Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 3
The obstacles to the Portuguese were enormous. Ships slowly disintegrated in the warm waters of the south Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Scurvy was a new disease brought on by the amazing distances the Portuguese innovations had made possible, one that took a terrible toll on the sailors.
The conduct of the Portuguese captains is often criticized for being both unreasonably and disproportionately violent. The use of force was not limited to the Portuguese, who were in its application no more vicious than captains from Italy, Flanders, Spain or England. In the case of Vasco da Gama, he was intruding into a part of the world dominated by Muslims who profited enormously from their trade monopoly and who despised all Christians as ‘dogs’. The history of the Muslims and Hindus, among themselves and against each other, was also particularly violent and destructive. Success meant nearly unimaginable honours and riches, while failure meant death for him and his crew.
The consequences of the Portuguese voyages of discovery for Europe, Asia and the world are all but incalculable, certainly the most significant in world history. That Portugal, the poorest and one of the smallest nations of Europe, should have led the way is nothing less than astounding.
There will come an age in the far-off years, when Ocean shall unloose the bond of things, when the whole broad earth shall be revealed . . .
Translated by Frank Justus Miller
‘I sing the greatness of the race’10
Had John II only listened to Columbus, Portugal would have added the rest of the Americas to its collection of nations, depriving Spain of its place in history’s sun. Still, by 1650, not yet 200 years after his finally meeting with the Genoan, Portugal commanded more of the world and of world trade than any nation in history. The Portuguese were the first to have a world seaborne empire, the last to give it up, and of all the European nations to hold such empires the legacy of the Portuguese has lasted longest.
During the period of exploration and the establishment of empire Portugal’s population was never much more than 1 million; the nation had just 1,000 doctors, lawyers, judges, municipal and crown officials of every kind. The population at large was uneducated and generally ill treated by the nobility. Yet the Portuguese were fiercely patriotic, a patriotism fed in part by the all but constant wars against the Moors and Castile.
Other nations, however, had a people just as hardy and explorers as brave and resourceful as the Portuguese. Control of the spice trade was the greatest single prize of the age. The Italian city-states were profiting from the existing Muslim control of the market since they had insinuated themselves into the lucrative position of middleman. They were formidable sailors and explorers themselves, and had at different times shown an interest in rounding Africa.
The English and Flemish both coveted the sea route to India, but once the Portuguese seized the initiative neither of them was ever in the running. Castile might have made the push, and certainly wanted to, benefiting as it did from its possession of the strategically placed Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa, but instead for most of the crucial century it was preoccupied with creating Spain from Aragon and Castile and with the effort to push the last of the Moors from Iberia.
Although Portugal sits in a largely forgotten corner of Europe, it was a united country throughout the fifteenth century, with little internal strife. Both its isolation and its relative tranquillity proved great advantages. During the time of the Discoveries western Europe was gripped by the Hundred Years War, England by the Wars of the Roses, while other nations were occupied by civil war or foreign invasion.
Yet there was nothing to suggest the Portuguese would be the people to lead the European expansion into the world. At the beginning of the fifteenth century there was little reason to believe the Portuguese would carve for themselves the all-sea route to Asia and the spice monopoly that went with it. In fact, the Portuguese achievement seems incomprehensible as they were not a nation of seafarers. In the early fifteenth century they sailed from Oporto and Lisbon to the Mediterranean and northward towards Flanders and England, but hugged the coast, as did all sailors of the time. Yet within the span of less than a century Portugal explored and recorded nearly half of the world. Primarily through their efforts oceans that had been insurmountable barriers became highways of commerce, conquest and colonization. Regular systems of transport and communication were established and the face of the modern world took shape.
In the end it fell to the Portuguese, not by chance, location or default, but because it was they who saw the way and relentlessly pursued it over more than eighty years of sacrifice and fearful loss of life. It was an achievement without precedent for a such a small nation. Possessed of few natural resources and no great wealth, the monarchy struggled every year to remain solvent and nearly every generation fought to hold its power against the powerful counts. It was difficult for the population merely to survive on the land, large portions of which lay fallow, ravaged by plague and the wars with Castile. In retrospect, however, reasons can be found.
For all of its history Portugal has compared itself to and defended itself against the much larger and more populous Castile, and later Spain itself. Yet during its first three centuries Portuguese kings strove by conquest and marriage to unite the two nations of Castile and Portugal, under Portuguese rule. As it was, the eventual union of Castile with Aragon was less likely than union with Portugal since it involved Castile in Aragon’s persistent disputes with France. Union with Portugal would have allowed Castile a better avenue for overseas exploration and expansion.
If Castile saw the advantages, it was the Portuguese who finally rejected the realization. When an opportunity for uniting the two countries did arise, the Portuguese rejected the rightful heir to their throne by a Spanish-born queen, uniting instead behind the bastard son of the king’s Portuguese mistress. The Portuguese saying goes, ‘No good wind and no good marriage comes from Spain’.
Confronted to the north and east by its historic enemy and unable to conquer it, the Portuguese instinctively looked westward, across the unknown and unexplored sea for expansion, wealth and glory. From earliest times the Iberian peninsula was occupied by many people, speaking different languages, with diverse cultural practices. Both the land and existing culture in the peninsula worked their effect so that every new people came to see themselves in time as Hispanic. The Romans occupied large portions of the region and profited from its silver mines, but they had never managed to subdue it entirely, although they left a lasting legacy of administrative regions, a common language and a well-established network of roads. The Spanish and Portuguese languages, although quite similar, are not derived one from the other; rather, they stem from a common root. Of the two, Portuguese was the first committed to writing and, because it lends itself more easily to romance, was for centuries the language preferred by the poets of both nations.
The closest land mass to Portugal is Africa and it is natural that the Portuguese, by reason of proximity and history, should be drawn there. The distance from Faro, on the southern coast of Portugal, to Tangier is less than 150 miles. At certain times of the year it was possible to stand on the Portuguese shore and smell the scent of Africa blown by storms across the short expanse of sea. Strange and exotic plants were tossed on to the coastline of Portugal by massive north Atlantic storms. Ancient maps and legends also identified islands and lands in the vast ocean, the locations of which had been lost over time.
In addition, the 350-mile Portuguese coastline possessed many safe, deep harbours. The country’s significant rivers flowed into the Atlantic, and at or near their mouths the major cities of Portugal developed and prospered. Oporto and Lisbon were excellent harbours for ships plying their trade from the Mediterranean to northern Europe and England. In Lisbon at any given time during the Middle Ages ships of every country and description could be seen. No other nation was more ideally situated to develop the sea route to India.
But ships of the era depended on known winds and currents to make a safe return. While a ship could sail with the wind at no great effort, it could only make its way back by tacking against a slight wind. If the currents of the ocean and the speed of the wind were more than modest, any vessel of the time sailing too far downwind would never find its way home. By the fifteenth century there were many accounts in history of ships that had sailed south along the coast of Africa and not a single telling of one that had ever returned. One source extravagantly claimed more than 12,000 such losses.
Portugal also benefited from a long succession of effective kings. During the key period disputes over succession were settled with relative swiftness and the absence of protracted civil war. There was also an especially close tie between merchants and the royalty, so that commerce and conquest went hand in hand. It was much the same with religion. Profits were as important as saving souls.
Not fully appreciated in considering the motives behind the discoveries is the character of the Portuguese people themselves. The extended struggle to expel the Moors, fought from the north of Portugal to the south, served to unite the people and give them a sense of destiny. Every man was obliged to fight for his king, and many did so, in stark contrast to the practice of medieval warfare throughout the rest of Europe, which relied on knights and mercenary armies. It was Portuguese farmers and labourers who had ensured the nation’s independence from Castile. In addition, they had driven the Moors from their land a full two centuries ahead of the Spanish and took great pride in the achievement. During the generations-long struggle the Portuguese were filled with a religious ardour. Expelling the Moors was a holy crusade given to the Portuguese by God. This sense of mission was easily carried over to the explorations, which always possessed a strong religious component.
Because the Portuguese were largely isolated from Western Europe they also developed a high level of self-sufficiency and independence. In one sense it was natural that a nation that routinely considered conquering its much larger neighbour would not be overawed by the prospect of worldwide exploration.
There is also another factor to consider, although it is less tangible. Unlike the doctrinaire Spanish, who were quick to embrace the Inquisition and viewed any deviation from their norm as suspect, the Portuguese were inclined to be more tolerant and accepting of, even intrigued by, differences; this was despite the fact that the Portuguese ultimately followed the path of the Spanish in their treatment of the Jews. There had always been a natural intercourse with northern Africa and the Portuguese people were a blend of many races. Raids by Moors and Berbers, and the mix of black Africans, created a far greater acceptance of other racial groups than was common at the time, particularly in Spain. A large number of Arab words, especially in economics, administration and military matters, remained in the Portuguese language, not to mention the vast number of place names.
As the central region, and later the south, of what is now Portugal were conquered by successive Portuguese kings, the Moorish armies and leadership were driven out, but the populace by and large remained in place, especially from Lisbon south. They generally converted to Christianity and continued their lives much as before. As a consequence, the Portuguese were ethnically more akin to north Africans than were the Spanish, less hostile towards other races.
The large numbers of Moors who remained in Portugal are thought to have influenced the Portuguese, in part by introducing the sexual permissiveness for which the Portuguese became well known. The Moors also possessed superior farming skills, including use of the waterwheel. They greatly improved the cultivation of olives, and introduced cotton, sugarcane and the silkworm. The intermixing of the racial groups slowly became complete, as did the assimilation of the new ideas and technologies.
This combination of racial stock, location, national identity and purpose, driven by the chronic poverty and the lure of the open sea before them, served to create an explosion in maritime navigation and ship design. Not insignificantly, the Portuguese possessed the desire to know what lay beyond and the courage to go there.
It is no wonder that Camoens wrote of ‘the greatness of the race’. They left ‘their native Portugal behind them, opened a way to Ceylon, and further, across seas no man had ever sailed before’. The Portuguese captains ‘were men of no ordinary stature’. The same could be said of the Portuguese in general.
Dear as pepper
Though trade with the East had existed for a millennium, the true source of both gems and spices was unknown to medieval Europe. With their purported curative and aphrodisiac properties, spices were held in near mystical reverence. In particular they were believed to possess rare and beneficial qualities, usually over and above their actual properties and uses. The demand for them was all but insatiable and almost any tale of their origin was given merit. Naturally their powers were thought to have a religious origin.
It was commonly accepted that four great rivers bore both spices and gems from the Garden of Eden into the world inhabited by man after his fall from the grace of God. Following the murder of Abel, by one account, Adam and Eve took their grief to the island of Ceylon, where they wept in sorrow for 500 years, their tears filling a vast lake from which came gems with healing powers. A proverb of the time went, ‘Great is the virtue of herbs, but greater is rare stones’. To wear such precious stones was to be righteous, to enjoy good health and to be free of physical harm. There were many tales of pilgrims suffering no harm because they wore gems or consumed certain rare herbs. Such precious stones and spices were costly, not just because of their curative and preventative attributes, but because they were held to come from Paradise itself.
The Garden of Eden, and the origin of gems and of spices, lay somewhere to the fabled East, at the common source of the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and Ganges rivers. The Nile was reported to encircle ‘the land of Ethiopia, and flows into Egypt’.11 Cinnamon originated in the nests of certain birds, particularly that of the legendary phoenix. In this account both spices and gems were possessed of magical properties.
In medieval Europe the uses for spices and the fantasies concerning them were seemingly inexhaustible. Some were said to increase appetite, a recurring problem because of the bland diet everyone –even the wealthy –was forced to endure. Spices, especially pepper, could disguise the flavour of ‘ripe’ meat or, as with cinnamon, counter nausea brought on by the pervasive bad water. Soothing balms contained cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, pepper, nutmeg and aloes. But while spices were eventually valued for their purported curative powers and other positive benefits, they were initially sought primarily to be used as aphrodisiacs. The demand for spices had as much to do with the waning sexual powers of the ageing nobility and merchant class as with any other cause.
Spices became a form of currency and were used to pay tribute, often to religious authorities. Camphor was said to possess so many virtues it was impossible to name them all. Cardamom had many varied and valued effects, depending on whether it was taken with vinegar, wine or water. Cloves were said to be good for the liver, stomach and heart, and was used as a cure for coughs and as a fragrance in perfumes and oils. Ginger was a medicine but also useful in preparing meats. Nutmeg and mace prevented vomiting and were said to steady the heart.
But most valued above all the others was pepper. ‘Dear as pepper’ was a popular expression in France, where a pound of pepper was required for a serf to buy his freedom. In England pepper was used in payment for rent. The Jews in Aix were required to pay their tax in pepper and ginger, as well as wax, in order to preserve their own schools and cemeteries.12 It was believed to come from somewhere south
Life in rural Portugal, especially in the Alentejo and south, was always difficult. Indeed, life throughout Europe was harsh and uncompromising, and from it there was little respite. Superstition, often in the guise of religion, was rampant. Tragedy rather than hope was the norm, and countless millions lived short, wretched lives of hunger and brutality. Poverty was so widespread that the prospect of riches fired the imaginations of men, gripping them like a fever.
In medieval Europe the long winters were especially hard on the populace. Even lords suffered from an endless stream of maladies, so that a period of good health was the exception. There was insufficient feed to maintain a large herd of domestic animals for periodic slaughter during the winter, so any excess was killed in the autumn and consumed during the harvest festivals. The winter diet, lacking proper balance and in particular meat, was devoid of adequate nutrition.
One of the most serious problems facing any lord at that time in western Europe was the ever-present threat of a declining population. Attrition, disease, even starvation, exacted a relentless toll on the general populace. In addition to the winter deaths there was often an annual plague – probably typhoid – especially in the large cities. Ceaseless wars and general deprivations could leave a nation denuded and vast stretches of otherwise arable land often lay fallow for years. People were needed to tax, to till the fields and to fill the ranks of the army. Too small a population was a catastrophe for any lord or monarch, and a falling population was often the reality in fifteenth-century Europe.
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