List of Posts

  • Journals of Pigafetta: Gutenberg Project
  • Who Closed the Circle First?
  • The Royal World of Magellan
  • A Pound of Cloves
  • The End of the Beginning

Who Closed the Circle First?

August 26th, 2015 by

While many people correctly associate the first recorded circumnavigation of the Earth with Ferdinand Magellan, most do not know that Magellan only made it part of the way. On April 27th, 1521, Magellan died at the Battle of Mactan in the archipelago he named San Lazaro, known today as The Philippines.

Juan Sebastian del Cano captained the Victoria, the only surviving ship of the original five, home to Spain, arriving just two weeks short of when and where the Magellan Armada de Moluccas left from three years earlier. Cano was a competent mariner. As the ranking leader among the 18 Europeans onboard the returning Victoria, he initially received all the Spanish royal recognition for the first circumnavigation.

Subsequently in 1526 Cano rose to the rank of Captain General on what started out as a seven ship fleet trying to sail west to the Spice Islands via the Magellan expedition route. On August 6th, 1526, he died of scurvy in the mid-Pacific Ocean less than one week after replacing Jufre de Loaisa, the initial Captain General of the fleet, who also died of scurvy. Cano was buried at sea. The smudge on his record is his participation in the mutiny against Magellan over Easter weekend at Port St. Julian in 1520. His death sentence for participation in the mutiny was not carried out. The need for competent mariners spared him to a hard labor sentence that progressed to return to duty on deck and eventually to be the only surviving captain of the expedition. Sebastian del Cano’s name is associated with the Earth’s first circumnavigation mostly only by historians.

There is the possibility Magellan’s slave Enrique was the first person to circumnavigate the earth. Magellan had participated in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511. While there, Magellan purchased Enrique, then estimated to be 14 years old, as a slave. While still a servant to Magellan when the Armada de Moluccas departed Spain in 1519, Enrique da Malacca was listed with the fleet as a supernumerary (interpreter) and was being paid 1,500 maravedis per month. Antonio Pigafetta, the de facto expedition chronicler, was only paid 1,000 maravedis per month. One can say Enrique was no longer a slave at this point but instead an indentured well-paid servant.

Pigafetta reported Enrique was from Sumatra. Linguists suggest a Sumatran would not have understood the language of the central Philippines (Visayan) as Enrique did when the expedition first reached the Philippines in early 1521. Enrique’s language skills facilitated Magellan’s alliance with the leaders there at the time and played a key role in the mass baptisms that were to follow.

Enrique was possibly raised in the central Philippines and sold into slavery in Sumatra, eventually being taken to Malacca where he was purchased by Magellan. Another possibility is for Enrique to have been born of Filipino parents in Sumatra or Malacca where he lived in a ‘Filipino Town’ community similar to ‘China Town’ communities around the world, from whence he came to the service of Magellan.
Enrique disappears from the historical record after the Massacre of Cebu, 4 days after the Battle of Mactan.

The historical record documents both Enrique and Magellan being in Malacca before returning to Portugal, travelling to Spain, and then sailing west as far as Cebu. Cebu is 1,528 miles from Malacca. Dividing this distance by the circumference of the Earth (24,901) shows they both came at least 94% of the way to a complete circumnavigation.

If Enrique was not indeed the first human to encompass the planet, he deserves an A for the effort.