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Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 1


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India


  The Portuguese Captains and

  the Passage to India



  Cover art with permission of Museau do Chiado, Lisbon, Portugual

  “The Departure of Vasco da Gama to India” by Miguel Angelo Lupi, 1882

  Cover design by David E. Payne

  Other books by the author


  Cimmerian: A Novel of the Holocaust

  The Far Side of the Moon

  A Suspicion of Guilt

  Shadows and Lies

  The Dutchman

  A Deadly Glitter

  The Flower Girl

  Alter Ego

  True Crime

  Evil Intentions

  Against Her Will

  The Naked Streets




  Hunter: Warrior of Doridia

  Caravans of Doridia


  Unknown Seas


  High Crimes and Misdemeanors

  The Summit Murder Series with Charles G. Irion

  Murder on Everest

  Murder on Elbrus

  Murder on Mt. McKinley

  Murder on Puncak Jaya

  Murder on Aconcagua

  Murder on Vinson Masiff

  Murder on Kilamanjaro

  Abandoned on Everest [prequel]

  © Ronald Watkins 2003


  First published in Great Britain in 2003 by John Murray (Publishers)

  A division of Hodder Headline

  Paper edition 2004

  Republished in 2011 by Ronald J. Watkins Books [Publisher]

  Originally published in the UK, this American edition is republished in it’s original form though absent the photographs and chart.

  The right of Ronald Watkins to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  All rights reserved. Apart from any use permitted under copyright law no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  For Mun Ling




  ‘I Sing the greatness of the race’

  Dear as pepper

  The enterprise of Cueta

  Henry and the sea of darkness

  The cape of fear

  South of Guinea

  ‘… To the place where the sun rises’

  The spies

  Gama of Sines


  Volta da Guiné

  ‘Foam upon the wave’

  ‘You will have to conquer’

  ‘Here is the land’

  ‘The devil take you!’


  The murderous passage

  ‘… Risen from the dead’


  Postscript: the dissenters




  The author


  From Iberia

  Would any sovereign with sense endured, Hither send Missions, and confide his fleets To seas unknown, remote and unexplor’d?

  Luis Vaz de Camoens

  The Lusiads


  Although unaware of the winter seas and prevailing winds confronting him, in January 1493 Admiral Christopher Columbus1 ordered his two surviving caravels, the Pinta and the Niña, to set sail so that he might carry the news of his discoveries to Spain.

  What awaited him and his men those winter months were north Atlantic storms among the worst in recorded history. One gale after another drove ships near the Atlantic coast from the sea to seek safe harbour where they could. Hundreds of vessels were trapped in harbours from November on, unable or unwilling to face the continual violent winds and seas. By March, twenty-four ships had sunk off Flanders alone. The triumphant returning Columbus sailed into the teeth of this storm, recording in his log that he was uncertain his ships could survive.

  Throughout this most difficult passage Columbus found it all but impossible to fix his position and was never confident where he was, only that the coast of Europe lay somewhere to the east. Fearful he would perish and that word of his momentous discoveries die with him, he made a record of his voyage, sealed it in cloth and wax, then placed it into a wooden barrel he had cast into the raging waters, telling his fearful crew he was performing an act of devotion.

  During one especially violent night his two ships were separated and were forced to sail on alone, to be eventually reunited in Spain. Yet the most dangerous weather awaited Columbus and the Niña as he approached the coast of the Iberian peninsula, where all sails save one were rent to shreds by the gale-force winds. With that single sheet of canvas the ship scarcely held her bearing and Columbus was compelled to rely on dead reckoning to approximate his location. Winds are estimated to have reached force 10 on the Beaufort scale.

  The direction of merging storms forced the small ship ever northward, on a course away from any Spanish port. On 3 March, the most dangerous night of the return passage, ‘they went under bare poles because of the great storm of wind and sea, which from two directions was swallowing them up.’ That terrible night, again and again, the crew gave themselves up as lost and prayed for deliverance. The seas ‘seemed to lift the caravel in the air. And [they had] rain from the sky and lightning all around.’1 Winds off the coast of Portugal were observed in excess of 100 miles an hour, hurricane strength.

  Then, at first light, as if by a miracle, Columbus spotted land. It was the Rock of Sintra, which he knew all too well and which told him he was at the mouth of the Tagus river and the port of Lisbon, Portugal – the last place on Earth he wished to be. With no alternative, he gave the order to attempt to enter the river, God willing. The ship slowly clawed its way against the seas and winds towards salvation, or death at the Cabo da Roca, the resting place of countless lost ships and seamen.

  That morning the residents of the small port of Cascais, some 25 miles west of Lisbon and the first town at the approach to the Tagus river, spied the lone, heavily weathered Niña beating its way against the winds and current to seek safety in its harbour. Villagers gathered just up from the enormous waves crashing on the shore to watch the imminent disaster while others rushed to the nearby church to pray for the safety of the unknown mariners. The Niña was so battered that witnesses reported she resembled a ship that had miraculously survived a fierce naval battle.

  Amid lightning, thunderclaps and violent whirlwinds the small caravel with just the single sail was driven back repeatedly, but again and again Columbus ordered its bow to be turned into a perilous tack, only to be forced aside, putting the ship in danger of capsizing. Finally Columbus relented and ordered the helmsman and crew to give up the struggle. The ship turned away from the safe harbour of Cascais to a more easterly course and then, almost imperceptibly at first, slowly made its way uncertainly amid the gale entering the mouth of the Tagus, finally passing the threatening bar into safety. With the dangerous seas now behind, the Niña soon arrived at Belém, Lisbon’s outermost port, where it dropped anchor as the crew knelt and gave thanks to God for their salva

  To safeguard the approach to the port of Lisbon a warship lay at anchor near by. In a short time a longboat was launched, and as it was rowed towards the Spanish ship Columbus wondered if he would leave this place alive. For a number of years the new admiral had made his home among the Portuguese and was considered by many of them to be a native son. Portugal was the focal point of European discoveries and the most advanced nation in the world in navigation, shipbuilding and mapmaking. Columbus’s first wife had been the daughter of the hereditary Portuguese governor of Porto Santo, and it was there on Madeira that he had learned from the Portuguese the secrets they had mastered in their decades of exploration.

  But when the Portuguese king John II had denied Columbus support for his venture to discover a sea route to India by sailing west, he had gone to the hated Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. There were many in the Portuguese court and nation who considered Christopher Columbus a traitor. Now that he was returning from having ‘discovered’the Indies, as he believed, he could not but help fear for his fate as King John’s violent deeds were legendary.

  Some time after he arrived, and before the port official reached his ship, Columbus learned the Portuguese king was not far off. He hurriedly wrote and dispatched a personal note to the sovereign, hoping to stave off disaster at the moment of his life’s triumph. In his note he requested immediate permission to sail upriver and anchor at Lisbon because he feared that, as he wrote in his journal, ‘evil-doers, thinking that he brought much gold, while he was in a deserted harbour might’ board and loot his ship. In his communication he cited his credentials from Ferdinand and Isabella and assured King John that in no circumstance had he been to the region of Africa known as Guinea, which was under Portuguese control and closed to Spain. Apprehensive, he watched his letter on its way, for if the king refused to believe him Columbus might very well be executed.

  From the longboat stepped the Grand Captain of the port, none other than Bartholomeu Dias, who was surprised to find that the captain of the battered caravel was Christopher Columbus. The two men knew each other. They had served at the Portuguese fort of El Mina on the west African coast, and just four years earlier Columbus had been present when Dias had returned from his discovery of the Cape of Good Hope and made his presentation to the king and his court.

  But on this day, when Dias made the customary request for papers and instructed Columbus to go ashore to explain his anchorage and receive formal permission, Columbus refused, saying that he was now an admiral of the ‘sovereigns of Castile and that he would not give such an account to such persons nor would he leave’his ship except by force, which he would resist unto death as ‘was the custom’ of Spanish admirals. He then briefly related a startling tale, claiming he was returned from having discovered India –by sailing directly west, across the Atlantic Ocean.

  Dias asked to see these papers from the Spanish king and queen, and Columbus was only too glad to hand them over. Satisfied, Dias returned to his ship and reported what he had learned. The captain of the warship then went ‘with great ceremony, and with kettledrums, trumpet, and horns sounding gaily to the Niña’, where he greeted Columbus and treated him with honour. They would await directions from the Portuguese king.

  Word quickly spread throughout the local region that Columbus had returned from the Indies. A large crowd journeyed from nearby Lisbon and elsewhere to view this ship, which had come from so far, and to see for themselves the ‘Indians’ the new Spanish admiral had brought back with him. With typical Portuguese generosity they gave thanks to God that ‘such an increase of Christianity’ should come to the king and queen of Spain as they had laboured so hard to this end. We can assume that among these were friends of the admiral who had known him during his Lisbon years and that it was for Columbus an extremely satisfying moment, even as he quietly pondered his fate.

  On 8 March word arrived from King John inviting Columbus to join him and issuing orders for the Niña to be reprovisioned and made ready to sail once the inclement weather sufficiently abated. Though fearing treachery, Columbus went none the less as he had no choice. He had written another summary of his discoveries during the most violent portion of the storm off the coast of Portugal and dispatched it by messenger to the Spanish sovereigns. Should anything happen to him, at least his titles and honours would be secure for his oldest son.

  Mules were provided for Columbus and for the members of his crew he chose to take, and to carry some of the bits of gold and other articles he possessed in order to prove he had discovered a new land. He also took a selection of the healthiest ‘Indians’ he had with him. The weather was scarcely better ashore so it was not until the night of 9 March, a Saturday, that he reached the king.

  A pestilence had struck Lisbon, earlier than customary since they typically arrived with summer, so King John and his entourage were staying at a monastery located in a pine forest some 30 miles from Lisbon. To spare the resources of the surrounding area, the queen, with whom Columbus had always had good relations, was housed elsewhere with her court.

  This was not the first occasion on which the Portuguese king had met Columbus. At this time Columbus is believed to have been forty-two years old; the king was thirty-seven. Despite his relative youth, the king was not in good health. He had lost his heir just two years earlier, a loss from which he was never to recover. But the discovery of the sea route to India had been perhaps the greatest passion of his reign, having been given responsibility for it by his father, Alfonso V, at an early age, and he would hear the story of its discovery from the lips of this new Castilian admiral.

  Nine years earlier, shortly after John II had assumed the throne, he granted a meeting with Columbus. For years the Genoan had lobbied the previous king and his advisers to support his venture of reaching to India by sailing west. The Portuguese were methodically seeking to reach India by working their way down the coast of Africa, hoping with each expedition to find the tip of the continent. The endeavour had taken so long that King John was at least willing to hear the persistent man out. João de Barros records in Décades da Asia that, though Columbus was respected in some areas of his knowledge and experience, John considered the Genoan ‘to be a big talker and boastful in setting forth his accomplishments, and full of fancy and imagination’.

  Despite this, after their meeting the king referred the matter to his Junta dos Mathemáticos for a final decision and they soon informed him that Columbus was simply wrong. His idea to reach the Indies by sailing west was not original and had been studied in the past. The distance from the Canary Islands to Japan, where Columbus said he would first arrive, was known to be just over 10,000 miles (10,600 in fact), not 2,400. The true distance was beyond the reach of any contemporary ship without making repeated stops for provisions and maintenance. Rebuffed nine years earlier, Columbus had taken his efforts to Spain and in time been granted his wish.

  Columbus had been viewed as something of an eccentric by the Portuguese court during the years he had lobbied the crown, and his conduct in 1493 on the occasion of this second meeting with the king bordered on the irreverent. Losing his apprehension at the occasion, he was taken with his own self-importance and demanded that he be addressed by the august titles to which his discoveries entitled him. He was more than eager to remind the king that the passage to India by sailing west could have been his, if only he had placed his faith in Columbus. The new admiral related his story arrogantly, displaying ‘discourtesy and insolence’and behaving as a ‘braggart’.2

  As proof of his achievement Columbus produced not the spices, silks and exotic treasures that were to be expected from a voyage to Asia, but a few natives he called ‘Indians’, some minor bits of gold jewellery and a number of interesting, though primitive, artefacts. When his lack of spices, known to be common in Asia, was pointed out, Columbus argued he had only reached the outer islands of Japan. Still, what he described and the paltry items he displayed appeared nothing like the objects Europeans had recei
ved overland from Asia for centuries.

  Columbus wrote that he was well received by both the king and his principal officers, that they showed him much honour and favour, and that John II in particular said he was very pleased that his voyage had ended so favourably. And that probably is what the Portuguese king said and the face he presented. But there was another observer who wrote of the same scene and his account is quite different. According to the king’s chronicler, Rui da Pina, King John’s expression of pleasure was insincere. In fact, he was furious at this turn of events but kept his anger to himself. He was enraged that time and again Columbus elevated his position and so obviously exaggerated the truth about his discovery, ‘and made the tale of gold, silver and riches much greater than it was’.

  The king politely suggested to Columbus that this new discovery was of lands within ‘the seas and boundaries of his Lordship of Guinea, which was prohibited’to the Spanish.3 The Treaty of Alcáçovas of 1479 stipulated that all land south of the Canary Islands, discovered or yet discovered, belonged to Portugal. Of course, the treaty actually meant just Africa itself and those lands discovered near it, but it could be interpreted as meaning a line drawn across the Atlantic. To this ‘the Admiral answered that he had not seen the treaty nor did he know anything else except that the sovereigns had ordered him not to go to La Mina or anywhere in all of Guinea.’4 The king smiled becomingly and allowed that he was certain there would be no need for arbiters to settle the matter.

  When Columbus retired for the evening there were those of the royal advisers who, though they doubted the validity of the navigator’s claim, advised that he be killed rather than risk his return to Spain. They argued the Portuguese monarchy had invested too much in the quest for the passage to India to run the slightest risk of its falling to their enemy. Further, the Genoan deserved death if for no other reason than his discourteous manner towards their sovereign. But the king would not hear of it. Columbus would be permitted to sail to Spain.

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