Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project

At times, history functions like a mirror. While we depend on it to reveal the past to ourselves, its reflective surfaces are not always reliable — they echo, skew, magnify and invert. Besides, if history is really written by the victors, then how truthful can it be? I first came across Enrique de Malacca in 1985 in my mother’s small collection of old books. It was a novel titled Panglima Awang and authored by the Malay reformist Harun Aminurrashid. Published in 1958, a year after Malaya’s independence, the book was my first introduction to an alternative history of the Malay world. Written in a manner that spoke to the rakyat (masses), the book was as an instant hit! This childhood encounter spurred the eventual creation of this memorial.

Ferdinand Magellan is commonly acknowledged as the first to circumnavigate the earth. However, the explorer was killed on the Philippines island of Mactan on 27 April 1521 — and never completed the three-year voyage. Two of his ships continued the journey without him, eventually reaching their destination in eastern Indonesia — the Moluccas, known to most as the Spice Islands. Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar and explorer who accompanied Magellan throughout this journey, recorded Magellan’s death and last wishes in his journal.

Magellan’s last will mentions that a sailor called ‘Enrique’ be made a ‘free man’ upon his death. Enrique was a slave Magellan had taken in Malacca in 1511, who later became his translator and teacher of the different cultural systems that made up the Malay Archipelago. It is likely that after Magellan’s death Enrique returned to Malacca. Could it then be that it is Enrique that deserves to be credited as the first human being to circumnavigate the earth?

After that, Enrique’s whereabouts remain unknown, a factual void that has shaped a mythical legacy surrounding his identity, allegiance and reputation. Who was this man before he was baptized as ‘Enrique’? Was he a Muslim, or perceived as heathen? Why did Magellan decide to take him to Portugal, Azemmour (Morocco) and Spain, and then return with him to the Malay Archipelago ten years later? Most importantly, what made him so special to deserve a mention in Magellan’s last will?

The Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project is built from archaeological evidence, interviews with scholars, religious notes and popular folklore tracked down over the years. It is an attempt at recovering a lost figure from a vanished archive.

An undertaking that has led me to negotiate the multiple personalities of a man popular today in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines as Enrique de Malacca, Enrique de Cebu, Enrique Maluku, Daeng Malik Siluak, Henrique, Henry, Heinrich, and Panglima Awang.