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Magellan, Elcano, or Panglima Awang?

Posted by pungkasali on February 3, 2010

We still can shape the past history: A case of world circumnavigation.

by: me (pungkas b. ali)

As vastly known, Ferdinand Magellan is the one. His voyage was not intended to sail around the world, but certainly it serves as the first voyage successfully headed west and appeared in the east. It was a circumnavigation and solid evidence that indeed the world is not flat.

Personally, though, he did not circumnavigate the world. His journey ended in Philippines after a deadly battle with Mactan tribe. He was not able to see Moluccas, the Spice Islands, but his voyage was. It, then, continued sailing west to Cape Hope and headed back, under command of Sebastian Elcano, to Spain, the very country the voyage began years earlier. So it is the first voyage to circumnavigate the world as we known today.

If you ask Spaniard, however, it is not Magellan (he was a Portuguese, sailing under the crown of Spain) who did the first circumnavigation. Sebastian Elcano did (he is from Basque, Spain). Indeed, it is the fact that under his command that the voyage succeeded to go back to Seville, the place where the voyage began. Thus, Magellan journey only spans from Spain to Philippines.

This is the funny part. You might get a different answer when the same question was asked to people of Malaysia. It is not Portuguese, nor Spaniard, who proved that the world is a giant ball. It is a Malay. What kind of joke it is? No, it is not a joke at all. The credit goes to Enrique of Malacca (His true name is unknown — a Malay novelist Harun Ammirudin refer him as Panglima Awang).

He was a slave and servant of Magellan since Magellan served military duty in Malacca. Enrique than became Magellan’s interpreter for his ability to speak Malay (a lingua franca in southeast sea trade). He sailed with Magellan from Seville to Philippines. His record ends here. It is uncertain whether he continued to sail westward with the rest of Magellan’s crew. Some speculate he remained in the Philippines, after the deadly dinner fiasco with a local king. He might go back to Malacca, or probably Sumatra. In every case he, actually has circumnavigate the world. Huh?

Yes, here is the logic. Enrique was from Malacca. He then sailed to Spain with Magellan, lived there several years with his master. Then he embarked on Victoria (Magellan ship), sailed westward through South America, across Pacific Ocean, then landed in Philippines. If he went back to Malacca then he actually completed the journey around the world. His accomplished this, months before Sebastian Elcano, who had to sail back to Spain from Philippines to gain the same claim. It is not Magellan either, since he did not complete the voyage. Thus, it is logic to claim that it is Enrique, a malay, the FIRST person to circumnavigate the earth.

The story does not end here. Then the Philippines claim that Enrique is a Filipino. The evidence? He was able to speak and communicate with local settler. Obviously he came from Philippines, the argument goes – a rather shaky argument. But it works there, politically.

We now, probably have to wait a claim from Indonesian. The official record of the Magellan voyage states that Enrique was from Sumatra. But it is unclear whether Magellan possessed him as a slave during his raid in Malacca or Sumatra. But everybody agreed that Enrique has Sumatran origin. Hence, now Indonesia also could claim that the first person to circumnavigate the world is an Indonesian.

The debate (if there is) can go on and on. I just want to note here that a piece of history fact can be stirred its readers. Why, in the first place, Magellan is attributed as the first to circumnavigate the world? He did not finish his voyage. He never visited Philippines, or other place with the same longitude before. The history has been written, and the readers accepted this claim. Why then Malaysians, Filipinos and probably Indonesia, claim theirs? Because they read the history with a simple fact twisted. Narrow nationalism is a perfect reason for it.

There are many facts where history is shaped by its reader. A famous one would be Columbus who widely accepted as the discoverer of America. (There were Vikings actually who landed and settled in North America, far earlier than Columbus). Another one? James Cook is known to be the discoverer of Australia (Dutchmen were charted West Australia far earlier than him).

I think we can interpret our past history in many different ways. It is up to our desire, in which direction we want the history to tell. A simple twisted fact could serve our purposes. A simple sense of nationalism will do perfectly, as well.

The truth probably is not that important anymore. It is the feather which defines a bird, not its flesh. It is up to us where the wind should blow and it is our ego which determines the meaning of history.

Pungkas Ali – 03.02.10 – 5.01 am – unedited


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