Unknown seas the portugu.., p.12

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 12


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  At this meeting Columbus argued that six-sevenths of the world was ‘known’ to be land. Hence, with so much ocean already discovered by the Portuguese, there was surely land to the west. He reminded the king that Alexander the Great had sent the philosopher Onesicritus with a fleet to Ceylon, and that the Roman emperor Nero had dispatched two centurions to Ethiopia to explore the source of the Nile. Above all, he assured the king that gold would come from his successful voyage.63 His arguments, contrary as they were to what was known, were not persuasive; but even had that not been the case, the Genoan’s demands for remuneration were simply outrageous, vastly exceeding anything that any previous Portuguese captain had received. Worse, he concluded his presentation by flatly demanding that King John grant his request.

  Columbus was instructed to meet with members of the junta to present his argument. They made short work of his presentation, reaching the conclusion that his words were ‘vain, simply founded on imagination’. Columbus was officially informed of the king’s refusal in late 1484. By the following spring he was already in Spain on his way to the Spanish court.

  Some time before April 1484 Cão entered Lisbon harbour after an absence of a year and a half, the longest voyage yet. His report was enthusiastically received and the young captain was made a cavaleiro of the king’s household. When the full extent of his accomplishment was understood a few weeks later, he was made a nobleman and given a coat of arms bearing images of the two pillars he had erected on the coast of Africa.

  One of the four captives proved to be a nobleman. He soon learned to speak Portuguese and was able to convey detailed information about his people and the region of the Congo river, much to the delight of King John. He was well treated, as were his companions, who were given clothes of silk and other fine gifts.

  Political problems, or perhaps the opposition of the royal advisers to any further expeditions,10

  prevented an immediate return, but in the autumn of 1485 Cão left on his second voyage, taking with him all four of the hostages he had seized. Also accompanying him was one of the great astronomers of the time, José Vizinho, who was to take measurements of the sun and stars in the southern hemisphere. The invention of new navigational devices and methods was a process at which the Portuguese were demonstrating a remarkable expertise.

  Cão may have been joined by a second vessel, commanded by a certain Martin Behaim, identified by Ravenstein as Martim de Bohemia, which suggests he was not Portuguese. Some historians disagree over the existence of this second vessel, the only evidence for which is Behaim’s own account, and argue that he did not go with Cão but was on the Guinea coast with a different expedition. In addition to trade goods, Cão took eighteen horses with magnificent harnesses, meant as gifts to Mani Congo. Wherever the Portuguese were to go, their splendid large horses were in constant demand.

  Once again Cão sailed directly to the fortress at El Mina, where he took on new supplies and fresh water. He then set a course across the Gulf of Guinea, bypassing the unhealthy shores along modern Nigeria and Cameroon and sailing instead out to sea before turning east and heading directly for the mouth of the Congo river. The Portuguese were becoming more experienced at blue-water sailing and, as they accomplished it with greater success, recognized the advantages it offered. The winds were likely to be strong and constant, and there was no danger of attack by enemies or death from disease.

  By taking the degree of elevation of the sun at noon a captain could fix the latitude of his vessel when it was out to sea, away from recognized land markings. There was no effective means for determining longitude, and nor would there be for some centuries. For this reason maps of this era generally place discoveries accurately by latitude, but longitude, which was based on guesswork and experience, was often seriously distorted. Since ancient times the theory had been accepted, contrary to the view held by Columbus but no more accurate, that the Earth was balanced by an equal amount of land to water. Since they crossed so much water to reach a new land, explorers, unable to determine the exact measurements, routinely estimated land masses as far greater than was the case.

  The Portuguese invented the technique of following favourable winds far into blue water while carefully fixing their location by latitude. As the latitude of the location they were seeking was neared, the vessel was then turned eastward until making landfall, at which time their location from the objective was determined by locating prominent points on their map. This is what Cão did on his second voyage. The shortest distance between two points for a sailing vessel is not a straight line, but rather the route of the prevailing winds.

  But it was the often lethal consequences that made such excursions out of the sight of land so daring. In the event of storms there was no time to seek safe harbour. If a ship was damaged near shore, it was possible in most cases to beach the vessel and effect repairs. At the very least, the crew could escape on to land and signal to a passing ship for rescue. Similar damage far out to sea meant certain death for all on board. Morover, extended voyages without fresh supplies were proving hard on the crews, with cases of scurvy beginning to occur.

  Before the explorations scurvy had not been widely experienced, though the harsh diet of the poor was so relentless that cases were not unknown on land. But now, as the ships stayed at sea for longer durations to avoid the treacherous coastal currents, the Portuguese were forced to deal with the frightening and deadly disease. Depending on the condition of the crew at sailing –and their state was often not the best – the disease first showed its effects about three months into a voyage if there had been little or no fresh produce during that time.

  The disease took several forms, and it was some decades before the symptoms were recognized as representing a single illness. Sailors commonly suffered from discoloration beneath the skin, swollen legs and putrid gums. What affected the conduct of the ship was the prevailing lassitude the crewmen suffered. The slightest effort caused extreme exhaustion. Ill seamen would attempt to stand watch and die on their feet. Because the spirits of the afflicted generally remained high and their death was often quite sudden, scurvy had an especially debilitating effect on the morale of the crew. As the disease progressed to its final stages, those suffering lost their teeth, ulcers appeared throughout their body, scars reopened as if they were fresh wounds, and their bones seemed to dissolve within them.64 As terrible as it was for the crew, scurvy could, and did, prove deadly for the ship itself. Left to run its natural course, which often could not be avoided, a ship was left without a crew to man the sails or tiller. Although the specific cure for scurvy was unknown, it was understood to occur when crews were denied fresh fruit and vegetables for an extended period. With these not available as the Portuguese pushed southward, more than one of their ships was lost with all hands, probably because of scurvy.

  As Cão entered the Congo river ‘there was great rejoicing . . . [when] it became known that the hostages . . . were on board his ship.’65 The natives had doubtless been speculating as to whether the Portuguese would ever return with their countrymen. Once on board, they expressed their pleasure at seeing the hostages so well treated. As commanded by the king, Cão released one of the four at once to carry a message inland. When his men were returned to him he would release the other three, as happened within days. Cão also said that his ships would continue on south, but would soon return, by which time the Portuguese would have other matters to discuss with the king and also more gifts besides the horses to present.

  Cão was under orders not to waste time and to pursue the passage to India if at all possible. He sailed his vessel out to sea and once again turned south. Along the way he landed from time to time and seized more locals, on the standing order of the king that whenever a native was found who spoke an unknown language he was to be taken.

  One hundred and twenty-five miles south of his previous pillar Cão erected another, then continued on. The forest was now interspersed with sandy hills and barren land, occasionally broken by a riv
er or stream flanked by green vegetation. More hospitable than the tropics, it was reminiscent of the desert region in northwest Africa and an indication that the climate would improve as the Portuguese continued their course down the coast.

  The coastline continued, however, to head stubbornly south and the ship was forced to make its way against the strong Benguela current. So slow was their progress that it became increasingly clear that the way to India was not to be discovered on this voyage. With supplies running low and fewer places at which to replenish the water supply, Cão was forced to accept the inevitable. At Cape Cross, near Walvis Bay in modern Namibia, on a red sandstone point, unknowingly still some 1,000 miles from the tip of Africa, he went ashore and erected his final pillar.66 It was a moment of both pride and profound disappointment for the young man, so recently ennobled.

  Back at the Congo river, he sailed up to Ielala Falls, the furthest point his ship could navigate. He led a party of men and, bearing special gifts, set out to complete the second portion of his mission. His meetings with the king were cordial, with Mani Congo indicating his desire to be baptized a Christian and to be allied with the king of Portugal.

  Things could not have gone better. The king selected one of the earlier hostages to serve as ambassador to Portugal and requested missionaries to instruct his people, masons and carpenters to build churches and houses, and other craftsmen to teach farming and the other necessary skills to improve the lot of his people. He pronounced, ‘The kingdom of the Congo shall be like Portugal in Africa.’ Along with the new ambassador, Mani Congo sent the sons of prominent families to become Christians and to learn Portuguese, each of them bearing gifts of ivory and palm cloth. The unsuccessful attempt to establish this kingdom as a new Portugal diverted valuable resources and attention for the next few years.

  The expedition returned to Portugal in 1486 or early 1487, after a voyage variously estimated to have lasted between twelve and nineteen months. Somewhere between his meeting with Mani Congo and here Cão is lost to history. According to one account, the captain lost many men ‘from the heat’, which can be taken to also include fever from tropical disease. Indeed, if Cão did perish on the trip itself, it was probably from disease, as there is no record of hostilities. One account, however, states that he lived long enough to reach Lisbon, but died soon after.

  Although the most prized goal of his expedition had eluded him, Cão had still accomplished the remarkable. He had made a good beginning towards establishing favourable relations with a major kingdom in central Africa, and had increased the point of the known world and the route to India by some 1,500 miles. Yet he was apparently discouraged because he had failed to fulfil the most important part of his mission.

  It was beginning to seem that the African coastline stretched to infinity. King John, however, was undeterred. He had received information from a mission to the kingdom of Benin which suggested that the land of Prester John was closer than expected, and so the tip of Africa could not lie much further south than Cão’s final pillar.67 Inaccurate though it was, this belief spurred him to action.

  One of the conclusions drawn from Cão’s successful voyages was that a single vessel, or even two, could not possibly carry the supplies required for the passage to India. Opportunities in southern Africa for resupply were too limited, and the length of the voyage meant a vast quantity of staples had to be taken from the start. Future expeditions would require a small fleet.


  ‘. . . To the place where the sun rises’

  There was a postscript to the king’s meeting with Christopher Columbus, who by this time was languishing in Spain. In 1486 John II was approached by a Portuguese captain, Fernão Dulmo (or van Olm), one of the Flemings who had settled in the Azores, with a plan to sail directly west to discover new lands, in particular the ‘island of the Seven Cities’ of Portuguese legend. He would outfit himself at his own cost, asking only for suitable ‘titles of honour’if successful. This was promised and Dulmo, joined by another captain, set sail in March 1487 with two ships.68

  As with so many others nothing more is known of this expedition. They left from the Portuguese-held Azores, which meant they had the misfortune of sailing in the teeth of the westerlies while Columbus had the luck to leave from the Spanish-held Canary Islands and benefited from favourable winds.69 There are suggestions that the expedition returned safely, though without having discovered the American continent.

  The true prize, however, lay south. Convinced that the objective was at hand, King John was eager to round Africa and open the sea route to India. He wasted no time after the return of Cão’s ship in ordering an immediate resumption of the quest. Within a month he named Bartholomeu Dias de Novaes, identified as a cavaleiro of the king’s household and superintendent of the royal warehouses, as commander of the next expedition.

  There are only suggestions as to Dias’s accomplishments before his selection as captain of this important expedition. He obviously enjoyed the confidence of the king as the position of superintendent carried some responsibility. It is recorded that Dias was ‘patron’ of a royal vessel and had already been granted an annuity of 6,000 reis.70 He is believed to be the same Dias whom John II, then crown prince, had exonerated from payment of the customary royalty on ivory brought from the Guinea coast in 1478. He was also captain of one of the ships sent in 1482 with Diogo de Azambuja to the Gold Coast to build the fortress of El Mina,71 but neither his age nor any other details of his life are known. It is occasionally asserted that he was descended from the family of João Dias, who had made a name during the time the Portuguese were rounding Cape Bojador, and of Dinis Dias, who discovered Cape Verde, but these claims have not been proved.

  No original documents have survived from Dias’s expedition and references are incomplete and even occasionally contradictory, but there is much of which we can be reasonably certain. Preparations for the voyage were made in detail, and it was not until ten months after the return of Cão’s vessel that Dias set sail on a voyage that was to last sixteen months and seventeen days.

  A great deal had been learned from the earlier expeditions and Dias benefited from recent significant advances in both navigation and shipbuilding. This voyage was to be beyond anything that had gone before. Dias was not to land regularly and risk the health and safety of his crew by exposure to hostile locals or tropical disease. Opportunities to obtain fresh supplies would accordingly be limited and so a ship specifically designated to carry provisions was made ready and provisioned. Included with the supplies were three pillars. By this time the techniques for maintaining their ships so far from port facilities were well advanced, and Dias’s fleet carried with it ample supplies of spare sail, spars and rigging as well as crews skilled in servicing and repairing the hull.

  The chief pilot was Pero d’Alenquer, who was exceptionally close to the king. Although a commoner, he had been given permission to wear garments made of silk, along with the gold neck chain that bore the whistle of his office. So close was d’Alenquer to the king that he could comfortably disagree with him in public. It is recounted that at a dinner with King John and his courtiers, some from other countries, the discussion turned to the merits of the traditional square-sailed vessel, as compared to the modern caravel. The king voiced the opinion that the square-sailed ships could not successfully navigate the far coasts of Africa. D’Alenquer took strong exception and boasted that he could take such a voyage in any kind of vessel, regardless of the size or type of sails. The king pointed out that he and his predecessors had ordered such ships repeatedly to the south and they had all failed, whereupon d’Alenquer insisted he would have been successful had he been given such orders. The discussion became so heated that the king stalked angrily out of the room, shouting to the others, ‘There is nothing that a common fool does not think he can do, but when it comes to the crunch he does nothing.’

  Later the king met with d’Alenquer in private and explained that he had been seeking to withhold secret inf
ormation about what could and could not be accomplished with which kind of ship. Few other than the Portuguese had the caravel, but many nations possessed square-rigged vessels and he did not wish it to be known they were capable of such voyages.72 He had acted aggressively and surreptitiously to stop incursions by Spanish ships and others from trading in Guinea. He had been spreading the rumour that square-sailed, round-hulled ships were not capable of the return voyage from west Africa. His pilot had been putting those efforts at deception at risk.

  In furtherance of this ploy the king conspicuously sent ageing Dutch vessels carrying provisions, lime and tiles down the coast of Africa. Once the ships arrived, the crews secretly broke them up so there was no possibility of them ever being seen again, which would give weight to the myth he was creating. The crews were sworn to secrecy and when some were caught attempting to travel to Spain to sell the secret, they were killed on his orders.73

  Dias was given instructions ‘to sail southwards and on to the place where the sun rises, and to continue as long as it was possible to do so’.74 He was under strict orders to avoid conflict with locals and, whenever possible, to gain their confidence with gifts. He was to command a caravel of just 50 tons, which was matched by another such caravel under the command of João Infante, a knight who had been with Cão. The supply ship was of traditional design and was captained by Dias’s brother Pero, who had also been with Cão. Others from Cão’s voyage were among the crew, including Alvaro Martins, an experienced pilot. Barros reports that each of the men was an expert in his field. Given the adventure about to unfold, the small caravels were of such modest size that, despite their excellent sailing characteristics, their eventual success was all but impossible. The crew lived and slept above deck, constantly exposed to the elements for a voyage that would last well over a year.


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