Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 19
At sunrise on Saturday 8 July Manuel arrived at the chapel, whereupon the three captains joined their sovereign outside. Now ashore were most of the crew, deeply tanned, barefoot, in the distinctive attire of sailors wearing red caps, bidding farewell to family and friends. As the moment arrived, the women drew out black mantles, which they placed across their heads and about their shoulders and began to conduct themselves more as mourners than well-wishers. By one account a spontaneous chorus arose from the crowd as Vasco and his men emerged from the chapel –so young, so brave.
Ah, miserable mortals! See to what a fate such ambition and greed are rushing you headlong! What more dreadful punishments could be visited upon you if you had committed the most heinous of crimes? What far distant and measureless seas you must penetrate, what merciless and mountainous waves you must brave, and what dangers threaten your very lives in those faraway lands! Would it not be wiser for you to face death in whatsoever fashion [it may come] here at home than to launch forth into hidden places far from your fatherland, and to find graves in the salt depths of the sea?145
It is unlikely such a joint outcry took place, but the sentiments were surely held by many of those present. Whatever words were spoken from the crowd to Vasco moved him deeply and this most disciplined of men, on the greatest day of his life to this point, shed tears which he quickly wiped away with his bare hand. He then turned to escort the king into the chapel for the final Mass. At its conclusion the bells of the chapel and the nearby monastery pealed, announcing to the throng that the long-awaited moment was at hand.
Outside, the officials and dignitaries gathered themselves for the short procession to the shore. The rector of the chapel went first, followed by the priests and monks with bowed heads and hands clasped before them, walking at a measured pace, chanting in unison with each step. Next were the acolytes, swinging ornate censers emitting a pungent blue smoke that swirled about their skirts and floated into the crowd. Then came those bearing crosses, then more dark-robed priests joining in the chant, the crowd murmuring its response.
Next was Vasco da Gama, clasping a lit taper, his breastplate and helmet glistening in the bright summer sun. He moved slowly, looking neither left nor right, his head erect. Behind him fell the officers and men of his fleet in lines of two, each also carrying a lit candle. The smiles were gone, as were for the moment the good wishes. Every face was grim. Women wailed at the sight of their loved ones moving to the ships, others threw themselves on the ground in anguish, certain they would never again see a son, brother, husband or lover.
At the beach the rector paused and then knelt, joined by all in a great sweeping wave as everyone present knelt in place. The crowd grew silent. The priest held a general confession and then, in accordance with the papal bull obtained long before by Prince Henry and applicable to all those who died in the conquest or discovery of distant lands, he granted plenary absolution to the men of the expedition who might lose their lives. All rose and with deliberation Vasco gave the order for the crew to man the waiting ships. There was a final moment for an embrace, the grasp of hands, the meeting of eyes.
Near the shore the young king addressed the crew, jointly and individually, giving them his blessings and good wishes, then took his leave as the crew entered the waiting boats. The sunlight reflected off the sparkling river, the oars of the small boats dipped in bright flashes. It was recorded that the surface of the water, ‘appeared in no way like the sea, but like unto a field of flowers’.146 In short order all were aboard their respective bedecked ships.
To the rhythm of a timeless sea chant the mariners drew the anchors from the muddy bottom of the river. The massive new white sails, adorned with the enormous crimson cross of the Order of Christ, were unfurled and billowed with the breeze. The ships moved slowly at first, then more swiftly towards the open sea. The king himself boarded a small boat so as to accompany the ships as far as reasonable, calling out repeatedly his good wishes and blessings.
On deck the seamen crowded against the bulwarks or hung from the rigging, every man attempting a final view of loved ones, who waved bright scarves or bare hands and called out a final farewell while the officers and captains crowded atop the two castles for the same purpose. For a moment Paulo attempted to pass the royal standard to Vasco so that he would have the honour, but the younger brother refused and indicated Paulo should proceed. The royal standard was again raised, to the blast of a trumpet fanfare. The drums sounded in a steady martial riff, joined in turn by pipes, flutes and tambourines. Numerous small craft trailed the departing ships as far as possible until at last, their sails filled with the hearty wind of the open sea, the vessels pulled ever more swiftly beyond all reach.
All eyes were fixed on the ships until they were out of sight, but none more firmly than those of Manuel, who from his boat watched the departing fleet as if mesmerized and did not stir until there was nothing left to see but the vast blue ocean before him, stretching across the world to India.
An invaluable source here is the Roteiro, an account maintained for most of the voyage by an unnamed member of the crew. Of this day of departure the author –whose identity has long been the subject of historical dispute –wrote, ‘May God our Lord permit us to accomplish this voyage in his service. Amen!’
It is safe to assume that, given the momentous nature of events and the ceremony surrounding their departure, few aboard the four ships slept that July night after they had left the Portuguese coast behind. This first twenty-four hours were likely to be the safest of the voyage and the one time when the men could come to terms with what lay ahead, and what they had left behind.
The two freshly built ships had a pleasing smell about them that would not last long. The newly hewed oak and pine emitted the fragrance of the trees from which they were taken. The not unpleasant odour of pitch and tar was interspersed. The rope and canvas for the sails both had their own sweet aroma. No crewmen had relieved himself below deck, as they later would, against orders; the ever present rats were too few to be seen; the provisions were still fresh and appetizing. In time the two naus would show their age and become as weather-beaten and sour in smell as all ships did, but on this day of departure they were surely a delight for any seaman and a source of enormous pride for the Gama brothers. They captained what at the time were the two greatest ships in European history.
Sailing with the fleet bound for India, or possibly joining it shortly after departure, was another ship, captained by Bartholomeu Dias, who was transporting men and supplies to El Mina, where he was to assume command. It is not known what role, if any, he played in the departing ceremonies, nor why this particular moment had been selected for him to leave. What thoughts passed through his mind as he gazed at the other four ships and contemplated the mission ahead of them, the secrets to be uncovered, the mysteries to be witnessed for the first time, the incomprehensible rewards to be garnered for success, will also never be known.
Following a week’s peaceful run the small fleet sighted the Spanish-held Canary Islands. Here they altered course to come in close to the coast of Africa, where the crew cast lines and caught fish for their pots. Sailing on the night of the 16th, near the Rio de Oro, they were engulfed by one of the thick fogs that appear so unexpectedly off this part of the African coastline. The next morning Vasco discovered his ships had been scattered. None of the others could be seen. Standing orders called for them to rendezvous at the Cape Verde Islands, so Vasco ordered the São Gabriel to set course.
Four days later the lookout on the São Rafael, which was sailing alone, spotted two vessels bearing down on her. These were the fleet’s stores ship and the vessel commanded by Dias. The three ships united and on the evening of 26 July overtook Vasco, who on expressing his great pleasure at seeing them ordered bombards to be fired and trumpets sounded. He had been warned that his two greatest dangers were the scattering of his ships and mutiny, so he would have been very relieved to be reunited with the rest of his ships.
Next Vasco turned his fleet to the east, along the coast of Guinea. As his ships came upon favourable winds, ones for which he was probably searching, he gave the order to follow them and turn south by west, filling the enormous sheets of canvas over his ships with the prevailing wind. At this juncture Dias parted ways and with a final gaze at Vasco’s fleet sailed on to El Mina. Escaping both the South Equatorial and Benguela currents, the fleet was carried along by the wind, veering slightly at first but then relentlessly ever west as the pattern permitted.
The decision to take this untested course to the Cape of Good Hope was almost certainly made before Vasco’s departure, despite the speculation of some historians. It is all but certain that from the time of Dias’s return the Portuguese dispatched ships into the central and south Atlantic to search for islands and lands more favourable than the coast of West Africa for reprovisioning the ships on the anticipated voyage to India and to chart the ocean currents and prevailing wind patterns. Columbus’s discovery of substantial lands in the Atlantic would have been just one more impetus to such an effort.
First Cão, then Dias, had demonstrated that Portuguese ships could safely travel long distances far out to sea and that such a route was faster and easier on the crew than bumping along the unhealthy and unpredictable waters of the African coast. Provision for Vasco’s daring manoeuvre had surely been made during the preparations. The final decision would have been his, as was the Portuguese custom, and dependent on what he discovered south of the Cape Verde Islands, but it is all but certain that he did not act in isolation in making such a potentially reckless decision, one described as ‘an act of superlative audacity’.
Soon the four ships had turned south, steadily eating up the miles on the route to India, carried along as well by the powerful Brazil current. They were taking the great circular course from Europe to Asia, the route still preferred by sailing vessels. It carried them an estimated 600 miles from the coast of Brazil, then ever southward, well out to sea but parallel to the coast of South America.
They were in waters never before sailed by man, and every horizon offered the prospect of a fresh discovery or unknown danger. They found no islands, spotted no landfalls, encountered no other ships. They were removed from all sight of land and all human contact. This would have been one of the worst situations considered, although by no means the worst imaginable. Vasco had gambled that some point of land for provisioning would appear, but knew that one might not, and he would be called on to make this great sweep into unknown waters with only the provisions on hand. He could only estimate how long it would take.
Although it is reasonable to assume there were occasional gales, and although some of the ships suffered light damage, weather conditions remained generally favourable throughout this leg of the voyage and the crews of the four ships fell into a steady, reassuring routine. The main meal was taken at midday and was prepared by the seamen themselves. They would have eaten in working groups, as remains the Portuguese custom. The evening course was little more than a snack followed by the quiet hours, which were filled with the haunting melodies of fado accompanied by the strings of the mandolin. At night each ship marked its location with the reassuring glow of a lantern. Living accommodation for the crew was better than any had experienced before, so these were the good days.
As the weeks passed, the familiar North Star dropped below the horizon, to be replaced by the Southern Cross. For many this was a new experience but others had seen it before and would have spoken reassuring words. Although these were new waters, not every event was unanticipated or a threat. It was long, monotonous sailing, but each sailor knew it to be risky. August passed, then September.
At the tropic of Capricorn the ships began to veer east by southeast, following the wind and sailing into the favourable south Equatorial Counter Current. They entered the tempestuous Westerlies, the weather now colder, the waves heavier, the winds more robust, but made good time. The ships were becoming increasingly rank and the once fresh water was turning foul now. Frequently it was poured from kegs into vats and left to air as contaminants settled before it was marginally fit for use. The fresh victuals were long since consumed and the diet was now mundane.
Concern for their fate would have been a constant discussion among the seamen. Not everyone would have had faith in the daring course they were taking. Yet there was no threat of mutiny; no captain turned his ship back; there was no call for harsh measures by Vasco. If any testament to his leadership is needed, it lies here.
Having begun this course on 3 August, they spotted seals and whales along with coastal seaweed on 27 October. These were strong, and reassuring, indications of land and intermittent soundings were now taken as the ships proceeded cautiously. At 9 o’clock on the morning of 4 November land was sighted. The ships drew near to one another and the crews exchanged shouts of exaltation and relief. Every man about the ships knew they had just accomplished something remarkable, and now that land was at hand they could rejoice in the achievement. The officers turned out in their finest clothing, banners and standards were raised aloft in a colorful canopy and the ships fired their bombards in salute of the Captain-Major.
The ships then slowly tacked in closer to landfall. Vasco’s pilot, the legendary Pero d’Alenquer, had been in this region with Dias but was unable to identify the shore ahead. Given that Dias’s ships had not been within continuous site of Africa, this was not unexpected. The ships sailed south, keeping within view of the coastline, and three days later they spotted a broad bay. D’Alenquer was sent by boat to sound the waters and soon pronounced it suitable. It was named St Helena Bay.
The ships had deteriorated in their time at sea. Their smell was now so foul that ocean winds were required to make them bearable. Vasco ordered the vessels to be cleaned inside and out, the sails mended and all necessary repairs begun. The ships were also to be careened on the beach, their bottoms scraped, cleaned, caulked and then resealed. The surviving water supply was not only low but was almost completely foul and undrinkable. Crews were therefore dispatched to refill kegs from a nearby stream and to secure such fresh meat and edibles as could be safely located. Dias had met with violence in this region, so the Portuguese were on the alert.
It had not been possible aboard ship to take the kind of precise readings of the sun’s angle that Vasco desired, so he went ashore with his pilots. A tripod was erected on top of a hill and with his astrolabe Vasco and the pilots made careful observations. The determination was that the fleet had originally struck land some 100 miles north of the Cape of Good Hope.
Vasco had sailed an estimated 3,370 miles over a period of more than three months, without spotting a single landmark to assist in navigation. To have maintained discipline and the unity of his ships was remarkable, especially considering that Columbus began facing the prospect of mutiny after just three weeks out of sight of land. Navigation readings aboard the ships had been taken under difficult circumstances at best. To have landed so close to his chosen point was astounding and ranks as one of the two greatest feats of seamanship in world history, beside the world circumnavigation by the renegade Portuguese pilot Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão da Magalhães).
‘Foam upon the wave’
The immediate objective for the Portuguese –India and the region of the Indian Ocean –was no more tranquil than Europe at the time, and the Muslims living there were no more united in the brotherhood of their faith than were the Christians. The situation on the subcontinent was further complicated by the existence of a diverse as well as substantial Hindu majority and numerous rival kingdoms, both Muslim and Hindu, none strong enough to dominate the others. The relations of the region were volatile, creating a chronic tinderbox that almo
In describing commerce in this region the tendency has been to refer to it as a ‘Muslim lake’and to use such phrases as ‘Arab dominance’or an ‘Islamic world-economy’. The reality was too complex and subject to historic conflicts to justify such a description. The political and economic structure was aggressively eclectic, lacking any central control.148
This area of land and sea was also a world of its own, as ignorant of the Europeans as they were of it. A few of the Muslim merchants along the coast of India knew the Portuguese were attempting to reach their market directly by rounding Africa, but there was no consensus that they would succeed, expectation of their imminent arrival or agreement on how to deal with them if they ever arrived.
India itself and the land about the Indian Ocean were a mix of disparate ethnic groups and rival economic forces. Although Islam united the traders and merchants to some degree, it was not the dominant force in all areas, nor even in many places the leading mercantile group. And peace between Hindu and Muslim was always tenuous.
A number of non-Muslim trading groups thrived, including the Gujaratis, Tamils, Telugu Chettis, Syrian Christians, Jews and even for a time Chinese from Fukien.149 The Muslims themselves did not act in unison but vied constantly for advantage, attacking and betraying one another as circumstances provided the opportunity. The Muslims of southern Arabia viewed their brethren of east Africa with contempt, believing they had joined the True Faith solely for commercial advantage, considering their observation of the Prophet’s admonishments to be superficial.
This opinion was not limited to the Muslims along the African coast. The Arab navigator Ahmid ibn Majid recorded a view widely held when he wrote of the Malay Muslims:
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