Unknown seas the portugu.., p.29

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 29


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  On 9 August he sent Dias to the Zamorin bearing a personal present of amber and coral along with other unspecified gifts. For four frustrating days Dias waited for his audience. He was finally ushered unceremoniously into the presence of the Zamorin, where he was greeted with a ‘bad face’. He conveyed the message that the Portuguese wished to return home. Such news surely caught the ruler by surprise as the winter monsoon, which winds blew steadily from India to the coast of east Africa, would not begin until October, and that was when the Portuguese would be expected to leave.

  Dias asked the ruler to send with him emissaries to King Manuel, and in exchange Vasco would leave behind a balancing number of men who would be in charge of their remaining trade goods. In point of fact, what Vasco sought were hostages as further security for the lives of his own men. He also requested some 200 kilograms each of cloves, cinnamon and other spices, which he required as samples to show his king, and for which, of course if it was so desired, he would pay.266

  The Zamorin dismissed the Portuguese gifts as inconsequential, declining so much as to look at them. He disregarded Vasco’s request for samples of spices and instead stated that the Captain-Major should be informed that if he wished to leave the port, he must first pay the customs duty on his goods and the departure fee, which came to the equivalent of about $1,000. With this the meeting was concluded.

  As he returned, Dias was followed by officers of the Zamorin, who then entered the house where the remaining goods were stored in order to prevent their removal. Dias and the others were now held essentially as prisoners. That same day a proclamation was issued preventing any boat from going out to the Portuguese ships. After dark, and with great secrecy, Dias was able to send a trusted Hindu in a fishing boat bearing his sobering report to his captain.267

  This was depressing news. Some of Vasco’s crew were now held on shore as prisoners, his ships were cut off from contact with the local population and it appeared their departure was not to be an easy one. The next day none of the usual boats came out to barter, and the rest of the day passed in a sombre mood. Vasco and his men found it difficult to accept that they could be first spurned, then treated in such a fashion. The had conducted themselves as men of honour and as honest brokers, and had done nothing to deserve this. They bore little ill will towards the Zamorin himself, as they understood the lies he had been told by those ‘merchants from Mecca’, but the situation was potentially critical.

  The following day an almadia with four young men selling gems came out to the São Gabriel. This was apparently a test of some kind, as the stand-off was not one-sided. Pointed at the city were the ships’ heavy cannon, the potential of which was not lost on the Arabs and Zamorin. Vasco’s response was to invite the men aboard, where they were well received and then given an enormous meal. Vasco penned a letter to his people on shore, which the young men took with them. On subsequent days matters slowly returned to the state of affairs that had existed the past two months. Many small boats came out to barter and Vasco ordered the free meals to be resumed, although Dias and his men remained ashore as de facto prisoners.

  On 19 August a number of almadias approached the Portuguese. Within were some twenty-five men, including six ‘persons of quality’ who had come to parlay. Vasco greeted them warmly but then, once they were within his power, ordered the six and twelve others to be seized and held. The remainder were sent back with word that he would exchange his hostages for his men being held ashore. When word spread of this, a large crowd gathered at the house where Dias and the others were detained and forced them to go to the residence of the wali.

  Four days passed in vain. Vasco finally sent word that he was leaving for Portugal. On 23 August he ordered the anchors to be weighed and the sails raised, but after sailing only a short distance a strong wind forced them back and the next day they anchored once again within sight of Calicut, waiting for the wind. Given subsequent events, it is unlikely the Portuguese actually intended to leave, but the unfavourable wind had made their bluff all the more convincing.

  On Sunday 26 August a boat approached from shore bearing the news that Diogo Dias was with the Zamorin and that, if Vasco released his hostages, Dias would be immediately brought on board. Vasco’s suspicions were aroused and he expressed the opinion to his officers that Dias was surely dead by this time, and this was a ruse meant to delay their departure until ‘ships of Mecca able to capture’ them had arrived. He ordered the boat to return to shore, and when this did not happen he threatened to fire on it. The boat was not to come back under threat of destruction unless it carried Dias in it, or at the least a letter from him, and returned to the Portuguese their remaining goods on shore. This must be quickly done, or Vasco would give orders for his captives to be beheaded.268

  When the Zamorin learned what had transpired, he hastily summoned Dias, who in fact was alive, for an audience. He received the Portuguese representative with ‘marked kindness’ and politely requested an explanation of Vasco’s behavior. Dias replied that he was holding hostages because Dias and his assistant were being detained ashore against their will. There was some discussion of the duty payment, which the Portuguese viewed as a form of extortion. The ruler attempted to place the blame for any misunderstanding on his factor, telling Dias he had only recently executed the previous factor for misconduct with traders.

  The Zamorin said, ‘Go you back to the ships, you and the others [sic] who are with you; tell the captain to send me back the men he took; that the pillar,23

  which I understood him to say he desires to be erected on the land, shall be taken away by those who bring you back, and put up; and, moreover, that you will remain here with the merchandise.’ He then produced a palm leaf and with an iron pen wrote the following message for Vasco to convey to his king:

  Vasco da Gama, a gentleman of your household, came to my country, whereat I was pleased. My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, and precious stones. That which I ask of you in exchange is gold, silver, corals and scarlet cloth.

  On Monday morning seven almadias slowly approached the São Gabriel. Fearful of being fired on, four of the boats held back while three eased their way gingerly to the longboat tied to the stern of the ship.24

  Dias and his assistant were transferred to the Portuguese boat, then climbed up to meet Vasco. The seven boats stood off a distance as they waited. Since the Zamorin had agreed that Dias could remain in peace, they expected to take him back ashore and had not brought with them the remaining trade goods.

  Dias reported his meeting with the Zamorin to the Captain-Major and presented to him the ruler’s handwritten letter. This was a favourable development, but matters were becoming so convoluted that Vasco’s suspicions remained. He transferred the six most distinguished of his hostages to the waiting boats along with the padrõe that had been loaded aboard in Lisbon to be planted on the shore of India. Those waiting were informed that Dias and his assistant would be remaining aboard ship and would not go back ashore. The remaining hostages would be released when the trade goods were returned.

  Given all that had happened, it is unlikely the remaining merchandise was of any value to Vasco other than as a bargaining tool. The last thing he would have wanted was to take up space to return them to Portugal. He was, it can be assumed, looking for an excuse to keep the remaining six hostages.

  The next day Monçaide, the happy Moor who had proved so helpful those first days following their arrival, came out to the Portuguese ships seeking asylum. He reported that all his possessions had been taken from him by the other Muslims, who disapproved of his cooperation. This, he told them, was the kind of luck he usually had. They were accusing him of being a secret Christian sent here by the king of Portugal. If he remained, Monçaide was certain he would be murdered. Vasco agreed and took the man on board.

  On Tuesday at mid-morning seven almadias again approached the Portuguese ships. Three boats drew within easy view. Spread on their benches was some striped cloth, which they
claimed was all that remained of the trade goods ashore. This would be returned as soon as the remaining hostages were released to them.

  The Portuguese were not fooled, however. This was but a pittance of their goods and Vasco replied that ‘he cared naught for the merchandise’but would instead take these men he had safely to Portugal. When he returned to Calicut, they would see for themselves whether or not the Portuguese were thieves, as the Moors claimed.

  It is unlikely the return of the trade goods had anything to do with the decision to take hostages back to Portugal. It had long been the practice of the Portuguese to carry natives of new regions back with them. In Lisbon they could be debriefed at length and their loyalty won in many cases, and they had often proved invaluable on subsequent expeditions. It is possible Vasco would have returned these six if all his merchandise had been returned and he would then have bargained with the Zamorin for others of the ruler’s choosing to take with him, leaving Dias and companions to establish the trade mission, but given the deterioration of contact this seems unlikely. In any event, the goods were not returned and Vasco had his excuse.

  On Wednesday 29 August the Captain-Major gathered the other captains aboard the São Gabriel for consultation. It was agreed that they had discovered the country for which they had come and that they had gathered as good a supply of spices and precious gems as could be expected under the circumstances, modest as it was. Given the hostility of the Moors who held sway over the Zamorin, it appeared impossible to establish the kind of cordial relations they would have liked. The time for departure had arrived. Not mentioned, but no doubt in everyone’s mind, was the imminent arrival of the massive annual Arab trading fleet.

  So it was that with six prisoners and an insubstantial supply of spices, but with the coveted knowledge of the sea route to India in their logs and the minds of the pilots, the three remaining Portuguese ships weighed anchor on 29 August 1498 and set sail for home. ‘We . . . left for Portugal,’the Roteiro records, ‘greatly rejoicing at our good fortune in having made so great a discovery.’

  What the Portuguese did not understand, or perhaps fully appreciate, was that the monsoon which provided a steady, gentle wind from India to the east coast of Africa would not arrive until October, and that attempted passage across the largely wind-barren Indian Ocean at this time of the season was to court near-certain death.


  The murderous passage

  The 23-day May crossing from the African east coast to southwestern India had taken place at the start of the summer monsoon, which had fortuitously arrived a few weeks early. The voyage had passed uneventfully as the great sails of the ships bearing the immense crimson cross of the Order of Christ were filled with the steady humid monsoon winds, and the tired crew passed the time in routine chores and conversation filled with the prospect ahead of them.

  Although there is no record of it, it is safe to assume that at the time of the return passage the Good Moor, who had been of such enormous service thus far, cautioned the Portuguese that the winter monsoon, which would produce the favourable winds to sail to Africa, would not arrive for two months, and that a crossing attempted at this time would be nearly impossible. In fact, the Portuguese would be trying to sail against the final weeks of the summer monsoon, or even worse could find themselves becalmed far out to sea beyond all hope of help. Clearly the decision to proceed was being made for reasons other than sound navigation. Vasco simply did not believe he had the luxury of waiting.

  The winds now were weak and unpredictable, blowing erratically from the sea and from land, so the three ships had moved only a short distance north of Calicut by noon the following day, when they were becalmed. At this time some seventy ships of various sizes filled with heavily armed men were spotted descending on them. There could be little doubt of their intentions. Trumpets sounded amid the martial tattoo of drums, and the decks were made ready for combat. When the hostile ships drew within range, Vasco gave the order to fire on them. A running sea battle ensued which lasted for the next hour and a half, as all the ships attempted to manoeuvre in the modest breezes. A squall suddenly descended on the combatants, which allowed the Portuguese to sail out to sea more rapidly than the other, smaller ships could follow and they had no choice but to break off the attack.269

  This assault is certainly understandable. The Portuguese had left the port of Calicut without paying the customary duties that were the Zamorin’s primary source of income and for which he was held liable by the king of Vijayanagar. On board were six kidnapped subjects, leaving behind family and contacts of every sort. There were no matching hostages on shore because, it could be argued – and certainly was by the Muslims –the Zamorin had been tricked into releasing them. All in all, this visit by Christians was ending as a sorry affair for the Hindu ruler.

  The thunderstorm was shortlived and, though there were no more immediate attacks, the three Portuguese ships were able to make only modest progress as they coasted northward. On 10 September they drew close to a small town and Vasco decided to attempt to repair his relations with the Zamorin as he was still no great distance from Calicut. He directed that a conciliatory letter should be written in Arabic, in which he said that he had taken his prisoners so that he would have proof to his king of the discoveries he had made, and that he had not left Dias behind as they had discussed out of fear the Moors would murder him. The men, he promised, would all be safely returned.

  This letter was given to one of the six, who was missing an eye. He was set ashore and returned with it to Calicut. One chronicler of these events, who unfortunately is unreliable in much of his reporting, records from sources he does not identify that the Zamorin was very pleased with the letter and directed it be read to the wives and families of those men still with the Portuguese.25

  Five days later, still moving northward along the coastline, the Portuguese sighted the island of Santa Maria. Local fisherman came out to trade and reportedly claimed they were Christians. Here Vasco ordered erected the third padrõe and did so with the assistance of the locals, who said they wanted the marker as proof of their devotion.

  The Portuguese resumed their slow way up the coast. They were probably conducting a survey of the area, searching for a safe location to service their ships and also awaiting the end of the summer monsoon. They encountered a number of local trading vessels, which the Good Moor urged Vasco to seize as they were sure to contain large quantities of spices, but he refused. ‘We are not thieves’, he answered.

  On 20 September the ships reached the Angediva Islands, situated not far south of Gôa, a major port for the Vijayanagar empire, where the Portuguese were to establish their permanent presence in India for nearly 500 years. Here they took on drinking water and gathered firewood. That night, with a steady land breeze, they set sail and the following day came to hilly land ‘very beautiful and salubrious’, with six small islands near by.270 A boat was launched with the purpose of taking on sufficient water and wood to last for the voyage to Africa, as the breeze had made them optimistic that the winds favoured passage. They had been fortunate with the summer monsoon and now hoped they would be blessed with a similar early return monsoon.

  Two becalmed ships were spotted not far distant, then a short time later seven more were observed also becalmed off shore. Assuming the worst, Vasco gave orders to attack the ships at once. A slight breeze allowed some manoeuvring of all the vessels and when the strangers spotted the Portuguese ships bearing down, they attempted to make for the open sea. One ship damaged its rudder and was abandoned and then seized by the Portuguese, who boarded and found a quantity of arms. The other ships soon grounded and were fired on from a distance to make their point. The following morning several local men came to the Portuguese ships and reported that the other vessels were from Calicut and had been sent to find and destroy the Portuguese.

  Vasco prudently decided to remain a moving target and the next day the Portuguese found and explored a larger island, apparently used as a
base by pirates. Here the Captain-Major gave orders for the Berrio and São Gabriel to be careened in turn on the beach, their hulls serviced and prepared for the crossing to Africa. Significantly, the São Rafael was not beached ‘on account of difficulties’that are not specified. More water was collected. While the Berrio was disabled two large boats (fustas) approached, filled with an imposing number of men. They rowed to the beat of drums and bagpipes, and on their masts were displayed flags. Five other ships remained a distance off but close enough for concern.

  Locals with the Portuguese warned that on no account should these newcomers be permitted to board one of the ships. They were well-known pirates in these waters. It was their practice to appear friendly, to board ships armed and then, when they were on board in sufficient numbers, to seize the vessel. Vasco ordered his crew to fire on the first two boats as soon as they came within range. All the ships fled, shouting back to no avail that they were Christians, as Coelho gave pursuit for a short distance.271

  For twelve days the Portuguese were occupied with preparing their ships and with gathering wood and filling their casks. During this time a well-dressed and well-mannered man of about forty years of age presented himself to Vasco with a warm embrace of friendship. He spoke the Venetian dialect fluently and said that he was a Christian who had come to India from the West in his youth and that, though he had converted to Islam of necessity, ‘at heart’he remained a Christian. When he learned that Franks had reached Calicut he had asked permission of his powerful master at Gôa to visit them, and here he was. He was long-winded and during his protracted words of friendship and personal exclamation contradicted himself, arousing suspicion.

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