On April 7th, 1521, Magellan sent two young men into a city in the heart of the Philippine Archipelago to speak to its ruler, the Raja Humabon. One was secretly Magellan’s illegitimate son; the other a man he’d taken as an teenage slave in Malaysia a decade earlier. Here’s my retelling of their momentous introduction:
Henrique gave a reassuring nod to the young Portuguese man beside him, then promptly followed after the man who’d just agreed to show them to the Raja. After a moment Cristovão had matched his pace and was following alongside him. The stoic swordsman from Cebu led them away from the longboat up the sand into the shade of palm trees. And then up a sloping trail. Only a few trees separated the harbor from the densely packed houses of the city. As on other islands in the Archipelago of Saint Lazurus, these structures had walls of wood and bamboo, with thatched roofs of thin dry leaves. Most buildings were on stilts, regardless of how close they were to the water. Every house Henrique saw was occupied, and people inside and around the houses idly stared at the two of them walking by. Their faces ranged from curious to murderous. And in-between there were the faces that were anxious — likely still wondering what was the cause or the meaning of the sound that had startled them a short time ago — which Henrique knew as the empty salvo they’d fired to announce their approach. Henrique took some small comfort in noticing that the people stared a bit more at the pale boy beside him, than they did at his own darker face. Though his shirt, pants, and vest was just as foreign.
A dark-coated dog stood to the side of the trail, eyeing him in much the same way the people did. As he continued on behind his guide, Henrique heard the dog trot up behind him to sniff at his heels. As soon as he turned his head to look at the dog, it froze in its tracks and growled, keeping its head low. He hadn’t stopped walking, but out of the corner of his eye, Henrique noticed several men with spears or sheathed swords in their hands following behind. It was no surprise to him, but he hoped that Cristóvão beside him wouldn’t be startled to notice it.
Ahead of them, Henrique noticed more armed men standing about (in a crowd and not a formation). The had spears and shields in hand, and swords or knives hanging in their belts. Some unarmed locals of every age were crowded around too. It was a flat open space among the houses. Henrique guessed this to be the center of the city, or at least a meeting place. Much like the plazas that so many cities in Europe had by design. Henrique tried to spot the market that Raja Calambu had described, but if it was Henrique couldn’t see any traders or wares among the dense crowd.
The mass of spears, shields, and brightly colored wrappings parted before the man from the harbor. And there Henrique saw a raised platform shaded by a thatched roof raised on bamboo posts without walls. In its center, a round-looking man was sitting cross-legged. A few armed men stood or crouched on the platform with him, and these were dressed in the brightest fabrics and accessories: gold rings, armrings, necklaces, and piercings. The guide from the harbor turned and raised a hand in Henrique’s direction. He stopped walking; Cristovão stopped abruptly also, and Henrique could feel the young man glancing at him with anticipation. Being under the midday sun, and looking into the shade from a distance, Henrique couldn’t clearly see the sitting man’s features. The guide approached the edge of the platform and leaned into it, addressing him in their language.
When the man turned back to Henrique and gave a single nod, Henrique, without waiting to consult Cristóvão, began addressing the Raja in the Malay language:
“Selamat pagi… today my master expressed his friendship and peace to you today in the manner and custom of his people… I pray you are not disturbed by the sounds of black powder you have just heard a short time ago. In their tradition, to do all the more honor to the raja of the country they approach, they fire all of their black powder weapons at once, offering you praise in the loudest voice one can hear.”
All faces around him stared at Henrique in silence for several moments. Even Cristóvão’s face next to him. Without turning his head, Henrique explained softly, in the boy’s language, that he had reassured the people about their custom of firing the artillery on approach.
The Raja in the shade spoke to the man from the harbor, who then asked Henrique, in Malay, what they were seeking.
Henrique quickly relayed the question to Cristóvão, saying, “Eles querem saber o que nós queremos,” but without waiting for Cristóvão’s reply, he continued in Malay.
“Our master is in service to a magnificent Raja. And on this Raja’s command, he seeks the Molucca islands. However, on the long journey, my master discovered the fame of your wealth and honor. He heard these praises from the wise Raja Calamba of Masawa most of all. And so my master desired to visit you, Raja Humabon, and to replenish his his ships through your famous market.”
This time, the Raja replied directly to Henrique, in Malay and without pause. The voice carried over clear and steady from the shaded platform,
“You are welcome in this place. It is tradition and custom in my country and my port that all ships who come here pay tribute to the Raja. All ships. We have with us a man now,” he lazily raised his right hand in a general direction behind himself, “…His jiong ship went back to Champa four days ago, and he has stayed behind to oversee the selling of his master’s merchandise in our market. He may tell you himself of the customary tribute.”
As he spoke, a man loosely wrapped in a thin bright yellow cloak parted through his companions on the platform. He folded his hands together and, raising his fingertips to the height of his eyes, he bowed from his chest in the direction of Henrique and Cristóvão before taking a seat cross-legged at the Raja’s side.
Henrique explained to Cristóvão the Raja’s order for tribute: “Ele quer que prestemos homenagem,” which the boy seemed flustered to hear. And as they exchanged words in Portugese, he observed the Cham merchant watching them intently, as if listening and understanding. Whereas the Raja’s and the spearmen’s expressions were expectant and impatient.
The Cham man leaned towards the Raja and spoke, this time in Cham language. Henrique understood him to say, “Be careful, wise Raja. These people are the ones who conquered Calicut, and Malacca city, and many other cities. They are the Christians of Portugal. If you treat them well and entertain them, this will be all the better for you; if you treat them poorly, it will be so much the worse for you. As it was in Calicut and Malacca…”
Interrupting both Cristóvão’s Portuguese complaints and the merchant’s Cham warnings, Henrique raised his voice to the Raja. “Your eminence knows of the Raja of Portugal — my master Fernão Magalhães swears loyalty to the Raja of SPAIN, who is not only a Raja, but also what the Christians call an Imperador, a raja of rajas. Ours is the Imperador of all Christians. He is far greater in land, he is greater in ships, he is greater in armies than the Raja of Portugal, whose victories you know.”
Again all faces stared at Henrique, Cristóvão’s included. This time the silence lingered a deal longer.
Raja Humabon finally said flatly, in Malay, “I will speak with my people.” Then he looked around to his guards around him and said something in his own language, waving his hand about to the floor around him. And in a suddenly more pleasant voice, said “Please stay and eat with me. Have you had tuba to drink before?”
Henrique exhaled and felt his shoulders relax, though he hadn’t even noticed they weren’t relaxed in the first place. He turned to Cristóvão Ravelo, of his master’s household, and explained the success of their negotiations thus far. They soon took a seat on the raised bamboo floor and watched young servants place porcelain dishes full of meat and sauce in front of them. Henrique of Sumatra took in the scent of the thick brown sauce and tried to recall if he had ever smelled it back home.
Historical sources: Antonio Pigafetta, “Magellan’s Voyage” Dover Edition translated and edited by RA Skelton
and Haklyut Society edition translated and edited by Lord Stanley of Alderly
Image source: original photograph, taken in Palactad, Eastern Samar, Visayas region of the Philippines, May 2019