Saturday, October 21, 2017

Enrique de Malacca

As children, we learned in school that Christopher Columbus proved the world was round and that Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world.  It probably won’t surprise you when I say that both statements are incorrect.

Columbus is back in the news:  The old sailor would be astonished to read some of the stories about him in today's newspapers.  The debate seems to boil down to just two camps:  Either the old sailor was a monster who was responsible for the murder and enslavement of millions of natives or he was a great navigator and explorer.  The truth, of course, is that he was neither.

Columbus did commit grievous crimes against the Amerindians, who had also committed their share of murders and thefts against the Spanish explorers.  Viewed through the lens of his own time, Columbus was better than average when compared with the rest of the Spanish conquistadors, but that is admittedly a low bar.

But what about the horrible diseases he is accused of bringing to the New World?

It is true that the natives of the New World had no immunities to the diseases of the Old World and it has been estimated that 90% of the estimated 100 million Amerindians living in North and South America died of diseases introduced unwittingly by the Spanish.  A lot of the protests against Columbus center around this, but people tend to forget that pretty much the same thing had already happened in Europe.

The plague, for example, is very much a disease of trade.  The disease could not travel across Asia, as the infected, flea-ridden rats died long before they could reach a settlement where local rats could be infected.  However, as soon as the faster-moving trade ships reached Europe from the far East,  the Black Rats ran down the hawser ropes, and the Black Death burned its way across Europe, killing approximately 75-100 million people during the 14th century alone.  

Farther away from the sea, the plague did not reach the cities until the camel caravans grew large enough that the strategically-located caravansaries provided periodic breeding locations for colonies of rats and fleas, enabling the disease to spread to the interior.

Wherever commerce goes, disease always follows.  Columbus may have initiated trade to the new world, but he was no more responsible for the inevitable result than Marco Polo was for the plagues devastating Europe.

If you want to find fault with Columbus, let's talk about his appalling math skills.  Despite the commonly believed myths (most of which were spread by an outrageously inaccurate biography written by Washington Irving—the same liar who had George Washington chopping down cherry trees and flinging dollars across rivers.), no educated person believed that the world was flat in the 15th century.  As early as the second century BC, Eratosthenes had even accurately calculated the girth of the planet within one degree.  Columbus—and everyone else—knew that you could reach China by sailing west from Europe.  The difference was that while nearly everyone knew it was too far to reach with the primitive sailing ships of the time, Columbus had convinced himself his destination was only three thousand miles away—within the range of Spanish caravels.

Part of Columbus’ problem was that he did not know that Arabic miles are half again as long as Roman miles.  By mixing together the two distances, the explorer managed to move—at least in his own mind—the location of Japan about 8000 miles eastward.  If he had not been lucky enough to stumble across a couple of continents located exactly where he believed he would find China, without a doubt his exhausted crew would have starved to death long before they sighted land.

Nor was is  the only error committed by Columbus.  According to his calculations, the approximate location of Cuba is roughly where Boston is situated. In January 1493, he carefully recorded in his log the sighting of mermaids, which he described as "not half as beautiful as they are painted".  He had actually sighted manatees, but I'll forgive him that mistake since by that time he had been at sea for over six months.  

None of the above is likely to settle the current arguments about Columbus, but I have a possible solution--let's start celebrating a different explorer, one whose accomplishments are above reproach, but who is fashionably politically correct. I give you, Enrique de Malacca, sometimes called Henry the Black.

In 1511, Portugal was desperately trying to seize control of the Spice Islands, the source of fabulous wealth for maritime traders.  Most people have forgotten that when Columbus sailed west from Spain, that he was in search of a faster and safer route to the Spice Islands. At the end of the 15th century, if a sailor could return to Europe with a couple of bushels of nutmeg, mace, and cloves, he could comfortably retire from a life at sea.  While Columbus and Spain explored westward, Portugal sought to control the eastward passage to the Spice Islands--actually the Malaysian Archipelago--by seizing control of Malacca, situated to control access to the Malaccan Straits.

One of those who participated in this raid was Ferdinand Magellan, who during the battle, captured a young man, whose name originally probably had been Panglima Awang.   Finding him unusually intelligent and possessing a gift with languages, Magellan made the young man his personal slave, christened him Enrique, and took him back to Europe.  Long before he arrived, Enrique had learned to speak Portuguese.

The young slave's knowledge of the Spice Islands and his ability to act as a translator made him an invaluable aide to Magellan during planning the expedition to circumnavigate the world.  There is evidence that Magellan took Enrique to meet King Manuel I when he unsuccessfully sought royal patronage for the expedition to find a route to the Spice Islands by sailing west.

When the Portuguese king refused to fund such an expedition--just as he had refused to fund Columbus' trip--Magellan turned to the Spanish court, where King Charles I agreed to finance the expedition.  

In 1519, five ships left Spain,crossed the Atlantic, and sailed down the coast of South America.  After a trying voyage of eighteen months, Magellan finally reached the Philippines, where he was promptly killed by unappreciative natives, so he obviously did not sail all the way around the world.  But...remember Enrique?

Enrique, a slave, had come from the Philippines and had been taken by force to Europe, where he eventually joined the Magellan expedition, which then took him west, back to the Philippines—making him the first person in human history to circumnavigate the globe.  

And absolutely nothing is named for him.

Sadly, our hitherto unknown explorer fairly quickly vanished from the written record.  Magellan had promised Enrique manumission in case of his own death, and the surviving copy of his will confirms this.  However, when Magellan died, the other sea captains refused to honor Magellan’s wishes because Enrique was just too valuable as a translator.

Enrique, furious at not being freed, waited four days before deserting the ships, and disappearing among the multitude of Philippines islands.  No further records of one of history’s great explorers exist.

So, I offer this suggestion:  Let us stop celebrating Columbus or Magellan, and, instead, honor the humble, forgotten slave, who was, in fact, the first man to travel around the world.


  1. Or we could just rename the hold thing "Take the Day Off Work and Goof Off All Day Day", Or in my case, "Spend the day lifting sofas and chairs, washing walls, ceilings, and light fixtures and moving the refrigerator, washer and dryer so your clean freak wife can do her regular Monday cleaning properly........Day". Either works. I'm just tired of people maundering on about how badly we horrid Europeans treated the Native Americans were and gushing about what wonderful cultures the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas had. Makes me wish I could send a few of them back in time to the annual spring sacrifices in good old Tenochtitlan, were a nice fat European would surely have caught the eye of those lecherous old serial killers that ran the pyramid concession. Today, someone who would strip you naked, stab you with a knife, peel off your skin (sometimes in that order if you were lucky, then enviscerate you, dismember you and fling your various parts down to the bottom of the stairs where naked Aztecs gathered for a barbecue/orgy in which your remains were the main course.

    Lovely people. If I were God I'd have been sick of human beings a long time ago. Both sides - all races.

  2. Enrique de Mallaca went home in Carcar, Cebu after the death of Magellan.