Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

The first balikbayan

Posted by butalidnl on 11 November 2010

Ferdinand Magellan (Fernao Magelhaes) is claimed to be the first person to circumnavigate the world. However,  given the fact that he died at Mactan, he wasn’t able to complete a full circle of the world. Thus, there are those who say that Sebastian Elcano, who commanded the last of Magellan’s ships which returned to Spain, as the man who deserves this honor.

But there was someone else who really did circumnavigate the world first. And this was “Enrique” otherwise known as Trapobana, Magellan’s slave, who came from the Philippines, and went around the world and back to the Philippines. He was,  in fact, the first person who did “circumnavigate” the world.

We should first agree on what “circumnavigate” means. Because, if it means “going around the world, and returning to the same point”, then it would really mean that Trapobana was the first one to do so.  But if it means “going around the world, and then returning to the same degree lattitude”, I guess you will have to let him share the honor with Magellan, who had been to the Moluccas, which is about the same degree lattitude as Cebu.

I would prefer the first definition, making Trapobana the first to circumnavigate the world. But the thing is, we still need to “prove” that Trapobana did originate in Cebu. There are those who claim that he simply spoke Malay, and that this was a “trade language” which was understood throughout the whole of what is now Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. But, if this was the case, why was he unable to communicate with the people in Homonhon, who spoke Waray? If Malay was a common trade language, he should have been able to speak Malay to the inhabitants of Homonhon, or at least to the local ruler. But why was he only able to communicate in Limasawa, and eventually in Cebu? It was not the king whom he spoke to through interpreters, but to the local people, who met them with small boats. Thus, we could conclude that he spoke the same language was the Cebuanos, and that he was also, in fact a Cebuano.

There are also those who say that he Cebu was a mighty trading “city”, and that the king had interpreters who spoke Malay.  But, this was not the case in Limasawa, which was by all accounts, a small place – the local authorities at Limasawa didn’t have interpreters, unlike those at Cebu (if they did at that).

Cebuano Slave, Bought at Malacca
Magellan is said to have bought him while he was in Malacca. Some other writers say that he was part of a Filipino trading community based in Malacca. But this is quite improbable – if he was part of a trading community, then why was he a slave? Besides, the trading community based in Malacca could have been mainly Tausug, or Tagalog, and not Cebuano. I don’t think it would be common to simply kidnap a member of a trading community, and then sell them, while in the same city, to a foreigner as a slave. Much more likely, he was kidnapped somewhere else, and then brought to Malacca to be sold.

Cebuano is spoken in Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor, parts of Negros, Leyte and Mindanao.  I think that Trapobana came from one of these places. He would have been captured by marauding Tausug slavers (who, even in Spanish times would raid these same areas) or slavers from even further away, and brought to the slave market at Malacca.

If Trapobana was not specifically from Cebu, then his world journey (or circumnavigation) would not have ended with him being left in Cebu. However, it would have been an easy matter for him to return to Leyte or Negros, once in Cebu, and this could have arrived home before the Spaniards were able to return all the way to Spain.

Thus, we can say that Trapobana, a Cebuano, was not only the first person to circumnavigate the world, but also the very first balikbayan.

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