Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 11
In this case Spain had been the first to colonize the islands, which was the only true way to hold a claim, but Portugal had planted a colony of its own for a time and undisputed ownership was an issue Spain wanted resolved. Under the treaty Portugal conceded the Canaries to Spain, but in exchange Portugal was granted clear title and exclusive access to the lands it had discovered to date in Africa, and most significantly to ‘all the islands which have been discovered, mentioned, or conquered from the Canaries southward’.
The effect was to stop any southern expansion or exploitation by Spain. One consequence was the sympathetic reception Christopher Columbus received from the Spanish court once Isabella and Ferdinand had conquered Granada in 1492. They now had the time and money to turn their attention to exploration but, prevented by the treaty from southward explorations on the way to India, they were prepared to finance Columbus’s voyage west. Even if he failed to reach India, Spain could claim any lands he discovered. They also possessed the Canary Islands, from which Columbus would sail. The winds there made his success highly probable.
With the sudden death of King Alfonso V in 1481, his son John, just twenty-six years old, assumed the throne as John II, the sovereign the Portuguese were to call ‘The Perfect Prince’(O Principe Perfecto). Ambitious and powerful nobles were jealous of their feudal prerogatives and did not welcome a strong king. Alfonso V had slowly dissipated the authority and wealth of the crown by transferring much of it to the nobility. Whenever there was an adverse change, or when the throne was transferred, the nobles were ready to defy the central authority and reclaim lost powers or make a grab for even more. John II took as his first objective crushing the ‘nascent conspiracy of the nobles’.53
The royal chroniclers naturally present their patron and his ancestors in the most flattering light. John II was a remarkable man and king, but in calling him the Perfect Prince they did not mean that he was a perfect man; rather, they meant that he was well possessed of the necessary attributes required of a successful king. John II openly boasted that he followed the tenants of Machiavelli and imitated the strategies of the unscrupulous Louis XI of France. Despite his great affection for the powerful Duke of Bragança, his brother-in-law, he had him arrested and, following a show trial, had him executed. He personally stabbed to death his wife’s brother the Duke of Viseu, in the palace at Setúbal, though there is little doubt of the duke’s persistent treacherous conduct. When the queen objected to the killing of her brother, King John threatened to try her for treason if she was not silent. In his drive to secure power, John murdered the bishop of Évora by having him thrown alive down a well and then executed, with or without trial, eighty of the leading Portuguese lords. He not only crushed rivals and potential rivals but also seized their lands and thereby refilled the treasury, which his father had left empty. It was this wealth that made possible the next phase of explorations.54
There is a picture of John II written by a highly opinionated Pole who visited the Portuguese court in 1484:
The King is of medium height . . . He is beyond a doubt the wisest and most virtuous of his people. He should be about twenty-nine years old. And he had with him his heir of nine years, of an English cast of countenance, and him he always kept at his side at table. The king partakes of only four or five dishes at meals, and drinks only well water, without sugar or spices. His son drinks wine with water and eats the same food as his father, but from a special service . . . Below the table and at the feet of the king are always six or eight pages, and one more on either side of him, to drive away the flies with silken fans.
There are Portuguese endowed with much subtlety . . . [but] in general the nobility, the citizens, and the peasants of this country are . . . coarse, poor, lacking in good manners and ignorant, in spite of their pretence of wisdom. They remind one of the English, who do not admit any society equal to theirs. The Portuguese have more loyalty among themselves and also for their king – more loyalty than the English. They are not as cruel and insensate as these. They show themselves more sober in eating and drinking. None the less they are ugly, dark, and black, almost like negroes. They wear cloaks black and voluminous. . . . In love [their women] are ardent . . . they dress their hair with no exaggerated adornment and wear scarves of woollen cloth, or a neckerchief of silk. They allow one to look upon their faces without hindrance, and also upon much of their bosoms, for which purpose their shifts and outer dresses are cut generously low. Below their waist they wear many skirts so that their posteriors are broad and beautiful, so full that I say it in all truth in the whole world nothing finer is to be seen. They are for the most part sensual, fickle like men, lewd and greedy for money. . . . The women are so dissolute that rarely can one meet a young girl of ‘guaranteed’ virtue. To satisfy their desires they suffer no scruples to stand in their way. Besides all this, both husbands and wives have lovers, and it would be an illusion to travel among [them] to learn good manners or virtue.55
The sexual laxity of Portuguese society, even among the clergy, was notorious. Between 1389 and 1438 two archbishops, five bishops, eleven archdeacons, nine deans, four chanters, seventy-two canons and some six hundred priests received official permission to legitimize their bastard children. This does not include, of course, the many clerics who never applied for permission.56
The Portuguese achievements in Africa were by this time in jeopardy and John II made this his next priority. He ordered interlopers into the gold trade to be stopped, crews to be captured and their vessels and goods to be seized. He solidified the control of the monarchy over the African trade and in 1482 dispatched one of his most loyal officers, Diogo de Azambuja, with a fleet of 12 ships and a complement of 600 men,100 of whom where masons and craftsmen, with instructions to construct a permanent Portuguese presence in the form of a fortress on the Gold Coast.9
Azambuja selected a suitable harbour just west of Accra in today’s Ghana. The local king, Kwamena Ansah, was by now well accustomed to the Portuguese, but could see that this fleet was something very different from what had come before. Arrangements were made to meet on the beach, and when the Portuguese arrived they were decked out in court dress to make the most favourable impression possible. Until now the typical Portuguese had been, in the words of the king, ‘ill-dressed and ragged men only’. Clearly these Europeans were up to something significant. By way of greeting the king ordered his musicians and warriors to play and sing, creating a nearly deafening noise.
When Kwamena Ansah heard from Azambuja that he wished to build a ‘great house’, he argued that it was best to leave matters as they had been. ‘Friends who meet occasionally remain better friends than if they were neighbours’, he said. But Azambuja was not to be dissuaded and he had the force of arms and numbers to impose his will if it came to a fight. In the end Kwamena Ansah had no voice in the matter. He had profited from his dealings with the Portuguese to date and there was every reason to expect the situation to continue. The alternative was to pick what would almost certainly be a losing fight against a formidable opponent.
Within twenty days the outer wall of the fortress was raised ‘to a good height, and the tower to the first floor’. Before long the structure was complete. Azambuja remained for more than two and a half years, losing many of his men to disease – though not as many as expected. During that time he established prices and rules for trade that remained in effect for some years. When he returned to Portugal, he took with him ‘much gold’, leaving in place a permanent garrison of sixty soldiers, as he had been instructed.
The fortress of El Mina, also called São Jorge, was the first permanent European settlement on the continent of tropical Africa. In time it grew to an ever larger and more imposing size, and it remains today. It diverted the trade in gold from the Moorish caravans at considerable economic loss to them, enriching the Portuguese monarchy an average of 170,000 dobras of gold annually for some twenty-five years. Trade from the region was so important to Portugal that the Casa da Mina (‘House of the
Tens of thousands of slaves passed through El Mina’s barred gates on their way to lives of ceaseless labour and endless night. Besides serving as a portal for slaves and as a trading post, El Mina was invaluable to the Portuguese as a provisioning station for vessels en route further south. It remained the focal point of the Portuguese presence in the region until 1637, when it was captured by the Dutch.
The growing policy of secrecy, which marked much of the Portuguese explorations, means that knowledge of the following decades is limited, but some details have been established. John II was eager to renew the voyages, which had been delayed by war with Spain, and the exploitation and consolidation of the Portuguese position on the Gold Coast. Selected for the next effort was Diogo Cão, an experienced captain typical of the sort the Portuguese were now producing with regularity.
These captains were brave, resourceful, skilled in seamanship and navigation, excellent leaders, but most of all they possessed the desire to expand the range of the known world. No doubt some of this eagerness stemmed from the ample rewards they received when they were fortunate enough to return alive, but there was more to it than personal gain. The vision begun by Prince Henry had become imbedded in the effort itself. Captains and seamen were filled with the desire not just for riches but to discover the unknown, to spread the Word to the pagan and to make contact with the elusive Prester John. This was now part of the Portuguese national character.
The Portuguese effort was identified not just by its successes but also by the manner in which it was conducted. The men sent south possessed a commitment to precise observation. They mapped their routes with unprecedented accuracy, producing logs that were readily comprehensible to the next Portuguese captain. They documented the vegetation and animals they encountered, as well as the habits and customs of the people with whom they came into contact. This was not a haphazard effort; it was methodical, as well as being daringly executed.
Cão was a ‘man of the people’, although he came from a distinguished family line that included Pedro Alfonso Cão, who had served as bailiff for King Dinis, and a grandfather, Gonçalo Cão, who reportedly distinguished himself in the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. Cão had captured three Spanish usurpers off the Guinea coast in 1480, which singled him out for special consideration.57
For the first time in dispatching an expedition, the ultimate Portuguese objective was clearly spelt out. Cão was to voyage south, but his goal was to seek the passage to India. He bore with him specific instructions and regulations that governed the nature of his exploration. He was to check all possible routes heading east. He was to search for Prester John by sailing as far as possible up major rivers and by establishing contact with the locals.58 His was to be a systematic and deliberate exploration.
Just a year after John II assumed the throne, Cão left Lisbon harbour bearing new stone pillars (padrões) with which to mark key points of his anticipated discoveries. The first taken by Cão was 1.69 metres high and 73 centimetres in circumference, mounted on a slightly larger pedestal. Both the shaft and the pedestal were of a single block of lioz, a coarse marble common in the Lisbon area.59
This was an idea credited to the king. Until now the Portuguese had marked their progress by erecting wooden crosses or by carving a message into a prominent tree. These new pillars were intended to be more permanent and conspicuous. Once in place, a wooden cross was placed above them. The pillar itself bore the royal arms, an inscription in Portuguese and occasionally also in Latin, the date, the name of the king who ordered the voyage and the identity of the captain. All four of the pillars taken on his voyages have been discovered.60
Cão stopped first at the fortress at El Mina to resupply, then a few weeks later passed the previous point of discovery, just below the equator at Cape St Catherine, taking the time to observe the tree where the southernmost location had been marked. Resuming his voyage, progress southward was tedious since the prevailing current ran towards the north and the surf was heavy. The vessel worked close to shore, as was still the common practice, and only made progress against the prevalent current by the judicious use of a southward wind and favourable land breezes. It was tedious and treacherous going, especially since Cão was in a vessel of older design, not one of the new caravels.
The Portuguese had already surmised that the land in this region was injurious to the crews and conscientiously avoided landfall. This meant that deaths aboard ship required burial at sea, a practice accepted of necessity but distasteful to the Catholic crews, who preferred consecrated ground or at the least earth itself. As the days past, the heavy rains and thick vegetation slowly faded away and for a time the country became nearly arid in character. Cão sailed along a ridge of fine red sandstone cliffs, then a short time later moved away from the coast, seeking more favourable winds. Five leagues out to sea he found his ship surrounded by heavily earth-coloured water that proved to be fresh, the certain sign of a huge river.
Cão turned towards land and entered the mouth of the Congo river, the first European known to have done so. Along its banks his men observed many more natives than had ever previously been reported in one place. Word of the Portuguese had not travelled this far, so the crew were not greeted with violence when they stepped ashore. Although those people resembled the natives of Guinea, with their black skin and short curly hair, their language was different and the Portuguese African interpreters could not make themselves understood. Communication was reduced to hand gestures, which were sufficient for a number of the locals to come aboard the vessel, where they received cloth in exchange for bits of ivory.
The locals made it known they were part of a kingdom whose powerful ruler, Mani Congo, lived several days’march inland. Portugal needed allies along the route to India and Cão’s instructions were to make friendly contact wherever possible, and so he indicated his desire for a meeting. He then dispatched black Christian emissaries, probably Africans seized on earlier voyages and trained for such work, with suitable gifts to attempt to establish amicable relations and inform the king of the Portuguese desire to trade. Once his men were on their way, Cão ordered a pillar to be set in place.
Although the guides who went with the emissaries had assured the Portuguese that the trip to their ruler and back would take only a few days, Cão waited several months without hearing from his men. All attempts to learn their fate proved futile, and with great reluctance Cão eventually set sail, turning again to the south.
The most distant point Cão reached was some 400 miles further on, in the southern part of what is now Angola. There he erected another pillar. Written in Portuguese, it read:
In the year 6681 of the World, and in that of 1482 since the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most serene, most excellent and potent prince King D. João II of Portugal did order this land to be discovered and these padrões to be set up by D Cão, an esquire of his household.61
Cão then returned to the Congo river to retrieve his long overdue men. The annoyed captain was eager to return to Portugal to report his progress and his discovery of what appeared to be a vast inland kingdom, possibly even that of Prester John or of a ruler who knew his location. When he saw his men were still not waiting, he seized four natives from shore and made it known to those remaining that these men would be returned within fifteen months in exchange for his missing emissaries.
In fact, Cão’s messengers had been well received by the Mani Congo and it was his interest in them and what they had to say that had delayed their return. However, according to Ruy de Pina, when the African king heard of what he considered Cão’s high-handed methods, he refused future contact with the emissaries and vowed to kill them should his four subjects not be returned. Unaware of the threat, Cão made his way slowly north towards home.
At about this time, and
King John was also dealing with a conspiracy and rebellion at this time. The previous May he had executed the Duke of Bragança for treason and only a few months after meeting with Columbus he personally assassinated the Duke of Viseu. Between all the bloodshed the king still found time for the discoveries.
Columbus, who at this time had lived in Lisbon for eight years, was well known to the Portuguese court through his late wife’s well-connected family. His oft-repeated proposition that it was possible to reach India by sailing west was not original but was still intriguing. As early as 1474 a similar claim by a Florentine physician, Paolo Toscanelli, had been presented to the Portuguese, and rejected.
Columbus, however, was highly influenced by Toscanelli’s argument that the world was small enough to reach Asia by sailing directly west. Such a passage, Columbus believed, would not exceed more than a month. Drawing as he generally did on the Bible to make his points, Columbus was more than a bit of an eccentric, and his science was highly suspect, as the Discoveries had demonstrated that his non-biblical sources were not credible. But although the unconventional Genoan was known to be ‘very boastful in his affairs’, John II was willing to listen.
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