How a slave successfully circumnavigated the globe before Magellan and his crew

23rd March 2017

Star Clippers ships offer the chance to embark on a journey to tranquil islands, while also providing a nod to a bygone era of traditional sailing. Sailing to destinations with Cuba, around the Caribbean, and throughout Far East Asia, Star Clippers cruises are a traditional alternative to the modern ships of the 21st century.

During each itinerary, you will be left feeling like an explorer as you embark on a journey to a range of seemingly undiscovered islands. This feeling will be synonymous with the age of discovery – a time before large and cheap passenger planes, where sailors would embark on journeys lasting many months and – in some cases – several years.

Go back in time nearly 500 years and much of the world was undiscovered and unknown. Many believed the world was flat and the only known method of travel was across the seas on board tiny and, sometimes, paltry vessels. The Age of Discovery and the Age of Exploration had been sparked in the late 15th century by a buoyant Christopher Columbus – whose landing in the Americas led to the colonisation of the continent.

Inspired by the discoveries of Columbus, the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, had a desire to embark on a circumnavigation of the globe. With the funding of King Charles I of Spain and ultimately tasked with finding a westward route to the Malaku Islands of Indonesia (otherwise known as the Spice Islands), Magellan embarked on his journey with a fleet of five vessels on the 20th September 1519.

Ferdinand Magellan

Many believe that he is the first explorer to successfully complete a circumnavigation; however, this is, in fact, a myth. Although he spent much time meticulously planning the journey, Magellan got involved in local conflict during his time in the Philippines and was killed by a poisoned arrow on 27th April 1521.

The role of commander was handed down to Juan Sebastian Elcano, who is officially honoured with being the first explorer to complete a circumnavigation, having successfully returned to Seville, Spain, on the 6th September 1522 on board Victoria. To provide a sense of perspective, this was the only ship of the original five to return to Spain and only 18 crew members of the original 241 completed the treacherous journey.

The circumnavigation had been fraught with adversity throughout. A series of mutinies took place during the journey across the Atlantic, resulting in the deaths of several crew members across three of the ships. Many crew members were subsequently executed, while others were forgiven.

Santiago was sent on a scouting mission for new crew members along the coast of South America but was unfortunately wrecked in a freak storm. The crew survived and two members made the journey across South America to inform Magellan and bring rescue. A few weeks later, the four remaining vessels attempted to traverse what is now known as the Strait of Magellan. Gomez, captain of San Antonio, deserted the journey on 20th November and returned to Spain in May 1521.

Crew members on board the three remaining vessels sailed the Pacific Ocean for three months, with many enduring near-starvation conditions before eventually reaching Guam. Following the conflict in the Philippines, many more men were lost and a decision was made to burn Concepcion.

The two remaining vessels, Trinidad and Victoria were successfully in reaching the Indonesian islands and were subsequently stocked with exotic spices. Unfortunately, the former began taking on water and repair efforts by the crew were unsuccessful. It was decided that the smaller Victoria would continue sailing west with some of the crew, while Trinidad was repaired.

Victoria Magellan Circumnavigation

Magellan’s will made reference to an unlikely figure – Enrique of Malacca. A slave working directly alongside the Portuguese explorer since 1511, Enrique is thought to have been impressed the King of Spain with his multi-lingual abilities and helped secure funding for the journey. He is repeatedly referred to in the journals of Antonio Pigafetta – a scholar and one of only two crew members to keep an account of the journey. Pigafetta also claims that Enrique was highly regarded among the crew and was highly important to the expedition.

Although, as previously stated, Juan Sebastian Elcano is regarded as the surviving commander of the expedition, many historians claim that this is up for debate. Following the death of Magellan, Enrique was ill-treated by Juan Serrano, captain of Santiago, and refused to follow through with the requests of Magellan’s will. In the will, it was stated that 10,000 Spanish coins be left in Enrique’s name and that he be freed from his slave duties. Serrano refused, worried that the slave would simply return to his home if granted freedom.

In anger, Enrique took the decision to betray his crew and disappeared from the expedition on a quest for revenge. While docked at the island of Cebu, Pigafetta speculates that he informed Rajah Humabon, Chief of Subuth, that Europeans were coming to enslave him and his people as they had done to Enrique. Humabon subsequently invited several remaining officers to dinner, with Pigafetta remaining on board to aid a wound. A few crew members returned to the ship, claiming that the locals were acting strangely before loud lamenting could be heard from further inland.

The crew fired mortars into the homes of many of the locals before Serrano emerged claiming that the remaining crew members, with the exception of Enrique, had been slaughtered. Serrano, wounded and afraid the locals would kill him, begged for them to cease fire and pleaded for his rescue. Instead, Johan Carvaio wanted to remain master of the Santiago and consequently left Serrano to the will of the natives. Carvaio made the decision to attempt to return to Spain via the Pacific, although this ultimately failed and the ship became wrecked after being captured by the Portuguese.

As for Enrique, there is no account of him begging to be taken aboard the ship. This is where he disappears from history. Although still very far from Spain, it is worth noting that Enrique had actually previously accompanied Magellan on a westward voyage from the Pacific Islands, following his capture in 1511. Upon arrival in Spain, he was then able to join the circumnavigation on a quest to find a route through the Americas towards the Spice Islands.

Spice Islands

With this in mind, Enrique was just 1,000 miles and 20 longitudinal degrees short of completing a circumnavigation from his position in Cebu. Although it isn’t known for certain whether he completed this journey or not, many historians believe he will have been aware of this fact and, therefore, returned to his home in either Malacca or one of the nearby islands. He was left on Cebu on 1st May 1521, with Victoria not returning to Spain for another 15 months.

58 years after Juan Sebastian Elcano’s return to Spain, Sir Francis Drake became the first captain to circumnavigate an entire journey, returning to England in 1580 on board the Golden Hind. During his journey, while sailing along the coast of South America, he discovered the bones of those executed following the mutinies of Magellan’s circumnavigation.

Although Ferdinand Magellan never completed the circumnavigation, his meticulous planning has rightfully given him the claim to having organised the first journey around the world – both with Enrique and Victoria. Magellan is also credited with having named the Pacific Ocean as we know it today, calling it the “Mar Pacifico” (Peaceful Sea).