Unknown seas the portugu.., p.30

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 30


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  Paulo da Gama made quiet inquiry of the Hindus with him and learned that he was a pirate. Vasco accordingly ordered the man to be seized and taken ashore, where he was thrashed and questioned. He confessed that a number of ships lay in wait in various creeks and inlets, gathering forces waiting for an additional forty vessels before the attack. Under further torture to test the accuracy of this new information the man admitted he had come as a spy to gather information of the numbers of men and their weapons for his master. He was released but confined to the São Gabriel. Some days later, once the Portuguese were well under way, he changed his story. His master had told him the strangers were obviously lost and unable to find their way home. His mission had been to lure the ships to his master, who desired to employ them and the Portuguese against his enemies.272 Despite this inauspicious beginning, relations between this man and Vasco became quite friendly on the homeward voyage.

  During their stay here the Portuguese ate fish, pumpkins and cucumbers acquired by barter. Although the captain of the captured ship offered a generous sum for its return, Vasco ordered it to be burnt as an example. With preparations complete, on 5 October 1498 and with no sign of the winter monsoon, the three Portugese ships turned west and began the long voyage home.

  By and large, and especially given the distances sailed and the dangers overcome, Vasco had been extraordinarily lucky in the number of deaths suffered by his crew. No actual head count has survived but it is reasonable to estimate that 120 to 130 of the 170 to 180 souls who boarded the ships in Lisbon were alive at this time. But now the truly dangerous part of the journey was at hand.

  The monsoons of the Indian Ocean varied greatly, not just in the times they began and ended but also in their magnitude and wind direction. The situation was further complicated for the Portuguese by ocean currents that stubbornly flowed in directions contrary to experience. As fortunate as they had been in reaching India, misfortune now plagued their return. A favourable wind refused to fill the sails and the ships were frequently becalmed. When a breeze did stir, it was often from the wrong direction and even with hard work and careful tacking the ships managed only modest progress. As the days marked the passage of time, the winter monsoon simply failed to materialize. The three weeks it had taken to reach India from Africa came and passed. The fresh fruit and other produce were consumed, the handful of fowls slaughtered and eaten.

  Clearly the crew were not in as good a state of health as they had been at departure from Portugal. In the three-month volta da Guiné from Cape Verde to the tip of Africa signs of scurvy appeared only in the days after reaching land. But during their months off the coast of India, with only limited shore leave and relying primarily on ships’ stores for food, the crew had simply not consumed sufficient fresh fruit of the right sort to immunize themselves. Cases of scurvy now appeared among the crew, growing worse with each passing day, until over the course of eleven terrible weeks every member was affected to some degree.

  The disease was terrifying as it relentlessly spread from man to man. Although the affliction initially manifested itself in various forms, it progressed at a steady and, in time, predictable rate. Skin discoloration, putrid gums, swollen limbs and the wholesale loss of teeth were all inevitable. In its final stages ulcers appeared which would not heal and fell open repeatedly, like fresh wounds. There was nothing aboard any of the ships that could offer a cure or even impede the progress of what the Portuguese saw as a plague.

  The debilitating lassitude that early on gripped those afflicted was most disturbing. Every chore, however modest, brought on extreme exhaustion. Men pausing to catch their breath or recover they strength after the slightest task simply keeled over, dead. As the numbers of the sick grew and the interminable weeks passed, those available to man the ship effectively fell steadily, while even those still able to work were in a seriously weakened state. Healthy men were needed to climb aloft, to man the lines, to perform the countless skilful and arduous acts required to sail the ships. With each rising sun fewer of these were available.

  The Roteiro records the terrible effects the disease took on the mariners.

  [A]ll our people again suffered from their gums, which drew over their teeth, so that they could not eat. Their legs also swelled, and other parts of the body, and these swellings spread until the sufferer died, without exhibiting symptoms of any other disease. Thirty of our men died in this manner . . . and those able to navigate each ship were only seven or eight, and even these were not as well as they ought to have been. I assure you that if this state of affairs had continued for another fortnight, there would have been no men at all to navigate the ships.

  Not recorded is the emotional toll the disease took on the survivors. Those afflicted were cared for by brother seamen who hoped against hope for recovery, or the sight of land and salvation. Each sad death meant burial at sea, anathema to every Catholic aboard ship although sanctioned by the church. Those who survived were consumed with the conflicting emotions of elation and guilt. It is unlikely any man survived this passage unscarred.

  If there was any single aspect of his performance as Captain-Major to which Vasco da Gama could point with pride, it was his unchallenged authority which had not only made possible the many difficult decisions but which had commanded the obedience of his crew. Even the highly respected and very able captain Bartholomeu Dias had faced a virtual mutiny on his voyage. On this epic expedition the Portuguese had gone farther and faced greater risks than ever before without any incident ultimately calling into question Vasco’s authority. Now, under the effects of scurvy, discipline collapsed.

  ‘We had come to such a pass that all bonds of discipline had gone’, the Roteiro reports, putting in a few succinct words the most disturbing part of the voyage.

  Whilst suffering this affliction we addressed vows and petitions to the saints on behalf of our ships. The captains had held council, and they had agreed that if a favourable wind enabled us we would return to India, whence we had come. But it pleased God in his mercy to send us a wind which, in the course of six days, carried us within sight of land, and at this we rejoiced as much as if the land we saw had been Portugal, for with the help of God we hoped to recover our health there, as we had done once before.

  On 2 January 1499, ‘three months less three days’ after their departure, as night approached, the Portuguese spotted the east African coast and lay to. The next morning no one, not even the pilots, could say where on the coast they were. A short distance away they passed the large Moorish town of Mogadishu but did not even consider trying to make a landing, so weakened were they and so certain of a hostile reception. As they passed, they loosed a fusillade of bombards into the city. With a favourable breeze they made their way down the African coastline, laying up at night. All the while scurvy raged among the crew.

  On 5 January they were becalmed, then in the middle of a thunderstorm pirates manning eight boats with ‘many men’attacked but were successfully driven off. Two days later, a Monday, the beleaguered Portuguese ships, their hulls thick with barnacles and sea growth, riddled with worms, moving sluggishly in the warm water, cast anchor off Malindi. At once a longboat carrying many people was dispatched to the ships with word from the king and the regent, whose relations with Vasco had been so cordial those long months before. A sheep was presented to the Captain-Major, along with a message from the king that the Portuguese had been expected for some days and they were to consider themselves most welcome once again. The king and regent were resuming their efforts to establish a friendly relationship with them to gain the upper hand in their competition against their chief rival port, Mombasa.

  Vasco sent a request for a large supply of oranges, as the sick were pleading for them. Moors came out in boats, ordered by the king, bringing eggs and fowls. The next day a generous supply of oranges was received on all the ships, as was a great quantity of other kinds of fruit ‘but our sick did not much profit by this,’the Roteiro notes, ‘for the climate affected them in
such a way that many of them died here’.

  Still, for all the additional deaths, Vasco found himself in a safe harbour. The nightmare of the long murderous passage was behind him. The known route to home, and honour, lay before him.


  ‘Risen from the dead’

  Vasco was also eager to establish friendly relations with a ruler situated at such a vital point on the sea route to India. In vain he had sought a Christian port; a friendly Muslim one would have to do. He sent word that he desired to carry an ivory tusk as a gift from the king in Malindi to his own sovereign. In exchange, he wished to present the local ruler with a padrõe which he would be very pleased to see erected in this land as a ‘sign of friendship’.

  Vasco received word in reply that the king would do as asked ‘out of love for the King of Portugal, whom he desired to serve’. A tusk arrived and a pillar was sent ashore and erected as promised. Also received aboard the ship was a ‘young Moor’whom the local king wished to accompany the Portuguese home so that the king there ‘might know how much he desired his friendship’.

  During this peaceful respite the crew tended their sick and recovered their strength as best they could after a passage in which they had all ‘been face to face with death’.273 Yet, just five days after their arrival, and despite the auspicious nature of relations, Vasco gave the order to set sail.

  Departure so soon from this friendly port seems reckless in retrospect, but the Portuguese had no way of knowing how long it would take for the crew fully to recover, if in fact they ever would, so they could not judge what was to be gained by remaining. Moreover, the friendly reception extended to them here on the coast of east Africa in Malindi was the exception. They were otherwise surrounded by opposing Moors. The sultan in nearby Mombasa had already demonstrated his hostility towards them, and it was perfectly reasonable to fear that he might mount a final attack, one that could succeed with the crew in such a debilitated state.

  The number of the crew still remaining had now probably dipped to under 100, approximately half the number that had left Lisbon. The condition of many was extremely weakened and the Roteiro suggests that deaths continued. Of those remaining, very few were fit enough to man the ships under sail.

  Although the local ruler and regent appeared friendly, Vasco could not know to what degree, if any, that friendship extended to the Muslim population in general. The situation at Malindi could change in a heartbeat, especially if a war party arrived from Mombasa and called on the faithful to join in an assault. They had already been attacked more than once, and that prospect now could not have been far from Vasco’s thoughts.

  The surviving Portuguese ships had also seriously deteriorated and were in danger of quite literally dissolving beyond reclamation. But perhaps most importantly, with more than half the voyage behind them, home loomed closer than ever and pulled at the weary, increasingly heartsick men like a siren’s call.

  The ships passed Mombasa without incident and then, two days after weighing anchor, they stopped, offloaded the remaining supplies from the São Rafael, then transferred the crew, including Paulo da Gama, the captain, before setting fire to the ship. ‘[I]t was’, according to one account, ‘impossible for us to navigate three vessels with the few hands that remained to us.’Also taken from the São Rafael was the figurehead that had been mounted for good fortune and God’s blessing on the prow of the ship.26

  It may be that the crew had been reduced to fewer than 100 men even while the Portuguese were still off the coast of India. This would account for the decision there not to careen and service the São Rafael when the other ships were seen to. And it may also be that the ‘difficulties’with the São Rafael alluded to but never explained in the Roteiro had nothing to do with the number and condition of the crew, but referred instead to some problem with the ship itself, although when the vessel was abandoned, the reason given was lack of adequate crew. This left just Vasco’s ship, the São Gabriel, and Nicolau Coelho’s small shift caravel, the São Miguel.

  To effect the changes Vasco anchored the ships off a small town and the Portuguese now remained for fifteen days as they continued to recover and prepared the remaining vessels for the long passage that still lay ahead. This suggests that the Captain-Major had not been confident of his position in Malindi. At this village the Portuguese bartered for fowls which they acquired in abundance in exchange for bracelets and shirts. On 27 January, a Sunday, a favourable wind carried the two ships southward.

  Any threat from Moors was now safely behind them. What remained was sailing and seamanship –surely refreshing, and reassuring, challenges after the protracted drama in India and off the coast of east Africa. The next day the two ships passed close to the island of Zanzibar and on 1 February they anchored at the small island off Mozambique where they had held a Mass on the voyage north, and there they erected another padrõe.

  The previous March it had been at nearby Mozambique Island that relations with the sultan had become so violent. This time their presence was disregarded, probably out of fear, given the trouncing they had received earlier. With only minor setbacks the vessels made steady progress south, assisted by the same winds and the powerful Mozambique Channel current that had been such obstacles when they sailed north exactly one year earlier.

  On 3 March the ships anchored at Mossel Bay, where the Portuguese ‘caught many anchovies, seals and penguins, which we salted for our voyage’. It had been at this bay that Bartholomeu Dias had first realized he had successfully doubled Africa and where he had slain a threatening Hottentot with a crossbow. And here on his outward voyage Vasco had remained for thirteen days reprovisioning the ship and bartering for both cattle and sheep from the locals. Although relations had in general been good, there had been incidents. The Portuguese had erected their first padrõe on this shore and been enraged at their departure to see the Hottentots pull it down and break up the cross.

  There is no record of any further contact with the Hottentots and it is unlikely there was any, given the nature of the previous encounters. If the locals were in the area, it is likely they avoided them. The Portuguese remained for nine days replenishing their supplies, and failing in their first attempt to leave by adverse winds.

  ‘Those who had come so far were in good health and quite robust, although at times nearly dead from the cold winds which we experienced’, the Roteiro reports. ‘This feeling, however, we attributed less to the cold than to the heat of the countries from which we had come.’The Roteiro adds, ‘We pursued our route with a great desire of reaching home.’

  The second attempt to pass the tip was successful and on 20 March the ships joyously rounded the Cape of Good Hope.

  They took down many bearings and marks of this coast, and soundings, which they took lying-to . . . They ran under full sail, and seeing the Cape remain behind, and that they had passed by it towards Portugal, the pleasure of all was so great that they embraced each other with great joy; they then all knelt down, with their hands raised up to heaven, uttering great praise and prayers for the great benefits which had been granted them.274

  At some point in the homeward voyage Paulo da Gama, Vasco’s beloved older brother, took seriously ill with tuberculosis, adding a sense of urgency. The adverse winds and ocean currents that Vasco had avoided with his epic volta da Guiné now worked to the Portuguese advantage, permitting them to take a more direct route. The ships were pushed forward by brisk winds astern and the Benguela current for twenty-seven days after rounding the African continent. Slowly the familiar constellations reappeared, along with the North Star. The talk of the crew aboard the two ships was of nothing but home.

  The strong winds and favourable current swept them on, though with growing difficulty given the reduced numbers and wretched condition of the diminished crew. The seams of the ships were increasingly exposed as the caulking came out and sea water poured in. ‘They sailed thus with much labour at the pumps, for the ships made much water with the straining of going on a
bowline.’Then, on 16 April, near the Cape Verde Islands, they were becalmed. ‘[T]he ships could hardly keep afloat by means of the pumps, and they were so old that it was a wonder how they kept above water, and many of the crews were dead, and others sick.’275

  At this point the Roteiro comes to an end but an account of subsequent events is available from other, more sketchy, sources. The two ships made modest headway against slight, unfavourable breezes before becoming separated, presumably as a result of one of the many squalls common to the region. Unable to locate the São Gabriel and so tantalizingly close to home, Coelho headed for Portugal. Those, in fact, may very well have been his orders in the event of such separation. He arrived without incident at the small fishing port of Cascais at the mouth of the Tagus on 10 July 1499, landing two years and two days after the enormous festivities at the expedition’s departure.

  The amazed Portuguese on shore heard from these exhausted men that they had just returned from India. The Portuguese had done it! God, in His mercy, had given them the prize they had for so long sought. Word raced along shore towards Lisbon like a wildfire.

  For his part, Vasco searched one day for Coelho’s ship before sailing on to the island of São Tiago. Paulo’s health had deteriorated steadily during the long sea passage and he appeared increasingly unlikely to recover. At São Tiago, Vasco secured the use of a swift caravel and turned command of his ship over to another with orders to proceed at once to Lisbon. Left aboard the ship were the Good Moor from Gujarat who had piloted the Portuguese so faithfully and provided invaluable information, and the ‘Christian’from Goa, the provocateur seized off the coast of India just before departure. The São Gabriel arrived in Lisbon shortly after young Coelho, although the exact date is not known.

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