Unknown seas the portugu.., p.32

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 32


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  Ceylam [Ceylon] is a very large island inhabited by Christians under a Christian king. It is 8 days from Calecut, with a favourable wind. The king can muster 4,000 men, and has moreover many elephants of war as well as for sale. All the fine cinnamon of India is found here, as well as many sapphires, superior to those of other countries, besides rubies, few but of good quality.283

  The veil of secrecy that had for so many centuries masked the trade was at last lifted. Although some of the conclusions reached were utterly inaccurate – such as that the Hindus were Christians and that large numbers of sympathetic Christians existed in the East –the information overall was remarkably accurate and made possible the blueprint for the future Portuguese dominance of the spice trade, with all that that meant for the tiny, impoverished nation. Preparations for another expedition were already under way and Manuel issued orders for it to proceed with haste.

  In addition, the Good Moor and the Gôa provocateur were also debriefed at length, fêted, dined and displayed to the city. The man from Gôa had become quite friendly with Vasco on the long voyage home and Manuel was utterly seduced by him. He elected to be baptized and was given the name Gaspar da Gama, although he is sometimes referred to as Gasper da India. Manuel made him a cavalier of his household and he returned to India with Pedro Cabral and on several subsequent expeditions, serving as interpreter and adviser, primarily on trading matters. As a reward for his service, he was eventually given an annual pension by the crown. In time the truth of his origin was clear. His Jewish parents had fled persecution in Poland and immigrated first to Palestine and then to Alexandria, where Gaspar was born.284

  Manuel was well known to be sparing in his grants of rewards for service rendered the crown, but when it came to the new national icon, the Captain-Major of the expedition that opened the way East, no such claim can be made, for the honours and grants were substantial, even lavish. While the initial rewards sprang from the success of the undertaking and Manuel’s delight with it, others came from Vasco’s persistent popularity with the people and for subsequent service rendered.

  Vasco himself understood the significance of what he had brought to the king, and undertook to raise himself and his family to the ranks of the Portuguese nobility. His father had once been the alcaide-mór of Vasco’s home town of Sines, so his first request was to be named the seigneur of the town, which the king granted. Sines, however, belonged to the Duke of Coimbra, the bastard son of John II, who had received it in part as compensation for not becoming king, and removing this portion of his lands to reward Vasco da Gama was a delicate matter that took some years and Vasco’s persistence before it was finally accomplished.

  More immediately, Vasco received an annual pension of 1,000 cruzados and the title of ‘Dom’, which he asked to be extended to include his sister and surviving brother. This request was granted and subsequently made hereditary. Having demonstrated his superiority in navigation, Vasco da Gama was appointed to the royal junta.

  In January 1502, one month before his departure on his second voyage to India and at a solemn ceremony in the presence of dignitaries and ambassadors, Vasco was awarded a second annual pension, this one hereditary, in the amount of 300,000 reis and the title of ‘Admiral of India’, with valuable privileges attached, including a trading concession. The honour and privileges were probably modelled on those given by the king and queen of Spain to Christopher Columbus. The title of ‘Admiral’ was not simply an honour. It meant that Vasco da Gama could, on his own initiative and without order of the king, assume command of any expedition to India and take control of the Portuguese vessels already in those waters.

  After returning from his first voyage to India, Vasco lived in Évora, where he married Dona Catarina de Ataíde, the daughter of a well-established and highly regarded family, thereby reinforcing the Gama family’s connection to the Almeida family. The Almeidas had opposed Manuel’s succession and remained the primary force in opposition to his rule thereafter, so the marriage had strong political overtones. This was Vasco’s only marriage and produced six sons and a daughter.

  On his return from his second voyage and the presentation of valuable ‘tribute’from the sultan of Kilwa another annual pension of 1,000 cruzados was awarded. With the grant of these three pensions Vasco da Gama was, from them alone, one of the wealthiest men in Portugal. Only six noblemen, seven bishops and two archbishops in the country had incomes exceeding his own, and this did not include the moneys he earned from the royal trading concessions and subsequent honours given to him.

  At one point Manuel promised to confer on Vasco da Gama the title of ‘Count’, a singular honour indeed, but for a number of years he did nothing about it despite Vasco’s repeated entreaties. The most likely explanation is that Manuel believed he had given enough. He may well have been jealous of Vasco’s continued popularity and unwilling to put himself in the position of having to grant additional honours. Finally Vasco informed Manuel that he would emigrate from Portugal along with his family, a move that would be a slap in the face for the king.

  In the last year of his life Manuel negotiated an accommodation with his nephew the Duke of Bragança, who had interceded on Vasco’s behalf, to yield two towns to which Vasco da Gama was named count (Vidigueira and Villa de Frades). Vasco signed over one of his pensions to the duke and paid him the sum of 4,000 cruzados in gold from his own pocket to secure this final honour, which was granted shortly before his departure on his third, and final, voyage to India in 1524. The title was hereditary and represented the final step in elevating Vasco and his descendents to the nobility. Enormous as they were, there have been no suggestions that any honour and reward received by Vasco da Gama was excessive or undeserved based on the totality of his service to the king and country.

  Manuel did not move so slowly in rewarding himself, that is, in enjoying the fruits of the enormous wealth he knew would soon flow to him across the vast ocean highway that Vasco had created for him. Even before Vasco had arrived in Portugal, Manuel ordered a commemorative gold coin to be struck. He also ordered the body of John II, who had done so much to make this moment possible, to be moved from the national cathedral to the abbey of Batalha with what was seen as extravagant ostentation and fawning pomp. An eyewitness reported that Manuel ordered the casket to be opened and the dust blown from the remains, then leaned down and ‘kissed the dead man’s hands and feet again and again’in gratitude.285

  The king also ordered large numbers of Lisbon’s picturesque olive trees to be cut down and tracts within the crowded city to be cleared and levelled. He then commanded a grandiose programme of public works. These included the palaces of Ribeira, the Casa da India, royal warehouses and additional elaborate storehouses. At the site of the small chapel where Vasco and his captains had knelt in vigil the night before sailing he directed the construction of Portugal’s national treasure, the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, which in time would hold the remains of Vasco da Gama and Luis Camoens. It endures as Manuel’s and Portugal’s monument to the first European voyage to India, and all it meant.


  In the summer of 1498 Admiral Christopher Columbus set sail on his third voyage to the ‘Indies’, as he still insisted on calling islands and lands that were clearly not India at all. When he arrived at the Spanish colony of Hispaniola in August, as Vasco and his captains were reaching the decision they must leave Calicut, he found it in a state of revolt against his rule. His attempts to restore order only led to further difficulties. A royal commissioner arrived from Spain in 1500 to arrest Columbus and return him in irons. It was in these circumstances that he learned of the Portuguese success.

  Although Columbus managed a fourth voyage to what was already being called the New World, it was an utter failure. Marooned on Jamaica, he faced still another revolt and returned to Spain in disgrace. When he died in 1506 – if not exactly impoverished, as is usually claimed –his obsession died with him. By insisting to the end that he had reached the Indie
s he denied himself the one lasting legacy that could have been his: the lands he discovered were named after someone else.

  In contrast, although the Portuguese did not seek to rename India, Portugal’s first voyage to India ushered in what is called the Vasco da Gama epoch of Asian history, lasting from 1498 to 1945. For those centuries the course of the region was largely determined by European powers.

  Six months after Vasco da Gama’s return to Lisbon a second fleet set sail for India. Between 1501 and 1505 Manuel dispatched virtually every ship his small nation could acquire or build. Eighty-one ships in six annual convoys set sail, carrying some 7,000 sailors and soldiers, of whom between a third and a half died on the outward passage alone. Of the remainder only a handful ever saw their homeland again.

  The passage to India remained audacious in the extreme. Under the most favourable conditions, and taking the most direct route possible, the round trip consumed eighteen months, although many voyages lasted much longer and in some cases the ship was lost altogether. By comparison, the short voyage of the Spanish to their possessions across the North Atlantic took just six to eight weeks. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean were also especially destructive to the hulls of the Portuguese ships and after just three voyages massive vessels built at great cost were no longer seaworthy.

  Although India had known conquerors, many of them far more violent and lethal than the Portuguese ever proved to be, their coming and that of the Europeans who followed in their footsteps changed the subcontinent permanently. Just as the Muslims had barred Europe from direct contact with India, so they had likewise barred the Hindus in India from direct European contact as well.

  There is a sixteenth-century Portuguese anecdote in which Vasco da Gama is asked what Portugal would trade with India and what India would give in exchange. After explaining the nature of the mutual trade Vasco says, ‘In this fashion, it is they who have discovered us.’286 The coming of the Portuguese, and of the Europeans, ended isolation for both Europe and India with unforeseeable and enduring consequences.

  The Portuguese gave to the Indian traders a new outlet for spices. They were no longer forced to deal only with the Muslims in the Middle East. Despite all his generosity towards the Portuguese, the ruler of Malindi was poorly served by them. His port was bypassed in the ensuing trade with Portugal and suffered accordingly. Immediately following the opening of the all-sea route from Europe to India new spices entered the market for which an equally insatiable demand quickly developed. The holds of the Portuguese vessels could carry not only a much greater volume but also a wider selection of spices and other exotic products.

  The first Portuguese attempts to establish trade missions in the Genoese model, as Vasco da Gama had tried, were a failure and the Muslim pilot off the east coast of Africa had been quite correct – they would have to conquer, albeit in a way never before experienced in that part of the world. The Portuguese immediately understood that control of the sea lanes over which the spice trade moved was in the end all they required. Ports to service their ships and to revive their crews were established, as were trading posts from which goods and precious metals could be exchanged for spices and other Asian valuables. There was no need to conquer and hold nations by force of arms.

  In the Battle of Diu in 1509 the Portuguese established naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean and a virtual monopoly in the spice trade. Once they seized Ormuz they took direct control of the Indian trade for horses, which were so essential to the strength of any Indian army. In fact, more than one king refused to attack the Portuguese in India for fear he would be cut off from his source of horses and be left vulnerable to his neighbouring states. The trade in spices was the lifeblood of the states in southern India and, once the Portuguese took control of the sea lanes, those kingdoms prospered or languished at the pleasure of the Portuguese.

  Within a very short time Portugal held a string of forts and factories throughout Asia, stretching from Sofala and Ormuz to the Moluccas, Macao and Nagasaki. In 1510 the Portuguese seized the landlocked island of Gôa from the local sultan and ‘Golden Gôa’, the Rome of the East, became its principal trading port in the region, remaining in its possession until 1961.

  The Portuguese did not introduce violence into the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean; that had existed throughout recorded time. What they brought instead was a magnitude of violence and the expert way they employed it, first to wrest and then to maintain control of trade. They accomplished this from a nation a hemisphere removed and at incredibly long maritime distances.

  So it was that within scant years following the first voyage of Vasco da Gama the Portuguese commercial empire spread across the world. No other nation in world history spread itself so widely, so fast, so utterly. In the Atlantic the Portuguese occupied ports and forts in Morocco, Cape Verde and Luanda in west Africa, along with islands in the Gulf of Guinea. Almost immediately after its discovery on their second voyage to India the Portuguese had communities in Brazil which soon prospered with the transplanting of the plantation system they had perfected on Madeira.

  Portuguese fishermen worked the Newfoundland banks, which they discovered. From Guinea, southeast Africa and Sumatra flowed gold; from Indonesia and the Malabar Coast came pepper; from Madeira, São Tomé and Brazil came sugar; from Banda came nutmeg and mace; from Ternate, Tidore and Ambonia came cloves; from Ceylon came cinnamon; from China came gold, silk and porcelain; from Japan came silver; from Persia and Arabia came horses; and from Cambay in Gujarat and Coromandel came cotton products.

  The Portuguese kings profited immensely from the nearly insatiable demand for spices, especially pepper. Production rose dramatically in the East, as did imports carried in Portuguese ships, while the price in Europe actually increased threefold. Shipped annually to Portugal was an average of 1,625 tons of pepper, rising on occasion to 2,925 tons.287 Pepper acquired in India was resold from Lisbon for forty times the price, a figure ultimately fixed at thirty times the purchase price. Both directly and indirectly the wealth from spices made its way to the Casa da India in Lisbon in quantities that are nearly unimaginable. Annual income to the crown was reliably estimated at 1 million cruzados, yet Manuel and his successor managed to spend the country into near bankruptcy.

  Manuel lived in such luxury as had not been seen in Europe since the Roman emperors. He delighted in nothing so much as the exotic gifts his captains and viceroys sent him, the pleasure all the greater as he was the only monarch in Europe to have them. In one grand procession through the streets of Lisbon, Manuel displayed a rhinoceros, followed by five elephants. Behind them was an exquisitely fitted horse ridden by a Persian accompanied by a leopard on a leash like a trained dog. One of these elephants, together with the horse, rider and leopard, Manuel sent to Rome to celebrate the election of a new pontiff. They were well received, especially when the elephants sprayed the cardinals and guests with water. Such acts enhanced Manuel’s stature enormously.

  The king sought to further his position with the church and other European monarchs by restoring Jerusalem to Christian control. Alfonso de Albuquerque was ordered to seize Aden, the gateway to the Arab peninsula and the Red Sea, then to capture Mecca and Mohammed’s tomb. Manuel would then exchange Mecca and the body of the Prophet for Jerusalem. The plan was thwarted when the Portuguese were unable to take Aden, although they came very close.

  While Manuel is given credit for modest accomplishments by some historians, the kindest interpretation of the squandering of Portugal’s new wealth is that the country had no model to follow in controlling the expansion of its empire or in its administration. It lacked a sufficiently large middle class to draw on and, primarily because of the expulsion of the Jews, lacked experienced bankers on the scale required. The bankers in Antwerp who usually advanced the funds for a ship sailing East were ultimately to profit more greatly than the Portuguese king.

  No greater evidence of Manuel’s fundamental mediocrity need be found than in his inability, or unwillingness, to
see that the spice trade was properly organized and managed. He neglected to order the most rudimentary of measures, and his legacy in the East was larceny, mismanagement and outright fraud. His primary concern was the flow of wealth to his feet and, as long as his representatives saw to it, they were free to loot at their leisure. The captaincy of a Portuguese ship for just a single voyage to India and back left the captain a wealthy man free to retire. The personal ships of officials were reportedly so overladen with booty that they were scarcely seaworthy, and more than one foundered in moderately active seas. Long forgotten, or no longer considered necessary, were captains such as Gil Eanes, Antão Gonçalves, Nuno Tristão, Diogo Cão and Bartholomeu Dias, not to mention Vasco da Gama.

  To give just one example, shortly after the Portuguese sacked Malacca the governor’s flagship sank off Sumatra on its way to Portugal. Aboard ship was a treasure of gold that included the golden throne of the Malacca sultan and gems, ‘the greatest wealth ever lost in a single shipwreck’, according to Correa. The wreck was recovered in 1988 and the estimated value of its cargo was $3 billion. This was just one ship among thousands.

  There is no doubt but that both John I and John II, not to mention Henry the Navigator, would have properly organized and supervised the spice trade and the Portuguese sea-borne empire that followed within a short decade of Vasco da Gama’s return to Lisbon. Had they done so, the course of history for the Portuguese and for millions of others in India and the Far East would have been very, very different.

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