Post-classical history



THE SUN SETS on the Malabar Coast in a giant orange fireball that majestically drowns itself in the Indian Ocean. The sky is striated with orange and lemon, cream and blue. Out at sea puffs of cumulus cloud are caught in the glow, lit from beneath like the lumpy underside of heaven. Over land, wispy cirrus clouds turn a delicate but intense violet and seem to brush the tops of the palm forests. The soft waves send bronzed ripples to the shore; the floating clumps of weed, the last few boats out at sea, and the crows flying between the branches of shoreline trees are all silhouetted against the dying fire. Day fades in a riot of turquoise, cerulean, sherbet yellow, salmon pink, umber, and sand, and as the clouds darken, then turn a watercolor smudge of blues, grays, and white, night falls over Calicut.

Not even the toughest sailor was immune to the beauty of India. Yet the old tales that talked of dangers lurking in Paradise had turned out to be true. To the Portuguese, there were, after all, snakes guarding the pepper plantations of the East.

In the days following Gama’s return to his ship, the Portuguese warehouse received a steady trickle of visitors but no buyers. The Muslim merchants seemed to come only to scoff, and after a few days Gama sent a messenger to the palace with an official complaint about the way he, his men, and his goods were being treated. He awaited the Zamorin’s orders, he pointedly added; he and his ships were at his service when he decided what action to take.

The messenger quickly returned with a Nair noble who was to guard the warehouse, as well as seven or eight merchants who were to inspect the goods and buy any they thought fit. The Zamorin, he reported, was angry with the men who had detained the captain-major, and he intended to punish them for being bad Christians. As for the Muslims, he authorized the Portuguese to kill any who entered their warehouse without fear of reprisals. Not knowing just how powerful the king of Portugal might be, the ruler had decided to hedge his bets.

The merchants stayed for eight days, but they, too, took a dim view of the European merchandise and bought nothing. The Muslims kept their distance, but the mood had turned ugly. Every time the sailors landed, their rivals spat on the ground. “Portugal, Portugal,” they hissed, turning the name of their country into a jeer. Gama ordered his men to laugh it off, but tempers frayed.

It was painfully clear that no one in Pantalayini was going to buy a single bale of cloth, and Gama sent another message to the Zamorin asking his permission to forward the merchandise to Calicut itself. Once again the ruler obliged, and he had the wali assemble a team of porters to carry the whole lot on their backs. This, the Zamorin reassured the captain-major, was to be done at his own expense; nothing belonging to the king of Portugal would be burdened with costs in his country.

It was now June 24. Heavy swells were pitching the ships up and down, and fat raindrops crashed on the decks like marbles. The unsold goods were on their way to Calicut by back and by boat, but few expected much to come of it. Gama concluded that his brother had been right all along, and he vowed never again to set foot on a foreign shore. In the circumstances, he decided it was only fair to let his men try to rescue something from the debacle by bartering their few belongings for spices. The safest course, he told them, was for one man from each ship to go ashore at a time; that way everyone would have his turn without putting a temptingly large body of hostages in harm’s way.

Off they went, in twos or threes, past the boats pulled up on the beach and the fishermen’s shacks and small temples, past children playing and dancing in the rain, along the long path to Calicut. They caught glimpses of arcaded pavilions painted in fresh greens and blues set amid lush gardens and orchards, and they watched with delight as the ubiquitous gray monkeys stood on their hind legs, ground their teeth, and sneaked inside. Whether grand or simple, each house had a large entrance porch with a gleaming wood floor as clean as a table where strangers were readily given food and drink and a place to rest. After their recent experience, the Portuguese were relieved to find that the locals, at least, were warmly hospitable to their brothers. The sailors, noted the Chronicler, “were made welcome by the Christians along the road, who showed much pleasure when one of them entered a house, to eat or to sleep, and they gave them freely of all they had.”

After a year wedged into an all-male tub, the explorers stared unabashedly at the Indian women. They went naked from the waist up, though they wore much jewelry around their necks and on their legs and arms, hands and feet. Gaping holes in their ears were filled with gold and precious stones, and it was clearly the height of fashion to stretch the earlobes to the greatest possible length; the Zamorin’s queen, one traveler reported, wore her ears down to her nipples. To their undoubted delight, the sailors soon discovered that marriage was not a sacred union among most of the higher and middle castes. Women could take several “visiting husbands” at once; the most popular had ten or more. The men pooled their resources to keep their wife in her own establishment, and when one husband came for an overnight visit, he left his weapons propped up outside the door as a signal to the others to stay away.

The women stared back at the Portuguese; they were equally mystified by the way they tangled themselves up in cumbersome clothes and sweated like sponges in the heat. Perhaps some took their mutual investigations further; if not, “public women,” some of whom were also part-time wives, were everywhere to be had. Between the system of socialized courtesanship, the skilled prostitutes, and the oriental aromas of perfumes and ointments, European men thought they had arrived in a kind of sexual paradise, a discovery that elicited much moral bellyaching and more indulgence. Satisfaction, though, had its price. Niccolò de’ Conti had come across many shops run by women who sold strange objects, the size of a small nut and made of gold, silver, or brass, that tinkled like a bell. “The men,” he explained, “before they take a wife, go to these women (otherwise the marriage would be broken) who cut the skin of the virile member in many places and put between the skin and the flesh as many as twelve of these ‘ringers’ (according to their pleasure). After the member is sewn up, it heals in a few days. This they do to satisfy the wantonness of the women: because of these swellings, or tumor, of the member, the women have great pleasure in coitus. The members of some men stretch way down between their legs so that when they walk they ring out and may be heard.” Not Conti: the Italian, though “scorned by the women because he had a small member and invited to rectify this,” was not willing to give others pleasure through his pain.

The more curious sailors reported even stranger customs. Cows wandered everywhere, including into the royal palace, and were treated with great honor; even the Zamorin ceded place to them. Yet many men and women were shunned as if they were lepers. As the Brahmins and Nairs walked along the streets they cried out “Po! Po!”—“Go! Go!”—a warning to the lower castes to get out of the way. If an inferior failed to shrink to the side and bow his head, however rich and influential he might be, his superior could “freely thrust him through, and no man aske him why he did it.” Once touched—even by the Portuguese—the highborn had to purify themselves with a ritual bath; if they didn’t take precautions, they explained, they would have been bathing all day.

The lowest castes were not allowed anywhere near the city; they lived in the fields and ate dried mice and fish, and if they touched their betters, both they and their relatives were fair game. Unsurprisingly, many converted to Islam. One of the most polluting of all castes, though—the sorcerers and exorcists—came into their own when the Zamorin was sick. They set up a tent at his gate, painted their bodies in a rainbow of color, donned crowns made from grasses and flowers, and lit a bonfire. To a cacophony of trumpets, kettledrums, and cymbals, they leapt out of the tent yelling and pulling faces, breathing fireballs, and jumping in naked flames. After two or three days they drew circles on the ground and spun around inside until the devil entered them and revealed how to cure the royal ailment. Without fail, the Zamorin did as he was told.

Stranger still, even to Europeans brought up on stories of saintly self-abuse, were the Indians’ religious rituals. Some ecstatics, they discovered, presented themselves to priests already prepared for self-immolation:

These have on their neck a broad, circular piece of iron, the front part of which is round and the back part extremely sharp. A chain attached to the front part hangs suspended on the breast. Into this the victims insert their feet, sitting down with their legs drawn up and their necks bent. Then, when the speaker pronounces certain words, they suddenly stretch out their legs and at the same time, drawing up their neck, cut off their own heads, yielding up their lives as a sacrifice to their idols. These men are regarded as saints.

Festivals were a particularly popular time for suicidal acts of devotion. On one day of the year, an idol accompanied by bejeweled girls singing hymns was pulled through the street on a wagon drawn by a file of elephants. A European onlooker reported that numerous Indians, “carried away by the fervor of their faith, cast themselves on the ground before the wheels, in order that they may be crushed to death, a mode of death which they say is very acceptable to their gods. Others, making an incision in their sides and inserting a rope through their bodies, hang themselves to the chariot by way of ornament, and thus suspended and half dead accompany their idol. This kind of sacrifice they consider the best and most acceptable of all.”

Yet to foreign eyes—Muslim as much as Christian—the ceremony of suttee was the most alien custom of all. By law, the first wife was compelled to be burned, while further wives, one traveler reported, were married “under the express agreement that they should add to the splendor of the funeral ceremony by their death, and this is considered a great honor for them. . . . When the pile is lighted the wife, richly dressed, walks gaily around it, singing, accompanied by a great concourse of people, amid the sounds of trumpets, flutes and songs . . . and springs in the fire. If some show fear (for it frequently happens that they become stupefied by terror at the sight of the struggles of the others suffering in the fire), they are thrown into the fire by bystanders, whether willing or not.” Westerners found the spectacle morbidly fascinating. “ ’Tis remarkable,” another onlooker observed, “that the Body of the Woman hath such an Oyley Property, that one Body will serve like Oil or Greese to consume the Bodies of 5 or 6 men.”

After their crash course in Indian culture, the sailors headed to the teeming market squares and bazaars behind the harbor. There they tried to sell their few belongings—a brass or copper bracelet, a new shirt, or even the old linen shirts off their backs. They, too, found they had been wildly optimistic about the value of Portuguese goods in the East: what in Portugal counted as a very fine garment was worth a mere tenth of the price it would fetch at home. Here they sold them for whatever they could—a handful of cloves, a bundle of cinnamon, perhaps one or two garnets, sapphires, or tiny rubies—if only to take back souvenirs. At night the merchants locked up their shops with bars and heavy iron padlocks, the Zamorin’s officials lowered barriers around the business area, and the sailors started back to the ships.

While the crews were making themselves at home in the town, the townsfolk rowed out and climbed on board the ships, offering coconuts, chickens, and fish in exchange for bread, biscuits, or coins. Many brought their sons and children to see the outlandish vessels. Some were clearly hungry and Gama ordered his men to feed them, not so much from an outbreak of generosity but “for the sake of establishing relations of peace and amity, and to induce them to speak well of us and not evil.” The public relations exercise went so well that it was often late at night before the visitors left, and the captain-major took heart. He decided to leave a factor, a clerk, and a small staff in Calicut to bypass the merchants and sell direct to the people. With the help of the friendly local Christians, he hoped the Portuguese might put down roots in India after all.

By the time every man had taken his turn it was well into August, and Gama was more than ready to head for home. Before giving the order he dispatched his clerk Diogo Dias to inform the Zamorin that the fleet was preparing to depart and to ask for the promised ambassadors. Dias was also to offer one last gift to the ruler—a chest full of amber, corals, scarves, silks, and other pretty things—and in return he was to request large quantities of cinnamon and cloves, together with samples of other spices. If necessary, he was to say, the factor who was staying behind would pay for them when he had the funds. It was a long shot, but Gama was well aware that Christopher Columbus had returned without clear proof that he had reached the Indies, and he was not keen to make the same mistake.

Dias was kept waiting for four days. When he was finally admitted to the audience court, the Zamorin gave him a withering glance and listened impatiently. He brushed away the gifts, and when Dias had finished he warned him that the Portuguese would need to pay the customary departure tax before they could leave.

Dias bowed out, saying he would pass on the message, but he never made it to the fleet. He was tailed from the moment he left the palace, and when he stopped at the Portuguese warehouse a force of armed men burst inside and blocked the door. At the same time a proclamation went out across the city, forbidding any boat from approaching the foreigners’ ships on pain of death.

Dias, the factor, the clerk, and their assistants were prisoners in the warehouse. An African boy had come with them as a servant, and they told him to find his way to the fleet and explain their predicament. The boy slipped away to the fishermen’s quarter and paid a captain to take him out on his boat. Under cover of darkness the fisherman rowed over to the fleet, saw his passenger aboard, and raced back to the shore.

When they heard what had happened, the Portuguese were more dismayed and puzzled than ever.

“This news made us sad,” the Chronicler noted; “not only because we saw some of our men in the hands of our enemies, but also because it interfered with our departure. We also felt grieved that a Christian king, to whom we had given of ours, should do us such an ill turn. At the same time we did not hold him as culpable as he seemed to be, for we were well aware that the Moors of the place, who were merchants from Mecca and elsewhere, and who knew us, could ill digest us.” They still could not understand why the Zamorin failed to share their excitement at this historic moment—the moment when his fellow Christians had sailed into the East.

Another caller soon enlightened them. Monçaide, the merchant from Tunis, had often visited the fleet, not least because Gama had paid him to bring intelligence from the shore. With his help, the Portuguese pieced together a plausible version of what had gone wrong.

The foreigners’ failure to bring a fitting tribute for the Zamorin, Monçaide explained, had been a gift to the city’s Muslims. The Mappilas had begun to worry that the Portuguese might ruin their business, and they had plotted to take Gama prisoner, seize his ships, and kill his men. They had intimated to the Zamorin’s advisers that the captain-major was no ambassador but a pirate bent on robbing and plunder, and they had taken their case to the wali. The wali had duly reported to the Zamorin that everyone said thePortuguese were privateers banished from their own country. The letter purporting to come from the Portuguese king, he had added, was doubtless a fiction; what king in his right mind would send an embassy so far merely in pursuit of friendship? Even if it was real, friendship meant communication and assistance, but Portugal was a world away from India in both geography and culture. Besides, this supposedly mighty king had given poor proof of his power in the gifts he had sent. Far better, he had urged, that the Zamorin safeguard the profits he made from the Muslims than trust the promises of men who came from the extremities of the earth.

According to Monçaide, the Zamorin had been taken aback by the news, and his attitude to the Europeans had hardened. The merchants, meanwhile, had bribed the wali to detain Gama and his men so they could surreptitiously have them killed. The wali had rushed out of town after the departing explorer, and he had only let his captives go when the Zamorin had had second thoughts. Though the plot had failed, the Muslims had carried on with their campaign, and eventually the Zamorin had made up his mind in their favor. Monçaide warned Gama and his men not to set foot in the city if they valued their lives, and two Indian visitors amplified his ominous words. “If the captains went ashore,” they declared, “their heads would be cut off, as this was the way the king dealt with those who came to his country without giving him gold.”

“Such then was the state of affairs,” the Chronicler bleakly recorded.

So the Portuguese believed. There was, though, a simpler explanation for Vasco da Gama’s troubles. It was the custom for ambassadors to present the Zamorin with lavish gifts. It was the law for visiting merchants to pay a tithe in return for enjoying his hospitality and protection. Gama had presented himself as both ambassador and merchant, and on both counts he had failed to deliver.

The truth lay somewhere between the two, but in any case little could be done. In the absence of Christian allies or spices that could be scooped up like spring blossom, the Portuguese had only one lever left: brute force.

THE NEXT DAY no one visited the ships, but the day after, four young men approached with jewels for sale. The wary captain-major decided the Muslim merchants had sent them as spies, but he gave them a warm welcome in the hope that more important figures would follow.

After four or five days a party of twenty-five drew alongside, and among them were six Nair nobles. Gama sprang his trap and had the six men seized, together with a dozen more for good measure. The rest were bundled into a boat and were sent to shore with a letter, written in Malayalam by two of the Indians, for the Zamorin’s factor. Its gist was that the Portuguese proposed a hostage swap.

The news spread fast. The hostages’ relatives and friends gathered at the Portuguese warehouse, forced the guards to give up their captives, and pointedly delivered them to the factor’s house.

It was now August 23, and Gama decided to make a show of leaving. The monsoon was still gusting strongly, and the ships were blown farther out to sea than he intended. The next day they were blown back toward land. Two days later, with still no sign of their men and a steadier wind, they moved away again until the shore was just visible on the horizon.

The day after, a boat approached with a message. Diogo Dias had been moved to the royal palace. If the Portuguese freed their hostages, he would be returned to them.

Gama was sure his men had been killed and his enemies were trying to gain time. He was aware that the Arab fleets were due within weeks, and he was convinced the Muslims of Calicut were arming in preparation for a joint attack on the Christians. He threatened to open fire on the boat, and he warned the messengers not to return without his factor, or at the very least a message from him. They had better act quickly, he barked, or he would chop off his hostages’ heads.

A stiff breeze sprang up and the fleet tacked along the coast.

In Calicut, Gama’s maneuvers seemed to have worked. The Zamorin sent for Dias, and this time he received him in a markedly friendlier manner. Why, he asked him, was the captain-major sailing off with his subjects on board?

The Zamorin knew perfectly well why, Dias acidly answered, at last venting his spleen. He had imprisoned him and his men, and he was still preventing them from returning to their ships.

The Zamorin feigned astonishment. The captain-major had done the right thing, he declared, and he turned on his factor.

“Are you unaware,” he asked in a menacing tone, “that quite recently I killed another factor because he levied tribute upon some merchants who had come to my country?”

He turned back to Dias.

“Go back to the ships,” he told him, “you and the others who are with you. Tell the captain to send me the men he took. Tell him that the pillar which I understood him to say he desires to be erected on the shore will be brought back by those who take you and will be put up, and that you may remain here with your merchandise.”

Before he left, the Zamorin had Dias write a letter with an iron pen on a palm leaf. It was addressed to the king of Portugal.

“Vasco da Gama,” it read, after the usual niceties, “a gentleman of your household, came to my country, at which I was pleased. My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, and precious stones. In exchange I ask you for gold, silver, corals, and scarlet cloth.”

The Zamorin instructed the clerk to give the captain-major the letter to forward to his king. In the end, he had decided it was worth seeing whether the foreigners might return with more valuable goods.

On the morning of August 27, seven boats sailed toward the Portuguese fleet with Dias and his men on board. The Indians were reluctant to get too close to Gama’s ship, and after some debate they gingerly approached the longboat that was tied to the São Gabriel’s stern. The freed men climbed inside and the boats backed off a little, waiting for the response.

The Indians had not brought the Portuguese merchandise with them, since they expected the factor and his staff to return to the city. Gama had other ideas. Now that his men were safely on board, he was not going to give them up. He had the pillar transferred to the boats and he sent back several of the hostages, including the six Nairs. But he kept six more, promising to release them if his goods were returned the following day.

The next morning the friendly Tunisian merchant showed up in a great fluster. Monçaide climbed aboard and panted out a plea for asylum. All his possessions had been seized, and he was afraid for his life. The Indians had seen him on easy terms with the Portuguese, and they had accused him of being a covert Christian who had been sent to spy on their city. Given his usual run of luck, he lamented, he would undoubtedly be murdered if he stayed. Monçaide had proved a useful informant, and Gama agreed to take him to Portugal.

At ten o’clock seven more boats approached. Spread along the benches were twelve bales of striped cloth belonging to the Portuguese. That, the Zamorin’s men insisted, was all they had found in the warehouse.

Gama unceremoniously told them to get lost. He did not give a fig for the goods, his translator shouted back, and he was going to take his prisoners to Portugal. It was true that plenty of merchandise was still unaccounted for, but more to the point, Gama needed some Indians to stand witness to his discovery and the Zamorin had reneged on his promise to send ambassadors. As a parting shot, he warned the men in the boats to watch out. With luck, he vowed, he would soon be back, and then they would find out whether they should have listened to the Muslims who called him and his crew thieves. On his command the gunners echoed his words with a salvo from the bombards, and the Indians rowed away in a hurry.

It was almost the end of August. Gama conferred with his captains, and they quickly reached a decision. The Chronicler set it down:

“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. And it was resolved that we should take with us the men whom we detained, as, on our return to Calicut, they might be useful to us in establishing friendly relations. We therefore set sail and left for Portugal, greatly rejoicing at our good fortune in having made so great a discovery.”

No one could pretend that things had gone smoothly. The young commander had talked a good talk, but he had failed to cut a deal with the Zamorin. The longer he had stayed, the more humiliating the situation had become. After three months, the ships’ holds were almost empty. Worst of all, the Portuguese were deeply shaken by the hostility of men they believed were their brothers in Christ.

The explorers’ blunderings would soon come back to haunt them, but even so, there was no question that Vasco da Gama had pulled off an astonishing feat. Where he had led, many thousands would follow, and many millions of lives would be changed for good, if not necessarily for the better.

Now all he had to do was to get home. That would turn out to be the hardest part of all.

THE TROUBLE BEGAN a day into the return journey.

The fleet had only moved a league from Calicut when it found itself becalmed. As the crews waited for the wind, they suddenly saw seventy long rowboats swarming toward them from the shore. They were packed with heavily armed Mappilas wearing padded breastplates and backplates covered in red cloth. As Gama had suspected, the Muslim merchants had been busy preparing a war fleet, though they had not been able to detain the interlopers long enough for the large Arab ships to arrive.

The gunners scrambled to their stations and waited for the captain-major’s signal. As soon as the enemy moved within range he gave the order to fire. With a flash and a boom, cannonballs whistled through the air and splashed jets of foam around the boats. Still the rowers kept up their rhythm, and as the wind finally picked up and the foreigners’ sails filled out, they rowed even harder. For an hour and a half they pursued the fleeing ships, until a providential thunderstorm blew up and swept the Portuguese out to sea.

With the brief panic past, the ships held their course to the north. To reach home, Gama had learned that he needed to follow the coast until he caught the cool northeast winds of the winter monsoon. In time, they would blow him steadily back to Africa. That time, though, was still at least three months off: the monsoon would not start to turn until November.

To complicate the pilots’ task still more, the fleet was now sailing into the doldrums. Breezes wafted this way from land, that way from sea, and then petered out. Squalls blew up without warning and sputtered into dead calms. The ships laboriously tacked along the coast; twelve days after leaving Calicut, they had only made twenty leagues.

Gama had been deeply pondering what had happened, and he chose one of the hostages—a man who had lost one of his eyes—to go ashore with a letter for the Zamorin. In the letter, which Monçaide wrote in Arabic, he apologized for taking six of the Zamorin’s people hostage and explained that he intended them to bear witness to his discoveries. He would have left his factor behind, he added, if he had not been afraid the Muslims would kill him; he himself had been deterred from landing more often for the same reason. Ultimately, he hoped, the two nations would establish friendly relations to their mutual advantage and profit. Since he could hardly have expected one letter to transform the situation, he must have keenly noted the information given him by the captives that the Kolattiri of Cannanore, the king of this part of the coast, was at war with the Zamorin of Calicut.

By September 15 the ships had made sixty leagues, and they anchored near a small cluster of islands. The largest was a long, narrow sliver, rocky at its southern end, with low hills fringed by a beach to the north and a canopy of palm trees shading the center like tall umbrellas. Two leagues away on the mainland was a broad sandy bay backed by dense woods. Fishing boats set out from the bay offering their catch for sale; the captain-major handed out a few shirts to the fishermen, who beamed with pleasure.

Gama finally began to unwind in the friendlier atmosphere, and he asked the locals if they would like him to erect a pillar on the island. “They said,” recorded the Chronicler, “that they would be very glad indeed, for its erection would confirm the fact that we were Christians like themselves.” Or so the Portuguese understood.

The pillar was heaved into place, and the Portuguese named the island, after the saint’s name given to the pillar, Santa Maria. It was scarcely a strategic prize, but everyone was desperate to go home.

That night the ships caught a land breeze and carried on north. Five days later they sailed past a series of beautiful, verdant hills and saw five more islands ahead, just off the shore. They anchored in the roadstead near the mainland, and Gama sent out a boat to find sufficient fresh water and wood to see them to Africa.

As soon as they landed, the sailors ran into a young man who led them to a cleft between two hills that rose from a riverbank. There they found a wonderfully clear spring bubbling up, and Gama gave the guide a red nightcap in return. As usual, he asked if he was Christian or Muslim. He was a Christian, the man replied; at least, he was not a Muslim, and he chose the only alternative on offer. Gama told him that the Portuguese were Christians, too, and he seemed very happy at the news.

Soon more friendly Indians appeared and offered to lead the visitors to a forest of cinnamon trees. The sailors returned with armfuls of branches that smelled somewhat of cinnamon and twenty locals carrying chickens, pots of milk, and gourds. After their troubles, things finally seemed to be looking up.

Early the next morning, while they were waiting for the tide to turn so they could enter the river and fill their water casks, the watchmen spotted two ships coasting a couple of leagues away. At first Gama made nothing of the news, and the crews busied themselves chopping wood. After a while, though, he began to wonder whether the distance had made the ships look smaller than they really were. As soon as they had eaten, he ordered some of the men into the boats to find out whether they belonged to Muslims or Christians. As an extra precaution he sent a sailor up to the crow’s nest, and the lookout cried out that six leagues away, out in the open sea, eight ships were becalmed.

Gama decided to take no risks. The decks were cleared, and he ordered the gunners to sink the vessels as soon as they came within range.

When the wind picked up the Indian ships moved off, and they quickly drew within two leagues of the Portuguese. On Gama’s command the fleet sprang forward, guns at the ready.

When the Indians saw the three strange vessels heading straight for them, they bore away for the coast. In their haste one of their ships broke its rudder, and its crew heaved a boat off the stern, jumped in, and rowed to land. Nicolau Coelho’s caravel was nearest to the abandoned ship and his men eagerly boarded her, expecting to find rich booty belowdecks. Instead they uncovered a few coconuts, four jars of palm sugar, and a large cache of bows and arrows, shields, swords, and spears; in the hold was nothing but sand.

The rest of the Indian ships had made it to the shore. Rather than move in and lose the advantage of their guns, the Portuguese fired at them from the boats, sending the crews scrambling inland. After a while Gama’s men gave up and retreated to a safe distance, with the captured vessel in tow. They were still none the wiser as to where the ships had come from, but the next morning seven locals rowed over. The fleeing men, they revealed, had told them they had been sent by the Zamorin to hunt down the Portuguese. Anotorious pirate named Timoja was their leader, and if he could he would undoubtedly have murdered every last one of them.

There was obviously no returning to the mainland. The fleet moved off the next morning and anchored close to one of the islands, which the Portuguese called Anjediva, after its local name. The Indians had told them they would find another freshwater source there, and after they had run the captured ship aground, Nicolau Coelho set out to reconnoiter.

Coelho landed on a pristine beach and delved into a lush forest of coconut palms and tropical evergreens. Suddenly he came upon the ruins of what appeared to be a large stone church on a hill.

A single chapel was still standing, and it had been reroofed with straw. Coelho peered inside.

Three black stones stood in the center, and a number of Indians were praying to them. When the Portuguese quizzed them, they explained that Arab sailors used the island to restock with water and wood and had driven out the inhabitants; they only came back to worship the sacred stones.

Near to the church the search party discovered a large tank built of the same hewn stone. The water was fresh, and they filled some of their casks. When they explored further, they came upon a much bigger tank on the highest point of the island and filled the rest.

By now the three ships were in a dangerously unseaworthy state. The crews began the long repair process by dragging the Berrio to the beach in front of the ruined church, emptying it, and careening it.

While they were hard at work, two large boats approached from the mainland. They reminded the Portuguese of the fast galliots—small oared galleys with a shallow draft and a single mast—in which the pirates of the Barbary Coast pounced on passing ships. The rowers dipped their blades to the beat of drums accompanied by what sounded uncannily like bagpipes. Flags and streamers fluttered from the mast. In the distance the Portuguese could see five other ships creeping along the coast, as if lying in wait to see what happened.

The Indians from Calicut excitedly warned their captors not to let the visitors on board. They were pirates, they said, who roamed the seas in those parts. They would pretend they came in friendship, but at the moment of their choosing they would whip out their firearms, rob them of all they had, and take them as slaves.

Gama ordered the Rafael and the Gabriel to open fire.

The men in the boats ducked and shouted at the foreigners. “Tambaram! Tambaram!” they cried; “Lord! Lord!”

The Portuguese had already concluded that this was the Indians’ name for God, and they deduced that the men were trying to tell them they were Christians. Even so, they assumed it was another ruse, and they kept on firing. The rowers hastily turned back toward the shore, and Coelho chased them in his boat until Gama, fearful of any more mishaps, raised a signal flag to call him back.

The next day the work on the Berrio was still under way when a dozen men appeared in two smaller boats. They were smartly dressed, and they brought a bundle of sugarcane as a gift for the captain-major. They beached their boats, walked up the sand, and asked permission to take a look at the foreigners’ ships.

Gama was not in a hospitable mood. By now it seemed as if the whole coast knew about the Portuguese, while the Portuguese knew next to nothing about the coast. Every day a new threat materialized, and he was sure the newcomers had been sent to spy on him. He shouted at them and they backed away, warning twelve more men who were just arriving in two more boats not to land.

The Berrio was refloated, and the crews moved onto the São Gabriel.

Despite the hostile reception the locals kept on coming, and some managed to sell the Portuguese fish, pumpkins, cucumbers, and boatloads of the green branches that smelled vaguely of cinnamon. Gama was in a less suspicious frame of mind when a striking figure walked up the beach waving a wooden cross.

The newcomer was about forty years old and spoke excellent Venetian as well as Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, and German. He was dressed in a long linen gown and a dapper Muslim cap, and he had a short, curved sword thrust through his belt. He made straight for the captain-major and threw his arms around him. After embracing the other captains, he explained that he was a Christian from the West who had arrived in this part of the world as a young man and had entered the service of a powerful Muslim lord. He had had to convert to Islam, he confessed, but in his heart he was still Christian to this day. He had been at his lord’s house when news came from Calicut, saying that men who spoke a strange language and wore clothes from head to toe had appeared from nowhere. He had immediately realized they must be Europeans, and he had told his master he would die of sorrow if he was not allowed to pay them a visit.

His lord, he added, was generosity itself. He had told him to invite the foreigners to his country, where they could help themselves to anything they needed—spices, provisions, even ships—and he had even given them permission to stay on permanently, if they liked what they saw.

Gama took a shine to the urbane visitor. In his gruffly cordial way he thanked him for his offers and asked him about his master’s land, which it turned out was called Goa. In return his garrulous guest merely asked for a cheese, which he explained he would give to a companion whom he had left on the mainland as a token that the meeting had gone well. The cheese was produced, along with two loaves of freshly baked bread, but he was in no hurry to leave. The Chronicler noted that he had so much to say about so many things that he sometimes contradicted himself.

Paulo da Gama was beginning to get suspicious, and he decided to have a word with the sailors who had delivered the visitor. They were Hindus and no particular friends of their Muslim customer. He was a pirate, they quietly explained, and his ships were waiting near the coast for the order to attack.

Paulo spread the news, and the Portuguese seized their caller. The soldiers thrust him against the hull of the beached ship and interrogated him with the aid of a sound thrashing. He still insisted he was an honest Christian, and Gama had him trussed up, hoisted up to the yard, and hauled up and down by his arms and legs. When he was let down, he panted out some home truths. News of the Portuguese had spread far and wide, he told them; the whole country was out to do them harm. All along the shore, large forces of armed men were stationed on boats hidden up creeks; they were only awaiting the arrival of forty ships that were being armed to lead the attack.

Several bouts of torture failed to make him change the rest of his story. As his voice failed, he seemed to be trying to explain that he had come to find out what sort of people the strangers were and what arms they carried, but it was hard to tell. Gama called a halt, ordered him to be confined on one of the ships, and had his wounds dressed; he had decided to take him back to Portugal as another informant for the king.

The São Rafael had still not been careened, but there was no time to lose. By now the Arab fleets from Jeddah, Aden, and Hormuz had already arrived in India, and if the new intelligence was to be believed, a mass attack was imminent. The last piece of business was to break up the captured vessel for spares. From the mainland its captain had been watching in the hope of recovering his ship when the foreigners left. As he saw it disappearing piece by piece, he shot over and offered a large sum of money for its return. It was not for sale, Gama peremptorily replied; as it belonged to the enemy he preferred to burn it, and so he did.

The fleet set sail on Friday, October 5. When the ships were far enough out that it was clear they would not return, the prisoner finally came clean. Perhaps he had had enough of being chained up in the forecastle, where a captive’s confinement was made triply uncomfortable by the salt water that washed over him, the lowering and raising of the anchors around him, and the men who went there to do their necessities. The time for dissembling was past, he declared. He was, indeed, employed by the ruler of Goa, and he hadbeen at court when news had arrived that the foreigners were lost on the coast and had no idea how to get home. His lord was aware that many boats had been sent to capture them, and he was loath to see the booty end up in his rivals’ hands. He had sent his servant to entice the strangers to his country, where they would have been completely in his power. The Christians, he had heard, were brave and belligerent, and he was in need of men like them in the endless wars he waged against his neighboring kings.

GAMA HAD NOT been able to leave India at the moment of his choosing, and his men would pay a terrible price.

The steady breeze of the winter monsoon had not yet arrived at the latitude the explorers had haltingly reached. Again and again the ships were swept up by cyclones, then deposited in dead calms. October turned to November, November to December, and still there was no sign of land. The heat was insufferable, food was running low, and the water turned foul and began to run out, too. Soon the dreaded scurvy returned to ravage the sailors’ gaunt frames. A later passenger on a Portuguese ship vividly described the speedy onset of the disease and the panic that ensued. His knees, he recorded, were so shrunken that he was unable to bend them, his legs and thighs were black as gangrene, and he repeatedly had to pierce his skin to draw off his treacly, putrefied blood. Every day he swung on the rigging over the side and, looking in a little mirror, he took a knife to his rotten gums, which had ballooned over his teeth and made it impossible to eat. When he had cut away the flesh he washed his mouth with urine, but the next morning the swelling was just as bad. With dozens similarly afflicted, he found himself adrift on a ship of death:

Great numbers Died every day thereof, and there was nothing to be seen but Bodies a flinging over-board, and the most part Died without help, some behind Chests, having their Eyes and the Soles of their Feet eaten up with Rats. Others were found dead in their Beds, after having been let Blood and moving their Arms, the veins opened, and their Blood ran out: Oftentimes after having received their Allowance, which might be about a Pint of Water, and putting it near them to Drink, when a-dry, their Companions rob’d these poor Sick Wretches of this little Water, they being asleep, or turned to the other side. Sometimes being under Deck in a dark place, not seeing one another, they would fight among themselves, and strike one another, if they caught any about to Steal their Water; and thus, oftentimes were they deprived of Water, and for want of a little Draught they miserably died, without any one offering to help them to never so little, no not the Father the Son, nor the Brother the Brother, so much did every Man’s particular Thirst compel him to Rob his Companions.

Racked by pain and far from home, dozens of simple, zealous men died fearful, lonely deaths within days of their symptoms appearing. The end came as a release. As Crusaders for Christ, they had been told they would pass away without the stain of sin. Their eyes squeezed shut against the blinding light, the softer life of a place free from suffering beckoned them on. Their comrades threw their bodies into the sea, with less and less ceremony as more and more succumbed.

In the tropical heat, new diseases assaulted the weakened survivors. Fevers left them shivering and delirious. Abscesses and tumors grew on infected skin. A toxic fungus infected the bread and brought on vomiting and diarrhea, followed by painful spasms, hallucinations, and mania, and finally dry gangrene, dropsy, and death. Among the most terrifying afflictions was one that, a sailor reported, “breaks out at the Fundament like an Ulcer, and is presently full of Worms, which Gnaw as far as the Belly, and so they die in great misery and torment: There hath been no better remedy found for this Disease,” he added, “than the Juyce of Lymon, in washing therewith the Fundament; for that obstructs the worms breeding there.” There was no privacy on board a ship; now there was no dignity, either.

As Christmas approached, only seven or eight sailors were left fit to man each vessel. Few believed they would survive much longer, and the iron discipline that Vasco da Gama had rigorously enforced utterly broke down. The men shouted out to the saints, vowing to reform their ways if they were saved and begging them to spare their lives. They demanded that the captain-major return to Calicut to submit to God’s will rather than let them rot away on the open sea. Gama and his fellow captains had lost all track of where they were, and in desperation they finally agreed to turn back, if a favorable wind allowed.

At the last possible moment the weather changed, and with it the mission’s fortunes. “It pleased God in his mercy,” recorded the Chronicler, “to send us a wind which, in the course of six days, carried us within sight of land, and at this we rejoiced as much as if the land we saw had been Portugal.”

The date was January 2, 1499. A few more days, a couple of weeks at most, and three ghost ships would have been cast adrift on the pitiless ocean blue.

BY THE TIME the ragged fleet neared the coast of Africa it was already night. They lay to, and the next morning they reconnoitered the shore, “so as to find out whither the Lord had taken us, for there was not a pilot on board, nor any other man who could tell on the chart in what place we were.” As far as they could see, an unvarying thin green ribbon of vegetation stretched between the vastness of the sea and the sky.

A debate ensued. Some of the men were certain they were still three hundred leagues from the mainland, among some islands off Mozambique; one of the prisoners they had taken there had told them the islands were very unhealthy and rife with scurvy, which made all too much sense.

While the argument was still raging, the watchkeepers sighted a city. It turned out to be the ancient Somali port of Mogadishu, which had once been the dominant Muslim entrepôt on the East African coast. Tall houses surrounded a magnificent palace, and four castles defended the perimeter walls. In their perilous state the explorers did not dare try their luck, and after making their feelings known by firing off repeated rounds from the bombards, they continued south along the shore.

Two days later the ships were drifting in a calm when a thunderstorm blew up from nowhere and tore the ties of the São Rafael. More trouble was in store: while the few able-bodied men were making repairs, a pirate spotted the stricken fleet and launched a raid from a nearby island. Eight packed boats bore down on the Portuguese, but the gunners leapt to their stations and a barrage sent the pirates flying back to their town. Perhaps to the crews’ relief, there was no wind and they were not ordered to give chase.

Finally, on January 7, the lookouts spotted the familiar bay of Malindi. Even—especially—in such dire straits, Gama would not risk mooring in the port, and the ships anchored off the city. The sultan immediately sent out a large welcoming committee with an offering of sheep and a message of peace and friendship. The captain-major had been expected for a long time, the Africans affably said.

Gama sent the ever-reliable Fernão Martins to shore in the sultan’s boat with urgent instructions to procure as many oranges as possible. They arrived the next day, along with an assortment of different fruits and plenty of water. The sultan ordered his Muslim merchants to visit the foreigners and offer them chickens and eggs. It was too late for the worst afflicted: many of the sick died off Malindi and were buried there.

The horrors of the journey had softened Gama, and he was struck by the kindness the sultan showed him and his men when they desperately needed help. He sent him a gift and begged him, through his Arabic translators, to give him an ivory tusk to present to the king of Portugal. As a sign of the friendship between the two nations—one that would be clearly visible to their enemies—he also asked permission to place a pillar and cross on the shore. The sultan replied that he would do everything he was asked out of love for King Manuel. He had a prime spot prepared for the pillar, in front of the town and next to his palace, and as well as the requested tusk, he sent over a Muslim boy who dutifully declared that he wanted nothing more in life than to go to Portugal.

The Portuguese stayed at Malindi for five days, enjoying more of the sultan’s entertainments as best they could, “and reposing,” recorded the Chronicler, “from the hardships endured during a passage in the course of which all of us had been face to face with death.” They left on the morning of January 11, and the next day they sailed as quickly as possible past Mombasa.

When they were safely out of sight of the city they anchored in a bay, unloaded the goods from the São Rafael, and set fire to it. There were not enough hands left to sail three ships, and in any case the Rafael, which had not been repaired for many months, was on its last legs. The whole process took fifteen days, during which numerous Africans came out and bartered chickens for the sailors’ last few shirts and bracelets.

Two days after they resumed their journey, the two remaining ships passed a large island, six leagues from the mainland, that they had missed on the outward voyage. This, the boy from Malindi explained, was Zanzibar, one of the most important trading centers of the Swahili Coast. The explorers had never heard of it: there was a great deal more exploring left to do.

On February 1 the ships reached Mozambique during a heavy downpour. They avoided the town and anchored off the island where they had celebrated mass almost a year earlier. They said mass this time, too, and Gama decided to erect another pillar. The rain fell so hard that the landing party could not light a fire to melt the lead that was used to fix the cross on top, and the pillar stayed crossless.

A few days later the survivors left East Africa for the voyage around the Cape. For all the rumors that large communities of Christians lived there, they had stayed frustratingly out of sight. Prester John remained as stubbornly elusive as ever. The Swahili Coast still guarded its secrets; only on another voyage would it yield up its greatest treasures.

A month later the Portuguese reached the bay where the captain-major had been shot in the leg. They stayed for more than a week, catching and salting anchovies, seals, and penguins and replenishing their water for the Atlantic passage. On March 12 they set out for home, but they made it only a dozen leagues before a fierce westerly wind sent them pitching back into the bay. As soon as the wind dropped they started again, and on March 20 they doubled the Cape of Good Hope. By now, the Chronicler recorded, “those who had come so far were in good health and quite robust, although at times nearly dead from the cold winds which we experienced.” After the tropical heat, the southern Atlantic felt like the chills that accompany a fever.

For twenty-seven days a following wind drove the two ships to within a hundred leagues of the Cape Verde Islands. They were back in home waters, but after everything they had been through a strange air of unreality clung to the familiar sights.

The easy passage turned out to be too good to be true. There was one final hardship to come.

Before the ships could reach the islands they were becalmed again. The little breeze there was came from ahead, and they plied to windward as best they could. Thunderstorms rolled along the African coast and helped the pilots fix their position, but soon the skies darkened overhead and a violent tornado whipped up the seas. Though lightning crashed around them, the two vessels lost sight of one another.

Nicolau Coelho was still in charge of the Berrio. This time there was no assigned meeting place, and he set his course straight for home. On July 10, 1499, his tattered, leaking caravel limped into the fishing port of Cascais, on the cusp of the Atlantic just belowLisbon. The Portuguese had long ago decided the fleet was lost, and they rushed to welcome the heroes home.

Coelho made his way to the king and reported the discovery of the sea route to India. The momentous mission had lasted 732 days. The ships had covered no less than 24,000 miles. It was by some way the longest voyage known to history, whether measured by time or by distance traveled.

Vasco da Gama’s ship arrived a few weeks later, its seams split and its pumps groaning to keep it afloat. Perhaps 170 men had set out; perhaps only 55 had returned alive.

The captain-major was not among those on board. On the return journey his brother had been seized by tuberculosis, and by the time the ships had become separated Paulo’s condition had taken a marked turn for the worse. Gama had waited a day for the caravel to reappear before setting a course for Santiago, the port where the fleet had reunited on the outbound voyage. As soon as he arrived he had put João de Sá, the former clerk of the São Rafael, in charge of repairing his flagship and sailing it home.

Gama chartered a small, fast caravel to speed his dying brother to Lisbon. Soon after they left, Paulo’s condition became desperate, and Vasco changed course for the island of Terceira in the Azores.

Paulo died the day after they reached the island. Vasco da Gama buried his beloved brother in the church of a Franciscan monastery, and the discoverer of the sea route to India slowly, sadly made his way home.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!