Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 6
In 1386 King John I, Grand Master of the lesser Order of Aviz, which had been founded in 1181 to protect Christian cites from the Moors, and illegitimate son of Pedro I, succeeded to the throne to block the ascent of a hated Castilian, though not without intrigue and a brutal war with Castile. ‘Both the virtues required of a king –justice and piety –were combined in his person’, the court historian wrote of this remarkable man.
Not long thereafter an event occurred that was to alter permanently the course of Portuguese history. John I recognized that his Castilian enemy was the more powerful and could renew the conflict against him at almost any time. This was especially true as his own forces had taken a huge loss to secure victory. With this in mind he dispatched emissaries to the powerful English duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, urging him to act on his neglected claim to the Castilian throne. His wife was the eldest daughter of the King of Castile and had a legitimate right to it.31 The duke responded favourably and soon arrived at the Portuguese court with an army, wife and two daughters, to seek John’s assistance. In return the duke pledged that he would grant Portugal certain frontier cities at the expense of Castile, as well as one of his daughters in marriage.
Politically the younger daughter, Catherine, was the best match, because in time she would be in line to be queen of Castile and the Portuguese were always eager to unite the two thrones, so that the Portuguese maintained control, but King John fell deeply in love with the elder daughter, Philippa, the duke’s by a previous marriage to Blanche, the heiress of Lancaster, through which he had obtained his great wealth and title. Although marriage to Philippa brought no added bonus to his nation, the royal advisers could not sway the king from his decision. The pope granted the king release from his vow of celibacy that he had taken on assuming his role as head of the Order of Aviz when just a child, and the fortuitous marriage was made.
There were already close ties between the English and the Portuguese. Englishmen routinely streamed into Portugal, especially the region about Oporto, seeking opportunity. These included textile- and glassmakers, as well as wine merchants. Their numbers were swelled by poets and writers seeking a more temperate climate and a more relaxed lifestyle. The result of this union between John I and the daughter of John of Gaunt was to bind the two countries even closer. The oldest-standing alliance in the world, the Treaty of Windsor, was signed by England and Portugal that same year. In fact, the marriage is believed to have been a part of the agreement.
By all accounts it was a unique and happy marriage, a match equal in love and political cunning. Philippa, described as ‘sincere’and ‘friendly to all honest people’, was also shrewd and usually dominant in matters of diplomacy. During the reign of this remarkable couple the Portuguese court became a centre of learning and one of the most illustrious. The libraries of John I and Philippa as well as of their children were among the most complete in Europe.
It may well have been that fewer of the discoveries would have been made by the Portuguese had it not been for this exceptional family, and it is unlikely they would have opened the passage to India. John I and his wife had six children, anointed by Camoens as the ‘noble generation’. Of their sons, one became king, one died tragically in a civil war after having served honourably as regent, another became a saint and the other was Henry the Navigator. Philippa, although she was queen of Portugal, was no less English, and she told and retold to her children stories of the Knights of the Round Table, of gallantry and deeds of heroism. She inspired in her sons a fierce loyalty to one another, a respect for chivalry, noblesse oblige and especially a keen sense for their place in history.
The young princes also heard the stories of the struggle of the Portuguese against the Moors and the exploits of brave knights in battle. Stories of Africa were standard fare as well, with tales of caravans traversing the vast Sahara, bearing gold, ivory, trains of unfortunate black slaves and the skins of exotic animals borne on the backs of camels. Their childhood was filled with lurid tales of savage beasts and primitive, exotic peoples in strange lands. It was a heady brew of the romantic, which fired the imaginations of the oldest three young princes and was profoundly to affect future events.
Whether it was primarily through Philippa’s influence, or that of her husband, or of the two of them together, the three oldest sons, Edward, Pedro and Henry, emerged into young manhood united as a team, remarkably free of competition and backbiting, each fired with the ambition to seek his own place in history by following his distinct course. They worked together and could not be pitted against one another, so it was impossible for the often troublesome noblemen to work intrigue. All of these men, but especially Henry, possessed sweeping vision and could see beyond the immediate. Such unity of purpose and foresight was a remarkable accomplishment, and no doubt the brothers themselves deserve credit for continuing such behaviour even after the death of both parents.
Pedro was of an intellectual bent and during his travels in Europe gathered books for the royal library in Portugal. He collected information about Islam and its strengths, reportedly concluding from his research that the powerful Muslims must be outflanked and that Portugal was in an especially advantageous position to do just that. Edward was so studious in his devotion to the classics that he was criticized for not properly preparing himself for his future role as king.
Their father, John I, had repeatedly shown himself to be not just a good king but also an able general and a brilliant soldier. He had proved himself again and again on the field of battle against the Castilians. The oldest sons, now moving into manhood, were eager to make their own mark.
The king’s initial suggestion, that they prove their mettle in a special jousting tournament, was rejected by the brothers as scarcely the equal for testing themselves on the field of combat. Instead, they preferred to be dubbed knights on the battlefield, ideally following successful battle with the infidel. The last Moorish enclave in Portugal had been conquered in 1249, so such an opportunity was no longer possible within Portugal. The young men spent the summer of 1411 with their parents in the Moorish palace in the beautiful perfume-scented mountain enclave of Sintra and threw their support behind a secret plan to seize the Muslim trading city of Ceuta on the coast of north Africa, across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.
With its palaces and ‘large gardens and orchards with many trees’Ceuta was considered to be ‘the flower of all other cities of Africa’. It would be the first Muslim city of north Africa permanently occupied by a European Christian nation. The Moors still held part of the Iberian peninsula in Spain; this mission would put the Christians on the offensive in their homeland and was, in their view, the logical extension of the Reconquest.
If it could be taken, Ceuta offered several advantages to the Portuguese. It was the terminus for a lucrative gold trade in northern Africa and as a rich port held the real possibility of significant spoils. It was considered ‘the key of the whole Mediterranean Sea’,32 from which the Portuguese could hinder Moorish pirates, who regularly raided the Algarve. It also permitted the Portuguese the opportunity to interfere in the affairs of Castile and Aragon as well as reclaim a city from their eternal enemy the Moors.
The timing could not have been more opportune. The Castilian monarchy was engaged in quarrels with its nobles, the French and English were embroiled in the Hundred Years War and the Italian city-states were preoccupied with rivalries for control of their traditional trade routes east.
In addition, Portuguese attention to and involvement with north Africa had been continuous since even before the founding of the nation. Moors who remained in Portugal had special permission to trade with their brethren in Africa. Fruit from the Algarve was much sought after in Africa and was routinely sold there for gold. Portugal also had an active trade with the Moors in Granada, which had yet to be taken by Castile, as well as direct trade with the Muslims in the African ports. Portugal received cereals, textiles, leather and even sugar from Africa, in exchange for weapons, copper,
Despite the existence of such mutually beneficial commerce, both Christians and Moors actively practised piracy on one another’s ships. So many captives were taken by the Portuguese and the Moors that an ordinance was promulgated in 1388 regulating their ransom. Castile and Aragon had established by treaty their own areas of interest, which did not include Portugal, so as far as the Portuguese were concerned they were free to act as they wished.33
The Portuguese discoveries are most commonly dated from 1415, with the assault on Ceuta, though ships of exploration had been dispatched into the Atlantic earlier. But the circumstances of the conquest at the time make it clear that the Portuguese themselves did not know that they were about to embark on the greatest age of discovery the world would ever know. That age developed slowly, a single stage at a time, and when it came to fruition it seemed in retrospect to the Portuguese that the hand of God had been manifest at every step.
People then had no more a sense of living in history than we do today. The future is intangible, the past appears archaic and irrelevant. Life for nearly everyone is consumed with the ‘here and now’. They were no less intelligent than we, and in most ways not all that different from us. It was the custom of the nobility to retain chroniclers to record their feats, but these accounts were as much for the sponsors’ self-aggrandizement during their own lifetime as for future generations.
At the direction of Alfonso V, Gomes Eannes de Azurara wrote an account of the Portuguese expansion at a time decades before the final outcome was known, so his observations (completed in 1453) are especially salient. When he penned his telling of the Portuguese discoveries he wrote: ‘Where could this chapter begin better than in speaking of the most glorious conquest of the great city of Ceuta, of which famous victory the heavens felt the glory and the earth the benefit.’
Through creative marriage and dominance in war ambitious Castile was systematically gobbling up the diverse regions that inhabited the Iberian peninsula. By 1469 Aragon, Catalonia and Castile were united with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, whose mother was Portuguese. The couple reigned jointly from 1474 to 1504 and their union placed Portugal in a precarious position. It had to maintain the ability to remain independent and could not afford to leave itself weakened. Through the long decades of the explorations the abiding concern of the Portuguese was always Spain.
In 1411 Portugal and Castile had concluded the latest in their long series of wars and the timing was ripe for such an adventure, so the king did not dismiss out of hand his sons’ plan to seize Ceuta. The royal advisers were favourably disposed, in part because of a desire to continue the conquest of the Moors, but also because of the wish to free their shipping from Arab pirates and the lure of the gold and other valuables to be found in the north African ports.
Religion cannot be overestimated as a motive, as this was a continuation of the Reconquest in Portuguese eyes. The medieval understanding and application of Christianity were deeply embedded in daily life. To attain Heaven required devotion to the church and reception of its sacraments, especially baptism. Pagans and infidels were damned to Hell, so even cruel measures were justified to turn them to God. It was ingrained in the Portuguese kings and people that it was their divine calling to continue driving the infidels back to the East. The pope had earlier granted the spiritual dispensations previously given to the crusaders in the Holy Land to all those who warred against the Moors in the Iberian peninsula and elsewhere.
It is typical of the Portuguese that the attack would accomplish the twin goals of a religious crusade and an opportunity for loot, since the sword and the cross in Portugal often went hand in hand. The combination of the two powerful inducements of greed and religion is often viewed with cynicism but should be accepted at face value. The Americans went to the moon to beat the Soviet Union, partly for the sake of national pride, partly to fulfil a dream of all mankind and partly to discover. Different motives stirred different people who took part in the endeavour, but all of them were part of the mix. So it was with the Portuguese.
To continue pushing the Muslims back and to bring the word of God to the heathen people was a powerful force, as was the desire of the three royal sons to prove themselves in battle – but so too was the desire for plunder. The wars with Castile were costly and there was no return for the money spent on them. Ceuta, destination for the rich caravans of Mali, was a different matter entirely.
Since antiquity it had been known that west Africa was a significant source of gold. As Genoa and Florence reinstituted gold coins, so essential to the growth of the medieval European economy, the demand for fresh supplies of the precious metal increased dramatically. Access to this gold, however, was barred by Muslim control of north Africa and of the caravan routes to Mali and the Niger region. The point had been made most emphatically by the 1339 pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, the ruler of the empire of Mali. Along his route and in Cairo he lavished such gold that the price was depressed for a generation. On the widely disseminated Catalan mappa mundi he is depicted, seated on his throne in Africa, wearing a gold crown, with a gold nugget in one hand, his sceptre in the other. By such means and others, word of vast wealth and wondrous treasures to be found in north Africa and its environs slowly made its way across Europe until, by the fifteenth century, it was widely held.
The sons of John I believed that the taking of Ceuta would bring great wealth to Portugal, as well as being a source of immense national pride. Desire and spirit, however, were not enough. The two requirements of any successful assault on a fortified city on the coast of Africa were an army and a fleet with which to carry it. Portugal possessed neither of the size the enterprise required.
The attack itself carried great risk, not just to the forces immediately involved, but to the nation as well. The army required to defend Portugal from Castile would be on a foreign shore, too far removed to be called home in time for defence. Failure would leave Portugal vulnerable to renewed attack by its eastern enemy. The army could well become stranded in Africa if the fleet were destroyed by the Arabs or by an act of nature.
There were also other considerations. Castile might have an eye on the same prize and would take Portugal’s action as a provocation, especially given Ceuta’s proximity. The Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice might also have designs on the city, and they were formidable maritime states capable of causing Portugal great harm. In fact, Genoa had captured the city for a short time in 1260 and then returned it to the Muslims for an enormous ransom.
Still, there was much to be gained. Ceuta controlled the sea route into the Mediterranean, which could prove of immense value. Now that there was peace between Portugal and Castile, the latter might even have a similar ambition. Better the Portuguese did it themselves. From Ceuta they could learn more of the mysterious kingdom to the south from which gold flowed. They would be well positioned to learn the source of these fabled riches, and from that only good could come.
There was one other factor. The Black Death, which struck the nation during 1358–9, and the incessant wars with Castile from 1383 to 1411 had created a despondent mood throughout the country. What was needed to restore confidence and national morale was a great victory. What better way than to attack the despised infidel and seize one of his valuable ports?
So in the end King John decided to proceed, yielding, it is generally accepted, to the persuasiveness of his English wife and the passion of his three eldest sons. When the plan was presented to the royal advisers, it was enthusiastically endorsed. Nun’Alvares, an adviser known for his sound judgement, is reported to have declared, ‘This plan was not conceived by you [the king] nor by anyone in this world, but was inspired by God.’
Although a certain level of secrecy could be imposed on preparations, especially during its early stages, it was not possible to conceal the gathering
The Moorish king of Granada, however, was also concerned and sent an ambassador to complain that the merchants in Granada were afraid to carry on with trade as usual because of the gathering threat against them. ‘Never was there such discord between your people and mine that they ceased to trade’, he said.34 Again discreet assurances were given.
Young Prince Henry, for his part, was dispatched to Oporto to organize a contingent of troops and see to the construction and refitting of seventy ships. On 10 July 1415 he and his force arrived in Lisbon harbour, the officers and men decked out in their most splendid armour, colourful pennants and banners playing in the breeze from every ship, the blare of trumpets and the blast of cannon announcing their arrival. It was a magnificent sight and patriotic crowds gathered along the shore, cheering repeatedly.
Nearly every summer Lisbon was struck with a plague, and the one that year had already arrived, much to the concern of those responsible for the gathering of the fleet and army. The sailors and soldiers aboard the ships were ordered to remain aboard to reduce the risk of exposure. The plague always struck the poorest with the greatest severity, although no class was ever entirely immune. On this occasion members of the royal court had already succumbed and now Henry learned his own mother was near death. He rushed to her bedside to join his brothers. On 23 July Philippa of Lancaster, at the age of fifty-six, died, surrounded by her family. Her final words were to urge her sons to continue the campaign, to gain honour for themselves and Portugal by the conquest of Ceuta.
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