gather his things. But before taking his leave, he makes a beeline for a row of nearby shelves. He returns within minutes with several books and says: "The rest of the story will be revealed in these volumes. Pay special attention to the two novels in the pile. Although they’re works of fiction, they also give a local perspective to Enrique's intriguing tale." The books prove to be very informative and it doesn’t take long before I reach the timeline where my friend left off.


An important reference book on Portuguese activities in Melaka published by Arkib Negara.

A year after his return home, Magellan enlisted in the Portuguese expedition to Morocco where a wound in the leg during the Battle of Azemour left him with a permanent limp. Returning to Lisbon in late 1514, Magellan asked King Manuel I for a token pension increase that would signify a rise in rank but the request was flatly rejected after the monarch heard rumours about his illegal trade in Morocco. The accusation was later proven false but the damage had already been done.

At home, Magellan began harbouring hope of returning to the Far East. The burning desire was fuelled by information-filled letters about spice-producing territories sent by Serrao who’d settled in the Moluccas (now Maluku Islands) as military advisor to the Sultan of Ternate.

Early in 1516, Magellan renewed his petition to King Manuel I but was again refused. Clearly out of favour, Magellan was told to offer his services to Spain if he were so desperate. In the Spanish town of Seville, the enraged Magellan renounced his nationality and married the daughter of his countryman Diogo Barbosa who gave him two children, Rodrigo and Carlos.

He then entered into a partnership with cosmographer Rui Faleiro and devoted his time to studying the most recent charts. The duo successfully devised a commercially viable westward route for Spain to reach the Moluccas without having to sail around the dreaded African tip.

In 1518, King Charles I gave his royal assent and provided funding for five ships to sail the new route. The Trinidad, Magellan's flagship, together with the San Antonio, Conception, Victoria and Santiago left San Lucar on Sept 20, 1519 with supplies enough for two years and 270 men, mostly Spanish with 40 Portuguese.

Sailing west across the Atlantic toward South America, the fleet made landfall at Rio de Janeiro in December 1519. Magellan then traced the coast, searching for a way through or around the continent. After three months, weather conditions forced the fleet to seek shelter at Port Saint

Julian. It was there that things started to go awry.


Map showing the possible route taken by Enrique as he became the first man to circumnavigate the world.

The Spanish captains of the other ships, Juan de Cartagena, Gaspar de Quesada and Luiz Mendoza launched a mutiny which Magellan managed to quell, despite at one point losing control of three of his five ships. Mendoza was killed during the conflict while Quesada and Cartagena were beheaded and marooned, respectively. Lower-level conspirators were punished with hard labour and later freed.

During winter that year, the Santiago was wrecked in a storm while surveying the nearby waters of Santa Cruz. While exploring a strait which would later bear his name, Magellan finally found passage to the Pacific. Along the way, the San Antonio deserted and sailed east back to Spain.

By the end of November 1520, the three remaining vessels arrived at what was then the unexplored Pacific Ocean. After passing the Cape of 11,000 Virgins (Cape Virgenes now), the ships traced the Chilean coast before adopting a north-westerly direction.

Based on the incomplete understanding of world geography at the time, Magellan expected a journey of no more than four days to Asia when, in actual fact, his Pacific crossing took three months and 20 days. The long journey exhausted the food and water supplies and almost 30 men died, mostly of scurvy.

The fleet made landfall at Guam on March 6, 1521. After getting fresh supplies, Magellan sailed for the Philippines to secure a Spanish base first before going on to the Moluccas.


Local forces led by Lapu-Lapu murdered Magellan in Mactan.

Sources in the books in front of me make no mention of Enrique throughout the expedition until the fleet reached the Philippine island of Homonhon. There, records of Enrique's ability to converse with the local chieftain made early historians regard him as a Filipino. The speculation, however, was put to rest when it became known that the chieftains there knew many languages, including Malay.

After serving as interpreter again at Cebu, Enrique followed Magellan and his men to the island of Mactan. Arriving on April 21, 1521, the expedition was received with hostility. Magellan and members of his crew attempted to subdue the Mactan natives, led by Lapu-Lapu, by force but were overwhelmed.

Magellan was struck by a bamboo spear and later finished off with other weapons. Enrique was wounded but was among those who made their way back to Cebu. He was so overcome with grief at Magellan's death that he refused to return ashore to continue his work as interpreter.

Duarte Barbosa, one of Magellan's trusted men, gave Enrique the ultimatum that unless he resumed work, Magellan's provision in his will for him to be a free man after his death wouldn’t be honoured.

Fearing for his freedom, Enrique went ashore and secretly worked with the Cebu leader to gain control of the Portuguese ships. Their plan to invite 24 officers to a feast and have them killed worked like a charm. Sensing that something was amiss, the crew of the three ships fired upon Cebu as they fled to the Moluccas.


Panglima Awang was written in 1957.

Months after the massacre, Enrique left the Philippines and made his way back to the Malay Peninsula, thus becoming the first person in recorded history to circumnavigate the world. The last two remaining books by famed Malay writer, Harun Aminurrashid give readers an idea of the possible route taken by Enrique to return home as well as his life in the later years.

The first novel, Panglima Awang, is an interesting read as it’s a close re-telling of Enrique's travels around the world. First published in 1957 in celebration of Merdeka, the story ends with his successful return home to Batu Pahat, Johor.

Meanwhile, Anak Panglima Awang traces the exploits of Bujang, Panglima Awang's son as he attempted to drive the Portuguese from Melaka. The highlight of this absorbing story is an epic battle which took place in 1576.

Anak Panglima Awang tells of Bujang's attempts to oust the Portuguese from Melaka with the help of Acehnese forces.

Although Bujang lost his life towards the end of the story, I’m heartened by Harun Aminurrashid's general portrayal of Malay warriors as principled men who weren’t afraid to fight for their beliefs and the freedom of the land they called home.

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