Panglima Awang

There are many local historians who claim that a Malay, known as Panglima Awang, was the first man to circumnavigate the world. 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. Magellan himself did not complete the journey for he was killed in a battle with the natives in Cebu. 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 world 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 Panglima Awang in Malay literature or Enrique of Melaka. There is brief mention of Enrique ( Panglima Awang ) 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 ( Panglima Awang )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 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 Magellan acquired a local Malay slave (Panglima Awang is one of the defenders of Melaka who was taken captive in the final Portuguese assault) whom he gave the name of Enrique ( Panglima Awang ). Enrique ( Panglima Awang ) was to become Magellan’s trusted interpreter and accompanied him back to Portugal.

In 1517, Magellan, a Portuguese nobleman, offered his services to Spain after he was accused of corruption while he was in Morocco, against the Moors in Portuguese crusade campaign , he bitterly left the service of the King of Portugal and offered his services to King Charles I of Spain. It is said that Magellan had Enrique ( Panglima Awang ) 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 ( Panglima Awang ) was a loyal and able servant, and that his relationship with Magellan 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. Enrique ( Panglima Awang ) was part of Magellan’s crew on his subsequent ambitious expedition to find a route to the spice islands of Maluku by sailing west from Spain.

After much suffering and hardship Magellan succeeded in navigating his fleet of ships west across the Atlantic, round the Cape of Horn, crossing the then unknown Pacific Ocean to land on the island of Mactan in Cebu in the Philippines. It was Enrique ( Panglima Awang ), who first discovered that some of the natives there could understand his language,’ Malay’ and realised that he must be within the vicinity of his homeland, the Malay archipelago. From that moment onwards, Enrique became the sole ears and voice of Magellan. As they continued their voyage to the surrounding island kingdoms, it was Enrique ( Panglima Awang ) 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.

During the expedition on the island of Mactan,  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. But the small Spaniard force suddenly found itself overwhelmed by over 1,500 of Lapu Lapu’s warriors. Magellan was killed in the battle and Enrique ( Panglima Awang ) himself was wounded, devastated by the death Magellan, Enrique ( Panglima Awang ) went into deep mourning, no longer went ashore to do necessary business. A new elected commander to replace Magellan, Duarte Barbosa was determined to show the Malay slave ( Panglima Awang ) that the new captain would not tolerate such behaviour. Duarte Barbosa refused to honour Magellan’s promise to release Enrique( Panglima Awang ) as a free man after his death. He was ordered to go ashore whenever he was needed or he would be driven away. Enraged at Barbosa for denying him his liberty, Enrique( Panglima Awang ) plotted a conspiracy to killed Duarte Barbosa. Enrique( Panglima Awang )went ashore and told Humabon that if he would follow his advice, he would gain all the  Spaniard ships merchandise. Enrique( Panglima Awang ) told the Spaniards that Raja 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( Panglima Awang ), but they were attacked by Raja Humabon  force . 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( Panglima Awang ) 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 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.


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