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A Great Filipino: Enrique of Limasawa

by Compadre Damaso
Quincentenary Anniversary on March 27, 2021

Henry of Malacca (Spanish: Enrique de Malaca; Portuguese: Henrique de Malaca) was a Southeast Asian member of the Magellan expedition that completed the first circumnavigation of the world from 1519 to 1522. He was acquired as a slave by the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan, in 1511 at the estimated age of 14 years, probably in the early stages of the Siege of Malacca (now a part of modern Malaysia). Magellan gave him the name “Henrique” or “Henry”, perhaps because he was that year captured, purchased, or baptized on July 13, the feast day of Saint Henry, patron saint of Finland. Henry, the boy slave, might have been born of Muslim or Buddhist parents, but his non-Christian name will forever be lost in history.

Although Magellan’s will describes Henrique as a “native of the city of Malacca”, Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian de facto chronicler of the Magellan expedition, states that he was a native of Sumatra (now a part of modern Indonesia). Magellan’s will also describes Henrique, albeit erroneously, as a “mulatto”, which is most probably why he was also called Henry the Black. He spoke Malay, the lingua franca for trade and inter-ethnic communications of the Malay archipelago, which includes Malacca and Sumatra. Gines de Mafra, one of the sailors, explicitly states in his first-hand account that Magellan took the Malayan native because he needed his linguistic skills, arguably for the navigator’s ambitious explorations in Asia.

Magellan returned to Portugal in 1512 or 1513. Later serving in Morocco, he was wounded, resulting in a permanent limp. He was falsely accused of trading illegally with the Moors. Though he was exonerated, he remained unemployed until 1516. In 1517, after a quarrel with Portugal’s King Manuel I, who repeatedly denied his requests to lead an expedition to the Spice Islands (Moluccas, now a part of modern Indonesia), Magellan relinquished his Portuguese citizenship and left for Spain. There, he was able to convince the 18-year-old King Carlos I, who was looking for a new trade route to Asia, to fund his expedition to the Moluccas. Magellan’s proposal of reaching the east by sailing westwards (away from Africa) was unheard of. Note that it had not been proven then that the earth is round! But the Spanish monarch gave him a break. The young King Carlos I later became Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.

Following the Siege of Malacca in 1511, Magellan took his slave to Europe. After a couple of years, he took him to Morocco. In Africa, it is unknown if the slave fought the war alongside his master, which he would physically render nearly a decade later at the Battle of Mactan near Cebu in the “Philippines”. Back in Europe, it is most likely that Magellan took Henrique of Malacca when the future explorer petitioned King Manuel of Portugal regarding his expedition. He must have taken him before the Spanish King Carlos to show that his slave was a native of the Spice Islands and could greatly help him. During all those years in Europe, Henrique gained fluency in Portuguese and Spanish, in addition to his knowledge of Malay. Most importantly, he gained the trust of Magellan, to be treated no longer as a slave but as a confidant and, perhaps, friend.

When the 5-ship, 265-man strong Armada de Moluccas departed Spain in September 1519, Enrique of Malacca was listed with the fleet as a supernumerary or interpreter, with a salary of 1,500 maravedis per month. Note that slaves were not supposed to get paid! Pigafetta, the chronicler of the expedition, had a lesser salary of 1,000 maravedis per month. The Armada sailed west to South America, hugging its coastline from Brazil all the way down and around, until it reached the other side of the continent.

On March 16, 1521, after crossing the Pacific Ocean for three months and 26 days at sea, Magellan and his men finally sighted Samar and a group of small islands. The present-day Philippine archipelago did not exist on European maps. Therefore, the sailors had no idea where they were, except that they sensed that they were getting close to the Spice Islands. The following day, spotting a safe harbor on the island of Homonhon, they dropped anchor and Magellan led his men ashore. They erected two tents and prepared a great feast for themselves.

On March 18, they saw approaching a boat bearing nine men. That was to be the Europeans’ first encounter with “Filipinos” in their homeland. Just in case they were not peaceful, Magellan
made sure that the Spanish arms were ready. But Pigafetta wrote: “When those people had come to us in that island, forthwith the most ornately dressed of them went toward the Captain- General, showing that he was very happy at our coming.” He continued in his journal that they gave him fish and a jar of palm wine, which they call in their language “vraca”; figs more than a foot long; and two fruit named “cocho”, which is as large as the head, and its first husk is green and two fingers thick.

The palm wine, which sounds like “barako” (tough), was “lambanog”. Pigafetta marveled at how it is fermented using bamboo, which tropical plant he had never seen before: “They take canes as thick as a man’s leg, by which they draw off this liquor…” The foot-long figs that he described were bananas. Obviously, “cocho” (coco) was coconut.

Enrique of Malacca must have attempted to converse with the islanders in Malay or another Asian language that he spoke. Unfortunately, they did not understand his words. Observed Pigafetta: “And they made signs with their hands that in four days they would bring us rice, coconuts, and sundry other food.”

The natives visited Magellan and his men for a few days, each day bringing or teaching the Europeans something new, like making coconut milk. Pigafetta was deeply moved: “These people entered into very great familiarity and friendship with us… We took great pleasure with them…”

That comment about the hospitality of the early Filipinos was made in 1521. This year 2021, exactly five centuries later since the chronicle was written, that amazing hospitality of present- day Filipinos has not changed and remains to be practiced all over the entire archipelago, even today…

After a week in Homonhon, Magellan and his men weighed anchor on March 25 to continue their course deeper into the archipelago in search of the Moluccas. The following night, the crew spied an island with campfires. In the morning, Magellan decided to risk approaching the island. In a now familiar ritual, they were greeted by another small boat, this one bearing eight warriors.

On pages 242-243 of his book, Over the Edge of the World (Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe), Laurence Bergreen continues the story, concluding with a phenomenal historical claim, as other historians have:

“Magellan’s slave, Enrique, addressed them in a Malay dialect, and to Magellan’s astonishment, the men appeared to understand him and replied in the same tongue. No one, not even Magellan, knew how Enrique managed to converse with the islanders, but the slave’s background provides some valuable clues. Magellan had acquired Enrique ten years earlier in Malacca, where he was baptized, and he had followed his master ever since across Africa and Europe. If Enrique had originally come from these islands, been captured as a boy by slave raiders from Sumatra, and sold to Magellan at a slave mart in Malacca, the chain of circumstances would account for his understanding the local language. But beyond that, it meant that Magellan’s servant was, in fact, the first person to circle the world and return home.”

That occurred on March 27, 1521 on the shores of Limasawa, now an island municipality of the eastern Visayan province of Leyte in present-day Philippines. Maximilianus Transylvanus, in what is described as the first European printed account that mentioned the ancestors of the Filipino people, wrote in Latin: “Magellan had been the owner of a slave, a native of the Moluccas [sic], whom he had formerly bought in Malacca; and by means of this slave, who was able to speak Spanish fluently, and of an interpreter of Subuth [Cebu], who could speak the Moluccan language [Malay], our men carried on their negotiations.”

Enrique of LimasawaIt is postulated that Enrique could have been born in Malacca of parents living in a “Filipino” district similar to Chinatown, where he was taught his mother tongue. It is a fact that in the early 1500’s, the city harbored many communities of merchants, which included Luzones (Luções, as recorded by the Portuguese) from Lusong (Luzon). If it were the case, however, Enrique would have instead learned Tagalog or Kapampangan, which would have not been understood in Limasawa at all.

Critics of Filipino historian, Carlos Quirino, who asserted that Enrique was himself a Visayan “Filipino” or a native of Cebu in the “Philippines”, claim that he was mistaken in his assumption that Enrique must have conversed with the natives in Cebuano, instead of Malay. Although the Malay language was the lingua franca for trade communications in the Malay archipelago, it was true only for larger trading posts, like Cebu and Butuan, but not for smaller ones or non-trading posts, like Limasawa, where the vernacular was used. Enrique must have first tried Malay, then code-switched to Cebuano or whichever tongue it was that he knew.

The fact remains that he had already learned to speak an ethnic “Filipino” language as a child before the age of 14, when he was taken by Magellan. That language was not understood in Homonhon but was understood in Limasawa. If not Cebuano, that local language that Enrique spoke to the islanders must have been another Visayan language, such as Waray or Hiligaynon.

During that time, due to the arduousness and perils of long-distance travel, neither a Malaccan nor a Sumatran, but only one who grew up in the area of Limasawa would have known the vernacular. By preponderance of linguistic evidence, therefore, Enrique of Limasawa – an early Filipino – had come home on March 27, 1521 and was the first person ever to circumnavigate the world…!

Sadly, people do not know about this historical record that he had accomplished. Even he himself did not know about it. This may be 500 years late, but the purpose of this article is to recognize and honor ENRIQUE OF LIMASAWA, A GREAT FILIPINO, on this quincentenary anniversary. Every year, on March 27, everyone, especially Filipinos in the Philippines and all over the globe, should celebrate the day as “World Circumnavigation Day” or “Enrique of Limasawa Day”.

About the WRITER: Compadre Damaso was born in the Philippines but resides abroad. He is a great-great-great-grandson of Padre Damaso. He was educated locally and then attended universities in the United States and Spain. He is passionate about ancient Philippine history and rural Filipino culture. His dream is to establish a Living Museum in the Philippines.

About the PAINTING: The portrait, “Enrique of Limasawa” (2021, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48”), inspired by the Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project, is in Spontanrealismus style painted by Celeste Lecaroz on the occasion of this Quincentennial Anniversary of the first person ever to circumnavigate the globe. Permission is granted to publish this photo of the painting as long as it appears with the article above in its entirety, “A Great Filipino: Enrique of Limasawa”.


Bergreen, Laurence. Over the Edge of the World (Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe), Harper Collins (2004)

Blair, Emma Helen, and James Alexander Robertson, eds. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, Volume 33, 1519-1522, Antonio Pigafetta

Flores, Penelope V. “Magellan’s Interpreter, Enrique, Was the First to Circumnavigate the World”, Positively Filipino, March 24, 2015

Foster, Jim. “Who Closed the Circle First?”, The Magellan Project, Ship’s Library, August 26, 2015

Mojarro, Jorge. “Enrique de Malacca redux”, Manila Times, March 23, 2021

Ocampo, Ambeth R. “Enrique, 1st Filipino to circumnavigate the world?”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 10, 2019

Paredes, Joel C. “A second look at the ‘discovery’ of the Philippines in 1521”, Business Mirror, March 21, 2021

Quirino, Carlos. “The First Man Around the World Was a Filipino”, Philippines Free Press, December 28, 1991

Sneddon, James N. The Indonesian Language: Its History and Role in Modern Society, UNSW Press (2003)