Unknown seas the portugu.., p.18

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 18


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  Vasco, his captains and pilots, also received the very latest in navigation and astronomical aids, as well as mathematical tables of declinations to fix position, which the junta had been improving at a remarkable pace. The compass had first appeared in western Europe during the twelfth century and quickly proved invaluable. By the time of the final passage to India it had become the most important navigation instrument. In design a needle was fixed to a pivoted card which bore the points of the compass, painted in various colours. The card was housed within a round bowl, lit by a small lamp. This was placed in a hooded box, which was set on top of a stand where the helmsman could easily see it. On each vessel was also a lodestone, which was used periodically to remagnetize the needle, if required. A supply of extra needles and entire compasses was also available.137

  The astrolabe, which probably originated with the Arabs, was still new to Europeans and few were skilled in using it. The device was employed to measure the altitude of the sun and stars, and to fix one’s position to the north and south. It was eventually replaced by the more superior sextant. An astrolabe was specially constructed and presented to Vasco, but did not prove as effective as in future voyages because the small ships of his expedition rolled in all but the calmest of seas, which made accurate readings nearly impossible.

  Although most of its members opposed it, the junta now decided to support the expedition, and every member made a contribution to aid the scientific outfitting. Vasco was provided with a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography, along with extracts from the writings of Benjamin of Tudela, Marco Polo and Nicolo di Conti.138 Presumably Vasco received at least some of the information received from John II’s spies, though clearly little in detail.

  Vasco is believed to have been given a copy of the Ephemerides of Regio Montanus and most certainly the Almanach Perpetuum of Abraham ben Zacuto for use in solar observations. Zacuto had been professor of mathematics in Salamanca, Spain, and had come to Portugal in 1492 seeking refuge. He was named Astronomer Royal, served as the king’s astrologer and was commonly regarded as the greatest mathematician of his time. He gave each pilot a chart depicting the names and direction of the winds, which were portrayed in contrasting colours. In addition, the armada possessed tables of traverses used by ships in long tacks to assist in the potentially confusing zigzag course it entailed.

  Although Vasco took with him the very latest in instruments and the most complete information available, the science of navigation was still in its infancy and he did not possess many of the basics that future captains would take for granted and consider indispensable. There is no record, for example, that anyone in the fleet possessed a quadrant.

  Stored within the ships was everything that logic and prior experience dictated would be required. Each vessel carried six anchors, since these were often lost during storms. At the waist of each ship was a light yawl and a longboat, both of which could be rowed by a small crew when in port or near shore. The holes of the ships were divided into three compartments on two decks. On the upper deck, to the rear, was the supply of water, stored in wooden casks, and additional rope. Shot, gunpowder, firearms and weapons were kept amidships. Forward was the additional spare equipment and food supplies. A tremendous quantity of spare tackle, sails and nautical equipment of every kind was also provided to each ship. The health of the men was of paramount concern and each vessel carried a large supply of drugs.

  In the lower deck the compartments held more provisions, plus assorted merchandise, presents and trade goods. These included a wide selection of wool, necklaces, chains and bracelets, and hand basins as well as swords, daggers –both plain and engraved – ornamented spears and shields, as well as the traditional glass beads and the usual trade items. Later historians reported the ships carried both gold and silk, jewels of gold and princely gifts to ‘be presented to the kings and lords of the countries where they might land –and a small quantity of every kind of spice’.139

  The reference to spices is accurate, but there were no ‘princely gifts’, as the most startling aspect of these stores lay in the actual selection of trade goods and articles to be used as gifts. The traditional interpretation has been that until now the Portuguese had been dealing with tribes along the African coast and had grown accustomed to bartering successfully with cheap items, but they surely knew better than to see these as legitimate goods for trade in India.

  For generations Europe had received costly spices from Asia. The Portuguese knew they were valued there, as they were in Europe. It took gold and silver to buy pepper, cinnamon, cloves and the other desired spices. In addition, Europeans had heard frequent lavish stories of the vast, incalculable wealth of Asia and India. Woollen cloth, striped cotton, sugar, honey, coral, glass beads, red hats, trousers, bells and tin jewellery were simply not going to be adequate, yet for the most part that is what Vasco was given. The reasons for such a profound error in judgement –one that was to cause no end of difficulty –are unlikely ever to be established.

  In every other respect Vasco was provided with the very best Portugal had to offer to make the expedition a success. No expense was spared, so there must have been a reason why he carried the trade goods he did. Accepting that this was not a serious miscalculation, which the methodical manner in which the explorations had taken place would indicate it was not, then there would have been a logic behind it.

  One factor may have been that Vasco was not expected to succeed. The incredible distances Dias had covered were known, and he had still been a long way from India, even at his furthest point. Although the precise location of the subcontinent was not yet established, by the time of Vasco da Gama’s voyage the Portuguese had a much better idea of where it lay. They could make a rough calculation of the increased distances involved and make a determination as to the likelihood of success. Given the technology, there were legitimate concerns as to whether the voyage was even possible. Why send valuable trade goods or a large quantity of gold and silver on a mission so likely to fail? Better to use them once it was established that they were capable of making the voyage, and returning.

  The selection also suggests the nature of the people with whom Vasco was expected to contact. No advanced civilizations had been encountered thus far in the push to India, and it appears the planners doubted any would be on this voyage either.

  Finally, the trade goods taken indicate that this was still primarily viewed as a voyage of exploration rather than of commerce. While the eventual aim was to establish a trade mission and bring back a profitable quantity of spices, the primary purpose of this voyage was to discover the way to India, and return with that vital knowledge. Goods that would be of use en route were considered more important than those to be used for barter in the event of the ships actually reaching India.

  During the lengthy preparations Manuel and Vasco continued meeting on a nearly daily basis. Correa records that:

  Vasco da Gama gave an account to the king of all that he did, and always talked to him of the things which he desired; and the king told him to do what his heart prompted him . . . and that in the countries at which he touched, he should take great precautions for taking care of his health and life upon which depended all that had been done, and that remained to be accomplished; and, according as he saw fit, he was to make peace or war, and to make of himself a merchant or a warrior, or one cast away or who had lost his way, and he was to make himself an ambassador . . . And all that he said to him thus was nought, because it seemed to the king in his heart that Vasco da Gama would know much the best what to do; for each time his heart received greater satisfaction from him.140

  Vasco reported to his sovereign that ‘his soul was in readiness, and that there was nothing to detain him from embarking at once’.141

  All was now prepared. Carried aboard the São Gabriel was the carved image of Santa Maria, whose presence was meant to grant the voyage good fortune. When all else was in readiness, placed within the holds of the ships were three stone padrões, similar in desi
gn to the pillars Cão and Dias had used, but specially prepared for this voyage, to mark the more distant points to which Vasco, his captains and crew sailed. The last of them was to be planted on the shore of India, as remote from western Europe then as the planet Mars today.


  Volta da Guiné

  By that summer of 1497 the four ships destined for the first passage to India had lain at anchor in the tranquil fresh waters of the Sea of Straw (Mar de Palha) at the port of Lisbon for many months. New sails and rigging were strung across the masts and a veritable ocean of supplies had been stored deep within the holds. Pennants snapped in the breeze and bright fittings glittered in the summer sun.

  Preparations for the impending voyage had consumed nearly every aspect of Lisbon’s commercial life. In the numerous tascas along the wharf seamen, soldiers, merchants and labourers gathered over cups of wine, speculating endlessly about the imminent expedition, while in the courtyards and meeting halls of the Portugese nobility there had been talk of little else. Hundreds of other ships, from nations of Europe and throughout the Mediterranean, were also anchored in the busy harbour and not one of those crews was unaware of the adventure about to unfold.

  The weather remained temperate and as yet the yearly summer plague had not shown itself within the city. With the coming of the annual wind from the north it seemed that at last the small fleet would finally sail.

  For nearly a century the Portuguese had been directed towards this moment. From the day the young Prince Henry had first seen for himself the wonders of conquered Ceuta and his mind’s eye had grasped the possibilities for his people, the course of the nation had been set. These had been decades of success but also of failure, of high expectations as well as profound disappointments. Countless lives had been lost, and on occasion the meagre resources of the nation had been stretched to their limit to maintain the push to India by sea. The departure of these ships was recognized by the Portuguese people and the monarch as the single most momentous event in Portuguese history since the creation of the nation itself.

  Saturday 8 July was selected for departure. In acknowledgment of this enormous undertaking no ceremony to mark it was omitted. The 28-year-old Vasco da Gama, Captain-Major of the four-ship fleet, and his officers were directed to present themselves before the equally youthful Manuel to request formal permission to set sail and to receive the royal instructions.

  With nearly 200 men about to depart on such a treacherous voyage, their extended families and circle of friends meant that much of the populace was personally affected. Emotions were running high, not just at the prospect of success and wealth, but also from the certain knowledge that, even should the expedition be a resounding success, many –even most – of these men would die in the effort. Given the large number of ships that had previously set out, never to return, and the enormous distances and difficulties to be overcome in this effort, even the most optimistic possessed deep concern for the fate of Vasco and his crew.

  On 7 July, Manuel received Vasco and his captains in solemn ceremony. Assembled about the sovereign were the most important nobles and other personages of the court, including the highest members of the clergy, all arrayed in their finest ceremonial attire. The crowd both within and without was also bedecked in a bright patchwork of dress. For all the gravity of the gathering there was also a festive mood to the occasion among many of those present, or at the least an effort to make it seem so.

  Vasco, his older brother Paulo, their devoted friend the young Nicolau Coelho and other high-ranking officers of the expedition all wore their finest armour. Helmets, breastplates and the elaborate hilts of their swords were polished to a bright lustre. One by one they were escorted forward, introduced to the king and court and then stood at attention. When all were in place, Manuel, regally attired in the fashion of the Portuguese monarchs, delivered prepared remarks.

  He recounted how he had received the benefits of the efforts of past kings in driving the Moors from Portugal and also by way of exploration and conquest. He said that he had pondered the next step for the greater good of his nation. ‘I have come to the decision that no other is more proper for this my kingdom –as I have debated with you often – than the search for India and lands of the East.’The purpose of such a search was to spread the word of Jesus Christ and thereby obtain their reward in heaven, ‘but in addition [to acquire] kingdoms and new states with much riches’.

  Manuel reminded all those assembled that the Italian city-states had become wealthy and powerful through their monopoly on the trade in spices. It would, he pronounced, ‘be an [act of] ingratitude to God to reject what He so propitiously offers us, and an insult to those princes of lauded memory from whom I have inherited this quest, and an offence to you who have shared in it if I neglected it for [too] long’. For these reasons he had ordered ships to be prepared, which now lay in readiness.

  Continuing, Manuel said:

  And I have in my mind how Vasco da Gama, who is here present, has given a good account of himself in all matters which were entrusted to him, or with which he was charged. I have chosen him for this journey, as a loyal cavalier, worthy of such an honourable enterprise. I hope that Our Lord may grant he may perform such services for himself and for me that his recompense may be as a memorial both for him and for those who may aid him in the work [to be] performed in this voyage, because with this confidence and with the knowledge which I have had of all [of them] I have chosen them as his co-workers, with the intention that they obey him in all things which pertain to my service.

  He charged the men to work together cooperatively, so as to overcome more easily the dangers they were certain to face. ‘And that through you this my kingdom may share the benefactions.’142

  With that, Vasco knelt and in the solemn hush that ensued kissed the hand of his sovereign in thanks for the great honour that had been given him. The silk banner of the Order of Christ was presented by an official. Vasco placed his hands on it and then pledged his oath of fealty in a clear, loud voice for all to hear:

  I, Vasco da Gama, who now have been commanded by you, most high and most powerful king, my liege lord, to set out to discover the seas and the lands of India and the Orient, do swear on the symbol of this cross, on which I lay my hands, that in the service of God and for you I shall uphold it and not surrender it in the sight of the Moor, pagan or any race of people that I may encounter, and in the face of every peril of water, fire or sword, always to defend and protect it, even unto death. And I further swear that, in the pursuit and the labours of this quest which you, my king and lord, have ordered me to undertake, I shall serve with all fidelity, loyalty, watchfulness and diligence, observing and enforcing the orders which have just been entrusted to me, until such time as I return to this place where I now stand, in the presence of your Royal Highness, with the help of the grace of God, in whose service you are sending me.143

  Vasco accepted the banner and was then given a copy of his orders, a letter of credence and correspondence to princes with whom he might come into contact, but most especially to the fabled Prester John and to the Zamorin of Calicut.18

  Then Vasco and the members of the expedition remained at attention as Manuel and his entourage exited with great dignity and ceremony.

  In procession, by one account accompanied by the king himself, Vasco and his men solemnly marched towards the nearby harbour. Another account places Vasco on a horse. The great crowd greeted the men with both cheers and tears. In deference to his older brother Vasco had directed that his vessel, the São Rafael, would serve as flagship and so the banner of the Order of Christ was raised over it, snapping in the freshening breeze.

  The men boarded the ships to the steady tattoo of the drums and the flourish of trumpets. Each vessel was adorned with colourful banners and fluttering pennants. The ships were soon moving slowly, carried by the modest wind and current of the Tagus river towards the ocean. Along the shore an enormous crowd was gathered, waving gaily at the ships, w
hich fired their bombard cannons in answer and sounded their trumpets in fanfare. The vessels passed before the excited crowd in line for the short journey to Belém, where they dropped anchor.

  Here a long generation ago Prince Henry had built a nationally revered chapel dedicated to all who took to sea. An order of nuns maintained a nearby hospital, where they nursed seamen carried ill or dying from ships just returned from distant voyages. Vasco, his brother Paulo and Coelho, still attired in their armour, went back ashore and passed through the throng that was awaiting them, swelled by the numbers who had followed the ships on horseback and by carriage. Others travelling on foot continued arriving throughout the night.

  It was customary for departing Portuguese seamen to offer prayer to St Mary of Belém within this small chapel, and so the three principal captains assumed their places, possibly accompanied by others of higher rank who would sail, and knelt during the long night, joined by the priests of the nearby monastery. The men confessed and tended to their devotions, each man offering prayers in words immortalized by the great Portuguese poet and author Luis Vaz de Camoens:

  . . . Oh, Mighty God, be Thou our watchful guide.

  . . . To weigh our anchors from our native shore –

  To dare new oceans never dared before –

  Perhaps to see my native coast no more.144

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