The story of humankind is replete with plot twists and unexpected events. Take, for example, the matter of who first circumnavigated the world. The usual answer is Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who, on Sept. 20, 1519, led a five-ship, 270-strong expedition from Spain to search for a westward route toward the Spice Islands, now the Moluccas in Indonesia.
But what about Spanish navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano who took command of what was left of Magellan’s fleet? Elcano skippered the Victoria along with 18 original crew members (plus four Asians picked en route) back to Spain on Sept. 6, 1522, after Magellan was killed on Mactan Island 17 months earlier.
Magellan is generally credited with the first circumnavigation of the globe, not because he outlined the navigation of that journey of nearly three years but because years earlier, he already reached the Spice Islands using the only route known to the Europeans—a trip that goes eastward and around Africa to India and finally to Southeast Asia.
His last voyage went the other way—a westward passage that goes toward the tip of South America, across the vast Pacific Ocean, and thence to the Visayan islands of the Philippines.
Magellan’s circumnavigation was not exactly a point A to point A journey since he completed the route in two different directions and over the course of several years and numerous voyages. But because there is no rule on this matter, he wins on technicality.
Enrique de Malacca
Not so fast, says Filipino indie movie pioneer Kidlat Tahimik.
In his film, “Balikbayan #1,” Tahimik poses a fascinating thought experiment: What if Magellan’s most trusted servant, Enrique de Malacca, actually accomplished this historic pioneering feat?
“Magellan completed only 99% of his voyage because he died in Mactan and did not finish the last 800 kilometers that would have brought him to the Moluccas,” Tahimik said at the film’s special screening at the National Museum of Anthropology in Manila on March 16, the day in 1521 when Magellan “discovered” the country and claimed it for the Spanish crown.
And who was Enrique? In the film, Tahimik imagines him as an Ifugao boy who paraglided—using his Ifugao handwoven blanket—from the Cordillera mountains to the province of Cebu. From Cebu, per Tahimik’s story, the boy finds his way to Malacca (Malaysia) where he becomes a servant of a Malay furniture trader. He is sold to Magellan when the latter comes looking for a wooden chest at the store.
Tahimik himself plays the role of Enrique in this film that he started crafting in 1979, using 16mm, 8mm and hi-8 cameras, plus VHS, mini-DVs, and even a tiny Japanese-made video camera and iPad. The result reminds the viewer of the silent movies of the 1920s, with title cards and film grain texture.
According to Tahimik, his research for the film led him to believe that Enrique, bought by Magellan in Malacca at about 14 or 16 years of age, was treated with respect. The boy accompanied Magellan wherever he was posted—in Goa, India, then to Mozambique in southeastern Africa, and to Morocco in north Africa—and took part in the Portuguese battles against the Moors.
The two eventually ended up in Europe. In 1518, Magellan succeeded in convincing the Spanish monarchy to fund his expedition (after being rejected by the Portuguese authorities from whom he had originally sought support).
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“When Magellan departed Spain in 1519, Enrique was listed with the fleet as interpreter and was in fact being paid on a per-month basis. This may mean he was no longer a slave but a guest worker, much like our overseas Filipino workers today,” kidlat Tahimik said, adding that he had also checked the writings of Italian chronicler Antonio Pigafetta who was with Magellan in the 1519 voyage.
Although Enrique was from Malacca, the truth about his origin is still debated by historians. Said kidlat Tahimik: “There’s a huge possibility that he is most likely a Filipino–this is of course meaningless because at that time, the category ‘Filipino’ had not been coined yet. But here’s one interesting chronicle: When Magellan’s expedition reached the Philippines, the crew was surprised to learn that Enrique could understand and speak the indigenous people’s language (Visayan).”
kidlat Tahimik said Enrique’s understanding of the local language facilitated Magellan’s alliance with the leaders of the island where his ship dropped anchor, and played a key role in the mass baptism of the natives.
Enrique disappeared from European records days after the killing of Magellan on April 27, 1521. “Enrique survived the massacre in Mactan but never went with the crew, so he must have come back to Malacca, or even settled in Cebu, as he was by that time a free man,” said kidlat Tahimik.
Magellan declared in his will and testament that upon his death, Enrique was “to be free of every obligation of captivity and subjection, and slavery… that from the day of my death thence forward… shall be evermore free, exempt and relieved of every obligation of slavery and subjection, that he may act as he wants and thinks fit.”
He also allocated 10,000 maravedis (a medieval Spanish monetary unit) from his estate for Enrique, proving a relationship that went beyond master and slave, according to kidlat Tahimik.
“Balikbayan #1” is a fun and thought-provoking film that showed the possibility of a slave succeeding in doing what his master, the colonizer Magellan, failed to achieve.
With Enrique de Malacca as the first person to do the 360-degree circumnavigation of the earth in one direction, kidlat Tahimik posits that the singular achievement reverses the colonialist and Eurocentric narratives.