Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 14
He deliberated the matter after the return of his first emissaries and decided to send others more suited for the mission he had in mind, men who had loyalty and most of all courage upon which he could rely. Of the two he selected, the one about whom less is known is Alfonso de Paiva, a courtier and native of Castelo Branco. It is reported that he spoke both Spanish and Arabic, and one unreliable source claims that his family came from the Canary Islands.87 Considerably more, however, is known about Pêro de Covilhan (or Covilhão), the senior figure.
Covilhan was already in service to the king and had an impressive record of performance. He came from the mountains of Beira in north central Portugal and was a man of mature years, about forty, with a wife and children. He had lived several years in Spain and taken an active part in night fighting and skirmishes in Seville. He had distinguished himself at the Battle of Toro, in which both Alfonso V and John II had fought, and had then lived in France, where he was associated with King Louis XI. For one year he served as a Portuguese spy in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, reporting on the activities of Portuguese expatriates, always a source of concern to any Portuguese king. He had attended Alfonso V as an esquire until his death, then entered the service of John II. He was dispatched on two diplomatic missions to north Africa, the first at Tlemcen, and is presumed to have learned Arabic at that time.88 There he signed a peace treaty with the local king and was then commissioned by the Portuguese king’s cousin and future monarch Manuel to buy woollen clothing and horses.
In Africa, Covilhan learned the customs, dress and manners of the Moors at first hand and developed extensive knowledge of Arab culture, which extended largely intact from the northwest coast of Africa to the ports of southern India and down the coast of east Africa. Covilhan was possessed of a keen mind and extraordinary memory. John II sent him next to Fez in Morocco. Time and again he had demonstrated his courage and it is unlikely that the young king could have found anyone more ideally suited to his needs. Having made the decision to send another mission east, it was necessary to summon Covilhan from Fez.
In May 1487 Covilhan and Paiva met in secret with their king and select royal advisers, experts in various fields that would be of use to the men. The Portuguese court was filled with spies from jealous European kings, and the practice of secrecy was well in place by this time. At some length John II told the men what he desired of them. They were to travel to distant lands, to see and report back on sights that until now were mostly legend. They were to continue on to India, ‘to learn on the spot, whence those spices came, which the Italians imported from Egypt, and to discover whether the realm of Prester John reached the sea, as well as other facts concerning his kingdom’.89 Once contact was made, they were to convince the Christian king to form an alliance with the king of Portugal against the infidel. Covilhan was also to investigate the spice trade thoroughly, to learn its source, the trade routes, the value of the spices in India and such details as would be of benefit to the Portuguese once the sea route was established.90
The king implored Covilhan and Paiva to undertake this vital mission on his behalf. It was essential for him to possess this knowledge and to secure the alliance with Prester John, if possible. Covilhan protested he was not adequate for such a task, fearing ‘that his knowledge would not be as great as his desire to serve His Highness’.91 The king discounted his concerns and proceeded to give the men more detailed instructions. Then he assured them that their wives and children would be well cared for in their absence. He promised each of them rewards ‘such as would content his posterity for ever’,92 and, should they die in his service, those rewards would be given to their children and wives.13
Covilhan and Paiva were each handed a brass disk that looked much like a medal. Engraved on them in many languages was ‘King Dom John of Portugal, brother of the Christian Monarchs’. These were to be shown to Prester John as a display of good faith. The pair were then handed 400 cruzados, from which they were to take as much as they needed for immediate expenses; the balance would be transported by a trusted Florentine who represented the Medici in Portugal.14
When the men reached Italy, they would receive the balance. Knowing the dangers the two would face, they were given precious gems with which to buy their freedom should they be imprisoned. They were also provided with a letter of credit to be used ‘when in peril of death, or in need of money’.94
Following their private audience with the king, Covilhan and Paiva met alone with the group of select advisers and were given a number of aids for their expedition. These included a navigation chart, extracts from the writings of Marco Polo and John Mandeville, whose outrageous writings still held sway, as well as those from Plano di Carpini and Rubruquis. The bishop of Viseu, who was in attendance, presented the men with a copy of Fra Mauro’s map that he had prepared personally. Depicted on it were Egypt, Arabia and Ethiopia. They were to verify its presentation, making notations and corrections as their experiences would indicate.95
Finally Covilhan and Paiva received the blessing of the king ‘and that of God’ and departed on their hazardous mission on 7 May 1487, some three months before Bartolomeu Dias set sail. From that point on all dates can only be estimated.
The pair travelled overland to Barcelona and from there by ship to Italy. Following a short stay they sailed from Naples to the isle of Rhodes, which was under the dominion of the Knights Hospitallers, and there contacted two Portuguese knights who were members of the order. This was the last Christian outpost on their journey, the final point at which they could be certain of a friendly reception and unconditioned assistance. The two knights were intimate with affairs in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and provided reliable information and advice.
Covilhan and Paiva were advised that it was unwise to proceed further identifying themselves as representatives of the king of Portugal. The Italian cities held a virtual monopoly on trade with the Muslims and were hostile towards any Europeans who entered their region of prominence. It was well known that the Portuguese were attempting to cut them out of their lucrative livelihood by doubling Africa. Any Portuguese would be suspect as agents whose efforts would work against the Italians’interests, and messengers known to come from John II would be assassinated if uncovered.
In addition, the Middle East was under the control of the Muslims, who also profited greatly from the spice trade. They wanted no changes in what had been for centuries a rewarding arrangement with the Italians. The pair would be greeted with suspicion and hostility at every turn. The knights advised that from here on Covilhan and Paiva must travel as merchants and mask their point of origin, both for their own safety and in order to increase the probability of success. The pair procured honey stored in large jars to sell in Egypt, where they could expect a profit. They also obtained new garments consistent with their role as journeymen merchants. They then set sail for Alexandria. There is no record of what national identity they assumed, but it was certainly not Portuguese.
With the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims in 1453, the Genoese Black Sea trading colonies had collapsed and their traders had largely relocated to Alexandria, which was now more prosperous than at any point in its rich history. As the focal point for trade from Asia, India and Africa, quantities of silk and spice, printed cotton and skins, as well as ivory and, of course, slaves passed through Alexandria to Europe, all of it lucratively taxed. Every luxury, and every vice known to man, was for sale in Alexandria. The city had long since outgrown its ancient boundaries as well as the Roman drainage and water systems. By the fifteenth century the port was known for its decidedly unhealthy climate and, once there, both Covilhan and Paiva fell so gravely ill that the town’s acting governor assumed they would die and commandeered their supply of honey.
The Mameluke sultans of Egypt may have profited from Christian traders, but Muslims did no more than tolerate them. For purposes of control and to avoid unnecessary contact with them, Europeans were required to live in distin
The European Christians were permitted to remain in Alexandria only during the time when spice arrived from Asia, but within these enclaves for that period of time they were protected from harassment and arrest by Egyptians authorities, although in the course of their trade they were subjected to every possible insult and humiliation. Christians were for instance required to wear a 5 pound wooden cross on a chain about their necks. Their trade goods were taken for counting and examination, then a tax of 2% was levied on them, and another tax of 1 ducat per person was required as well. Finally the Europeans were literally stripped to the skin and searched, to be certain they had with them nothing that had not been declared and taxed.
After recovering their health neither Covilhan or Paiva drew particular attention except from the certainly disappointed official who had profited from their meagre merchandise. The honey was long gone but after negotiations the men were paid a portion of its value, which they promptly reinvested in other trade goods. The men were taken for what they presented themselves to be, the most modest of traders and therefore undeserving of concern. Had any of the Europeans or Muslims in Egypt understood they were there to gather intelligence for the Portuguese king, to learn the secrets of their mutually prosperous trade in preparation for its ruin, the men would have been dead within moments.
The agents did not move into one of the fonducs, where they might be uncovered, but instead travelled on to Cairo by boat. This was a much more impressive city than Alexandria, with broad boulevards criss-crossed by narrow, meandering streets. At night, for safety’s sake, wooden barriers were erected, closing off the narrow lanes.
Cairo was a vibrant city and the true centre of the spice trade in Egypt. Along ancient streets could be breathed the fragrance of centuries-old spices. The bazaars overflowed with commodities of every imaginable sort. Here the foreign merchants were fellow Muslims but they were trusted no more than the Europeans in Alexandria. Turks, Yemenis, Indians, Persians and Syrians were all required to live within their own designated fonducs. Some 10,000 Jews and another 10,000 Coptic Christians were also tolerated within Cairo,97 along with colonies of Greeks, Italians and Ethiopians. On the busy streets could be seen Nubians and Hindus, trains of slaves and oiled eunuchs.
Even then it was customary for travellers to visit the nearby pyramids and to view the ancient Sphinx as well as the walled garden of Cairo with its forest of balsam trees. The two Portuguese spies presumably did all this, if not for the sake of curiosity then to divert any suspicion. They made friendships among the traders and gathered information in the process. There were countless opportunities for them to collect the kind of intelligence for which they had been sent. It could be argued that simply by remaining in Cairo they might well have gathered sufficient intelligence, but they were under orders to do much more. They had been sent to see for themselves, to learn at first hand.
In Cairo, Covilhan and Paiva discussed how best to proceed. One group of merchants they had befriended were preparing to travel to India. This was too fortuitous an opportunity to let pass, so the pair made the decision to join them. They would have the advantage of travelling with established traders and would learn much by observing and asking such innocent questions as would be expected from any new merchant from Europe. In the spring of 1488 they set out with their caravan, heading first to Aden on the southwest tip of Arabia at the mouth of the Red Sea. From there, they were told, passage to India was easily acquired.
The caravan crawled its way across the desert sands of Suez. They camped at the Well of Moses, within sight of Mount Sinai, and finally arrived at the port of Tor, hardly more than a cluster of hot brick huts. There the men boarded a ship called a djelba, made of rough planks bound together with cords of coconut fibre, the sails nothing more than woven grass mats. The ship wallowed in even a mild sea, took on water at an alarming rate and was scarcely seaworthy. They sailed only during daylight, as the vessel was so difficult to steer that otherwise there was a risk of striking rocks. The coastline was uninhabited, except by robbers looking to prey on such ships, so at night it was necessary to seek hidden shelter and establish a guard. It was a time-consuming, perilous voyage, the heat so great it could ‘melt a man’.98
At Djidda the two spies changed to a ship of superior construction but continued to suffer the oppressive heat. They finally arrived at Aden two months after leaving Cairo. At this time of year the slave sales here were held at night because of the searing sun. Aden, situated near the Arabian Sea, was the gateway to India and Asia. For hundreds of years merchants from India had brought trade goods here, where they were then exchanged with goods from Arabs for subsequent sale in Europe. It was a major portal for the spice trade and had profited enormously over the centuries. Portugal’s first emissary to China, Tomé Pires, wrote of it in 1515:
This city . . . is one of the four great trading cities in the world. It trades cloth to Dahlak and receives seed pearls in exchange; it trades coarse cloths and various trifling things to Zeila and Berbera in exchange for gold, horses, slaves and ivory, it trades Sokotra, sending cloth, straw of Mecca, Socotrine aloes and dragon’s-blood, it trades with Ormuz, whence it brings horses, and out of the goods from Cairo it trades gold, foodstuffs, wheat and rice if there is any, spices, seed pearls, musk, silk and any other drugs: it trades with Cambay, taking there the merchandise from Cairo and opium, and returning large quantities of cloth, with which it trades in Arabia and the Islands, seeds, glass beads, beads from Cambay, many carnelians of all colours, and chiefly spices and drugs from Malacca, cloves, nutmeg, mace, sandalwood, cubebs, seed pearls and things of that sort . . . And in this way it had become great, prosperous and rich. The merchandise of Aden consists of horses, madder, rose-water, dried roses, raisins, opium . . . It is a thing worth seeing . . . although its drinking water has to be brought in a cart.99
Again Covilhan and Paiva were able to gather useful information. They learned that in the region somewhere south of Egypt was a Christian king who ruled over a vast land and numerous lesser kings. ‘This must surely be Prester John’, the men whispered. ‘Have we not been told that he is the Emperor of Ethiopia, that he is a Christian ruling over Christians?’100 But the information was inconclusive. The king’s name was not John, they were told, and he was not a priest. Although speculative reports and legend concerning the location of Prester John’s kingdom had evolved over the decades, they remained imprecise. The kingdom was reported to be in Asia, then in Africa but also in India. Covilhan and Paiva would have to decide for themselves if the ruler of Ethiopia was the Christian ally they were instructed to seek out.
If they were to fulfil their two-pronged mission, it was obvious that at this juncture they must go their separate ways. They decided that Paiva was to travel to Ethiopia, determine if it was ruled by Prester John, make the appropriate contact and then return to Thebes, near Cairo, where, at a designated date, Covilhan would rejoin him. Covilhan himself would continue on to India to learn all he could about the spice trade, its trade routes and the political situation. The men bade one another farewell in Aden and at this point Paiva disappears from history.101
As both the ancient Egyptians and Romans discovered, sailing in the Arabian Sea to and from India is governed by the prevailing monsoon. Being tropical in nature, the monsoon is free from mist, drifting ice and fog. Both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are open to both poles, and this influences winds and currents, but the Indian Ocean is open only to the south and is bordered by land on three sides, giving its forces a specific and predictable pattern. In general, it lacks the strong currents of the Atlantic, such as the Gulf Stream and its equivalent in the Pacific.
There are also, and most importantly, two monsoons. One, known as the winter monsoon, is dry an
The Indian Ocean was perhaps the kindest of all seas to sailors, so that even ships of fragile design could safely navigate its waters. Perhaps the greatest threat to mariners were the worms that flourished in its warm waters and relentlessly consumed all hulls except those made of teak, which was known as ‘stinking wood’. Oak, from which the Portuguese ships were constructed, was especially succulent to the worms, who quickly turned their hulls into a sieve.
Although the monsoons made the open ocean passage safe and reasonably swift, to sail against the seasonal winds was to risk death. The monsoons also meant long waits on each side of the ocean, which explains the extended length of trade voyages, but the passages were safe and reasonably swift once undertaken.
Some time in August, Covilhan bought passage aboard an Arab vessel bearing horses to India. As most of India was unsuitable for breeding and raising horses, Arab, and later European, horses were much sought after by the nobility for their personal use, but also to employ in their armies. The climate and ceaseless warfare exacted a relentless toll on the steeds, creating an all but insatiable demand for them since replacements could only be had by importation.
The vessel on which Covilhan sailed was a fairly large ship of some 250 tons, though constructed also of crude planks sewn together with fibre. The sails, however, were an improvement, being made of cotton. There was no deck, and the cargo was covered with heavy mats to protect it from the weather while passengers and crew fended for themselves. It was one of hundreds making the annual voyage to southwest India, a veritable fleet of Muslim ships.
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