Post-classical history



ON AUGUST 20, 1501, the newly appointed ambassador extraordinary of the Republic of Venice swept before the royal court of Portugal and launched into a long and extravagant eulogy to King Manuel I.

Until very recently, La Serenissima—the name, meaning “The Most Serene,” by which Venetians knew their republic—had barely deigned to notice the existence of Portugal. Yet two years earlier a letter had arrived in Venice that had made its citizens swallow their pride. The Venetian diarist Girolamo Priuli recorded its contents:

Letters of June arrived from Alexandria, which wrote that through letters from Cairo written by men who had come from India, it was understood that at Calicut and Aden in India, principal cities, there were arrived three caravels of the King of Portugal, which had been sent to enquire after the Spice Islands, and of which the commander was Columbus.

If the details were wide of the mark, the thrust was clear enough. Venice had a new competitor for its Eastern trade.

Priuli, like many of his fellow Venetians, greeted the news with a skeptical shrug. It would be incendiary news if it were true, he admitted, but he did not believe a word of it. Backward little Portugal had always been too busy haring after Prester John and dregs of African gold to think of challenging the greatest trading republic in the West. Soon, though, a flurry of enormously long and frantic letters began to arrive at Italian merchant houses from their countrymen based in Lisbon. The Portuguese, a merchant named Guido Detti wrote home to Florence, had “found all the treasure and all the commerce in spices and precious stones of the whole world.” The news, he predicted—with more than a touch of satisfaction at a rival’s suffering—was “truly bad for the [Egyptian] Sultan, and as for the Venetians, when they lose the commerce of the East, they will have to go back to fishing, because by this route the spices will arrive at a price they won’t be able to match.” It was a fine discovery, he added, “and the king of Portugal deserves the hearty congratulations of all Christians. Certainly, every king and great lord, especially those whose lands border the sea, must seek after unknown things and expand our knowledge, because that’s how to win honor and glory, reputation and riches.”

The Signoria, the supreme council of Venice, pondered the matter for a while and finally sent its Spanish ambassador to investigate. He quickly reported back that the Portuguese king had already sent thirteen more ships to Calicut to buy spices, and another fleet stood in the port ready to depart within days. Along with his letter another arrived in Venice, this one from a certain “Dom Manuel, by the Grace of God King of Portugal and of the Algarves on this side of and beyond the sea in Africa, Lord of Guinea and of the Conquest the Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.” Despite his grandiloquent new title it was far from obvious precisely what Manuel had conquered, but it was crystal clear that his letter was a flagrant attempt to upturn Venice’s entire way of life. Henceforth, the king provocatively proposed, the Venetians should buy their spices from Portugal, not Egypt. Since Venice’s wealth was based on its near monopoly of trade with the Islamic world, the offer to split its profits was hardly enticing, but Manuel was determined to make Venice treat Portugal with the respect due an equal.

Three days after the letters arrived, the Venetian senate voted to appoint its first ambassador to Portugal. It chose Pietro Pasqualigo, a twenty-nine-year-old product of centuries of breeding. Pasqualigo held a doctorate from the prestigious University of Paris, and his oration to the Portuguese court—delivered in flawless Latin—was intended to impress.

What was needed was flattery, and he laid it on thick. Every age, he declared, would celebrate Manuel’s amazing deeds; for the rest of time Europeans would acknowledge that they owed a greater debt to him than to any king present or past:

People, islands, and shores unknown until now have either surrendered to your military might or, overawed by it, have voluntarily begged for your friendship. The greatest kings and unconquered nations of the past used to boast justifiably that they had extended their power to the ocean, but you, invincible King, are entitled to take pride in having advanced your power to the lower hemisphere and to the Antipodes. What is greatest and most memorable of all, you have brought together under your command peoples whom nature divides, and with your commerce you have joined two different worlds.

Manuel, he marveled with a straight face, had outdone the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, and even Alexander himself. His high character was known throughout the world, and across Europe people and nations were giving thanks that God had sent them a king “who in his virtue, wisdom and felicity will not only protect the weary and tottering Christian Commonwealth but even extend it far and wide.”

The soft-soaping over, Pasqualigo broached the real subject of his mission. Sailing the oceans was a fine thing, he acknowledged, but “a far fairer thing it is, far more splendid and more promising for the immortality of your name, to defend the most noble part of the world from the fury of the infidels.” Naturally, he was talking not of Paradise or Jerusalem but of Venice. The republic was imperiled by that “most ferocious monster,” the fierce and powerful Turkish sultan, who was doubtless even then constructing diabolical new weapons with which to pound Christendom. “I do not know of anything you could do or conceive that is finer, braver, or more lofty,” the ambassador wheedled away, “of anything, in short, more worthy of your godlike character and brilliant abilities.”

Venice was indeed in deadly peril. In 1499, while the republic was still recovering from the stinging naval losses it had sustained in seeing off a French invasion of Italy, the Ottomans had launched a ferocious attack with an armada of nearly three hundred ships. In an unprecedented admission of weakness, La Serenissima had conscripted its own cititzens—three of Pietro Pasqualigo’s brothers were at sea fighting the Turks—and as the war lurched from disaster to defeat it had petitioned Rome to declare a new Crusade. Venice’s novel pose as the champion of Christendom came late in the day—in 1483 the papacy had excommunicated the entire city for refusing to call off a war against an Italian duke, albeit a war that Rome had itself engineered—but the threat to Europe was undeniable and the Crusade was called. Recalling the zeal of Manuel’s forebears to fight the Turks, the young envoy framed his request as a holy war on behalf of the Christian faith against the sultan, that “pernicious destroyer of the Christian people . . . that barbarian stained with Christian blood.”

Manuel had already sent thirty-five heavily armed warships and a sizable force of men-at-arms to Venice’s aid. Like his uncle Afonso, he had even angled for an invitation to lead the new Crusade in person, though in fact the fleet arrived without the king and too late to be of much use. Officially Pasqualigo had come to convey the republic’s gratitude and to exhort Manuel to greater sacrifices. Unofficially, he was there to keep a close eye on the king’s Indian enterprise, and to assist him, he was accompanied by a squad of seasoned spies masquerading as a diplomatic delegation.

The young ambassador’s very first communiqué relayed deeply disquieting news. Two months before he had arrived, the second Portuguese fleet to reach India had returned.

“This is more important to the Venetian State than the Turkish War or any other war that might take place,” the chastened Priuli wrote in his diary:

Now that this new route has been found by Portugal this King of Portugal will bring all the spices to Lisbon and there is no doubt that the Hungarians, the Germans, the Flemish and the French, and all the people from across the mountains who once came to Venice to buy spices with their money will now turn to Lisbon because it is nearer to their countries and easier to reach; also because they will be able to buy at a cheaper price, which is most important of all. This is because the spices that come to Venice pass through all of Syria and through the entire country of the Sultan and everywhere they pay the most burdensome duties. Likewise, in the State of Venice they pay insupportable duties, customs, and excises. Thus with all the duties, customs, and excises between the country of the Sultan and the city of Venice I might say that a thing that cost one ducat multiplies to sixty and perhaps to a hundred. . . .

Thus I conclude that if this voyage from Lisbon to Calicut continues as it has begun there will be a shortage of spices for the Venetian galleys and their merchants will be like a baby without its milk and nourishment. And in this I clearly see the ruin of the city of Venice, because lacking its traffic it will lack money from which has stemmed Venetian glory and fame.

In Lisbon, the Venetians turned up the heat. A number of Indian envoys had returned with the latest fleet to establish diplomatic relations with Portugal, and Pasqualigo’s attachés covertly approached them. The king of Portugal, they explained, was broke, and they had come from Venice to bail him out. Venice was the preeminent power in Christendom, and nothing could be done without its say-so. Besides, while Venice was purely interested in trade, the Portuguese were warmongers, and they were hell-bent on attacking India’s Muslims. The Indians began to believe that they had fallen into a terrible trap, and their fears were alleviated only when Vasco da Gama took them on a tour of Portugal’s treasury and gave them a good look at its growing stacks of gold.

EVEN BEFORE VASCO da Gama had returned to Portugal, Manuel had ordered celebratory processions to be held throughout the land, “returning many thanks to Our Lord.” With equal alacrity, he had dashed off a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile. As a statement of how inextricably religion and trade were entwined in the discoveries, it could hardly be bettered.

“Most high and excellent Prince and Princess, most potent Lord and Lady!” it began:

Your Highnesses already know that we had ordered Vasco da Gama, a nobleman of our household, and his brother Paulo da Gama, with four vessels to make discoveries by sea, and that two years have now elapsed since their departure. And as the principal motive of this enterprise has been, with our predecessors, the service of God our Lord . . . it pleased Him in His mercy to speed them on their route. From a message which has now been brought to this city by one of the captains, we learn that they did reach and discover India and other kingdoms and lordships bordering upon it; that they entered and navigated its sea, finding large cities, large edifices and rivers, and great populations, among whom is carried on all the trade in spices and precious stones, which are forwarded in ships (which these same explorers saw and met with in good numbers and of great size) to Mecca, and thence to Cairo, whence they are dispersed throughout the world. Of these they have brought a quantity, including cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper, as well as other kinds, together with the boughs and leaves of the same; also many fine stones of all sorts, such as rubies and others. And they also came to a country in which there are mines of gold, of which, as of the spices and precious stones, they did not bring as much as they could have done, for they took no merchandise with them.

As we are aware that your Highnesses will hear of these things with much pleasure and satisfaction, we thought well to give this information. And your Highnesses may believe, in accordance with what we have learnt concerning the Christian people whom these explorers reached, that it will be possible, notwithstanding that they are not as yet strong in the faith or possessed of a thorough knowledge of it, to do much in the service of God and the exaltation of the Holy Faith, once they shall have been converted and fully fortified in it. And when they shall have thus been fortified in the faith there will be an opportunity for destroying the Moors of those parts. Moreover, we hope, with the help of God, that the great trade which now enriches the Moors of those parts, through whose hands it passes without the intervention of other persons or peoples, shall, in consequence of our regulations be diverted to the natives and ships of our own kingdom, so that henceforth all Christendom, in this part of Europe, shall be able, in a large measure, to provide itself with these spices and precious stones. This, with the help of God, who in His mercy thus ordained it, will cause our designs and intentions to be pushed with more ardor [especially as respects] the war upon the Moors of the territories conquered by us in these parts, which your Highnesses are so firmly resolved upon, and in which we are equally zealous.

And we pray your Highnesses, in consideration of this great favor, which, with much gratitude, we received from Our Lord, to cause to be addressed to Him those praises which are His due.

Manuel was well aware that Christopher Columbus’s star was waning in Spain. The Genoese explorer had still found no spices, no gems, no Christians, and no Chinese Great Khan. In 1498, just as Vasco da Gama was sailing into the Indian Ocean, Columbus had finally reached the mainland he had long sought, but the experience had been distinctly unsettling. As he made his way down the coast his ships had lurched into the vast outflow of the Orinoco River, and the disoriented navigator decided that such a torrent must cascade down a great slope. From that he deduced he was sailing up the foothills of the Holy Mountain of Paradise, a vast protuberance that he pictured thrusting up from the earth’s surface like a nipple from a breast. Since he knew no human could enter the Garden of Eden and live, he fled in fear. Columbus, who often wore the simple habit of a Franciscan monk, had always believed he had been chosen to save souls; lately he had begun to hear the voice of God and considered it his destiny to fulfill the old prophecies by discovering a new paradise on earth. His confidence, though, had been badly shaken, and he hanged some of his crew for insubordination. When he returned to Hispaniola his sailors and the settlers he had promised untold riches accused him of torture and gross mismanagement, and the fifty-three-year-old explorer, afflicted with arthritis and a painful inflammation of the eye, was manacled, thrown in jail, and transported back to Spain in chains.

To most observers, Vasco da Gama had clearly trumped his archrival. What Columbus had promised, Gama had delivered. While Columbus had sailed west with a fair wind and reached land in thirty-six days, Gama had swept around the Atlantic, followed the east coast of Africa, crossed to India, and made it home against terrible odds. Where Columbus had parleyed with a few tribesmen, Gama had survived hostile sultans and negotiated with powerful kings, and he had brought home spices, letters, and hostages to prove it. Whatever Columbus had found—and it was by no means yet clear—Gama had opened the sea route to the East and had shown the way to circumvent the Islamic world. The whole of Europe was astonished, and the Portuguese king was only too happy to rub his in-laws’ noses in it.

Having performed that pleasant duty, Manuel shored up his position by addressing letters to the pope, the College of Cardinals, and the Cardinal Protector of Portugal in Rome. He instructed them to hold public thanksgivings for God’s favoritism toward the Portuguese nation, and he reminded them that by virtue of a papal bull of 1497—the latest attempt to try to adjudicate between the rival powers—he and his heirs enjoyed “very fully the sovereignty and dominion of all we have discovered.” Nothing else, he carefully added, was surely needed, but he affectionately begged “for a fresh expression of satisfaction with reference to a matter of such novelty and great and recent merit, so as to obtain His Holiness’s renewed approval and declaration.”

As the midpoint of the millennium approached, Manuel was determined to push his claim to be the chief monarch of Christendom. His discovery, he declared, was not just for Portugal: it would benefit every Christian nation, “from the damage to the Infidels that is expected.” Soon the Muslims would be vanquished, the Holy Land would be repossessed, and Eastern Christians would return to the true Catholic path. Even so, he was not minded to share the glory with rival nations. It was next to impossible to obtain a map of the Portuguese voyages, wrote the secretary to Venice’s ambassador in Spain, “for the king has decreed the death penalty for anyone who sends it out of the country.”

At home the messiah-king began to level and rebuild Lisbon in a style lavish enough to match his soaring ambitions. Along with majestic new palaces and spacious warehouses to receive the expected flood of goods from India, he ordered a vast church and monastery to be built at Belém, on the site of Henry the Navigator’s modest chapel, where prayers were to be said for the souls of Manuel the Conqueror and his great forebear. To honor his immediate predecessor, he decided to rehouse King John II’s remains in imperial splendor. Manuel paraded around the country with the coffin, accompanied by a procession of lords, bishops, and chaplains, a choir, torchbearers, and “a barbarous orchestra of trumpets, reed pipes, sackbuts, and drums.” When the ceremonies were over, he had it opened at dead of night. “He beheld the body covered with lime dust,” it was said, “and ordered the monks to blow it off with tubes of cane, and he himself aided them, and then kissed the dead man’s hands and feet again and again. It was a dramatic meeting, this of the dead and the living kings, and a sight for a man to look upon.”

A prophecy had long swirled around Europe that a Last Emperor would unite Christendom, subdue the Infidel, and lead the Last Crusade to take back the Holy Land. Then the peoples of the world would be shepherded into the fold, a New Jerusalem would descend from the heavens, and Christ would return to rule over the world. Manuel had begun behaving like an emperor before he had conquered a single patch of land, but the empire he had in mind was not merely territorial. Like Columbus, he was certain that he was nothing less than the Hand of God on Earth; like the Crusaders of old, he was convinced it was God’s will for him to destroy Islam and lead his people in glory to Jerusalem.

THE KING’S UNWAVERING conviction owed much to the news that Christians had been found in India. Prester John himself was still conspicuously at large, but Calicut, Nicolau Coelho and his crew had explained on their arrival, was “bigger than Lisbon, and peopled by Christian Indians.” It was true that the churches had no regular clergy and the divine offices went unperformed, but they had bells and a type of font. “These Christians,” a Florentine merchant named Girolamo Sernigi reported to his compatriots, “believe that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without sin, was crucified and killed by the Jews, and buried at Jerusalem. They also have some knowledge of the Pope of Rome, but know nothing of our faith beyond this.”

A few weeks later the São Gabriel had docked in Lisbon, and on board was the Venetian-speaking man from Goa.

Sernigi managed to snatch an interview with him, and he immediately wrote to Florence to correct his earlier letter. The new informant told the Florentine that there were many idolaters in India who worshipped cows, and only a few Christians. He added that the supposed churches “are in reality temples of idolaters, and that the pictures within them are those of idols and not of Saints.”

“To me,” Sernigi wrote home, “this seems more probable than saying that there are Christians but no divine administrations, no priests and no sacrificial mass. I do not understand that there are any Christians there to be taken into account, excepting those of Prester John.”

Soon, though, the informant changed his story. He was presented to the king, and he quickly realized that the way to get ahead was to say what was wanted, not to tell an unpalatable truth. His first act—alongside Monçaide, the merchant from Tunis—was to ask to be baptized. He took the name Gaspar, after one of the three Eastern kings who had followed the star to Bethlehem, and da Gama, after his captor, torturer, and now godfather. It turned out that Gaspar had been Jewish before he had become Muslim, but now that he was Christian he began to paint a fantastical picture of India’s religions. Christians, he explained, lived in fourteen Indian states, of which twelve were purely or very largely Christian. At least ten had Christian kings, and between them they boasted 223,000 foot soldiers, more than 15,000 cavalry, and 12,400 war elephants that each carried a dozen warriors in a wooden castle and charged forward with five swords protruding from its tusks.

Manuel was ecstatic. The well-traveled Gaspar, he was certain, had been sent by God to advance his great project. Time was of the essence if he was to forge alliances with India’s Christian rulers before his rivals stole a march, and he had four ships and two well-armed caravels readied to sail to India in the suggestive month of January 1500. The mission’s aims soon expanded from establishing trading bases to drubbing the African and Indian coasts, and the fleet swelled to thirteen ships. In command was Pedro Álvares Cabral, another minor nobleman and a knight of the Order of Christ; under him were more than a thousand men, including five priests. Cabral’s orders were to deliver a stark Crusading message to the Muslims and pagans of the Indian Ocean—convert, or die:

Before he attacked the Moors and idolaters of those parts with the material and secular sword, he was to allow the priests and monks to use their spiritual sword, which was to declare to them the Gospel, with admonitions and requisitions on the part of the Roman Church, asking them to abandon their idolatries, diabolical rites and customs, and to convert themselves to the faith of Christ, for all men to be united and joined in charity of religion and love, since we were all the work of one Creator, and redeemed by one Redeemer, who was Christ Jesus, promised by prophets, and hoped for by patriarchs for so many thousand years before he came. For which purpose they brought them all the natural and legal arguments which the Canon Rights disposes of. And should they be so contumacious as not to accept this law of faith, and should reject the law of peace, which ought to be maintained amongst men, for the conservation of the human kind, and should they forbid commerce and exchange, which are the means by which peace and love amongst all men is conciliated and obtained . . . in that case they should put them to fire and sword, and carry on fierce war against them.

Manuel had a very different message for the Christians. He gave Cabral a letter for the Zamorin of Calicut, in which he explained that the Portuguese had been led to India by the Hand of God and were about His business:

For one should truly believe that God, Our Lord, has not permitted this feat of our navigation solely in order to be served in trade and temporal profits between you and us, but equally in the spiritual profit of souls and their salvation, which we ought to place higher. He considers Himself better served by the fact that the holy Christian faith is communicated and joined between you and us as it was for six hundred years after the coming of Jesus Christ, until the time that, for the sins of men, there arose some sects and contrary heresies as predicted . . . and these sects occupy a great part of the Earth between your lands and ours.

Having delivered his public history lesson, Cabral was to convey another message in private. He was to request the Zamorin to banish every last Muslim from his harbors; the Portuguese would henceforth supply the commodities the Arabs had brought, only better and cheaper. Manuel gave his commander a final, top-secret order: if the Zamorin didn’t quietly consent to trade solely with the Portuguese, Cabral “should make cruel war upon him for his injurious conduct to Vasco da Gama.” The Zamorin might be a fellow Christian, but he was clearly misguided, and Manuel was in a hurry.

Cabral’s orders, which were drawn up with Gama’s advice, also instructed him to establish relations with the other Christian states of India and to do all he could to interfere with Muslim shipping. Among his captains were Bartolomeu Dias, the discoverer of the Cape of Good Hope, and Gama’s close comrade Nicolau Coelho. Pêro Escobar, the pilot of the Berrio, again went as a pilot, and João de Sá and other veterans of Gama’s mission were among the company. Gaspar da Gama was taken along as an interpreter, and also on board were the five men who had been brought as captives from Calicut and the young envoy of the sultan of Malindi.

Even with their combined experience, the mission lurched from mishap to disaster. Soon after the delayed fleet set out on March 9, 1500, a ship was lost off the Cape Verde Islands. When Cabral tried to replicate Gama’s sweep around the Atlantic, he set his course too far to the southwest and hit land. He thought he had discovered a new island, and after holding a mass and erecting a cross he sent one of his captains home with the unexpected news. A terrible tempest struck the remaining eleven ships off the Cape of Good Hope and four were lost with all hands, including the vessel captained by Bartolomeu Dias, who never saw his stormy Cape again. On the crossing to India another ship disappeared in bad weather, and the fleet’s strength was reduced to six.

By then it was late summer, and in line with his orders, Cabral stationed himself off the Malabar Coast to attack the Arab shipping that was expected from the north. The crews were confessed and received the sacraments, but the quarry failed to turn up for the hunt. Instead Cabral carried on to Calicut, where he arrived, flags flying and cannon blazing, in mid-September.

The old Zamorin had died shortly after Gama’s departure, and his ambitious young successor was much keener to open trade with the Europeans. Several local notables came straight out to the ships, followed by a welcoming committee, an orchestra, and the Zamorin himself. This time the Portuguese had come prepared with a treasure trove of gold and silver basins, ewers, and flagons, together with plenty of gold-colored soft furnishings including cushions, canopies, and carpets. Cabral presented Manuel’s remarkable letter, and though the Zamorin’s reaction to the Portuguese king’s expressions of joy at being united with his fellow Christian is not recorded, the Zamorin gave Cabral a royal grant engraved on a gilded plate that guaranteed the Portuguese security of trade. The meeting fell apart amid a panicky exchange of hostages, but within two months a permanent Portuguese factory was established in a large house behind the seafront, the royal coat of arms fluttering from its roof.

The Portuguese, though, soon discovered that they had arrived when the Arab fleets were already in port. The merchants who had run rings round Vasco da Gama had been unpleasantly surprised to see a much larger Portuguese fleet sail into view, and matters finally came to a head in December. The Portuguese seized a Muslim-owned ship that was leaving for Jeddah, claiming its departure violated their agreement with the Zamorin that they would be given first call in loading spices. In retaliation a large band of Muslim merchants attacked the new Portuguese factory. Seventy men, including the fleet’s priests, were trapped in the building. After three hours’ fighting they tried to force their way out and head to the boats, and nearly all were killed.

When a day passed with no message from the Zamorin, Cabral decided he had approved the assault and went on the rampage against the Arab ships in the harbor.

It was an uneven contest; the six Portuguese vessels far outgunned the entire Muslim fleet.

For centuries the trade of the Indian Ocean had rarely been ruffled by conflict, and it had no tradition of naval warfare. Its sewn ships were not stout enough to mount heavy guns, and their design made it almost impossible to adapt them to the new threat. In any case, while cannon had originated in China and had long been used by Muslim armies, they had only reached isolated patches of India and the few examples that existed were small and crude. Portugal, like all the maritime nations of Europe, had been waging war at sea for generations, and though its shipborne cannon were far from perfect, there was no denying their capacity to induce terror in a tight corner. Gunpowder might have taken the chivalry out of war, but it was the agent of Portugal’s empire in the East.

Cabral seized a dozen large vessels and killed, drowned, and imprisoned hundreds of men. He carted off their cargoes of spices along with three elephants, which were slaughtered and salted for food, and he burned the vessels. At night he ordered his captains to lower their boats and tow their ships as close as was safe to the shore. They lined up in front of the city, and at daybreak they opened fire. Cannonballs plowed into the crowds on the seafront and tore through houses and temples, killing hundreds more. “So great was the consternation,” it was reported, “that the zamorin fled from his palace, and one of his chief nayres was killed by a ball close beside him. Part even of the palace was destroyed by the cannonade.”

The Zamorin quickly changed his mind about his new allies. As Cabral was preparing to leave, a large war fleet appeared on the horizon. Before the two sides could engage, a sudden storm forced them to anchor for the night. The next morning Cabral thought better of renewing hostilities and broke for the open sea, with the boats from Calicut in hot pursuit until nightfall. The Portuguese commander heeded Vasco da Gama’s advice and made the crossing to Africa at the right time of the year, but near Malindi one of his ships was driven onto the shore in a storm. It caught fire and had to be abandoned, and only five of the thirteen vessels made it back to Lisbon.

The voyage had not been a complete loss. Acting on Gama’s intelligence, Cabral had discovered two notable African ports that his predecessor had bypassed—Sofala, the conduit for much of West Africa’s gold, and Kilwa, the island capital of a dynasty of sultans that had long dominated the Swahili Coast. He had been welcomed with marked friendliness by the chastened ruler of Mozambique, and the sultan of Malindi had been his usual hospitable self. He had made contact with Cannanore and Cochin, two busy Indian ports whose kings were on bad terms with the Zamorin. He had loaded his ships with spices in both cities, and he had left a party of men at Cochin to establish a factory. The vessel that had disappeared in the Indian Ocean finally resurfaced with the news that it had stumbled across Madagascar. Not least, the island Cabral had thought he had discovered on his outward journey turned out to be Brazil, and moreover, the coast was well to the east of the demarcation line established at Tordesillas. By complete accident Cabral had pulled off a historic first: his ships had touched four continents.

Europe’s horizons were expanding at a bafflingly fast rate, but Cabral would not reap the glory. He had found no Christian allies, and he had not made a single convert. He had lost hundreds of experienced sailors and half his fleet. He had let the merchants of Calicut destroy the Portuguese factory, and though he had exacted bloody revenge he had failed to stamp out the rebellion. All told, he had not been bold or successful enough for his king’s liking. It was a harsh judgment on a man who had been set an impossible task, but Cabral spent the rest of his life in disgrace.

Manuel put the best spin on things he could. A feast was held in the palace to mark the fleet’s return, bells pealed across Lisbon, a procession set off around the country, and more crowing letters were dispatched to Spain. But the king’s grandiose claims were in danger of looking threadbare, and many of his counselors once again urged him to take the glory and abandon the perilous enterprise. Besides, Manuel had sent many ships to fight the Turks and more to attack the Moroccans—none of which had met with much success—never mind the fleets that were even then headed into the North Atlantic to search for more lands on the Portuguese side of the line. The country was overextended and too many lives had already been lost; goodness knew, they murmured in private, how many more would be sacrificed to Manuel’s insane quest for world domination.

The king was not to be brooked. Before Cabral had even returned, Manuel had sent out another four ships under the command of João da Nova, a middling official with strong connections at court. By then, Manuel had assumed, Cabral’s intimidating fleet would have either made mass conversions or cowed India into submission, and Nova’s orders were merely to follow on where Cabral had left off.

According to one report, the new fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope and found a message left by Cabral in an old shoe hung from the branch of a tree. Having read of the ruction at Calicut, Nova set off across the Indian Ocean and burned and sank several ships around the Zamorin’s harbor. He visited the factory at Cochin and set up another at Cannanore, but as he waited for the monsoon to take him home, dozens of vessels crammed with armed Muslims sprang at him from Calicut. The Portuguese guns pounded at the boats, and as the light faded and the wind dropped, the Muslims hung out a flag of parley. Nova suspected a trick and carried on firing, but eventually, with his guns nearly burnt out, he answered with a flag of his own. The two sides agreed to desist until the next day, and a tense night followed with the enemies anchored at close quarters and the jittery Portuguese firing blindly into the dark. Like Cabral, Nova thought better of fighting another day, and the fleet returned to Lisbon in September 1502 with a large cargo of spices and a fine haul of booty.

It was not enough for the impatient king. To put the flagging Crusade back on track an overwhelming display of force was clearly needed, and it would have to be masterminded by Portugal’s most valiant knight.

There was only one man for the job.

VASCO DA GAMA had finally returned to Lisbon in the late summer of 1499. He was still in mourning for his brother, but he was not allowed to grieve for long.

After stopping to give thanks to God for preserving him from peril, he sent notice of his arrival to the king. Manuel dispatched a cortege of nobles to conduct him to court. Huge crowds pressed in, eager to see the new national hero whom they had long thought dead. When he came into the royal presence, the chronicles recorded, “the king honored him as one who by the discovery of the Indies had done so much for the glory of God, for the honor and profit of the king of Portugal, and for the perpetual fame of the Portuguese name in the world.”

Gama was asked to name his reward, and he chose the hereditary lordship of Sines, the town where his father had been governor. The title was granted him in December, but the Order of Santiago refused to give up its rights over its fiefdom, even to its own prodigal son. The explorer pressed his case in person, and as the matter dragged on, fights broke out between his servants and the governor’s men. Nearly two years later he was still waiting, and a substantial royal pension was cobbled together to make up for the dues he had been denied.

Meanwhile the king ordered his scribes to draft an elaborate grant letter that formally celebrated Gama’s great feat. The long letter traced the history of the discoveries from Henry the Navigator to Vasco da Gama himself. It recognized that Gama had triumphed over mortal dangers unlike any faced by his predecessors—dangers that had taken the lives of his brother and many of his men. It commended him for performing a “most excellent service” by discovering “that India, which all those who have given descriptions of the world rank higher in wealth than any other country, which from all time had been coveted by the Emperors and Kings of the world, and for the sake of which such heavy expenses had been incurred in this kingdom, and so many captains and others forfeited their lives.” It predicted that great advantages would flow from the discovery, “not only to our kingdoms but to all Christendom: the injury done to the infidels who, up to now, have enjoyed the advantages offered by India: and more especially the hope that all the people of India will rally round Our Lord, seeing that they may easily be led to a knowledge of His holy faith, some of them already being instructed in it.”

Princes, Manuel added, should be generous, and the details followed. Gama, his family, and their descendants were permitted to add the prefix Dom to their names, an honorific comparable to the English “Sir.” The explorer was appointed to the royal council. He was granted another substantial annual pension, to be paid in perpetuity to his heirs, and the right to send money to India every year to buy spices, which he could import free of royal duties. Finally, he was named Admiral of India, “with all the honors, prerogatives, liberties, power, jurisdiction, revenues, quit-rents, and duties that by right should accompany the said Admiralty.” Spain had Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea; now Portugal had Vasco da Gama, Admiral of India. The title outrageously flouted anything the Indians themselves might have to say about the matter, but to its intended audience nearer home the message was unmistakable: while Columbus had been busy sailing around the Atlantic, Gama had won the prize that both had sought.

It was a handsome settlement; Nicolau Coelho, who was also a fidalgo of the court, received about a tenth the amount. Besides, Gama was widely reported to have returned from India with a lucrative cache of pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, lac, and precious stones that he had bartered for his personal silverware.

Like every ambitious man of his age, though, he knew that real power lay with land and titles. He kept pressing for his promised estate, and meanwhile he set about courting the well-connected Dona Catarina de Ataíde. When they married, Gama’s pedigree rose another notch. Like most women of her time, Catarina has remained utterly inscrutable to history, though the large brood that gradually surrounded her suggests the match was not purely political.

Gama was a man on the make. When the opportunity to take charge of a great new fleet came his way, he could not resist the chance to redouble his stature.

It was a dangerous move worthy of a gambler who played the odds. If he succeeded in subduing India, he would strengthen his claims on the king’s favor. If he failed, he might suffer, like the hapless Cabral, the ignominy of royal neglect. He calculated the risks and took the bet.

On January 30, 1502, Vasco da Gama was formally commissioned as Admiral of India in Lisbon Cathedral. Among the throng of assembled dignitaries was one Alberto Cantino, the envoy of the Duke of Ferrara, and Cantino carefully reported the important occasion to his employer:

First, every one attended a sumptuous Mass, and when it was over, the above-mentioned Don Vascho, dressed in a crimson satin cape in the French style, lined with ermine, with cap and doublet matching the cape, adorned with a gold chain, approached the King, who was attended by the whole court, and a person came forward and recited an oration, praising the excellence and virtue of the King, and went so far as to make him superior in every way to the glory of Alexander the Great. And then, he turned to the Admiral, with many words in his praise and in praise of his late predecessors, showing how by his industry and vivacity he had discovered all this part of India, [and] when the oration was over, there appeared a herald with a book in his hand, and made the above-mentioned Don Vascho swear perpetual fidelity to the King and his descendants, [and] when this had been done, he knelt before the King, and the King taking a ring from his hand, gave it to him.

The royal standard was carried to the presiding bishop, who solemnly blessed it and returned it to the king. Manuel unsheathed a sword and placed it in his admiral’s right hand. He placed the standard in his left, and Gama rose to his feet and kissed the royal fingers. The rest of the knights and lords filed past and followed suit. “And thus it ended, with the most splendid music.”

Dom Vasco da Gama, Admiral of India, marched out of the cathedral to a trumpet fanfare, a figure far grander than the young adventurer who had set sail less than five years before.

AMONG THE GRANDEES who lined up that day to pay his homage was the young ambassador from Venice.

Spy or not, Pietro Pasqualigo had struck up a cordial relationship with the Portuguese king. Manuel had knighted him, and he had even asked him to be his son’s godfather. The personal warmth between the two men did not disguise the fact that Venice was increasingly horrified by Portugal’s obsession with the East. Nor did the shiny black gondola, its cabin festooned with gold cloth, that Venice sent Manuel in the month of Gama’s departure. The Most Serene Republic was still trying to convince the king to attack Muslims in the Mediterranean, rather than sail halfway around the world and strike at the trade arteries through which its lifeblood flowed.

Two months later, Venice changed tack and recalled its ambassador. Instead, in December 1502, the Signoria established a special giunta of fifteen prominent men to deal with the Portuguese peril.

Since persuasion had failed and cooperation was out of the question, the only remaining option was sabotage.

That same month, the giunta dispatched a confidential agent named Benedetto Sanuto to Cairo. Sanuto’s mission was to convince the sultan of Egypt that the Portuguese were as much a menace to Muslims as they were to the Venetians. He was mandated to suggest two strategies to counter the threat. The first was for the sultan to cut his custom duties so that the Venetians could compete with the Portuguese. Even Venice knew that was a long shot. The second was “to find rapid and secret remedies” to deter the Portuguese from sailing to India. The Venetians could not quite bring themselves to ask their Muslim allies to use force against their Christian competitors, but there was little doubt where their sympathies lay. If the Portuguese met with concerted opposition in India, Sanuto predicted, they would soon think again. Perhaps the sultan could have a word with the Zamorin of Calicut and urge him “to do the things that seemed appropriate to his wisdom and power.” There was little doubt, either, what he meant by that.

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