Henry: The Interpreter Who Beat Magellan


Most people think of Ferdinand Magellan as the Portuguese explorer who first sailed around the planet on a quest to prove that the Earth was round. Now, consider this.

While Magellan did sail from Spain on an expedition that eventually went full circle, he never completed the tour. Also, Magellan never set out to sail around the globe. His goal was to establish a western route to the spices that grew in the Indies. Used as seasonings, food preservatives, and aphrodisiacs, these exotic commodities were worth many times their weight in gold. With as little as a sack of cloves, one could buy a house, settle down on a good pension, and never leave port again.

Assuming the Earth to be round, Magellan was confident he could find a fabled maritime passage through the continents that had just been been claimed by Portugal and Spain, the two competing seafaring superpowers of the time.

A few decades earlier, under pressure from the catholic rulers of Spain, the Pope had drawn an imaginary line on the map from pole to pole and divided the world in two. Spain was granted exclusive rights to territories west of the divide, with Portugal expected to keep to the east. The deal was sealed in the small Spanish town of Tordesillas.

Dismissed by King Manuel of Portugal, to whom he first pitched the idea of an expedition, a humiliated Magellan crossed the border into Spain where he got the attention of King Charles I, then in his teens. When Magellan declared authoritatively that the Spice Islands lay in the Spanish hemisphere and that he knew how to get there, the Spanish monarch was sold.

On September 20, 1519, five ships carrying 260 men headed into the unknown. Sailing southwest, the armada made a pleasant landfall in the tropics. Proceeding south, any waterway leading inland was explored in search of the canal.

The Spaniards resented having a Portuguese at the helm. As the weather worsened and provisions dwindled, their impatience escalated into fullblown mutiny, which Magellan crushed with unspeakable cruelty. Mutineers were marooned, eviscerated alive or dismembered, their heads and limbs displayed on the five ships as a warning. Sour at the captain’s brutality, the crew of the San Antonio defected back to Spain, carrying with it most of the provisions. And during a reconnaissance journey, the Santiago ran aground.

On November 1, Magellan started exploring a westward navigable seaway. Twenty-seven freezing days later the three remaining ships emerged into the Mar Pacifico. The legendary strait connecting east and west had been found and crossed.

Past the strait, it would take the crew 98 days to see dry land again. Scurvy and famine claimed the lives of dozens of seamen. After replenishments and repairs in modern-day Guam, the fleet advanced into what would later be the Philippines. To everyone’s surprise, Magellan’s slave Henry, acquired in a journey to Malacca eight years earlier and brought along as an interpreter, could easily communicate with the rulers and natives on various islands.guam

With Henry’s linguistic support, and the imposing thunder of European canons, Magellan had no trouble claiming a few islands for Spain. But when he tried to convert chieftain Lapu Lapu to Christianity by force, his fate was sealed on the island of Mactan. Shallow waters kept the ships away and cannon shots out of range. Overconfident and severely outnumbered, Magellan was killed brutally, along with another eight Europeans.

With his master dead, Henry was free. He was also home. If Henry was actually from the Cebu region—as his command of the local language indicates—the interpreter may have been the first man to actually circumnavigate the world.

But the expedition still had to navigate the maze of islands on its way back to Spain, and the new captains refused to release the interpreter. Disgruntled, Henry turned to Rajah Humabon, the ruler of Cebu, and plotted a conspiracy. He convinced the king to offer a farewell banquet to about 30 Europeans. As the feast came to a close, archers emerged from the bushes and killed all the guests but one: Henry.

The few Spaniards who remained burned one of their ships and proceeded to the Spice Islands. Having also lost the Trinidad, they resorted to raiding passing ships and eventually reached the spices with a new interpreter: Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian scholar and explorer from Venice.


Pigafetta kept a detailed journal of the expedition’s activities. He also compiled the first phrase books in history, with the help of Henry. Filled with drawings, Pigafetta’s journal provides a rich guide to the features and customs of the lands and peoples encountered during the voyage.

Finally, on September 10, 1522, a battered ship docked at the port of Seville, manned by a skeleton crew of just 18 sailors. They were severely malnourished. Most could hardly walk. Despite the hardships, the Victoria, and what was left of its crew, had changed the world forever. And what little cargo it held was enough to turn a profit.

Despite his early death, Magellan earned his place in history. He had galaxies and space programs named after him. Sebastián Elcano, the pilot who rounded the Cape of Good Hope and steered the Victoria back home, was also celebrated in Spain with a coat of arms and his face on currency bills and stamps.

But to be fair, their glory would have to be shared with at least another two crew members. Pigafetta, without whom most of the story would have perished along with the ships. And Henry, the expedition’s interpreter, who made communication possible and who arguably went full circle earlier than anyone else.

Coming from opposite ends of the social spectrum, the Venetian nobleman and the humble slave accidentally brought on board weapons many times more persuasive than the sword to change history: their pen and their voice.

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Recommended reading:
Watch my TED Lesson on this same subject
Originally published, under a different name, in the ATA Chronicle, Jan-Feb 2017.




7 thoughts on “Henry: The Interpreter Who Beat Magellan

    1. Hi, Carla. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Everything we know about the expedition comes from the firsthand account by Pigafetta, whose journal — later published and widely circulated in Europe — captured in incredible detail all activities and circumstances aboard the ships as well as on firm ground. No original copy survived, but several subsequent translations did. One such copy is kept in the Beinecke Rare Books and Manurscript Library at Yale University. Here’s a link where you can find more information:

      The voyage was also beautifully researched and recounted by Laurence Bergreen in his book Over the Edge of the World, Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the World. It is still in print, and I strongly suggest you read it, if the subject interests.

      Lastly, my new TED-Ed lesson — coming out in March — will provide an animated version of the same story. I will keep my network posted through social media. Thank you again for taking the time to read.

    1. I mean a story that focuses more on the role of interpreters in expeditions and how it is language and cultural fluency that connect and change worlds. The Magellan video was lovely!

  1. Oi Ewandro, adorei o texto, embora já conhecesse Pigafetta, nada sabiado Henry. Lançaram na Grança em 2007 a edição raisonnée dos 4 fragmentos entrelaçados dessa viagem. Bola cheia!

  2. Oi, Domitila. Bom ter notícias suas.

    A história de Enrique (ou Henry, the Black) é trágica, mas muito bonita. Eu teria interesse em conhecer essa edição de 2007. Tudo que sei sobre a histórica expedição de Fernão de Magalhaes, e sobre Enrique, vem do relato de Pigafetta, nos diários que deixou, e, mais que isso, do livro Além do Fim do Mundo, de Laurence Bergreen, que também mora aqui em Nova York. Laurence muito simpaticamente me convidou para um almoço no Harvard Club, e pudemos debater outros detalhes da viagem e seus personagens.

    De quebra, saí com um exemplar autografado de Marco Polo, seu novo livro, que mal posso esperar para ler.

    Eu um dia ainda me animo a escrever a história inteira de enrique sob a forma de um romance histórico.

    Abraços. Obrigado pela leitura.

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