HE CIRCUMNAVIGATED the world even before Elcano did.

Enrique el Negro (Cacho Publishing House, 2003) is Carla M. Pacis’ meta-narrative on the controversial theory of historian Carlos Quirino that Enrique, a Malay native, was the first person to circumnavigate the world and not the Spaniard Sebastian Elcano.

Quirino, who was named National Artist for Historical Literature in 1997, held that Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Philippines with a slave named Enrique whom he bought from Malacca before going to Portugal and sailing again via the Western route.

Enrique is said tohave served as Magellan’s interpreter, translating the natives’ language to Portuguese.

In contrast, Elcano completed circumnavigating the world only when the remnants of Magellan ‘s expedition returned to Spain in 1522.

Pacis, a 1995 Palanca Award winner for her short story, “The Dream Weavers,” takes these various historical accounts, including Pigafetta’s chronicles of the voyage of Magellan to weave a story that rewrites history.

In the novel, Enrique, born Yabon in the Philippines, to flee with his family from a cruel datu, loses his family and is brought by slave traders to Malacca, or the Spice Islands in Indonesia, where he is sold to Magellan. Enrique sails with Magellan back to Portugal aboard the galleon. The Portuguese sailor takes him to the king to testify on the existence of the Spice Islands and to request an expedition that is eventually denied. Magellan then takes Enrique to the King of Spain, who gives the expedition the green light. From Spain, Enrique sails with his master aboard the Trinidad, Magellan’s flagship, for almost two years until they reach the Philippines. He is now coming home as Enrique el Negro, the first global traveler in history.

Parola: Gabay ng kasaysayan

Pacis’ novel is composed of 14 chapters. Although there is no historical account of his nationality, Enrique prefigures the coming dilemma of the Filipino. The Philippines would be conquered several times; its culture to be laced with Eastern and Western influences. Like Enrique, Filipinos have to adopt a new identity and risk the loss of its own. Enrique has to face several seemingly insignificant but ultimately very revealing choices during his trip around the world: should he wear G-strings or pants, eat fly-infested rotten meat and not fresh vegetables and fish, go barefoot or wear boots?

Then comes the most critical decision to make, choosing which side of the war to be with during the Battle of Mactan. Will Enrique fight with Lapu-lapu or with Magellan? Enrique must choose between the man who saved his life several times and his fellow Malay.

By drawing on Enrique’s perspective as an indio slave and as a foreigner in the new world, the novel offers interesting questions. What if a Malay and not a Spaniard had toured the world first? Did a Filipino lead the Spanish invaders to our land? The novel guides the reader and helps him see history from an all-new perspective.

Pacis’ prose is simple and relaxed but the details that bring the novel to life are not compromised.The storyline can tickle the minds of young adults and presents history with less difficulty and easier comprehension. She is able to incorporate lessons on greed and friendship, on loyalty and gratitude. The Spanish conquerors were blinded by fame and glory, which caused their defeat in the battle with Lapu-Lapu.

Thomasian education on wheels

The novel itself was a product of choice. Pacis writes: “Others are convinced that he was not from the Philippines but from Malacca and that the language he spoke and understood was a trade language that was commonly spoken throughout the neighboring islands. I have chosen to believe that Enrique was Filipino–and why not?” J. J. Arceo


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