Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 16
It is perfectly understandable that the belief is held in many quarters that Leonor had poisoned her husband. He had, after all, murdered her brother and threatened her with execution.
So passed away one of the most extraordinary king’s in European history. Africa had been doubled and Portuguese vessels had sailed in the waters of the Indian Ocean. Orders for the preparation of the India expedition had been given and the commander named, but the king’s untimely death in 1495, not yet forty years of age, and the assumption of an unexpected heir to the throne, placed the matter of the expedition to India on hold.
Manuel was the youngest of nine. Four of his older brothers died young, and the fifth, the Duke of Viseu, was killed by John II. Manuel is described as fair, thin, a light eater, temperate, vain, fond of music and ostentation.112 His reign was to be marked by unprecedented wealth and fame. Although he was at best an average man, he was placed by circumstances at the pivotal point in Portuguese history. The discovery of the sea route to India and the East set the course of his nation for the next hundred years and utterly transformed the world. Manuel’s modest personal achievements are overwhelmed by events that came to him almost entirely by luck. Not without reason he is known to the Portuguese as Manuel ‘The Fortunate’(O Venturoso).
At the beginning of his reign Manuel pardoned nobles who returned from exile and restored fifty properties to the new Duke of Bragança. Nobles were also introduced into the court circle. In addition, Manuel formally recognized seventy-two families and placed their coats of arms at the royal palace in Sintra. But Manuel was smitten with the royal Portuguese disease of uniting the thrones of Portugal and Spain and set his sights on Alfonso’s childless teenage widow, Isabella. There was, however, a price to be paid for the marriage. Isabella consented to become the Queen of Portugal, but only if all Jews were expelled before her arrival for the ceremony.
In 1492 there had been an estimated 80,000 Jews quietly living in Portugal –an accepted, even valued, element of society. Jews made invaluable contributions to science and had long played an important role in the commercial, and to some degree the cultural, life of Portugal. Jews, in fact, had established the first printing presses in the nation.113 As Spanish oppression and expulsion were imposed, an estimated 120,000 Spanish Jews fled to Portugal.
Portugal initially profited from the influx by extracting a substantial payment for permission to enter. Hundreds of the most wealthy Jewish families were permitted to remain in Portugal, although the rest were forced to leave the country immediately or were imprisoned. The ultimate fate of many was unresolved when John II died. When Manuel ascended the throne, he initially released those who had been too poor to buy passage and it appeared he intended to pursue a lenient policy towards the Jews. Portugal stood to profit enormously from their permanent presence.
But when Manuel sought marriage with Isabella, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, he abruptly changed course and agreed to a tragic pogrom against all Jews throughout Portugal, a campaign that consumed much of the nation’s official time and energy. Manuel began by immediately ordering the expulsion of all remaining Jews. This included the seizure and forced conversion of all Jewish children under the age of fourteen.
Isabella was satisfied and the pair were married. Manuel then relented in part and issued a degree that those forced to convert must remain unmolested for twenty years. He issued other decrees undoing some of the most onerous of his orders, but tens of thousands died or paid a horrible price for the king’s marriage, which took place two months after the first ships sailed for India.
During the first two busy years of his reign Manuel was also examining the papers of his predecessor. While digging through a royal chest he came across a letter from a merchant in Venice replying to one from John II. The previous king expressed concern at having gone so long without receiving a report from the two spies he had earlier sent to the East. The merchant had been asked to inquire about them through his agents in Alexandria. In the letter he expressed his regret at not knowing ‘where India was’. He went on to encourage the king to undertake its discovery ‘by sending ships to conquer it, even if it entailed risking his kingdom and power, for riches and glory awaited him’.114
This correspondence created a ‘great longing’in the young king to make ‘the discovery of India’.115 He must also have been influenced by those events to which he had been personal witness and been caught up in the great national crusade. Manuel placed the issue before the junta, which did not give its support and instead attempted to dissuade him. They argued that ‘the hope was doubtful, while the perils were great and certain . . . [H]e should take into consideration that he might become engaged in war with the Emperor of Egypt . . . that if he should insist on going on as he wished to do, how great an envy he would bring upon himself from the other Christian princes.’ The royal advisers cautioned that if the king persisted he risked bringing down on their little nation the wrath of all the great powers.116
The ill health of John II, the negotiation of the treaties with Spain, the occasion of the transfer of power, the marriage plans and Jewish pogroms alone do not account for the delay in acting on the success of the Dias expedition. There were other reasons as well. For one, the Portuguese had extended themselves such incredible distances that the Cape of Good Hope assumed a position once held by another projection of African land. It is recorded that ‘a new conceit possessed most of the mariners, as had done before touching Bogiadore [Bojador], that there was no sayling any further.’117 Dias’s mutinous crew presumably presented the difficulties they had encountered in the most negative light in order to justify their conduct.
That aside, the ultimate discovery of the sea route around Africa was not universally welcome in Portugal, coming as it did after so many decades of sacrifice. It was not just the royal advisers who had reservations. What riches had come from the Portuguese voyages into the unknown had come only with the loss of many lives and at great effort. Nothing had been easy. Discovery of the cape that opened up the route to India was simply one more obstacle overcome. How many more were yet to be faced? There was no assurance that the next expedition would succeed, or the one after it. When would it end? And at what final cost?
In addition to wanting to marry Spanish princesses, the Portuguese monarchs were nearly obsessed with the idea of continuing the reconquest of the Moors by systematically driving them from north Africa. The eventual objective was Jerusalem and the heady title ‘Emperor of the East’. This also must have helped to motivate Manuel to reach India and usurp the spice trade. In doing so he would remove the economic underpinnings of the Mamelukes in Egypt, the primary obstacle to Jerusalem, as well as providing himself with the financial means to renew the conquest across north Africa.
In considering these objections Manuel knew that John II had heard the same arguments and eventually dismissed them. Manuel took the same view and concluded that the drive to reach India had been for too long an objective of the Portuguese people to be abandoned when success was within reach. History compelled him to act. But before committing himself to the endeavour Manuel consulted with the royal astrologer, Abraham ben Zacuto, to determine if the stars were in his favour. Together the pair studied the fate of the proposed expedition. Finally, Zacuto announced that the heavens were at an opportune conjunction. Manuel issued orders for the preparations for the expedition to be resumed.
Shortly before his untimely, and suspicious, death in 1495 John II had selected Vasco da Gama’s father, Estêvão, to command the proposed expedition to India. According to at least one account, Estêvão was one of the king’s ‘most trusted navigators’.118 He was a respected retainer in the royal court, a member of the Order of Santiago and reportedly an experienced captain. But before the enterprise was organized, both John II and Estêvão were dead. Manuel, for reasons not adequately recorded, appointed young Vasco da Gama to replace his father as expedition captain and so it was that perhaps the most remarkable figure
Vasco da Gama had been in residence at the court for some time and enjoyed the favour of John II, yet one of the mysteries of the selection process was the dogged determination that it should remain with the Gama family. It is a fact the two families were related. Two hundred years earlier they shared a common ancestor, King Alfonso II, though the Gamas claimed their royal blood through Alfonso’s illegitimate daughter, never more than a minor footnote in Portuguese blood lines. With so many Castilian queens the Portuguese generally looked with great affection on the offspring of the king’s Portuguese mistress, who in her own way was fêted much like a queen and was treated with a respect and adoration no Spanish-born wife of the king had ever received.
The manner in which Vasco was informed of the king’s decision is remarkable for its informality, given the magnitude of the enterprise. Gaspar Correa reports that after consulting with his astrologers Manuel prayed daily for inspiration in making his selection and was increasingly persuaded that the choice should remain within the Gama family, as they had claim to it. Members of the court approached Manuel during the gestation period to speak on behalf of their favourites but were rebuffed by the king, who said he had made his decision.
One day Manuel was working at a table issuing various orders when Vasco passed near by in the hallway. The king raised his hand in summons and said, ‘I should rejoice if you would undertake a service which I require of you in which you must labour much.’Vasco kissed the hand of his king and said, ‘Sire, I am a servant for any labour that may be, since my service is required, which I will perform so long as my life lasts.’119 It is said that, on learning the mission, Vasco urged Manuel to offer the command to his adored older brother Paulo, but the king declined.
If the only purpose of the expedition was successfully to reach India and return, the logical choice as its leader was Bartholomeu Dias and, given his success at sea and national celebrity, he would have been a popular selection. But Dias had been forced to turn back from India by a near mutiny and his inability to lead his crew at a crucial juncture probably militated against his selection to command a voyage of even longer duration.
Moreover, this expedition was not just another voyage of exploration. What was needed was a diplomat, a man with sensitivity to the demands of commerce and, if necessary, the experience, courage and abilities of a soldier. He had to be equally capable of dealing with the primitive and suspicious chiefs he would encounter in Africa as with the Arab and Hindu princes he would meet in India. He also had to be a worthy representative of the Portuguese king, either as a diplomat or with sword in hand. As is nearly always the case in such situations, he had above all to be a man the king personally trusted.
Given the magnitude of his accomplishment, it is not surprising that so much more is known about Vasco da Gama than about any of the captains who preceded him. He was of average height, had a florid complexion and in later life was given to a certain stoutness of stature. Correa, who lived close to events, wrote that Gama was ‘of a very indefatigable disposition, and very skilful in all things’. He described him as ‘a discreet man, of good understanding, and of great courage for any good deed’.
Vasco certainly inspired the loyalty of those he led, was not especially gregarious or quick to smile, understood how to command in trying circumstances and possessed a tenacity mingled with a certain flexibility that is often seen in greatness. Given what lay ahead, it is unlikely any other selection to captain this expedition would have succeeded.
The heart and soul of Portugal were in the north, at Oporto, the city from which the country took its name, and in the lands to the north of and around Coimbra, the site of the nation’s oldest university and home of the nobles who most consistently vied with new kings for power.
As the origin and seat of the great Portuguese families were north of Lisbon, it is in one sense unexpected that Manuel should have selected a man from a family whose roots lay to the south, from the obscure fishing village of Sines, some 60 miles away; yet in another sense it was a wise selection. Vasco da Gama was not conspicuously allied with any of the families in historic opposition to the king, and the last thing Manuel wanted was for this voyage to bring wealth and distinction to potential rivals.
Sines is situated on a small bay in the Alentejo, the poorest region of Portugal, and the land surrounding the town is not especially fertile. Life was harder here than in the lush north. Situated on a bluff, the town faces the sea and was dependent for its survival primarily on its fishermen. It was, even then, a very old town, with both an ancient castle and church. Life in Sines was simple and had been unchanged for hundreds of years.
The Gama family was neither rich nor aristocratic, but it had a long and renowned history of service to the crown. One noteworthy ancestor had distinguished himself against the Moors in the Algarve in the thirteenth century. Vasco’s grandfather and namesake had carried the battle standard of Alfonso V against Castile and held a position of trust with the king thereafter. Vasco’s father, Estêvão, had married Izabel Sodre, who came from a noted family with a pronounced English strain. Sodre, in fact, was a Portuguese corruption of the English name Sudley, taken from Izabel’s grandfather Frederick Sudley, an Englishman of the family of the earls of Hereford, who had come to fight with the Portuguese king against Castile in 1381. The couple had three sons (one of whom took the last name of his mother) and a daughter. Vasco was probably the youngest of the boys.120 His date of birth has long been disputed: the latest, and most credible, calculation is that he was born in 1469 or 1470.
Vasco’s father was a cavaleiro in the household of the influential Duke of Viseu and was for a time the captain and the alcaide-mór (similar to mayor) of Sines.121 In this post he received a modest income derived from local soap-making and later he was granted other small revenues for his increasingly recognized service in the Order of Santiago, which in this region of Portugal was all but a state within a state.122
In the small fishing town where Vasco was probably born and spent his early childhood, he would have spent countless hours with the local fishermen and learned to swim, fish and handle a small boat, as the children do to this day. Such was the habit of all Portuguese sons raised beside the sea, and he would have looked to the ocean for his career.
Vasco grew up during the fascinating time when the accounts of the Portuguese discoveries had become legend and continued to unfold with each new sailing season. From the lips of the sailors he would have heard their tales of terrible storms and vast calms, of shipwrecks and of distant lands and adventures. The common stories were of black men wearing golden rings in their mouths, noses and ears, of cannibals and of hairy, manlike apes. There were also stories of the gold to be had from river beds, of exotic lands and coastlines, of ivory and of slaves. Portugal was a powerful nation, the stories told, and men of courage and commitment could make their way profitably in this new world.
When he came of age, it is most likely young Vasco was schooled in Évora, a town some 70 miles distant, located in the hills northeast of Sines. Évora was Portugal’s second city, although it had a population of only 10,000. Like Sines, Évora was an ancient city, founded by the Celts and later occupied by the Romans. The Moorish influence is evident in its historic buildings; even the people are more Moorish in appearance and taller than average for the Portuguese. It was a prosperous region and city, a world removed from the hard life and poverty of the more barren land about Sines.
Évora was also the site of the royal palace built in 1421, and the scenes of royalty, of the court and foreign visitors, could not help but excite the boy. It was also here in the city square that the Duke of Bragança, the most powerful lord in Portugal, had been beheaded by order of the king, and some 22,000 souls, primarily Jews, were murdered in the same square, many of them burnt at the stake.
Vasco’s course of study is not known but it certainly included both mathema
Another intriguing aspect of his selection is that Manuel and Vasco were of the same age, and it is assumed they knew one another in court. Until shortly before he became king, Manuel had not been in line to the throne. That circumstance had only come about because of the accidental death of the young heir and through the incessant lobbying of Manuel’s sister the queen, on her husband’s deathbed. Manuel’s childhood, and the degree of freedom he had to make friends and share in their experiences, would have been far greater than that of the king’s son and heir. The opportunities for Vasco and Manuel to have been well acquainted were probably numerous in so small a court, though there is no record of them.
Of Vasco’s character there is one often quoted story. The young Vasco and a companion, Diogo Vaz, a squire of the royal household, were walking the narrow darkened streets of Setúbal when the night-watch challenged them. It was presumably cold and Vasco had his cloak pulled to cover his face. This, as well as the late hour, aroused suspicion. When challenged, however, Vasco refused to show his face as ordered, answering, ‘I am no criminal’, and also refused to give his identity. The watch summoned help and an altercation ensued. A complaint was lodged against both Vasco and Vaz. No final resolution for Vasco is recorded, whereas Vaz was compelled to pay a small fine to have an order for his arrest revoked.123
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