Portuguese Discoverers

The next sequence of steps to establish an empire in India seemed as obvious as the stages down the west African coast. The first Portuguese viceroy of India, Francisco de Almeida, destroyed the Muslim fleet in 1509. Afonso de Albuquerque, the next Portuguese governor of India, conquered Ormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf, in 1507, made Goa capital of the Portuguese possessions in 1510, took Malacca in 1511, and then opened sea trade with Siam, the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and China. The Portuguese now ruled the Indian Ocean.

The consequences reached around the world. Much Italian splendor had been based on the wealth of the East pouring through Venice and Genoa. Now the traffic in Asiatic treasure – spices, drugs, gems, and silks would no longer come through the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Levant, but on Portuguese ships around the Cape of Good Hope to Atlantic – facing Europe. The Egyptian sultans had been able to keep the price of pepper high by keeping the consignments down to about two hundred and ten tons per year. So quickly was the effect of the Portuguese sea route felt that by 1503 the price of pepper in Lisbon was only one-fifth of what it was in Venice. The Egyptian-Venetian trade was destroyed. The wealth of Asia, the fabled treasures of the Orient, were flowing west. The new Age of the Sea moved the entrepôts of commerce and civilization from the coasts of a finite body, the closed Mediterranean, the “Sea-in-the-Midst-of-the-Land,” to the shores of the open Atlantic and the boundless world-reaching Oceans.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

Gama’s fleet left Calicut in late August 1498, “greatly rejoicing at our good fortune in having made so great a discovery… having agreed that, inasmuch that we had discovered the country we had come in search of, as also spices and precious stones, and it appeared impossible to establish cordial relations with the people, it would be as well to take our departure.” After contrary winds, obstruction by the Muslim rulers en route, and the curse of scurvy, which decimated the crew, finally two of Gama’s four ships, the square-rigged San Gabriel and the caravel Berrio, made a triumphal entry into Lisbon in mid-September 1499. Of the crew of 170 who went out, only 55 lived to return.

Not many heroes of discovery have the good luck themselves to enjoy the fruits of their discovery. Vasco da Gama was one. His voyage, which finally proved a feasible sea route between West and East, changed the course of both Western and Eastern history. In February 1502 he set out again from Lisbon, this time with a Portuguese squadron to make Calicut into a Portuguese colony. […]

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

Unfortunately, Gama, unlike Columbus, did not leave us is own records. But luckily a member of Gama’s crew did keep a journal, which offers vivid glimpses of the variety of problems conquered en route. The perils of nature and sea somehow seemed the least threatening, for the sea in those remote parts was empty of human enemies, and nature did not dissemble. But as he crept up the east coast of Africa, where no European ship had been before, and where there were no useful maps, Gama had to use every device to secure an Arab pilot who would guide him across the vast Arabian Sea. At one place after another, at Mozambique and at Mombasa, the pilot he found or had assigned to him by the local ruler proved ignorant or treacherous. Finally at Malindi he secured an Arab pilot able to guide his fleet the twenty-three days across the Arabian Sea to Calicut. […]

The shrewd Gama spent three months in palaver with the King, or Samuri, of Calicut. He tried to persuade the local ruler that the Portuguese were mainly in search of the Christian kings said to rule in those parts, “not because they sought gold or silver, for of this they had such abundance that they needed not what was to be found in this country.” But the Samuri of Calicut was insulted that Gama had not brought him costly presents, and spurned the cheap trading goods that might have served well enough on the Guinea coast. Gama tried to explain that his ships had come “merely to make discoveries… The King then asked what it was he had come to discover: stones or men? If he came to discover men, as he said, why had he brought nothing?”

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

Columbus’ dazzling fame, at least from the American perspective, has blinded us to other achievements of seafaring discovery as great or even greater in that first Age of the Sea. The immediate effects of Vasco da Gama’s voyage were incomparably more fulfilling than those of Columbus. Columbus promised the fabled cities of Japan and India, but he reached only uncertain savage shores. When after decades his enterprise finally paid off, it was in the most unexpected ways. Gama proposed to reach the trading capitals of India and to initiate a profitable trade – which he did. He promised to circumvent the Asian trade monopolies of the Muslims of the Levant and of the merchants of Genoa and Venice – which he did.

Columbus took the initiative, promised a gold mine, and only found a wilderness. The initiative for Vasco da Gama’s voyage was not his own but that of his King. Not for qualities of character but for the magnitude of seafaring achievement, Vasco da Gama must overshadow Columbus. Columbus’ first voyage went due westward before a fair wind, twenty-six hundred miles from Gomera in the Canaries to the Bahamas, remaining at sea for thirty-six days. Gama’s course, which required subtle navigation, took him in a wide circle nearly all the way across the south Atlantic, then against opposite currents and contrary winds. He made the dangerous decision not to hug the African coast, but to swing around through the mid-Atlantic from the Cape Verde Islands to the Cape of Good Hope, a distance of more than thirty-seven hundred miles, before reaching the Bay of St. Helena just above the present Cape Town, remaining at sea for ninety-three days. From there, his skill in navigation, in managing his crew, and in dealing with the hostile Muslim rulers at Mozambique, Mombasa, and Malindi, finally took him and his fleet across the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, to arrive at Calicut, his intended destination on the southwestern coast of the Indian peninsula on May 22, 1498. Until then, there had been no seafaring achievement of equal scope.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

On coming to the Portuguese throne in 1495, the bold twenty-six-year-old King Manuel I was nicknamed “The Fortunate” because he inherited so many grand enterprises. He set in motion a scheme to follow up Dias’ discoveries with a new voyage of discovery that would take the sea route all the way to India, would open the way for trade, and possibly too for conquest. The Young King’s cautious advisers warned against the enterprise. How could so small a country succeed in conquest at so great a distance? And would not this enterprise excite the enmity of all the great powers – the Spanish, the Genoese, the Venetians, and, of course, the Muslims – whose commercial interests would be threatened? The King, overruling objections, chose for leader of the expedition a gentleman of his household, Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524), son of a minor official from the south coast. Gama had proven himself to be both a sailor and a diplomat. As King Manuel foresaw, the expertise of a sailor, though perhaps enough for coasting down the sparsely inhabited west African seaboard, would not suffice for dealing with sophisticated Indian potentates. Events proved Vasco da Gama to be brilliantly qualified. Though ruthless and of violent temper, he would show the courage, the firmness, and the broad vision required for dealing with humble seamen and arrogant sultans.

After two years of preparation, Gama’s fleet of four vessels – two squarerigged ships of shallow draft, each about 100 tons, a lateen-rigged caravel of about 50 tons, and a store ship of some 200 tons – sailed out of Lisbon harbor on July 8, 1497. The ships carried provisions for three years. They were well supplied, too, with maps, with astronomical instruments and tables of declination prepared by Zacuto, and they carried carved stone pillars to mark Portuguese claims. There was of course a priest and the customary number of convicts who, being considered expendable, could be used whenever there was mortal risk. Altogether the crew numbered some 170.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

Dias was never properly rewarded by his sovereign, and he became the forgotten man of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. He did supervise the building of ships for Vasco da Gama, but was not included in Gama’s climactic voyage to India. Only his death, in 1500 while playing an inconspicuous part in Cabral’s thirteen-ship fleet off the coast of Brazil, was appropriate. A hurricane sank four of Cabral’s ships, one of which was commanded by Dias, “casting them into the abyss of that great ocean sea… human bodies as food for the fish of those waters, which bodies we can believe were the first, since they were navigating in unknown regions.”

A quick follow-up to Dias’ discovery might have been expected. But the next step was delayed – by domestic problems in Portugal, by a disrupted succession to the crown, and especially by the running dispute that kept Portugal on the brink of war with Spain. Ironically, the discoveries of Columbus himself proved to be the principal cause of these troubles, which postponed for a full decade the sequel to Dias’ rounding of the Cape.

When King John II received word of Columbus’ discovery of new islands in the Atlantic, he announced, in March 1493, that these new lands, because of their proximity to the Azores and for other reasons, rightly belonged to Portugal. The ensuing disputes between King John of Portugal and King Ferdinand of Castile, and their rivalry for the support of the Pope, who presumably had the power to assign to Catholic kings the worldly governance of all newly discovered parts of the earth, resulted in the famous Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494). Spain and Portugal both acquiesced in a papal line which was to run north and south at 370 leagues (about 1,200 nautical miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Lands to the west of the line would belong to Spain, those eastward to Portugal. This agreement did evade war for the moment, and remains one of the most celebrated treaties in European history. But it was so full of ambiguities that nobody knows whether it really went into effect. From which Cape Verde island should the line be measured? Precisely how long was a league? And centuries would pass before the technology existed to draw the required precise line of longitude. In any event, in addition to securing Portugal’s claim to Brazil, whose existence then may or may not have been known, the treaty did affirm Portugal’s right to the eastward sea path to the Indies.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

Dias wanted to go on into the Indian Ocean, and so fulfill the hope of many centuries, but the crew would have none of it. “Weary, and terrified by the great seas through they had passed, all with one voice began to murmur, and demand that they proceed no farther.” Provisions were low, and could be replaced only by hastening back to the supply ship left far behind.Was it not enough for one voyage to bring back news that Africa really could be rounded by sea? After a meeting of his captains, who all signed a sword document declaring their decision to turn back, Dias agreed. […]

En route home, they returned to the supply ship, which they had left nine months before with nine men aboard. Only three were still alive, and one of these “was so overcome with joy at seeing his companions that he died of a sudden, being very weak through illness.” The worm-eaten supply ship was unloaded and burned, and the two caravels made their way back to Portugal in December 1488, sixteen months and seventeen days after their departure.

When Dias’ weatherbeaten caravels came sailing into Lisbon Harbor, there awaiting them was the still-obscure Christopher Columbus. The outcome of Dias’ voyage was of immediate personal interest to him. For Columbus was then in Lisbon making another effort to persuade King John to support his own seaborne expedition to the Indies by sailing westward across the Atlantic. In 1484, when Columbus had first come for that purpose, the King had referred the project to a commission of experts, who turned him down, probably because they thought he had grossly underestimated the sea distance westward to the Indies. But Columbus had then impressed the King with his “industry and good talent” and now had come back to renew his request. Dias’s moment of triumph was a season of disappointment for Columbus. For the eastward sea route to Indies around Africa was now feasible and Columbus’s project was superfluous. Columbus noted in the margin of his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi that we was present when Dias gave to the King the epoch-making report. Columbus would have to seek support from a nation that had not yet found its own way around Africa.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987


To India and Back

The other prong of King John II’s discovery enterprise, in the modern seafaring mode, was a long-planned, carefully organized undertaking, with large capital investment and a numerous crew. For commander he chose Bartholomeu Dias, who had superintend the royal warehouses in Lisbon and had taken a caravel down the African coast. Dias’ expedition comprised two caravels of fifty tons each and a store ship, never before added to a discovery trip, which would enable the others to range farther, to stay at sea longer, and go far out to sea. Dias carried with him six Africans who had been on earlier Portuguese voyages. Well fed and dressed European style, they were deposited at several places along the coast, together with specimens of gold, silver, spices, and other products of Africa so that, in the way of “the silent trade,” they could show the natives what goods the Portuguese wanted. Having landed the last of these African emissariesm Dias’s ships ran into a storm that became a gale. Running before the northerly wind with close-reefed sails in a rough sea for thirteen days, the ships were driven far from shore, then southward into the open sea. The crew, who had just suffered tropical heat at the equator, were panicked. “And as the ships were tiny, and the seas colder and not such as they were in the land of Guinea… they gave themselves up for dead.” After the storm, Dias steered east with all sails hoisted, but for several days he still sighted no land. Turning north for 150 leagues, he suddenly viewed high mountains. On February 3, 1488, he anchored in Mossel Bay, about two hundred thirty miles east of what is now Cape Town. The providential storm, achieving what no planning could yet accomplish, had driven him around the southern tip of Africa. When the men landed, the natives tried to drive them off with stones, Dias himself killed one of them with an arrow from his crossbow, and that was the end of their encounter. He followed the coast, which now plainly ran to the northeast, another three hundred miles to the mouth of the Great Fish River and into Algoa Bay.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

There they separated. Paiva was to make his way directly to Ethiopian and Prester John, while Covilhã would go on to India. Paiva disappeared, but Covilhã finally reached Calicut and Goa on the southwestern shores of India, where he witnessed the prosperous trade in Arabian horses, spices, fine cottons, and precious stones. In February 1489 Covilhã took ship westward to Ormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, then to the east African port of Sofala opposite Madagascar and back north to Cairo. Having completed his mission of assessing the European trade with India, he was eager to return home, but there in Cairo he encountered two Jewish emissaries from King John II who carried a letter instructing Covilhã, if he had not already done so, to proceed at once to the realm of Prester John to collect information and promote an alliance.

Unable to disobey his sovereign, Covilhã took up the mission, meanwhile sending to King John a momentous letter with all he had learned about Arab seafaring ant the commerce of India. In 1493, after a side trip to Mecca, six years after his departure from Portugal, he finally arrived in Ethiopia. In this Realm of Prester John, actually ruled by Alexander “Lion of the Tribe Judah, and King of Kings,” he became a Portuguese Marco Polo, so useful at court that the King would not let him leave. Convinced that we would never return home, Covilhã married an Ethiopian wife who bore him several children.

Meanwhile, Covilhã’s letter, which has not survived and which is known only secondhand, would have a powerful influence on the future of Portugal and Asia. For it appears to have informed King John II, from reports Covilhã had heard on the African coast, “that his [the king’s] caravels, which carried on trade in Guinea, navigating from land to land seeking the coast of this island [Madagascar] and Sofala, could easily penetrate into these Eastern seas and come to make the coast of Calicut, for there was sea everywhere.”

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

By 1487 King John II had organized a two-pronged grand strategy for reaching the long-sought Christian ally. He would send one expedition southeastward overland and another by sea around the African coast. If there really should be a sea passage to India, a Christian ally was more desirable and more necessary than ever, not only for crusading but also to serve as way station and supply base for future trading enterprises.

The overland expedition that left Santarém on May 7, 1487, like others before it, was characteristically small, consisting of only two men. After a considerable search, the King had chosen Pero da Covilhã (1460?-1545?) and Afonso de Paiva for the dangerous assignment. Covilhã, a married man with children, in his late twenties, had already proven himself bold and versatile. He has spent much of his life abroad, had taken part in ambushes in the streets of Seville, had served as the King’s secret agent at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and had undertaken diplomatic missions to the Barbary States in north Africa. […]

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

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