Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 10
Despite ship losses and deaths among the crews, the explorations had until now gone very well for the Portuguese. Madeira was an unqualified success and with the introduction of the trade in slaves the drain on finances was significantly reduced or even eliminated. But now matters changed.
The climate below the Cape of Mists was even less hospitable than anything they had experienced so far, and crews began to die of strange diseases at an astonishing rate. Also, word of the slave raids travelled ahead of the captains and first contact with locals was typically violent, with casualties on both sides. Even before the Portuguese stepped ashore they faced a rain of arrows, followed by combat once they arrived on land. The cost of exploration and discovery, and of exploitation, had risen.
In 1445 two Portuguese captains were killed in slave raids along the African coast. The following year Tristão sailed one of his ships up the Gambia river, as the official goal was still to establish contact with the Mali empire in the interior. As he and his men were preparing to return to the sea, they were attacked by locals, who loosed a swarm of poisoned arrows. Four men died immediately and sixteen others, including Tristão, succumbed a short time later. All were buried at sea. A year later a Danish knight who had come to Portugal to participate in the voyages and make his fortune was attacked along with his men near Cape Verde as he attempted to exchange gifts on the beach. There was but a lone European survivor of the ensuing massacre.
A Venetian adventurer named Alvise Cadamosto left one of the most remarkable and vivid accounts of what was taking place in west Africa during this time. His record includes priceless observations of local customs and draws a clear picture of the relationship between the Portuguese and the locals. He also recounts an incident of the kind that is not commonly recorded, but which no doubt had a significant place in influencing the trade for slaves. The Venetian had sold horses and harnesses in exchange for 100 slaves and came to the attention of the local chief. ‘As soon as he saw me, he gave me a young girl of twelve to thirteen years of age, pretty for all that she was very black, and said that he gave her for the service of my bedchamber. I accepted her and sent her to my ship.’48
Much of what took place during these years is unknown, as the destinations of ships and what occurred on landings were intentionally suppressed by Henry and later by the kings who wished to maintain a monopoly on their trade. The ships of any other nation that entered the waters were treated as enemies. In addition, access to information was restricted as a matter of state policy. The mariners were forbidden to discuss where they had been, and written accounts of voyages were altered. Charts and globes were carefully guarded or heavily censored. The Portuguese placed an extensive network of spies in the various royal courts of Europe to report back on how much information was leaking. The death penalty was imposed on any subject known to have sent a map abroad or to have attempted to give information to a foreign power. This was no idle threat; assassinations are known to have taken place.
Three papal bulls established a specific maritime area of exclusivity for the Portuguese, effectively giving religious approval for them to take the dominant position with all non-Christians with whom they came into contact. Although they lacked such a sanction, the Dutch and English who followed adopted the same attitude.
The first bull was issued in 1452 and authorized the king of Portugal to attack and conquer Saracens, pagans and non-believers, to seize their possessions and lands, and to reduce the population to slavery; it also granted the king the right to pass ownership of the lands on to his heirs.
The second bull was promulgated three years later and is so specific that it has been called the charter of Portuguese imperialism. It summarizes the accomplishments of the Portuguese to date, and it praises Henry for his devotion and service to God, and for his desire to spread the word of God to the most remote and unknown lands, where he might force non-believers to the faith. It mentions his desire to double Africa and discover the ‘Indies’, the first record of such a goal in the explorations. Whatever steps were necessary to safeguard these efforts were explicitly justified.
The last bull was issued in 1456 at the request of Alfonso V and Henry as administrator for the Order of Christ. In essence, it recognized Henry’s authority for all religious matters within any newly discovered and occupied lands.
* * *
Throughout these years royal intrigue in Lisbon continued and, despite an exemplary rein, the regent Pedro was removed by court machinations. Given little alternative other than self-imposed exile, he chose to attempt to take the throne for himself and was slain in battle. Young Alfonso V was now king. Pedro was the last of Henry’s brothers and the one to whom he was the closest. His loss would have been very difficult for Henry, especially as Henry allied himself with young Alfonso to prevent a protracted and destructive civil war.
For all the success of his ships and captains, Henry had not lost his passion for military conquest in north Africa. He had been held back only by the apprehensions of John and then Pedro. When his nephew the new king expressed his desire to attack the Moors in retaliation for the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Henry offered advice and encouragement. In 1458 another Portuguese fleet set sail for Morocco with the 64-year-old Henry among the first to step ashore. Well prepared, the force quickly overcame the defenders of Alcácer-Sequir and the king asked Henry to join him in accepting the surrender. Both were back in Portugal within a week of their departure.
Henry returned to his life as a recluse and remained in the south, either on his estate at Raposeira in the Algarve or at a smaller residence at Sagres. The explorations meanwhile continued. In 1457 one of Henry’s captains at last made contact in Gambia with traders from Mali and Timbuktu. He established friendly relations with the local chieftains and when they expressed an interest in Christianity he reported this to Henry, who immediately dispatched a priest.
Henry, Prince of Portugal, Grand Master of the Order of Christ, Governor of Ceuta and the Algarves, Duke of Viseu, Lord of Covilhalm, Knight of the Garter, known to history as The Navigator, died quietly at Sagres in 1460 at the age of sixty-six. For some months he had believed his death to be imminent and had carefully put his affairs in order. He transferred two of the islands of the Azores to the control of an adopted son and arranged for the Cape Verde islands to be administered by the crown. Two other of the Azores were given to the Order of Christ, as Madeira had been some years earlier. He saw to the affairs of the University of Lisbon, the hospital he had built at Tomar, which was headquarters for the Order of Christ, and the chapel he had constructed at Belém near the mouth of the Tagus river.
It is reported that as word of his passing spread, the king ‘and all the people of Portugal mourned the death of so great a prince’. Henry had asked that he be buried simply and without ceremony. Consistent with his wish, he was interred with due recognition for his achievements but without ceremony or pomp and placed in the same chapel as his parents, King John I and Philippa, and beside his brothers.
Henry’s ships had sailed as far south as Sierra Leone, an unimaginable feat at the time of his birth. It was written of the prince that ‘the land and the seas are full of your name; for by continual effort you united the East with the West.’49
South of Guinea
By the time of Henry’s death it had become apparent that the fabled wealth of Mali was just that: a fable. This region of the Niger had been on the economic decline for decades. Expeditions inland revealed a disappointing collection of mud huts and small cultivated fields. One adventurer reported:
I saw clearly that, though these [rulers] pass as lords, it must not be thought that they have castles or cities . . . Such men are not lords by virtue of treasure or money, but on account of ceremonies and the following of people they may truly be called lords. Indeed they receive beyond comparison more obedience than our lords.50
He noted the generally poor conditions under which the people lived and the overall lack of gold
Although trade opportunities and a source of gold remained primary Portuguese objections, they were no longer the only ones. The idea of circumnavigating Africa to reach the origin of the spice trade had gradually become an important part of the mix. While the prospect was tantalizing, the Portuguese still had no idea how far south the African continent extended, or whether such a passage was geographically possible.
The Portuguese captains had sailed as far south as Cape Verga, some 50 miles below the Rio Grande. Now lacking Henry’s interest and drive, the Portuguese explorations stalled. Over the next years there was just a single voyage, which went as far south as Sierra Leone. Here the coast of Africa made a decided turn eastward, and at least one ancient map showed this to be the most southerly point of the African continent. The way to Asia seemed to loom before the Portuguese, but there was no one to lead the way.
Without Henry’s influence Alfonso V was more interested in the glory he would gain by attacking the Moors in north Africa than in continuing the explorations and, after his easy victory at Alcácer-Sequir, seized both Arizila and Tangier in 1471. His conquests demanded a constant stream of money, so the merchants in Lisbon continued the prosperous Africa trade, both for profit and to pay the increasingly severe taxes. João de Barros, who had access to contemporary records that no longer exist, wrote in his work Décades da Asia:
At this time the trade of Guiné was already very current between our men and the inhabitants of those parts, and they carried on their business in peace and friendliness, without those war-like incursions, assaults and robberies which happened at the beginnings – as could not have been otherwise with people so wild and barbarous, both in law and customs and in the use of the things of this our Europe.
These people were always intractable. However, after they learned something of the truth through the benefits they received, both spiritual and intellectual, and articles for their use, they became so well disposed that when ships, sailing from this Kingdom, arrived at their ports, many people came from the interior to seek their goods, which they received in exchange for human beings, who were brought here more for salvation than for slavery.
The fact was that a Portuguese merchant looking to barter was more likely to make the journey to Africa than a knight seeking glory, or a priest in search of converts. Captives were processed through the fortress at Arguin Island and most ended their days in the fields of Madeira working the sugarcane fields, though a significant number were sold in Portugal because of its chronic shortage of labourers. By one reckoning as much as 10 per cent of labour in Portugal was provided by African slaves, although other sources dispute this estimate.
Not only were the king’s military conquests expensive, but the cities held in north Africa were a constant drain on the treasury as each had to be manned by a garrison. From time to time the Muslims marshalled forces in an effort to reclaim one of the cities, requiring fresh troops and supplies to be dispatched at considerable cost. In addition, as had been the case with Ceuta, there was no money to be made, as the Moors cut the Christian-occupied cities off from all trade.
With the Portuguese there was always a healthy mix of the merchant in the explorations that compared more closely with the Italian city-states than with Spain, England or France. The increasing profits merchants obtained from the slave and gold trade stimulated interest in expanding the explorations. In 1469 Fernão Gomes, a respected citizen in Lisbon, entered into an agreement with the king for a period of five years, which was later extended for one year. During that time he received a trade monopoly in the lands he discovered below the farthest point the Portuguese had already reached, although some items remained exclusive to the king. In exchange, Gomes agreed to pay 200,000 reis a year and to maintain the exclusion he was required to press the point of discovery at least 100 leagues annually.
The men Gomes dispatched exceeded these requirements and pushed the length of new coastline more than 2,000 miles between 1469 and 1474. From the viewpoint of Gomes, who looked to make money from this effort, and Alfonso V, who also stood to profit, the voyages could not have been more successful.
The first went as far as Abidjan, where the captain traded trinkets, metal and cloth for melagueta pepper, woven baskets and slaves. This ‘Guinea pepper’, as it was known, was more like cardamom than true Indian pepper, but there was a steady market for it. The following year at a point near today’s Ghana, the excited Portuguese came upon a thriving local trade in gold. So commonplace was the precious metal in the region they called El Mina, or ‘the mine’or ‘the Gold Coast’, that it was available for little to nothing. For the first time Portugal began to experience an inflow of wealth for which until now they had only hoped.
The king ordered the striking of a gold coin, significantly named the cruzado (‘crusade’), the first gold coin in Portugal since 1385. This Guinea gold was used to buy manufactured goods and corn from northern Europe and helped to improve the national economy. The gold coins were called Portugaloisers throughout Europe for hundreds of years.
In 1472 the coastline of Africa disappointingly turned southward again and proved to be especially unhealthy. The air was hot and sticky, and the contrary currents were warm, causing barnacles and worms to flourish on and in their hulls. Landfall was especially deadly because of both disease and hostile natives, to whom word of the slave trade had already travelled. Indeed, a Flemish ship that dared the coast was wrecked and its surviving crew of thirty-five was reportedly eaten by the locals, much to the delight of the Portuguese when they heard the story.51
Still, before the expiration of his lease Gomes had pushed the point of discovery to Gabon, some 100 miles south of the equator. He had become enormously rich in the process and in the final year of the lease was knighted. His new coat of arms bore testament to the means of his wealth. The coat as described by Barros was ‘a shield with crest and three heads of Negroes on a field of silver, each with golden rings in ears and nose, and a collar of gold around the neck’. Gomes was also given the surname ‘Da Mina’.
* * *
In addition to their steady probing southward, the Portuguese also made efforts at exploration to the west, across the Atlantic. Given their appreciation of the true magnitude of the size of the Earth, it is unlikely they were actively seeking a route to Asia, though they were always open to the possibility if suitable islands for resupply could be found. Madeira was proving prosperous, and other lands with similar potential could exist. Legend told of many islands in the western seas and it was only natural, once the Portuguese possessed the means, that they would seek them out. Failures were generally not well recorded, if recorded at all, so we cannot know the full extent of the effort in that region.
However, from the death of Henry until the 1480s royal charters were regularly issued, granting lordships to certain captains for lands reported to have been discovered or observed at a distance. Expeditions were sent to find these islands, without success, but the belief among those living on Madeira or the Azores fed the continuing expectation of western lands. They heard stories of seamen posted in the crow’s nest having seen distant islands; they recovered bits of wood washed up following violent storms; they saw flocks of land birds winging to them from across the vast ocean. Stories of every kind spread among the seamen and navigators, all to one degree or another suggesting the existence of significant lands to the west. When living on Madeira, Christopher Columbus had seen for himself the body of a man of unknown origin and race washed up on the shore following a storm. Some time before 1474 two Portuguese noblemen appear to have reached Greenland or Newfoundland as part of this effort to explore to the west.
One interesting result of the expeditions dispatched into the north Atlantic is a notation inscribed in the mosaic pavement on Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade. It reads, ‘João Vaz Corte-Real, Discoverer of America 1472’.52
* * *
At the conclusion of Gomes’s lease, the king transferred contro
From 1475 to 1480 another of the periodic wars with Spain was fought and during these years entire fleets of Spanish ships boldly encroached on to the Gold Coast to exploit trade. This was a source of great concern to the Portuguese, especially since the Spanish were not alone. Intruders from England and Flanders were also routinely spotted. Such was the Portuguese concern that the war-ending Treaty of Alcáçovas addressed these issues. The treaty was to have profound impact on subsequent events, far beyond incursions by Spanish interlopers.
Title to the Canary Islands, which were ideally situated as a provisioning station for the African voyages, had been in dispute by the two nations ever since Portugal and Castile discovered them at about the same time. It is generally accepted that the Canary Islands are the Fortunatae Insulae of ancient times and they were probably known to both the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians. The Roman Pliny described them as a land where wild dogs roamed, and from that came their modern name. The Pope awarded them to Castile in 1344 but the French took them by force in 1462. Spain reclaimed them but the Portuguese continued to dispute ownership, correctly taking Spain’s insistence on retaining the islands as an indication that the Spanish had aspirations in Africa.
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