Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 15
It was a long, monotonous month sailing from Aden to the Malabar coast of southwest India. It was hot and humid at sea, the food was often vile, the water foul. At last the crew and passengers let out a cry on sighting Mount Dely, near Cannanore, known for its ginger, where they made landfall. Here Covilhan stepped from the ship on to shore, reportedly ‘the first Portuguese [who] trod the soil of India’.102
Cannanore was a port of entry for the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, known to the Portuguese as Bisnaga, which comprised the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, then at the height of its influence and power. From here he made the short journey southward to Calicut,15
which was to India what Alexandria was to Egypt.
Covilhan was now at the epicentre of the world spice trade, in the legendary land of India. More than a thousand ships from every part of Asia stood at anchor off its shore. Among them were the massive Chinese junks with their cargoes of silk, tea, tin and porcelain. One visitor to Calicut at about this time wrote of it:
Safety and justice reign here! The foreign merchants leave their merchandise in the open market, without even taking the precaution to declare its value, because the customs officials are responsible for its safety. If the goods are sold, they take one-quarter on the transaction; if not sold, then the owner has nothing to pay.103
As the trade was controlled by Arabs, who had a large colony, Covilhan was in some respects on familiar territory, but the remainder of the city was as exotic and unfamiliar as any place on Earth could possibly have been to a European. Many questions, long unanswered, were finally resolved during his stay here. The origin of individual spices was a key bit of intelligence Covilhan was to learn, as it would tell the Portuguese where to go once they reached the oceans of India and greater Asia.
Through careful conversation and unassuming questions the spy slowly gathered, and recorded, an accurate picture of trade routes and the spice trade. Pepper, indigo, ginger and spikenard, he learned, grew here on the Malabar coast. Cinnamon was imported from Ceylon, not far distant on the other side of India. Cloves, mace, camphor, nutmeg and also pepper came from the Spice Islands, named the Moluccas, and also from Sumatra, Borneo and Java. Musk, rhubarb, aloes and camphor originated in distant China.104 The trade was vast and complex, probably far in excess of anything he or any Portuguese had ever imagined. India was clearly just one piece of the puzzle and would surely be only a jumping-off point once the Portuguese arrived by sea.
Henry H. Hart, in his distinguished work Sea Road to the Indies, writes of Calicut:
The Hindu city [was] a strange mixture of barbarism and civilization, simplicity and opulence. The dress of the Samorin [the ruler of Calicut] was a perfect example. Naked from the waist up, and barefoot, he wore garments of cloth of gold, and on his fingers were heavy gold rings set with rubies. Surrounded by bodyguards, he reclined on a couch of gold and silver. The perfumed women –always near him – were almost naked. In the streets swarmed an unbelievable crowd of low- and high-caste Hindus, elephants, horses and litters. Coconut palms grew thickly everywhere; temples and the houses of the rich rubbed elbows with the miserable palm-leaf huts of the poor. In tiny open shops half-naked men trafficked in diamonds, sapphires and rubies from Ceylon and Burma, or weighed pearls in tiny scales – and drove sharp bargains in loud voices. Down on the shore were Arab ships, whose sailors swaggered through the town, seeking to make the most of their shore leave, and about them clustered women, eager to relieve them of their hard-earned wages. Rice was being unloaded from the Coromandel Coast and cinnamon from Ceylon. Boats were in from Malacca, bearing camphor from Borneo and Formosa, lac from Pegu, nutmegs and mace from Banda, and cloves from the Moluccas. Bags of pepper, product of Calicut itself, were heaped high in the warehouses or were being loaded onto the ships of Mecca. And over all the heavy air was filled with the odours of sandalwood and palm oil, cooking and temple incense, the flower of the areca, and the spices lying in the hot sun.
Covilhan also learned the source of gems, including diamonds and pearls. Gold, he noted, was so abundant that it was not accepted in payment; merchants preferred to barter. He found Nestorian Christians, who called themselves Thomas Christians, after the Apostle Thomas.105 Their rite was strange, as were some of their beliefs, but they were Christians none the less. He inquired after Prester John and was told by these Indian Christians that such a personage had once existed but that his kingdom now lay in ruins. No one spoke of him any longer.
Covilhan had just a few short months to gather the information he needed, all the while presenting himself as a genuine merchant, for the monsoon would change direction and the fleet of ships from Aden would set sail from the coast of India at the beginning of the year. He took passage on a small coasting vessel heading north and landed at various small ports, asking questions, observing, recording what he learned. India, he noted, imported as much silver as it could get and also sought mercury, copper, coral, saffron, printed cloth, rose-water, vermilion, cutlery and some gold. To his surprise he found Europeans, mostly Italians but also Frenchmen and merchants from Bruges, as well as goods from Europe for sale. Most traders, however, were from more distant Asia.
Covilhan arrived at the port and island of Gôa, which would in time play such a pivotal role for the Portuguese in India, and observed the city-state controlled by Muslims. It was another prosperous centre for trade from Asia, Arabia and the other Muslim states, but especially from Ormuz, situated at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Marco Polo had written that Gôa was the centre for the Indian trade in horses and he had observed there more than a hundred fine Arab horses.
Covilhan’s portion of the mission had been accomplished. In February or March 1489 he sailed to Ormuz itself, the foremost marketplace for trade with Asia. His ship was filled nearly to overflowing with spices, porcelain, cotton goods, precious stones, amber and musk. The Arabs at Ormuz were extremely prosperous, and wore splendid white garments bound by golden embroidered belts. About the city was rock salt, which was traded to Ethiopia, where it was a currency, as was pepper.
Less is known about Covilhan’s steps after Ormuz. He is known to have sailed along the east coast of Africa through the portion of the Arabian Sea called the Green Sea by the Arabs, where Muslim colonies engaged in a prosperous trade for gold and slaves. It is likely he visited Mombasa, Zanzibar and Sofala, the southernmost point of regular trade, situated at 20º south. Here he learned of a large island not far away, the Island of the Moon (Madagascar), where more Arabs lived and engaged in trade with India.
Covilhan noted that along this coast the locals were black, as they were in Guinea. He surmised that Africa was one land mass, stretching from Guinea to Sofala. This was an encouraging observation. If the next Portuguese expedition sailing from Lisbon could only reach as far as Sofala, it was certain from there to be able to sail to India itself.106
According to one account Covilhan returned to Aden, then to Tor and from there to Thebes, outside Cairo, arriving in late 1490 or early 1491. He had by now been gone from his wife and children some three years. After waiting a time he learned that his companion, Paiva, had only recently died while waiting for him. There would be no report of what he had discovered about Ethiopia.
Covilhan was in a quandary. While it was true that he had fulfilled the portion of the mission he had set out on, the instructions from his king had been twofold. He had made no contact with Prester John, although he had acquired information that indicated neither he nor his kingdom existed. Before deciding how to proceed next, two Jewish messengers arrived from Portugal. One was a rabbi named Abraham of Beja; the other, José de Lamego, was reportedly a shoemaker. Both were widely travelled. King John apparently knew of the date and location for the rendezvous. Since so much time had lapsed, he had sent these experienced travellers and trusted messengers to relay instructions and obtain a report.
Abraham handed Covilhan a letter from the king, which instructed him and Paiva to return at once, if they had complete
For some unknown reason Covilhan was also directed to accompany the rabbi to Ormuz before continuing, while José de Lamego was to return to Portugal at once. Covilhan gave him a written account of his journey and of what he had learned. Believing Dias to be still at sea, he gave a message which the king should pass along to him. It said, ‘If you keep southward, the continent must come to an end. When your ships have reached the Indian ocean, let your men enquire for Sofala and the Island of the Moon. There they will find pilots who will take them to India.’107
Covilhan and Abraham travelled to Ormuz and from there to Baghdad and other places. Covilhan recorded a detailed account of his entire journey and entrusted it to his companion. It is generally accepted, and seems perfectly logical, that with this account he included a map of the lands he had encountered. Finally, Rabbi Abraham returned to Portugal, bearing also the new information that had been acquired.108
It is not surprising that neither of these written reports has survived and that there is no contemporaneous account of their contents. Such information would have been swallowed whole into the secret recesses of the Portuguese king’s junta. It was too vital for its very existence to be known to others. Given that two written reports were made and sent by two trusted and experienced messengers, and that the journey from the Middle East was neither arduous nor dangerous, it is all but certain that at least one of them reached King John’s hands. The surest evidence the information arrived is that when Vasco da Gama set sail, his specific destination was not India but the port of Calicut.
Covilhan, for his part, travelled on to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai, where he visited the tomb of Saint Catherine. He returned to Tor and from there went to Aden, Mecca and Medina. At the Strait of Bab el Mandeb at Zeila he learned of the route to Ethiopia and proceeded on it, to arrive at last in 1492 or 1493 at what was the sole candidate to be the long sought kingdom of Prester John. What Covilhan, the first European known to enter the country, saw was surely discouraging. In 1520 a group of locals greeting the new Portuguese embassy was described in this way:
They are a poor civil people with miserable clothes, and they come into the water uncovered, a black, tall people with thick matted locks, which from their birth they neither cut nor comb, so that they wear their hair like a lump of wool, and they carry pointed oiled sticks with which they scratch the vermin which crawl beneath, because they cannot reach their scalps with their fingers, and scratching their heads is their sole occupation.
Another chronicler wrote:
The country people . . . kept fields of Indian corn, and . . . come from a distance to sow these lands and rocky ridges which are among these mountains: there are also in these parts very beautiful flocks, such as cows and goats. The people that we found here are almost naked, so that all they had showed, and they were very black. These people were Christians, and the women wore a little more covering, but it was very little.’109
The ‘Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and King of Kings’, Alexander, was also known as the Negus Negasti. Covilhan appeared at the emperor’s court in the mountainous region about Lake Tana on the Blue Nile and presented his engraved brass disk, faithfully carried and concealed all these years. He also turned over letters from the king of Portugal, which Alexander accepted ‘with much pleasure and joy’. He assured Covilhan that he would soon send him back to Portugal ‘with much honour’.110
Alexander, however, was impressed with Covilhan and wished to keep him as a royal adviser. He offered him possessions and honours if he chose to remain. The emperor would also give Covilhan a wife to have children by ‘so that when he should return to his own country, he would leave posterity in [Ethiopia], as a worthy memorial of himself’. Covilhan declined, wanting nothing more than to return to Portugal and make his report. But months passed without permission, and to attempt to leave without it meant death.
In May 1494 Alexander was killed in battle and was succeeded by his young son, who died later that year. The former emperor’s brother now assumed the throne and flatly refused Covilhan’s request to leave. He went so far as to treat Covilhan as a spy, but his reign proved short-lived and his successor was kindly disposed towards the Portuguese traveller. Permission to leave, however, continued to be withheld until at last Covilhan resigned himself to his fate. He was well treated, assumed positions of honour and importance in the court and acquired extensive holdings as well as a new family. In time he was appointed governor of a district.111 Using trusted Jews as messengers, Covilhan sent many letters to John II. Presumably some, at least, arrived but no record of any of them exists.
Over the years other Europeans arrived at court, and none was ever allowed to leave the country. Like the Mongol emperors of China, the emperors of Ethiopia preferred to employ the services of outsiders with knowledge of the world, and with no connection to any faction within their own country.
The story of the journey and fate of Pêro de Covilhan is known in large part because in 1520 a Portuguese ambassador arrived at the Ethiopian court. Covilhan met with a friar in the entourage and over time related his fate, and subsequently proved of invaluable service to the ambassador. When he left, Covilhan, his Ethiopian wife and family travelled with the ambassador for two days to the coast. Now in his seventies, King John’s emissary had given up any hope of ever going home again. He sent in his place his oldest son, a young man twenty-three years old, to receive the honours and rewards Covilhan had been promised those many years before. He also sent with his son a supply of gold to give to his Portuguese wife, should she still be alive, or to his children if not. The son died, however, of an illness before reaching Portugal.
This is the last known account of the loyal Covilhan. A fellow Portuguese wrote in praise of him that ‘the keynote of his character was “obedience”.’ But more importantly, his determination and willingness to obey had become hallmarks of the Portuguese quest to reach the Indies.
Gama of Sines
In 1491 it seemed that John II, the Perfect Prince, had all for which a man and sovereign could hope. He had consolidated the power of the crown and cowed the nobility into grudging, and fearful, obedience; he had extended the Portuguese discoveries into new, and potentially prosperous, lands; and he was pursuing a steady course to attain for the Portuguese the elusive all-sea passage to India that would make his nation the greatest in Europe. When that would occur was in the hands of God, but there was no doubt it would happen. Most of all, King John had an heir, a son to carry on his legacy, a boy to mould and prepare for his accession.
By all accounts the king was devoted to his only legitimate son, Alfonso. This is the same young man described by the earlier Polish observer as being ‘of an English cast of countenance’, always to be found by the side of his father at the dinner table. Unsurprisingly, John II had dreams of uniting Portugal and Spain, and to that end in 1490 arranged the marriage of Alfonso to Isabella, the eldest daughter and heir of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.
Although John II was the first king of Portugal routinely to travel with a bodyguard, having made so many enemies, it was the practice of the king on hot summer days to retire to the shore of the gentle Tagus river and swim. On 12 July 1491 the king was enjoying himself in this way with guests and, as always, had invited the seventeen-year-old Alfonso, married just seven months, to come along. Initially the young man declined, saying he was tired, but later he decided to join his father. His regular mule was not immediately available, so Alfonso rode instead the horse of his squire. As he galloped within sight of his father, no doubt showing off, the horse stumbled, tossing the prince. He was carried unconscious to a nearby house of a fisherman but soon died without regaining conscious
An unnamed chronicler wrote of his passing:
[H]is eyes, once so happy and full of beauty, were in that hour blinded and forever without sight . . . and his sweet mouth, whence had issued so many gentle, tender, and welcome words and from which many had received kindness and happiness, at this moment ceased forever to speak, and his beautiful royal hands, kissed each day for the great and many favours which he bestowed, were in this brief space of time turned to nought. . . . And what sins could such an angelic creature have committed, one of such a tender age, to die such an unhappy and so sudden a death without benefit of confession or of Communion?
Although he was only thirty-six years of age, the king’s own health had already begun to decline. The sudden loss of his heir and son, literally before his eyes and in his arms, had a visible effect on him. It was in the steady state of physical decline he had negotiated the Spanish treaties. For an heir he turned to George (Jorge), his son by his Portuguese mistress, and brought him into his household to be mentored. There was a precedent, as John I had been the illegitimate son of the king. Queen Leonor, however, would have nothing to do with it. If her own son was not to be king, then certainly the son of her husband’s mistress was not about to become king in his place. During what little remained of the king’s life Leonor lobbied relentlessly on behalf of her brother Manuel, the Duke of Beja and Master of the Order of Christ. Finally, in the last hours of life, for reasons never adequately explained, John II named Manuel heir.
At the same time, and possibly to give him a measure of protection, John II made George Duke of Coimbra, historically one of the most powerful positions in Portugal. In addition, he named him Master of the Order of Avis and of the Order of Santiago. From these highly influential positions he would be unassailable.
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