Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 9
That same year the king, John I, died at the age of seventy-seven and with his death came the end of one of the most remarkable reigns of any European monarch. He was buried beside Philippa, and Henry’s brother Edward ascended the throne. Edward’s reign was to be short and tumultuous, and as a consequence, despite the auspicious African developments, the explorations were suspended for the next five years. Henry had long wanted to return to north Africa as conqueror and had proposed to his father an assault on Tangier, another principal Moorish port. Ceuta had proven to be of little more than symbolic value and was a steady drain on the Portuguese crown. It was hoped the situation could be reversed by taking Tangier. King John had considered this venture too risky, the eventual reward unlikely, and had vetoed it.
Now Henry renewed his argument with his older brother. Although reluctant, Edward granted his approval, even allowing their youngest brother, Ferdinand, to go along to win his spurs as the older brothers had won theirs. Uncharacteristically, and probably overconfident, Henry rushed ahead with an ill-planned expedition. There was none of the elaborate subterfuge of the Ceuta expedition and the Moors were waiting. The port of Tangier was more formidable than Ceuta, so it was necessary to have the army disembark, then mount the attack from landward. Through miscalculation the army became cut off from its ships and then surrounded in the desert by the enemy. Young Prince Ferdinand was taken hostage and the price demanded for his return was nothing less than the city of Ceuta itself.
Ferdinand was a favourite of the king and of Henry. Following payment of a ransom the Portuguese army was permitted to return home, but the king refused to relinquish Ceuta, the crown jewel of the Portuguese monarchy. Broken by the failure and imprisonment of his brother, Edward died the following year. Ferdinand languished in a Moorish cell for five years, beseeching his brothers with an endless stream of heartbreaking letters to negotiate his release until finally succumbing to illness. Henry returned to the Algarve, where he became something of a recluse for the remainder of his life. His younger and beloved brother had trusted him and paid a terrible price for the trust.
For a time after his return Henry was compelled to mediate in politics. Eventually his brother Pedro was named regent to serve in the stead of Edward’s six-year-old son Alfonso, and stability was restored. The hiatus from exploration, however, was not wasted. Eanes and another captain, named Baldaia, had agreed that the square-rigged vessels and traditionally designed ships they were using were unsuited for the tasks demanded of them. Since Roman times the single large rectangular sail had been the norm in the Mediterranean Sea and was generally found on a galley. It worked extremely well when sailing with a prevailing wind but made tacking, or sailing against the wind, very difficult even in gentle conditions, and more often than not, impossible. For this reason the galley was equipped with oars, and in fact the first Portuguese explorations took place in such galleys of traditional design.
The two captains fitted a vessel with the Arab lateen sail, triangular in shape, which was more readily manoeuvrable for tacking against the wind and allowed a steeper angle of attack. It meant a ship with such a sail could return more easily against adverse winds. Neither oars nor oarsmen were required. Because of that and the relative ease with which the sails could be managed it required fewer crewmen, which solved many problems for the voyages. Small vessels of this type had sailed the Tagus river for generations, so they were not alien to the Portuguese. This was, however, a new and innovative application for the design.
The new configuration also meant that such a ship was more easily manoeuvrable when close to shore, a decided advantage for the explorations. In tests two masts proved ideal, although later models on occasion had three. The ships were also rigged in a combination of both square sails, which produced the best speed when sailing with the wind, and lateen sails, which allowed for more effective manoeuvrability and tacking.
As they gained experience with the new design, changes were not limited to the sails. The Portuguese were among the first to move the rudder from the side of the ship to the rear, much improving steering. When the vessel was at sea and running with the wind the rudder was locked in place, holding it more solidly on course.
The hull was modified to keep the vessel shallow for the close-in sailing. It also lay close to the water and the stern was wider than the bow, a radical departure from the fixed geometric configuration of European ships up to this time. Rather than remaining round, the hull turned downwards at the keel. This, combined with the locked rudder, permitted the ship to hold its course more firmly in heavy winds. The planks did not overlap, as in the traditional vessel, but following the practice of the Viking ships were butted against one another and placed on a solid oak frame, giving the hull much greater strength. This also allowed ships to be larger. Typically such a vessel was about 100 feet in length and weighed up to 200 tons. This new ship was named the caravel.
The name is thought by some to come from cara-bella, meaning ‘beautiful shape’. Another account claims the name originates from carabos, a sort of lobster.42 Still another suggests it originates from the Arab word karib.43 Whatever the origin of the name, the ship possessed qualities that made it nothing less than revolutionary.
By 1441 Henry was able to return permanently to Sagres and turn his attention once again to exploration and discovery. The Portuguese had acquired sufficient experience those first years to grasp that, while many difficulties were foreseeable, others were not and had to be overcome as they became known. Until then ships of any size had to receive maintenance in a proper port. A suitable facility was required as well as experienced manpower to pull the vessel from the water, secure it in a cradle, then clean, caulk and seal the hull.
The waters grew warmer as the Portuguese ships sailed further south and barnacles and borers accumulated on the hulls with frightening speed. These were a risk to the safety of the crews since such growths slowed speed to a crawl. Ships also had to land frequently to obtain fresh water and firewood and there were as yet no such places along the African coast. The captains experimented and learned they could beach the caravel and service it far from any port, a remarkable development. Safe landings were still necessary, but now the distance before resupply was needed could be extended.
The ability to preserve and carry food for the increasingly lengthy voyages had to be expanded. Salt, the key preservative of the time, increased thirst. The mainstay of the portable diet was dried salted fish, later cod, which remains today the Portuguese national dish. It was healthy and kept for long periods, but to be eaten it had to be first soaked in fresh water. (On land it is immersed in three batches of fresh water for eight hours each and in any event requires a large quantity of water.) This meant using the supplies of water more rapidly than desired, and in any case water turned rancid if kept in kegs for too long a period. The kegs had to be cleaned constantly but that only delayed the inevitable. Wherever the Portuguese turned they found limits to their desire, problems that simply had to be solved if the explorations were to continue.
Shortly after Henry’s return to Sagres there occurred one of the defining moments in world history and, as is often the case, it began inauspiciously. Henry ordered one of the smaller vessels, with a crew of just twenty-one, to be outfitted for a voyage and he placed in command his chamberlain, Antão Gonçalves, still a very young man. The earlier seal hides had proved profitable and apparently Henry wanted to season his chamberlain with a relatively simple task, so Gonçalves was ordered to return to the mouth of Rio de Ouro and collect a cargo of hides and oil. Because of his youth, Henry assumed ‘his authority [would be] but slight’ with his crew, and little beyond providing the young captain a toughening experience was expected from the voyage.
Gonçalves accomplished the assigned task with no difficulty but, rather than return immediately, he gathered his men and suggested that they might yet do more. ‘How fair a thing it would be’, Azurara quotes him saying, ‘if we, who have come to this land for a car
His men, knowing of Henry’s generosity and desire for interpreters, agreed and that night Gonçalves went ashore with nine picked seamen to search for potential captives. Ten miles inland they came across the tracks of a large party, but it was moving in the wrong direction for their purpose. Even at night the desert heat was intense and soon Gonçalves instructed the men to turn back. On their way, however, they came upon a lone man leading a camel and immediately fell upon him. He put up an impressive fight, given that he was so heavily outnumbered, but after he received a mild wound he was taken. Closer to shore the men spotted a woman older than their captive and took her as well.
Now Gonçalves was in possession of what he knew Henry at this point most desired: locals who could give him the information he needed about this unknown region and who could be trained as interpreters. It is likely the Portuguese had already reached the region once held by the fabled Mali empire but did not know it.6
As Gonçalves prepared to set sail the next day he spotted another ship bearing down on his position. It was Nuno Tristão, in command of the first caravel to be dispatched south, under orders to do more than kill seals. The two men were well acquainted from their time in Henry’s court. Tristão expressed his pleasure at seeing the captives the young chamberlain had taken. After learning that Gonçalves and his team had spotted sign of a substantial number of people in the vicinity, he argued that in addition to any knowledge to be gained by taking more, it would be profitable to carry off enough of these people so that ‘profit will also accrue . . . by their service or ransom’. In other words, he proposed that they took captives to be sold as slaves.
This was agreed, so Tristão went inland on foot and, following a skirmish in which his men killed several of the locals, they seized ten as captives. The ships sailed to Cape Blanco, where Tristão conducted another search for captives, this one fruitless. The two captains then decided to return to the Algarve.
Slavery was an ancient institution and little condemnation was attached to it in the fifteenth century, especially as the Pope had explicitly authorized the practice with non-believers. Indeed, the African natives were heathens and ‘outside the law of Christ, and at the disposition, so far as their bodies were concerned, of any Christian nation’.44 Azurara expressed the then commonly held belief concerning black Africans: ‘In accordance with ancient custom, which I believe to have been because of the curse which, after the Deluge, Noah laid upon his son Cain, cursing him in this way: that his race should be subject to all the other races of the world.’45
Henry expressed his absolute delight at seeing the twelve prisoners, being quick to point out that now they could be turned to the one True Faith. Conversion was from the first, and long remained, the moral justification for slavery. Henry’s chronicler commented there was also considerable pleasure taken at the prospect that they would make money from the sale of the hapless captives.
Azurara wrote that:
Besides the blacks . . . [Prince Henry] got also a little gold dust and a shield of ox-hide, and a number of ostrich eggs, so that one day there were served up at the Infante’s table three dishes of the same, as fresh and as good as though they had been the eggs of any other domestic fowls. And we may well presume that there was no other Christian prince in this part of Christendom, who had dishes like these upon his table.
With the introduction of slavery into the equation the money to be made from exploration was readily apparent and the pace of the voyages increased markedly. These first captives were a curiosity in Lisbon and by all accounts were treated as domestic help in the households that bought them. Azurara wrote, ‘I never saw one of these slaves put in irons . . . and scarcely any one who did not turn Christian and was not very gently treated.’ They were permitted to marry the Portuguese and the offspring of those unions were free citizens. Some were adopted by their Portuguese masters and made heirs. Most of the slaves were granted their freedom over the course of years and in time their blood line was completely integrated.
This is not to make light of the horror the captives faced at being torn from their families and people. They had no choice in the matter and were never able to return home. Humane treatment at the hands of their owners only lessened the impact of their lot; it did not mitigate or justify it.
Although there was a chronic shortage of labourers, Madeira was producing a handsome profit, but when the first African slaves were introduced production improved substantially. Slavery and sugar were a propitious economic mix and the demand for slaves rose dramatically as a result. Sugar was a sizeable source of income to the monarchy, and by 1460 Portugal was importing between 700 and 800 slaves annually. By 1498 there were 220 estates on the island and the price of sugar had fallen so far that a limit was placed on its production. The Portuguese were not alone in slave-taking. The Arabs in north and east Africa had already established their own profitable trade in black slaves taken from central Africa and exported the captives to Arabia, Persia and India.
Gonçalves and Tristão had introduced the modern dark chapter of African slavery. For the next 400 years Europeans would be directly involved in the continent’s slave trade, greatly expanding it and imposing a degree of uncompromising ruthlessness. The southern British colonies in America developed an insatiable appetite for a slave workforce, though they were by no means the primary destination for slaves. While the Portuguese virtually dominated the slave trade during that first century, soon Spain, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, the Caribbean islands and the American colonies themselves were heavily involved and contributing to its expansion.7
With such substantial profits now apparent, it was certain that usurpers would seek to benefit from Henry’s work, so his brother the regent granted to him the exclusive licence to explore and exploit the region below Cape Bojador. In 1444 the first privately sponsored voyage with profit as its sole objective sailed from Lagos with six vessels. The crews raided several villages on Arguin Island, situated between Cape Bojador and the Senegal river, and returned with 235 prisoners.
The ill-fated captives were sold in a meadow just outside Lagos. So great was the enthusiasm of the Portuguese that numbers swarmed down to the shore as the prisoners were landed. Some went out in boats to greet the mariners as heroes. Azurara provides this description of what ensued:
I pray Thee that my tears may not wrong my conscience; . . . to weep in pity for their sufferings . . . But what heart could be so hard as to not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company? For some kept their heads low and their faces bathed in tears, looking one upon another; others stood groaning very dolorously, looking up at the height of heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, crying out loudly, . . . others struck their faces with the palms of their hands, throwing themselves at full length upon the ground; others made their lamentations in the manner of a dirge, after the custom of their country . . .
But to increase their sufferings still more, there now arrived those who had charge of the division of the captives, and who began to separate one from another . . . [T]hen it was needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. No respect was shewn either to friends or relations, but each fell where his lot took him. . . .
And who could finish that partition without very great toil? For as often as they had placed them in one part the sons, seeing their fathers in another, rose with great energy and rushed over to them; the mothers clasped their other children in their arms, and threw themselves flat on the ground with them; receiving blows with little pity for their own flesh, if only they might not be torn from them . . .
The Infant [Henry] was there, mounted on a powerful steed . . . as a man who sought to gain but little from his share; for the forty-six souls that fell to him . . . [he gave to the church]; for he reflected with great pleasure upon the salvation of those souls that before were lost.46
and wheat, as they were chronically short of food. Ten years later a fortress was built there. This factory became the prototype for such trading stations, which in time stretched to the Spice Islands on the far side of the world.
Also in 1444 Tristão reached the Senegal river, where the ‘land of the Blacks’, as it was known, began. Until this point west Africa had been almost entirely desert, but at the Senegal river there began the tropical forest inhabited by pagan blacks.
The pace of the voyages increased and that same year another captain, Dinis Dias, passed Cape Verde, Africa’s most westerly point, and discovered the island of Gourée. The next year Alvara Fernandes reached the Cape of Mists, near the Gambia river. Privately organized and officially sanctioned voyages took place as well, although these were not primarily concerned with pushing the route of discovery southward. They were largely slave raids in already known lands, and in 1445 no fewer than twenty-six ships, in four separate expeditions, set sail for that purpose. The following year fifty-one ships sailed to acquire slaves and in the process also pushed the region of exploration over 450 leagues, some 1,500 miles, beyond Cape Bojador.47
After suffering casualties on the increasingly dangerous slave raids, the Portuguese were generally content to remain on the coast and trade with local chiefs and others for gold, ivory and slaves. Certain Jews dared to penetrate inland, and some reached the most remote regions of the Sahara, where they traded nearer the source for the same items and slaves. The Portuguese were asserting a profound influence on the historic trade routes and patterns of this fabled region, interdicting goods, gold and slaves that would normally have been taken to the Muslim ports of north Africa.
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