Unknown seas the portugu.., p.17

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 17


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font   Night Mode Off   Night Mode

  Little is known about Vasco’s personality in private matters. He was devoted to his oldest brother and to his family, as is the Portuguese custom. One chronicler from the era describes him as a high-spirited young man. He was also a skilled navigator, probably among the best in Europe, but since other skilled navigators accompanied the fleet it was not for that that he was selected.124

  Vasco’s father, and to an extent Vasco himself, had prospered in the service of the influential Almeida family, though both had been of service to the king as well. This extended family was related to the king by marriage and was well represented in the church hierarchy and within the powerful Order of Santiago, where it was especially influential. It is likely Vasco followed the usual course and worked in the interests of the order in the Alentejo, where there was much to occupy it.125 He fought in the war with Castile.

  The first documented appearance of the name of Vasco da Gama is in 1492, during a dispute between John II and the King of France. A French vessel had seized a Portuguese ship laden with gold returning from Guinea. No state of war existed between the two nations and the ship should have been permitted to pass in peace. The royal advisers recommended that someone should be selected to go to the King of France to take up the matter.

  King John was certain that any delegate sent would be ignored, so instead he ordered the seizure of the ten French ships in Lisbon harbour and had their goods stored in the customs warehouse. He then ordered Vasco da Gama, a man identified as one in whom the king ‘had great confidence, and one who had seen service in the fleets and in maritime affairs’,126 to sail at once to Setúbal and the Algarve to seize those French ships he found anchored at any other Portuguese port in the region. A second man was dispatched north to Oporto with the same instructions. On learning of these events the King of France ordered the immediate release of the Portuguese ship and all its contents. John II replied in kind. The seizures, including that of Vasco, were handled with such professionalism that no one was injured and absolutely nothing was missing from the French merchandise. This occurred five years before Vasco was named Captain-Major (Capitão-Mór) of the India expedition. At the time Manuel was Duke of Beja and in near constant contact with John II. He would have been well aware of his actions and the agents he employed, and a good judge of their competence.

  Having received the charge from Manuel, Vasco was now forced to secure a royal pardon for his older brother. Paulo had wounded a judge in Setúbal during a quarrel and at this time was considered an outlaw. ‘For love of you,’the king is reported to have answered, ‘I pardon him my justice, for the services which I expect from you and from him, he satisfying the parties now that he has his pardon; and let him come at once without making any delay.’127 Paulo was then named as captain of one of the ships.

  There are other aspects to Vasco’s selection to consider. The powerful, noble Almeida family had opposed Manuel’s succession to the throne and remained in opposition to him thereafter. When John II had failed to elevate his illegitimate son George to succession and named his cousin Manuel, he had appointed George in part Master of the Order of Santiago. The Order could scarcely have been considered loyal to the new king or supportive of his decisions. Why, then, would Manuel select a member of the opposition to lead this expedition?

  Part of the answer probably lies in the fact that he was sending it despite the objections of his junta. Picking a captain from the opposition moderated the criticism, and in the end every member of the junta made a significant contribution to the enterprise. Also, for reasons unlikely ever to be fully understood, the smallest of fleets was being sent, causing the likelihood of failure to be greater than it would otherwise have been. Better that failure lay at the feet of the king’s opponents, while Manuel could step up to claim credit if the expedition was a success.128

  Alhough these were likely political considerations, Vasco was primarily chosen for his qualities and prior service to John II and Manuel. The fact that his selection served other purposes was a political bonus.



  As the moment for the final push to India approached, there was a recognition that another leap in ship design was required to make success more likely. The caravel, which had enabled the discoveries, was the marvel of the fifteenth century, permitting the Portuguese to sail farther than any European before – and to return. Northern European seamen, viewing the exotic caravel in the port of Lisbon, considered it much like an alien spacecraft. The success of the caravel had been enhanced by the Portuguese capacity essentially to take their shipyards with them to the most distant reaches of the world.

  But for all the Portuguese ingenuity and all their success, the caravel still possessed serious limitations. Because of its small size, often no more than 50 tons, it could not carry sufficient supplies for the increasingly lengthy voyages of discovery. There was also no provision for crew quarters in its design. The captain and his officers had a cramped living space but the seamen were expected to live and sleep on the deck. During inclement weather they sought refuge below, huddling where they could on top of the cargo.

  Bartholomeu Dias reported after his sixteen-month voyage to double Africa that a different, larger vessel was required to reach India, as his ships had been too light for the heavy seas and terrible storms of the South Atlantic. In addition, his crew had suffered severely in the cold weather and oceans. He urged that further modification of the caravel be undertaken to make more certain the ultimate success.

  Although an adequate complement of healthy seamen was necessary to sail a ship safely such an extreme distance, there was more to it than that. Dias had been faced with near mutiny even after turning the Cape of Good Hope. If the living circumstances for the crew were not improved, the captain-major of the India-bound fleet could well face the same fate.

  As Grand Captain of the port of Lisbon and as the seaman with the greatest experience, it is understandable that Dias was placed in charge of ship construction. He was given instructions to design ships ‘to resist the fury of the sea at the great Cape of Good Hope’.129 Some historians report, however, that he did not assume these duties until after Vasco da Gama had been selected to lead the expedition and that Dias worked under Gama’s direction from the first.

  Two new ships were constructed from timber felled in the royal forests of Leiria and Alcacer. They were not beauties. Three-masted, the ships were larger than the traditional caravel, with square-rigged sails, a flat bottom for working in close to land, a square stern and peaked bow. A lateen sail was installed to the mizzen to aid manoeuvrability. Under full canvas they presented 4,000 square feet to the wind. Displayed on each massive sail was the crimson cross of the Order of Christ.130

  Heavy planking ‘two fingers thick’was placed on the sides of the hull for added protection in the event of combat. Towers were constructed at the front and rear to provide fortresses for defenders in the event of being boarded. These were so high that the forward one was used as a fourth mast to allow the spread of a square spritsail. From the highest mast, some 110 feet above the keel, was flown the royal standard while the captain’s scarlet flag flew from the crow’s nest some 70 feet up. On the bow was the figurehead of the ship’s patron saint carved from wood and painted in gold leaf.131

  At 100 to 120 tons the new ships were not especially large, though the ton measurement used then was roughly twice that of today. (By calculating the amount of goods stored in the two new ships one source has concluded the vessels were between 250 and 300 tons by modern measurement.) Although the voyage was to be of an unprecedented length, relatively small ships were still judged as the best choice to allow safe navigation in shoal waters and rivers. The new ships would be slower than the caravels but would offer far greater comfort to the crews. Additional wales were added along the sides to reduce rolling. Special care was given to the ships’ bottoms in an attempt to reduce fouling from barnacles and borers. The wood above the waterline was painted black, probably w
ith some sort of tar to serve as a protective.

  In an unusual innovation for the times the vessels were constructed as exact replicas, to enable the replacing of parts from one to the other in distant seas if necessary, and, as had long been the Portuguese practice, every ship carried an extensive selection of spares. So different was this new ship from what had gone before that it was given the new name of nau (não).

  Although the voyage was possible, it was only just so, the technology barely permitting its accomplishment, and there was more to consider than the actual sailing feat. Vasco da Gama’s voyage was expected to last up to three years, and for most of that period he and his crew would be far beyond the reach of any help, sailing in waters, anchoring in ports, in the control or under the influence of mortal enemies. Not only were the winds and currents alien and a constant threat, but every port would be occupied by an actual or potential adversary. Any ship they encountered would destroy them if at all possible. Any misjudgement on Vasco’s part would mean death for his crew as well as for himself.

  This was not meant to be an armed intrusion, but weapons were nevertheless essential to the expedition’s success, and so every ship bore a full complement. Each of the naus carried twenty guns, the heaviest of them made of wrought-iron staves held fast by iron hoops. There was also a wide selection of bombards, matchlocks, crossbows, axes, spears, swords, javelins and pikes. Officers and men brought with them thick leather jerkins, breastplates, armour and helmets of a quality and quantity as their station and circumstances permitted. If it came to a life and death struggle in a distant sea or port, the Portuguese would not go down easily.

  It is generally agreed that the names of the new ships were São Gabriel (under Vasco’s command) and São Rafael (under Paulo). Acquired for the voyage was the Berrio, which was probably rechristened the São Miguel, a swift caravel with lateen sails and, at 50 to 59 tons the smallest of the tiny fleet. Young Nicolau Coelho, considered by the Gamas to be a brother, would command it.

  Given the projected length of the voyage, it was not possible for the three primary ships to carry sufficient supplies for the duration. As a result, the fourth vessel was a large supply ship of standard design, weighing between 120 and 300 tons, though it would be manned by a minimum crew. It was commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, a trusted Gama family retainer. In a fair wind the average speed of the fleet was between 6.5 and 8 miles an hour.132

  Given the substantial size of the second fleet sent to India,16

  the Portuguese capabilities and the significance of this expedition, the small number of vessels involved has always been hard to comprehend. By any reasonable assessment only the most wide-eyed optimist would expect success from such limited resources. Dias had barely made it back home, limping into the port at Lisbon with a depleted crew, and he had not even reached India, let alone faced the threat of the hostile Muslims known to dominate the waters there.

  For this and other reasons great care was taken in the selection of the crew. As was the custom established by Henry the Navigator, the new captain-major was given a free hand in preparations. Everything he requested was given to him. During these months the king and Vasco consulted at all hours of the day and night, which suggests that if a close bond did not already exist between the men it was almost certainly formed during this exciting period.

  Vasco carefully selected the crews, each of whom was to be paid 5 cruzados a month. They were offered an additional 2 cruzados if they learned a craft during the wait for departure, a gesture that was well received. The men were instructed in rope-making, smithing, ship servicing, carpentering and other skills that would be useful on the extended voyage. Contributing to the eventual success of the mission was the fact that a number of the crew had been with Dias. Experienced pilots were also selected, among them the legendary Pero d’Alenquer, who had navigated Dias’s ship. The pilots received fresh training in navigation and were presented with nautical instruments of every kind to assist them.

  Between 170 and 180 men eventually comprised the tiny armada.17

  With one notable exception, all were volunteers. Sailing ships of this era required a certain number of skilled seamen and the near constant attention of all of them. The simple act of weighing the anchor required at least ten men, with many of the others aloft loosening canvas, while others set lines. Maintaining a heading in violent seas was especially dangerous, and the men worked high above the deck without safety lines or nets. A seaman falling overboard was all but certain to drown.

  There were among the crewmen surely sets of brothers. A father and son combination is not unlikely. Given the length of the voyage, the dangers jointly faced, the forced quarters and the Portuguese family style of food preparation and consumption, a strong bond of loyalty and fast friendships were the inevitable result. Every loss on the voyage would reap an intense emotional toll. For all this, it is likely Vasco had a difficult time winnowing the vast numbers of those wanting to sail down to the select few.

  Each ship had a master and a pilot, an assistant pilot, a mate, a boatswain, at least twenty able seamen, ten ordinary seamen, two boys, bombardiers, trumpeters, an ‘officer of justice’, a purser, a barber-surgeon, a priest, artisans and servants.133 In addition, each carried six delgradados, condemned prisoners taken from the cells and offered the opportunity of a pardon and reward for faithful service – assuming they survived. This was apparently Vasco’s idea, which the king gladly granted. Delgradados had been used in the past, typically banished to the west coast of Africa, where they ‘went native’and supported themselves as middlemen between the African chiefs and the Portuguese traders.

  Vasco’s delgradados were to be put ashore at the most dangerous and uncertain situations, or left behind as appropriate to work at building goodwill for the Portuguese at a crucial port. These condemned men were not necessarily hardened criminals. One is described as having been imprisoned for killing another man in a dispute over a woman. They were to conduct themselves with great effectiveness.

  Also included in the crew were three interpreters, one of whom had previously lived in the Congo, another who spoke both Arabic and Hebrew, and a third, identified as ‘an African slave’, who had once been a prisoner of the Moors and also spoke Arabic.

  Preparations and the equipping of the fleet were the preoccupation of the capital city and of the nation. Special oversized ovens were constructed in Lisbon and a vast quantity of sea biscuit (hard tack) was baked. Loaded aboard the ships was a more than adequate supply of wine, as indispensable to the Portuguese as beer to a German. Each man was allowed one and a quarter pints of the spirit a day. In addition, the seamen received a daily allotment of one and a half pounds of biscuit, one pound of salt beef or half a pound of pork, two and a half pints of water, vinegar and olive oil. On fast days they were given half a pound of rice, cod or cheese to replace meat. To break the monotony of the diet, sardines, prunes, onions, beans, flour, mustard, garlic, sugar, almonds and honey were also stored. Whenever possible, of course, the diet would be supplemented with fish caught from the ocean or fresh game acquired at landfall.134 For all the shortcomings of the diet, most seamen on the expedition were likely to eat better at sea than they did at home.

  Although the Portuguese employed the most advanced methods of the time, the primitive means of storage available placed a limitation on what foodstuffs could be taken on such a long voyage. The hard tack would begin to deteriorate, for example, after the first year. Salt was the primary preservative and so a generous quantity of water was necessary, both for drinking and for cooking. Unfortunately, water had a tendency to turn bad in wooden kegs and was the most serious concern to any captain.

  For their personal use captains and officers brought fruit preserved in syrup, dried raisins and nuts. In addition, as was the custom, the captains had with them their personal silver dishes and cutlery, crystal cups, gilded glass bowls, linen, carpets, and all the necessities and luxuries to make life as pleasant and bearable as possible.135
  Vasco was quartered in the tower (sometimes called a castle or citadel) rising on the quarterdeck. The ships officers lived in the room below his and in the forecastle. The crew made their quarters in the space immediately below the gang boards, a considerable improvement over the situation endured during previous voyages. Each of them was assigned a locker and they were allowed to bring their own personal trade goods for barter once the fleet reached India. They slept wherever was convenient, on deck or below it.

  No special provision was made to combat scurvy. Its cause was only vaguely understood and the cure was known to be found in fresh food, especially fruit and vegetables. The Portuguese had no idea of what to take to prevent it or how to preserve it if they had. Journals of the Portuguese captains are filled with the tremendous suffering of the seamen and of the horror of the dreaded disease. But like unknown whirlpools, unexpected currents and contrary winds, scurvy was just one more adversity to be faced and overcome.

  Manuel took the extraordinary step of ordering that the names and addresses of wives or parents of the crew be recorded and deposited in the Colonial Office of Portugal. In the event of deaths, of which many were anticipated, the family members would receive the deceased man’s pay. Also meticulously maintained was an account of every cost for the expedition.136 He ordered 100 cruzados to be paid to every married man sailing, to be left with his wife, and 40 cruzados to be given to each single man, presumably for his mother. Vasco and Paulo were each given 2,000 cruzados to assist them in buying what personal items they might need, while Coelho was provided with 1,000.

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up