by Federico V. Magdalena, PhD
Five hundred years ago, Ferdinand Magellan led a Spanish armada to find a new route to Moluccas, known for its spices much desired in Europe.
Magellan was accompanied by 239 crews aboard five ships, including Antonio Pigafetta (chronicler) and Enrique de Malacca (slave-interpreter). The account of this voyage was translated into English by Lord Stanley of Alderley and James Alexander Robertson. On March 16, 1521, they landed in Homonhon, Samar. Enrique was unable to communicate with the natives, except through signs. However, their next trip to the islands of Limasawa (Leyte) and Cebu successfully connected Magellan to the natives through Enrique. There, they “were easily understood” declared Pigafetta. This statement evokes several meanings. One, Enrique was communicating in Malay to the chiefs particularly Rajah Humabon of Cebu. Malay was the trade language in the region, Enrique’s birthplace according to Magellan and Pigafetta. Another, he was talking to them in Cebuano (or Sugbuanon).
A review of Pigafetta’s account shows that he compiled a set of vocables called “words of the heathen people” (150 words, mostly Cebuano). This compilation suggests the hidden hands of Enrique, who was with Magellan and Pigafetta for almost two years after leaving Spain.
Pigafetta had a penchant for writing down words he heard from the natives, and likely from the interpreter Enrique, who was a polyglot. He spoke Portuguese, Spanish, Malay and likely Cebuano.
These vocabularies, compared with an 1885 dictionary by Encarnacion, reveal that 129 or 86% are in fact Cebuano words. If one adds the 7 other Malay words also known to Cebuano speakers today, that makes it 91% true-blue Cebuano. This also means the first Cebuano-Italian dictionary.
We now ask: what is the source of such lexical terms, and how did Pigafetta successfully translate them?
According to Italian linguist Alessandro Bausani: “Probably only a certain amount of words were directly heard from the natives questioned by Pigafetta…through gestures.”
He adds that “for the knowledge of the rest of them Pigafetta was indebted” to Enrique.
Regarding the place where Pigafetta composed his list, “the most prudent opinion is that he composed it after his return to Europe, utilizing miscellaneous notes taken in different places and that the majority of his words were collected from the Malay-speaking slave Henrique.” He adds that this slave is his “teacher.”
A professional interpreter from New York, Ewandro Magalhães, writes with confidence that Enrique participated in the Pigafetta compilation: “Pigafetta kept a journal of the expedition’s activities. He also compiled the first phrase books in history, with the help of Henry (italics supplied).” Scholars like Dr. Ben Kadil, a history professor from Mindanao State University, and Dr. Raymund Liongson, a Philippine Studies expert from UH Leeward Community College, believe that Enrique was the “main source” in the production of Pigafetta’s glossary of the “heathen people.” In line with these testimonies, it is logical that Enrique served not only as interpreter but also as translator of those words. Thus, he must know the Cebuano language besides Malay. Certain episodes would confirm his ability to speak Cebuano. The first was when Enrique got drunk with the locals, drinking laksoy (wine from nipa), and could not perform his duties as interpreter, according to Gines de Mafra, a sailor who also wrote his own account of the voyage.
An event like this leads one to believe that he could not join them, especially ordinary folks who did not know Malay. They must be speaking in their own language.
The second episode was the massacre of the crews on May 1, 1521, four days after Magellan was killed by Lapu-Lapu. This conspiracy was hatched between Enrique and Rajah Humabon.
The chief invited the sailors to a banquet and killed 26 of them, except Enrique. Such incident was reported as an act of vengeance against Duarte Barbosa, who did not honor Magellan’s last will for Enrique, that he would be freed from slavery, and paid 10,000 maravedis.
Instead, this manumission privilege was forfeited. He would still serve as slave to Magellan’s widow (Doña Beatriz) and continue his interpretation services under threat of flogging. Why did Humabon and his angry warriors spare the life of Enrique? This poor interpreter could have been treated like a kinsman, a fellow Cebuano.
Scheming with somebody is a complicated feat that would need lexical competence and trust among those involved. While Enrique and Humabon could talk in Malay, conversation in the local language was better to hatch a plot.
Given these facts and circumstances, Enrique is linguistically a Cebuano speaker. He could be a captured slave from Cebu. Or, born of Cebuano parents somewhere in Malacca.
FEDERICO V. MAGDALENA, PHD is currently an Associate Specialist and the Deputy Director of the Center for Philippine Studies, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. He recently directed a Fulbright-Hays project for American K-12 teachers, faculty, and students in Cebu to train on basic Cebuano language (July-August 2022) under the auspices of the University of San Carlos. This article is derived from his online lecture hosted by USC on January 28, 2023.
by Federico V. Magdalena, PhD