Unknown seas the portugu.., p.33

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 33


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  To maintain this far-flung empire and to fight off interlopers Portugal required a vast number of expensive ships and skilled men. Each year some 2,400 able-bodied, largely unmarried, men left Portugal ‘at the scent of this cinnamon’,288 from a population of between 1,000,000 and 1,400,000. The long voyage east killed as many half of these, while the rest soon succumbed to the fever and disease epidemic to the tropics.289 The round trip for a single vessel from Lisbon to Nagasaki often took three years. Only a handful of the seamen who left on the ship survived the voyage.

  The situation was aggravated in that corrupt captains pocketed much of the money given them to feed the Portuguese men dispatched east, starving them en route, depositing them on the shore of India or eastward in such a debilitated state that death soon followed. Setting aside the inhumanity of such actions, it was an unconscionable waste of the most precious resource Portugal had to give – her young men. The essential Portuguese fortress of Malacca in the Moluccas, always precariously held, was never manned by more than 600 Portuguese, and usually held as few as 200 men, yet it was the linchpin that kept the spice empire together. There was no greater failure on the part of Manuel and his son, John III, than properly to manage the gift they had been given by the lives of Portuguese seamen. Nevertheless, so many young men left Portugal to seek fortune in Asia that vast tracks of land were abandoned and towns were reported denuded of population. Agricultural production fell and a portion of the new wealth was required to buy grain to feed the swelling populace of Lisbon.

  Few women emigrated, and cohabitation and marriage with the indigenous peoples was officially tolerated, even encouraged. The children of these relationships were accepted into the civil service and armed forces of the Portuguese. Still, it is estimated there were never more than 10,000 able-bodied Portuguese and Eurasians available for service in the East at any one time. The Portuguese fleet that sustained the empire never numbered more than 300. In the East the great carracks of 1,000 to 2,000 tons were manned largely by Eurasians and African slaves commanded by a handful of Portuguese officers and gunners.

  From such a lofty height there was nowhere to go but down. The Portuguese were quickly overextended and vulnerable to outsiders. The Turks had great success against Portuguese shipping in the mid-sixteenth century; Molucca was frequently blockaded by fleets from Java; the Malays enjoyed frequent successes against the Portuguese, as did both Hindu and Muslim raiders along the west coast of India.

  Most significantly, the Portuguese established the opening through which much of Europe raced, for in the end the royal advisers to Manuel proved correct. Portugal was too small for such an ambitious expansion of empire. Even Dom Vasco da Gama urged the king to pull back from the maximum extension of influence, to consolidate what could be maintained. But what the Japanese would term ‘victory fever’in the first months of World War II had seized the Portuguese, and there was no turning back from what could be taken, until it in turn was taken from them. More powerful rivals – the Dutch, English and Spanish –successfully wrested away their monopoly of the sea trade route to the East, though the Portuguese remained dominant players for centuries.

  There were many reasons for the inability of the Portuguese to retain control of the Indian Ocean besides the lack of manpower, corruption and an adequate commercial structure. The settlement and exploitation of Brazil diverted resources and attention, while Spain’s occupation of Portugal in 1580 was especially devastating to the far-flung empire.290 Perhaps most damaging of all, the Portuguese commanders sent to Asia were primarily motivated by personal greed and usually acted against their country’s long-term interests. Royal governors did not keep their promises or remain loyal to allies. The Portuguese were quickly determined to be unreliable, and in a very short number of years it was also apparent that they lacked the resources to hold what they had by force. Nevertheless, Brazil, Angola, Gôa and Macao long remained part of the Portuguese empire.

  The Portuguese discoveries changed the face of the world. Maps were utterly transformed and what emerged was a largely accurate depiction of the outline of the world’s major land masses and of the sea routes to them. They ended the Muslim monopoly on the spice trade, with devastating consequences for the Arab rulers. Lisbon, linked to the East, to Madeira and to Brazil, was Europe’s main port, its busiest marketplace and its most prosperous city. Less than 100 years after Henry’s ships had begun their explorations a Spanish expedition under the command of the Portuguese captain-general Ferdinand Magellan had circumnavigated the world.

  If it had not been the Portuguese, then it would have been someone else. Europeans would not have remained where they were. Ever-increasing trade, and conquest, between East and West was inevitable at some point in history, for that has always been its course. It is likely that Prince Henry, John I, John II and Manuel accelerated the ‘discovery’of the world – including the Americas –by at least 100 years, perhaps more. What another century would have meant to the Indian subcontinent and to the Aztec and Inca empires is best left to others. Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries would have been the Africans of Guinea and Angola, the two regions from which most slaves for America, north and south, were taken. Without Brazil and the plantations of the Caribbean and British American colonies exerting pressure, far fewer would have been seized and by the time America was colonized and exploited the institution of slavery there would have had a shorter run.

  The key captain of the discoveries, Vasco da Gama, is one of those rarest of historical figures: an individual who succeeded in every mission given him, who enjoyed celebrity, honour and enormous riches within his lifetime, and had the good fortune to die while the zenith of his nation, made possible by his accomplishments, had yet to pass.

  Almost from the first, Vasco and his men were cast as Homeric heroes and their expedition was portrayed as a national epic of divine providence. To whatever degree his place in history was determined by his actual behaviour, Vasco was elevated to near deity as the central figure in Portugal’s great national epic, The Lusiads, by Luis Camoens, which to this day is studied by every Portuguese student. The masterpiece has nearly single-handedly etched this first voyage to India from Europe in the Portuguese national character as a triumph of the Portuguese people, through Vasco da Gama, at the direction, and fulfilling the promise, of God.

  Vasco da Gama returned to India twice again. His third voyage came late in life in 1524, when he was fifty-four years old. There Dom Vasco da Gama, Admiral of India and Count of Vidigueira, took ill shortly after landing and died peacefully a few months later. He was buried, first in India, south of Calicut, then at the family estate in Sines and finally at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém.28

  There is inevitably much dispute as to the course of his life after his return from his first voyage to India. Like Columbus, who has had placed on his unwitting shoulders every evil perpetrated by a European since he first set foot in the Americas, Vasco da Gama has been blamed for every sin and every act of violence against Asians by every European since he landed in Calicut. Ignored is the reality that in both cases the regions entered by Europeans were already extraordinarily violent and rife with conflict.

  The expeditions and the subsequent discoveries by the Portuguese of the fifteenth century are probably the singular greatest achievements in European, if not world, history. The epic voyage of Vasco da Gama is arguably the most significant in human history, as it brought about the first meeting of men from the West with those of the East since Alexander the Great, and from it came permanent contact and interaction.

  The tenacity of the small nation of Portugal, the courage of its people, the commitment of its rulers over decades are nothing less than astounding. From this time forward Europeans were no longer bound by the confines of their nations. The ocean had become a highway across which they could explore, settle and exploit. The words of Luis Vaz de Camoens are perhaps the most fitting memorial to what the Portuguese accomplished in less than a century:

nbsp; . . . [I]f there had been more of the World

  They would have reached it.

  Postscript: the dissenters

  So much is in dispute concerning the Portuguese discoveries that it can come as no surprise that there are respected historians who believe it simply did not happen like this. And they may have a point, though the great weight of mainstream history is against them. What follows is a representive sample of contrary views.

  Gaspar Correa in his Lendas da India writes that the tip of Africa was discovered not by Bartholomeu Dias but by Janifante, ‘a foreign merchant, who frequently came to Lisbon’. This is perhaps João Infante, who captained one of Dias’s ships. Correa writes that the king outfitted him and he sailed down the west coast of Africa. Near the Cape of Good Hope he encountered waves so powerful he could not sail on. Back in Lisbon he was constructing ‘tall’ ships for a repeat voyage when he fell ill and died. The king then dispatched Vasco da Gama.

  Samuel Morison in his book Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century largely discounts what he considers the myth of Portuguese secrecy in their explorations. While John II and others were secretive by nature, he argues, there was no formal policy to conceal Portuguese discoveries. The kings were constantly torn between keeping matters to themselves, and in so doing making it harder for others to exploit their discoveries, and crowing about their latest accomplishment. Vanity seems to have won out most of the time. Morison argues that there is no information about many voyages and discoveries because, for the most part, they were simply poorly recorded, or never happened.

  Even Henry’s role in the explorations is disputed. James M. Anderson in his book The History of Portugal asserts that the legend of the Navigator is essentially a fiction created after his death. He points out that there is no ‘contemporary reference to the school [at Sagres], the first mention of it having been made in the seventeenth century by an Englishman’. He acknowledges that Henry took some interest in the explorations but suggests he did not play the dominant role generally attributed to him. This was a fiction created to give someone in the royal family credit.

  Francis Herbert, curator of maps at the Royal Geographical Society, former president of the Society for the History of Discoveries and author, argues passionately against the traditional presentation of the Portuguese explorations. He writes that the house of Coimbra and the Order of Santiago were primarily responsible for the Portuguese discoveries and for the push to India, but that credit was later usurped by the house of Viseu and the Order of Christ –in other words, the monarchy. He states that the Gama voyage was commanded by Vasco’s older brother Paulo, and that Paulo sailed under orders of George de Lancastre, the natural son of John II, Duke of Coimbra and master of the Order of Santiago. The entire expedition, according to Herbert, was owned by the Order of Santiago. According to this account, Vasco da Gama assumed final command of the expedition on the death of his older brother, and when he returned in triumph King Manuel took the credit for the expedition. Such were the rewards –or bribes –he received that Vasco da Gama abandoned the Order of Santiago for the Order of Christ.

  It is true that Vasco da Gama switched his allegiance to what was essentially the king’s Order of Christ. It is also true that, although Manuel was heir to John II, the king’s choice had been his own son George. Manuel had no greater opponent in Portugal and would have been strongly motivated to take credit from him.

  Although intriguing, especially the views of Herbert, the judgement of historians to date is contrary to these views, which, of course, does not make them wrong.


  I vividly recall the moment I conceived this book. My mother and younger sister had come to visit me in Cascais, Portugal, where I was living. I was showing them the neighbourhood near my apartment while calling attention to the many historical buildings. At one point I spoke the name ‘Vasco da Gama’. Hearing this, an attractive young Portuguese woman stopped and in accented English politely asked if we needed to know anything about Vasco da Gama, ‘the greatest Portuguese who ever lived. He discovered India and gave us the empire.’I thanked her for her interest and she briefly told my family of Vasco da Gama’s contribution to Portuguese history. The Portuguese are by nature quite reserved, yet here was a young woman intruding on a conversation among strangers.

  During my months in Portugal I was struck again and again by the monuments to Vasco da Gama, the other explorers and the empire itself. They are everywhere and, I suspect, as much a part of the Portuguese consciousness today as they were 400 years ago. The Portuguese assume, incorrectly, that others know of their contribution to the modern world and respect it as they do. It is my hope that I have made a contribution to changing that.

  No book of this type is written without the help of others. My thanks go to Thomas Chacko for providing me with invaluable information on the Vijayanagar empire and its capital. I also thank the highly competent staff of the Phoenix (Arizona) Public Library Interlibrary Loan Department, who assisted me so often in locating obscure, long out-of-print books. A special thanks to Virginia M. Adams of the American Friends of the Hakluyt Society at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island, for her assistance in providing the location of essential, and difficult to locate, works. Thanks also to Edward J. Redmond, Senior Reference Librarian, the US Library of Congress, for his kind assistance in researching and providing copies of key historical maps. My thanks also to Sandra Cardoso and Maria dos Anjos Fernandes at the Lisbon City Museum and Tania Olim of the Portuguese Institute of Museums. Thanks as well to the staff of the National Library in Lisbon.

  I also thank my editor in the UK, Grant McIntyre, for having faith in the project, for his many helpful suggestions and for his editing. Thanks as well to Matthew Taylor for his outstanding work as copy editor. As always, my deepest appreciation to my agent, Mike Hamilburg, for first suggesting my switch to this genre and his dedication in placing the project in the face of so many adversities. Thanks also to his assistant, Joannie, for always, and I mean always, being of good cheer and so helpful. Finally, my gratitude to Dr Phil Jackson for his assistance and encouragement.


  . B. de Las Casas, The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492– (Norman and London, 1989), p. 391.

  . G. Granzotto, Christopher Columbus: The Dream and the Obsession (Garden City, New York, 1985), p. 186.

  . S. E. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, 1942), p. 344.

  . Las Casas, Diario, p. 397.

  . Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, p. 349.

  . M. Kaplan, The Portuguese: The Land and Its People (New York, 1991), p. 29.

  . C. R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–(New York, 1969), p. xxiii.

  . B. W. Diffie and G. D. Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415–(Minneapolis, 1977), pp. 190–.

  . E. G. Ravenstein, trans. and ed., A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497– (New York, 1898), p. xii.

  . L. V. de Camoens, The Lusiads (London), p. 40.

  . S. E. Howe, In Quest of Spices (London, 1946), p. 13.

  . Howe, In Quest of Spices, p. 19.

  . Howe, In Quest of Spices, p. 18.

  . Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, pp. 3–.

  . A. H. de Marques, History of Portugal, vol. 1, From Lusitania to Empire (New York and London, 1972), p. 166

  . H. Kulke and D. Rothermund, History of India, 3rd edn (London and New York, 1998), p. 101.

  . As quoted in Howe, In Quest of Spices, p. 35.

  . Persius, Sat. V, as quoted in In Quest of Spices, p. 26.

  . Howe, In Quest of Spices, p. 29.

  . Howe, In Quest of Spices, p. 25.

  . J. K. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford, 1988), p. 103.

  . Marques, History of Portugal, p. 139.

  . Howe, In Quest of Spices, p. 38

  . As quoted in Howe, In Quest of Spices, p.

  . J. M. Anderson, The History of Portugal (Connecticut and London, 2000), p. 28.

  . Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, vol. 1, p. 38.

  . Howe, In Quest of Spices, p. 55

  . Kaplan, The Portuguese, p. 9.

  . Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, pp. 38–.

  . S. Subrahmanyam, The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 25–.

  . Anderson, The History of Portugal, p. 40.

  . Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, p. 53.

  . Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, p. 44–.

  . Diffie and Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, pp. 48–.

  . Howe, In Quest of Spices, p. 62.

  . G. E. da Azurara, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea (London, 1896), p. 21.

  . J. K. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford, 1988), p. 193.

  . Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe, p. 214.

  . S. E. Morison, Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century (New York, 1965), p. 19.

  . Howe, In Quest of Spices, pp. 59–.


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