Saturday, May 08, 2004

The Mystery and Adventures of Panglima Awang

The Mystery and Adventures of Panglima Awang

There are many local historians who claim that a Malay, known as Panglima Awang, was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. How much truth is there to this claim, and how did this Panglima Awang story come about?

We all know from our history books that a Portuguese sailor named Ferdinand Magellan is credited for leading the first expedition that successfully circumnavigated the Earth. Magellan himself did not complete the journey for he was killed in a battle with the natives in Cebu, but one of his ships, the Victoria, finally made it back to Spain in 1522.

Malaysians would also have learned from their primary school history lessons that a Portuguese, Lopez de Sequeira was among the first white men--the so-called "Bengali Putih"--to land in Malacca in 1509. And in 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque led a Portuguese fleet to capture the prized port of Malacca, then the spice emporium of the East. Spice at that time was worth its weight in gold.

Not many however know that Ferdinand Magellan was also a member of both of these expeditions. And when Malacca fell to the Portuguese, it was here that Magellan acquired a local Malay slave whom he gave the name of Enrique. Enrique was to become Magellan's trusted interpreter and accompanied him back to Portugal.

Enrique 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. (Magellan, a Portuguese nobleman, offered his services to Spain after he was snubbed by his own fellow countrymen). Columbus had intended to do the same earlier but was distracted by the discovery of the American continent. And like Columbus, Magellan also underestimated the distance that needed to be travelled to reach the East by sailing west.

But 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, 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.

Unfortunately trouble broke out between Magellan and the local king, and in a subsequent battle Magellan was killed. Official records show that Enrique himself was also killed in one of the battles between the natives and Magellan's remaining crew. There were also indications that Enrique himself took revenge on his fellow sailors when they did not honour Magellan's promise to release him as a free man after his death.

Others believed that Enrique survived and made his way back to Malacca. If he had indeed done so, then he definitely is the first person to have sailed around the world. Unfortunately there are no records to confirm this. It is also interesting to note that the Filipinos also claimed Enrique to be a native of theirs for he could speak the language of the people in the islands Cebu. But in Pigafetta's (who was part of Magellan's crew) first-hand account of the voyage, Enrique is mentioned as a Malaccan slave who originated from Sumatra. So theoretically, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines all have grounds to claim this maritime hero as being a native of theirs.

The name "Panglima Awang" only came later after the story of Enrique's adventure was romanticized in a novel by the Malay writer Harun Aminurashid. The Filipinos too have their own fictionalized account of Enrique's journey. What Enrique's real name was and where he originally came from will probably never be known.

My utterly brief account of Magellan and Enrique's voyage around the world does not do justice to the enormous suffering that sailors then had to endure in their dangerous expeditions into unknown seas. Scurvy, hunger, thirst, storms, mutinies and fights with natives were part and parcel of a sailor's life. Some were driven to such risky and even foolhardy adventures by the promise of fame and riches, others by the greater glory of God.

Stories of their voyages never fail to enthrall me. Among my favourite reads are Charles Corn's The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade and Pacific Passions: The European Struggle for Power in the Great Ocean in the Age of Exploration by Frank Sherry.

The most recent account of Magellan's voyage is Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen. I bought a hardcover copy during my recent trip to Jakarta and am now on board Magellan and Enrique's ship, the Trinidad, facing stormy seas on the way to round the Cape of Horn...

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