Unknown seas the portugu.., p.28

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 28


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  On this not especially friendly note Vasco was given summary leave and the audience came to an abrupt end. This was the last meeting the Portuguese had with the Zamorin. When Pedro Alvares Cabral returned in 1500, another ruler sat on the throne, one certainly more to the liking of the local Arab traders, who aggressively opposed him. Vasco and his men went to their quarters and, as it was already late in the day, decided to return to their ships in the morning.

  The next day Vasco was brought a horse without a saddle, which he refused as being beneath his station. The point of the offer was probably to humiliate the Portuguese leader, as he clearly appreciated. After a short time a palanquin was brought, which Vasco entered. He and his retinue set off for the long walk to Pantalayini, where their ships were anchored. The six bearers, however, soon outstripped Vasco’s men, who were left behind, surrounded by the mass of Hindu humanity. This was not necessarily a problem, for the Hindus were consistently well disposed towards the Portuguese, usually attempting to engage them in trade whenever possible or, when not, begging from them.

  The men tried to find their way in the crowded and twisting streets but only ended up becoming lost. Finally, with local help, they found the right route and caught up with the wali, who was himself hurrying to catch Vasco. The Portuguese joined him and soon reached the Captain-Major, who was resting, and probably waiting for his men, at one of the many wayside rest houses established ‘so that travellers and wayfarers might find protection against the rain’.255

  Vasco had grown melancholy at events, although the situation was not entirely bad. While the Zamorin was not as favourably disposed towards him as he had seemed during their first audience, he clearly was interested in trade and not overtly hostile. The Arabs were another matter altogether and that was cause for serious concern. Vasco didn’t know it, but the Zamorin had his own difficulties with his Muslim factors and as a result did not necessarily trust their advice or actions. The previous factor had been executed for extorting personal bribes from traders.

  Vasco asked the wali, a Muslim, to be certain that he and his men were provided with a boat once they reached the shore opposite their ships. The wali answered that it was already too late in the day for that as the sun had set, and anyway, as the wind had come up, it was not practical to row out to the Portuguese ships. He would see to it the next day.

  This struck Vasco as a deception, designed to keep him and his men ashore overnight. With ‘dark looks’he told the wali that if they were not taken to their ships, he would return at once to the Zamorin to report this lack of cooperation, which was contrary to the orders he had given. If the wali tried to detain him, that would be ill advised because the ruler was a ‘Christian’like himself and would be angry.

  With extravagant protestations, the wali assured Vasco this would not be necessary. He was, of course, free to depart for his ships at once. If he needed thirty boats, the wali would see to it. There was absolutely no difficulty. In the gathering darkness the Portuguese were led away by the seemingly deferential wali. Vasco was extremely suspicious, believing the Moor harboured some ‘evil design’against them, and quietly dispatched three of his men by a different route to warn his brother Paulo to protect himself well, as Vasco suspected treachery.

  On the shore at Pantalayini there was not a single boat to be had, let alone thirty of them. The wali expressed surprise, then suggested that the Portuguese would after all be compelled to spend the night ashore. Vasco saw he had no choice and relented, so the wali arranged their quarters at the home of another Muslim. Vasco sent men to buy chickens and rice, which was prepared, and instructed that the three men he had sent earlier should be located, if possible, as he was eager to learn if word had reached Paulo. The men, in fact, had been unable to find Vasco’s brother and had turned back but followed another route and missed the Captain-Major.

  By this time the Portuguese had been on their feet all day and were weary. The dinner was well received and Vasco’s mood lightened. Perhaps, he allowed, he should not have been so suspicious of the wali, even though he was a Moor. It might very well have been imprudent to have rowed out to the ships in the dark during a wind. His suspicions, he told his men, had been based on what had already transpired in Calicut, which had persuaded him the Arabs were ‘ill-disposed’towards them.256

  The good humour was shortlived for Vasco had in fact assessed the situation accurately. Early the next morning he again asked for boats so that he could return to his ships as the Zamorin had promised. The Muslims who had come to their lodgings whispered among themselves in a furtive way. At last one stepped forward and with an indulgent smile said that would only be possible if Vasco gave the order to have his ships move and anchor close to shore.257

  This was an obvious ploy and Vasco refused, adding that his brother Paulo, upon receiving such an order, would assume Vasco and his men were being held prisoner and had given the instruction under duress. In such an event Paulo would obey his standing orders and immediately weigh anchor, then sail directly to Portugal. A lengthy argument ensued but the Arabs made no headway with Vasco, who was utterly –and rightly –convinced that treachery was afoot.

  Vasco pointed out that it was the Zamorin himself who had given the order for him and all his men to return to their ships so that trading could be commenced. He had made it clear he did not desire any of the Portuguese to remain ashore. But if these Arabs wanted to go against the orders of the ruler, that was their business. As for himself, Vasco was content to remain here among the friendly local ‘Christians’. Still, he was obliged to report this state of affairs directly to the Zamorin, who no doubt would have a response. The Arabs consulted in whispers, then one told Vasco that he was free to go, if that was what he wanted.

  But at this point the doors and shutters to the house were banged shut on the Portuguese. Within moments the Captain-Major was informed that they were surrounded by at least 100 men, ‘all armed with swords, two-edged battle axes, shields and bows and arrows’.258 When Vasco asked what this was all about, the Arabs said he was not free to go to his ships until he had ordered their ‘sails and rudders’to be surrendered. This would make it impossible for the ships to leave.259

  The kindest explanation of this development is that the Muslims were afraid Vasco might leave without paying the accumulating port duties, though their actions were out of proportion to such a minor dispute. It is more likely that they were deeply troubled by the threat of the ships leaving at once for Portugal with the charts and pilots filled with knowledge of the passage to India.

  Vasco answered that giving up the rudders and sails was out of the question. The Zamorin had instructed him to return to his ships without conditions. They could try and do whatever they liked to him, but he would give no such order. As the Arabs talked among themselves, Vasco pointed out that his men were hungry and he asked leave for some to pass through the armed men to acquire food. His request was flatly denied.

  The Portuguese were very distressed at the unfolding events, though they made every effort not to show it. Vasco said, as matters were, why not simply let his men go? He would remain there. Since their request for food was being refused, and there was none within the house, his men ‘would die of hunger’if compelled to remain indefinitely. ‘Remain where you are’, an Arab said haughtily, ‘if you die of hunger, you must bear it. We care nothing about that.’

  At this moment one of the three men Vasco had sent with word to Paulo the previous night arrived and was able to gain entry to the house. He met in private with Vasco and reported that Coelho had waited with longboats for the Captain-Major and his men throughout the previous night. Vasco instructed the messenger to find some secret way out and get word to Coelho that before he too became trapped he was to return to the ships and be certain they were anchored in a secure location.

  The messenger managed to make his exit and soon reached Coelho, who immediately ordered his waiting longboats back to the three Portuguese ships. Some of the armed guards, on
hearing this, rushed to shore and in several almadias (a type of long narrow boat) pursued Coelho a short distance. Seeing the futility of it, they abandoned the chase.

  Again the Arabs demanded that Vasco send word for the ships to be moved more deeply within the port. He was not to trifle with them, for they knew his brother was compelled to obey his every order. Vasco responded that he did not want the ships to move in closer, because ‘once inside they could easily be captured’, after which he would be killed, as would all the others.260 He would give no such order.

  The remainder of the day passed ‘most anxiously’ for the Portuguese. As night fell the Muslim guard was increased in number. During the events the Portuguese found themselves standing in the ‘small tiled court’where they were surrounded at close hand by the armed men. Throughout the long night they remained on alert, ready at any moment for an attack that did not come.

  The next morning, 2 June, the devious wali and other Arabs wearing ‘better faces’ reappeared, this time insisting that Vasco give the order for his merchandise to be landed. No mention was made of moving the ships deeper within the port, but also to come ashore was the entire crew of all three ships, who would not be permitted back on board until the goods had been sold, for such, they claimed, was the local custom. Vasco assumed a friendly manner, assured them he wished to honour the local practice and appeared to consent. He immediately wrote a message to Paulo, instructing him to begin the process of landing their modest supply of trade goods.

  The Arabs were pleased and soon the first of the goods reached shore. So convincing was Vasco in appearing to be duped that they lifted the siege and allowed him to return to his ships. He left behind in charge of the goods Diogo Dias as factor, joined by an assistant. The moment Vasco was aboard the São Gabriel he countermanded his written order and no more merchandise was taken ashore.261 With their heavy cannon pointed at the port, the Portuguese were reasonably satisfied that no harm would come to Dias or his assistant.

  Over the next several days Arab traders examined the supply of trade goods ashore but made not a single offer to buy any. Instead, they manhandled and disparaged the items. On the fifth day Vasco dispatched a letter to the Zamorin informing him that he and his men had been detained on the way back to their ships, contrary to the ruler’s orders. He had landed his goods as instructed, but the Moors only mocked them and refused to give them a value. He awaited the Zamorin’s instructions and placed himself, his men and his ships ‘at his service’.

  The Zamorin immediately replied, saying that those who had acted against his orders would be punished at once. He himself would send several traders to deal honestly with the Portuguese. In addition, with them would be ‘a man of quality’, who would remain with the Portuguese factor and who would be authorized summarily to ‘kill any Moor’ who offered further interference.262

  Although Vasco was initially pleased with this response, the situation did not improve with the arrival of the Zamorin’s special envoys. They remained for eight days examining the trade goods but, like the other Arabs before them, refused to assign a value and constantly disparaged them. Finally they declined even to go to the house where the goods were located and, when sailors landed ashore with more, the Arabs spat on the ground before them, uttering ‘Portugal! Portugal!’as if cursing. The Portuguese were more convinced than ever that the Moors had ‘from the very first . . . sought means to take and kill us’.

  Throughout these unfolding events Vasco had taken counsel from his Good Moor, the pilot who had been provided him in Malindi and who had consistently demonstrated his integrity. Aboard the São Gabriel the Captain-Major and the pilot often spoke at length, with the Moor repeatedly urging caution. Through his own contacts he had learned that the Arabs had proffered enormous bribes to the Zamorin to destroy the three ships as well as the Portuguese. The Arabs had told the Zamorin that the Portuguese were thieves and paupers, that Portugal had nothing to give and would only take. Once the Portuguese established a regular route to Calicut, no ships from the Arabian peninsula would ever come to this port again. If he failed to act against them, he would be ruined and his kingdom destroyed.

  The Good Moor also warned that neither Vasco nor any of his officers should again go ashore. They would certainly meet a violent death if they did. His words of warning were reinforced by reports from the friendly Hindus that if any of the officers went ashore, ‘their heads would be cut off, as this was the way the Zamorin dealt with those who came to his country without giving him gold’.263

  The situation could not continue indefinitely for many reasons, not the least of which was that the annual great Arab trading fleet from the north was due to arrive in a month or two. They would see the Portuguese as enemies to be destroyed at once, and no intercession by the Zamorin would prevent their falling on them. The ships’hulls had deteriorated as well and some means had to be found to service them.

  Amid increasing tension and constant distrust the situation remained unchanged until 23 June, when Vasco asked permission of the Zamorin to convey his goods from Pandarani to Calicut itself. The ruler immediately agreed, going so far in demonstrating his good will as to order the wali to gather ‘a sufficient number of men who were to carry the whole on their backs to Calecut [sic], this to be done at [the Zamorin’s] expense, as nothing belonging to the King of Portugal was to be burthened with expenses whilst in his country’. But by this time the suspicions of the Portuguese were so aroused that even this kind act was received with misgivings. The Zamorin had been told that they ‘were thieves and went about to steal’, so his motives in making this gesture could not be trusted.264

  However, the goods were moved as ordered and Vasco gave initial instructions for one man from each ship to go to Calicut in turn, to enjoy shore leave and to trade as they wished. The Portuguese continued to be well received by the Hindus in the city and were freely provided with shelter and food wherever they went. The Hindus had no love of the local Muslims, and seeing how they treated the Portuguese could only have increased their regard for these newcomers.

  Sailors were soon going ashore in pairs or small groups, bearing bracelets, shirts, clothes and other articles for sale. The prices were lower than the sums they had received in similar trading in east Africa, so the men were disappointed, yet they sold everything they could spare ‘in order to take some things away from this country’. It was not in vain, nor perhaps as one-sided as the Roteiro states, for its author also adds that ‘those who visited the city brought there cloves, cinnamon, and precious stones’, all for very low prices. Besides barter, there was much to enjoy ashore for these Europeans. The Hindu women found men with fair skin highly desirable and offered themselves for little more than a few glass beads or no gift at all. Left in the wake of the Portuguese mariners was the new disease syphilis.

  Hindus, in turn, were allowed aboard the ships to trade fish for bread, and in many cases to receive a substantial meal gratis. ‘All this was done for the sake of establishing relations of peace and amity, and to induce them to speak well of us and not evil.’265 Nevertheless, some of the locals reportedly snatched food from the hands of sailors engaged in mending sails, leaving them with nothing. So many locals came to the ships that it was difficult to get them all to leave when night came. During the month of July and through the first week of August, Vasco continued to extend the hand of friendship to the Hindu population while an intermittent trade took place in Calicut, both on behalf of the King of Portugal and by the crew members personally.

  From these contacts and by a concerted effort the Portuguese gained a full understanding of the spice trade. In so doing they stripped it of the mystery with which distance, time and design had imbued it. They learned the original source of spices, how many days’ journey it took for them to reach Calicut and how they were transshipped to the Middle East, and they understood the elaborate price structure built into the trade. It was an encyclopaedia of invaluable information which, when joined with their fresh knowledg
e of the sea passage to India, was of far greater value than whatever spices they could acquire ashore. They were not the only ones who understood that this information was the true loss to the Arab monopoly.

  After two months on the coast of India it was apparent there was nothing of significance to be gained by remaining as they were. For all the dangers and difficulties Vasco could not have been completely unhappy with events. The Zamorin had dealt with him honestly and was clearly interested in further trade, provided the Portuguese returned with the proper goods, and gold. The Good Moor had cautioned that Vasco and his men were paying too much for the spices they were gathering, but the prices were so low it had no impact on them. Also it was essential that the expedition return to Lisbon with at least some spices.

  In addition the Portuguese had been consistently well treated by the Hindus, the so-called ‘Christians’, and these made up the overwhelming majority of the population. While it was true the Portuguese supply of trade goods was not well received, this was primarily because they were the wrong kind and because the Arab merchants were exerting all of their considerable influence to stop trade with the Portuguese.

  One important task still remained. If at all possible, Vasco was to establish a permanent trade mission in Calicut. Diogo Dias and those assisting him had been adequately received and Vasco was satisfied that he could leave him behind, along with a scribe, Fernão Martins and four other men in comparative safety. What he required was the Zamorin’s consent.

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