Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 5
During the period immediately before and during the Portuguese discoveries the nation best equipped for world sea exploration was China, but with a single period of exception the Chinese elected to limit themselves to trading primarily in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.
During the Ming Dynasty, between 1405 and 1435, the royal eunuch, Admiral Cheng Ho, undertook seven voyages, with fleets of up to sixty-two ships, in part to search of the former emperor, who his successor feared was gathering an army in a foreign land to retake the throne. Another purpose of the voyages was to provide the royal court with exotic creatures, including giraffes, ostriches and zebras. Cheng Ho sailed to India and established trade relations there, then rounded the tip of Africa, where Chinese coins have been found.
But with the emperor’s death the fleet was recalled and the Chinese excursions abroad abandoned, though Chinese merchants continued to sail abroad along the routes Ho pioneered and China remained an active trader in the East. Junks (from the Arab djunk) were observed at the port in Calicut by Vasco da Gama, but the Chinese had abandoned their brief period of exploration by the time the Portuguese established their presence in the region. Still, many trade goods desired in Europe, and some spices, came from China or from areas under Chinese control and to that extent they were major players in the overall spice trade.
The Chinese junks were five to ten times the size of the Portuguese vessels, exceeding 1,000 tons and with crews of 250. They had early on adopted the centre rudder, one of massive size which made their ships more manoeuvrable. Their battened sails collapsed like Venetian blinds, allowing for relatively small crews and causing less loss of life in rough weather. They used double hulls and watertight bulkheads, adding greatly to the safety of their vessels. They carried herds of animals to be slaughtered at sea and grew herbs and vegetables on board in order to reduce the risk of scurvy. The ships were divided into as many as 300 compartments, which were leased to merchants who stored their goods and lived and worked from them for the duration of the voyage.
The qualities of the Chinese ships should not be overstated, however. Alhough Marco Polo was much impressed with them, his voyage aboard one from China to the Persian Gulf took nearly two years, and almost 600 people aboard ship died.
The establishment of trading colonies related to spices brought Western Europeans into routine contact not just with Asia Minor but also with travellers there who had been to the Far East, exciting great curiosity. As these Europeans dispatched reports home and as they themselves returned, the knowledge of Asia, its customs and habits, grew. Written accounts slowly circulated through the European courts, taking as much as a century to become commonly known. The effect was to produce a strong desire to establish direct contact with the East.
Although commerce, usually related to spices, was the essential ingredient in medieval travel, curiosity and the desire to see the world were no less a passion then than they are now, and had their own impact on the spread of spices and in expanding knowledge of the world. At the end of the ninth century an Arab merchant named Soleiman travelled extensively along the coast of India and then, following the monsoon, continued on to China, which he explored for curiosity’s sake. On his return Soleiman wrote an account of what he had seen, called A Traveller’s Tales. Later this manuscript was expanded with the experiences and observations of another Arab merchant, Abou-Zeyd of Siraf, and the resulting work was called Two Travellers. Of particular significance was the accuracy of the geographical descriptions contained in the books. Both works were widely read in Europe and highly influential.
While such accurate information about the East existed, it was mingled with myth and legend. There was no accepted repository of fact on which a scholar or prince could draw to determine the truth from fiction, although such efforts were made. King Roger II of Sicily was fascinated by geography and researched what the Greek, Latin and Arab geographers had written on the subject. He spotted the numerous discrepancies and set about to learn the truth for himself. He inquired personally of travellers from the East, interrogating parties individually, testing their accounts for truthfulness, and only when the information was agreed did he accept it as fact.
He was joined in this enterprise by a scholar, Shereef Idrisi, who over fifteen years wrote Pleasure for the Man who Wants to Know Thoroughly the Various Countries of the World. The work was of particular interest, not just because of the accuracy of its depictions of foreign places and the corresponding geography, but because it reported that much gold came from the bed of the Niger river in west Africa, and that large quantities of other precious metals could be found on the east coast of Africa as well.23 In time this would be one of the regions identified as the location of Prester John’s mythical Christian kingdom.
The Book of Marco Polo was written in 1287, though it took a century or more to make its way through the courts of Europe, inflaming imaginations and creating even greater curiosity. Some fifty years later perhaps the greatest book of travelling ever known was written, by Ibn Batutah. He had journeyed from Tangier to Peking, visiting along the way India and even travelling south to Mozambique. Most significantly, he spent time in Timbuktu on the Niger, which he described as the terminus for trade and possessed of great wealth in gold.
A Spanish Franciscan friar also went to Guinea, as the region was known, and wrote of the abundant gold he saw there. He reported on the caravan trade routes across the north African desert and how they made possible the commerce from the south with the port cities of north Africa. In his work, not immodestly named The Book of Knowledge of all Kingdoms, Lands and Lordships that are in the World, he described Nubia and Ethiopia, claiming that the ruler of these lands was one ‘Prester Juan’, a Christian, whose subjects were Negroes. The cross, he said, was burnt into their skins as a sign they had been baptized and over the kingdoms flew a white flag with a black cross.
Along with these accounts, which were largely accurate despite the occasional flights of fancy, there was also that of John Mandeville, whose well-read tale of his thirty-four years of travel not only described his own extraordinary experiences but also contained drawings of monsters and the random scatter of gems to be commonly found in distant lands. Fable and myth were interlaced in his tale, related in a fascinating and highly entertaining manner. Prester John’s bed is described as ‘made of one sapphire, well bound with gold’.24 This account did more than any other to establish the legend of Prester John, which was to influence the Portuguese so profoundly, as a wealthy, powerful Christian king, though it did nothing to determine where his kingdom actually lay.
That pockets of Christians existed in the East was known in medieval Europe. The rumours and legends that formed the basis for this belief in this case stemmed from reality. Christians did inhabit lands to the East, though they were not in regular contact with western Europe, and practised a version of the faith, primarily as Nestorians, considered corrupt by the pope. There was a strong desire on the part of the Portuguese to contact these groups and restore them to the True Faith, a desire the equal of that to convert the pagan.
There was also a practical consideration. The Muslims formed a formidable barrier to the East. To succeed in their endeavour the Portuguese were forced to seek a sea route around Africa, the dimensions of which were unknown. Indeed, the highly regarded maps inspired by Ptolemy’s in his Geographia depicted the Indian Ocean as a landlocked sea and the continent of Africa as extending southward to form a continuous land mass that could not be rounded. The Portuguese understood almost from the first that, if Ptolemy was wrong and they were successful, this would place them out of reach of any help from Europe, surrounded either by enemies or strange people who would have no reason to lend assistance. So-called ‘lost’ Christians, even of a deviant form, would be natural allies and an invaluable help if they controlled a port where the Portuguese ships could be serviced and repaired. Their existence, and the prospects that went with it, made the feat of rounding Africa and establishing a pe
Prester John was the most famous leader of Eastern Christians and became an obsession with the Portuguese since he reportedly commanded a great nation. Medieval chronicles portrayed him as a king–priest who ruled ‘beyond Persia and Armenia’, though the precise location of his kingdom continued to change with each wave of discovery.
The story of Prester John was first conveyed to the Vatican in 1145 by Bishop Hugh of Gebal in Syria, who drew on a report from Bishop Otto of Freising, in Germany. The thrust of this initial story was that Prester John was descended from the Magi who had visited the Christ Child. He defeated the Muslims in a great battle but had been prevented from joining the crusaders because his army was unable to cross the Tigris river. Still, he remained a demonstrable ally in the East. The basis of this story is probably the merging of certain historical events and personages, capped by a great deal of wishful thinking.
In 1165 a cleverly written though fictional letter reputedly from Prester John was translated into several languages and circulated first at the Vatican then through the courts of Europe, where it was hotly debated. In it Prester John is identified as guardian of the shrine of St Thomas, the apostle to India. In the letter the kingdom of Prester is placed in ‘the three Indies’, which are described as lands of natural wonders, of immense wealth where peace and justice reigned. He asserted that he intended to go to Palestine with his armies to do battle with the Muslims and restore the Holy Sepulchre to Christian control.
After much debate, in 1177 Pope Alexander III sent a response, the fate of which is unknown. Subsequent pilgrims and missionaries travelling east all searched for Prester John and his kingdom and in so doing established contact with the Mongols, who ruled, among other regions, most of India. By the mid-fourteenth century Ethiopia had become the centre of the search for the kingdom, though its location was imprecisely understood.
The legend of Prester John, the powerful Christian king who desired to make common cause with the European Christians, was a seductive draw to the Portuguese and an essential element in their decision to risk rounding Africa and sail the increasingly extraordinary distances the passage to India entailed. It should not be taken that fact and fiction concerning the East were interwoven in such a confusing and contradictory manner as to confound utterly anyone seeking the truth; rather, there was essentially accurate knowledge of the East and of the way there, and this was generally accepted, confusing as many details were. That way, however, was in the control of the Muslims, as was all commerce from Asia.
What remained completely unknown was the sea passage to India, which nearly everyone agreed must go around Africa. No portion of the world was more filled with legend and fantasy than Africa. Accurate reports ended with the vast expanse of sand that formed the Sahara desert. There was no sense of how large the continent might be or what lay in its waters. Anything seemed possible.
What was self-evident was that the only way east lay south, down the coast of this alien and inhospitable land.
The enterprise of Ceuta
Portugal has the oldest fixed borders of any European nation. This fact is all the more remarkable because those borders were established through incessant war with the more powerful Castile. The nation has its origin early in the twelfth century, when Henry of Burgundy and a band of opportunistic knights responded to the summons of Alfonso VI of Leon to assist in his war against the Moors. At that time most of what was to become Portugal was under Muslim rule. In return for his support and conspicuous valour in battle, Alfonso gave Henry his illegitimate daughter Teresa in marriage, along with the northern Portuguese region known as Terra Portucalense, a name derived from the town of Portucale, today known as Oporto. This region included the prosperous county of Coimbra.
Alfonso urged Henry to continue the war against the infidel and empowered him to take as fief such lands south of his new domain as he could seize. By 1109, in campaigns that became known as the Reconquest (Reconguista), Henry had conquered substantial territory at the expense of the Moors and was granted the title ‘Count of Portugal’. He died three years later and his youthful wife acted as regent for their three-year-old son, proclaiming herself queen in the process. As a consequence Portugal had a queen before it had a king.
Following impressive victories over both the Castilians and the Moors, her grown son declared himself King Alfonso I, ruled for a remarkable fifty-seven years and almost singlehandedly created Portugal, independent of any other land. The Moors were not united and continually warred among themselves, dividing central and southern Portugal into small kingdoms which Alfonso found relatively easy prey. City after city, region upon region, fell to his armies.25 In this struggle Alfonso was assisted by a fleet of crusaders en route to the Holy Land, definitively demonstrating the power a navy could play in future conquests. But Portugal was so lacking in skilled seamen that it was necessary to import foreigners to man new ships. Even the first admiral of the Portuguese navy, created in 1307 and deemed essential to the young nation, was not Portuguese.
Although it faces the Atlantic, Portugal was not isolated from the rich commercial life of the Mediterranean. Annual fleets from the Italian city-states stopped on their way north to trade. As early as the twelfth century Lisbon and Oporto were already bustling commercial ports. The historian Fernão Lopes described Lisbon in particular as a city of ‘numerous and various foreigners’. These included Genoese, Milanese, Catalans, Lombards, Mallorcans and Aragonese, among others.26
Each of the Portuguese kings in succession understood the importance of a navy and took steps that the Portuguese came to regard as of divine origin. King Dinis I expanded the maritime fleet and in 1317 created royal forests at Leiria and Alcacer, in which he directed the planting of the species of trees required for shipbuilding, knowing the forest would not be available for cultivation for more than a century. His attention to naval matters and trade proved so profitable that by the reign of his son Alfonso IV one fifth of the king’s revenues came from customs and harbour duties.
In the late fourteenth century King Ferdinand granted that anyone wishing to build a vessel in excess of 100 tons could take the timber without charge from the royal forests. As a spur to commerce, the standard articles of trade at the time, chiefly iron and tar, could be imported free of duty. In addition, no export duty was imposed on the first voyage of these new ships.27
It was also ordered that all vessels above 50 tons should be registered. King Ferdinand created an insurance company, the Companhia das Naus, to which all shipowners were required to pay 2 per cent of their gains. This provided a sophisticated measure of security previously lacking. To encourage the use of Lisbon harbour, which already possessed substantial attraction because of its location and safety, the king granted special privileges to foreign merchants, which regularly brought many Italian and Catalan residents to the city. So attractive was the situation that as many as 450 ships were at anchor in Lisbon harbour at any given time, loading and unloading goods.28
The Portuguese kings grasped the potential and were quick to engage in commerce themselves. Ferdinand had his ships filled with his own goods before those of anyone else could be loaded. In 1371 the Cortes complained that he had used his power as king to acquire wheat at one rate and then sold it for a twenty-fold profit. The following year the Cortes extended its complaint to include criticism of the queen, the grand masters of the religious orders, the bishops and other clergy, knights and government officials for aggressively engaging in commerce in competition with traditional traders, calling these newcomers nothing more than ‘merchants and hucksters’. Lopes noted of Ferdinand’s revenues that ‘they were so great that it is now difficult to believe’.29 This participation in commerce by these classes was to have a profound influence on subsequent events.
To assist Portugal during the period of the Reconquest were the creation and evolution of the various military orders, of which there were several, although the t
The landed aristocracy maintained its position of considerable power in the north, so the orders established themselves in central and southern Portugal. They were granted possession of certain forts to safeguard the nation from counterattack by the Moors and received the income from these lands. The Order of Christ was especially active in expeditions against Moorish cities in north Africa and later received control of lucrative Madeira after it had been colonized. Membership in the orders eventually became largely hereditary. As the orders represented a potential threat to the king, their hand can usually be found behind every attempt to decrease the king’s authority or to influence the succession. In time the kings named their heirs to head the orders as a means of securing their loyalty. Membership and service in the orders was one of the most certain paths to increase the wealth and standing of a family.
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