Serrão, Francisco

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Francisco Serrão

Portuguese explorer Francisco Serrão (died 1521) achieved minor renown in the annals of his country's navigational history as the first European explorer to sail east past Malacca, the Indonesian state located at the straits of the same name, and into the islands of the Moluccas, located roughly between the Philippines and New Guinea. Serrão was also either a cousin or friend to Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), who won financial backing for the first successful circumnavigation of the globe based on reports that Serrão had sent.

Very little information survives on Serrão prior to his emergence as the captain of one of three ships sent out by the viceroy in India, Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515), in 1511. Earlier that year, Albuquerque had set out from the Portuguese enclave of Goa, on India's western coast, with a force of over a thousand men to successfully subdue the state of Malacca. Albuquerque hoped to imprint Portuguese royal authority on the Spice Islands of Banda, too. Known in the modern era as the Malaku Islands, the Bandas were the source of a valuable indigenous tree that produced nutmeg and mace, each of which were prized spices on the European market at the time. The spices were usually sold in Venice by Arab traders who had dominated the Indian Ocean trade for several centuries, and the exorbitant prices charged for both compelled Portugal to seize control of the source for itself.

Commandeered Chinese Junk

Under the command of António de Abreu, three ships left Malacca in November of 1511, heading southeastward into the Java Sea with the help of Malay guides. Serrão served as captain of one of the trio of vessels. They went east through Java and past Bali and other islands known as the Lesser Sundas chain, then north past Amboina to Banda. One report claimed that at the port of Gresik on East Java, Serrão married a Javanese woman who then came along on the remainder of the voyage. After his ship was nearly destroyed, Serrão reached Luco-Pino island (Hitu), where he collected stores of nutmeg, mace, and cloves before acquiring a Chinese junk, or large ship used for trade. The arms his men carried also impressed the local ruler of Hitu, which was engaged in its own battles with Luhu, a nearby island rival.

With his new vessel, Serrão headed on to the Maluku Islands. With him was a crew of 18, comprised of nine Portuguese and nine Indonesians. When their junk was demolished by a reef, they were already warned that the inhabitants of a nearby island were predators known to steal cargo from shipwrecks on that very reef; when the islanders neared the sinking junk in their vessel, Serrão and the Europeans pretended they were merely inept unarmed sailors and not traders. When the scavengers came close enough, Serrão's party turned on them, seized their boat, and forced the local pirates to guide them to Amboina.

Became Advisor to Sultan

Back in Amboina, Serrão received word that the chiefs of two neighboring islands at the north end of the Malukus, Ternate and Tidore, hoped to secure his military expertise. The pair of islands were engaged in a low-level trade war with one another, but because Ternate was the bigger power, Serrão agreed to help and went there with a small band of mercenaries. The Ternate ruler, Sultan Bayan Sirrullah, was so pleased with the success of the mission that he not only paid Serrão the agreed-upon sum, but offered him a permanent salary and lavish living quarters as his personal adviser. Serrão decided not to return to Malacca, but sent a letter to Magellan that the Moluccas were quite far from Malacca, and even so far east that they fell under the Spanish realm as designated by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the unconquered world between the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. This ignited Magellan's interest in reaching Asia by sailing to the west—across the Atlantic Ocean and around South America—rather than the route the Portuguese had customarily taken to reach India and Indonesia, which followed the shores of the African continent. Magellan showed these letters to Spain's King Charles V (1500–1558), promising him easy access to the Spice Islands for Spain if the crown would agree to finance Magellan's plan for the world's first circumnavigational voyage.

Serrão died in Ternate in 1521, around the same time that Magellan died in the Philippines. Serrão may have been poisoned after falling victim to intrigues at the Sultan's court. His legacy was the trade deal he negotiated on behalf of Portugal for a monopoly on Ternate's cloves and other spices, which endured for another century. He was the first European to reach the northern Moluccas.


Geographical Journal, Including the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol. VII, January-June 1896.