Post-classical history



FOR TWENTY-ONE YEARS, Dom Vasco da Gama had been busy hoarding the fruits of his fame.

The admiral had returned from India a rich man. He had brought back chests stuffed with luxury goods, including, it was rumored, a trove of magnificent pearls. The king had given him more lavish grants, he had allowed Gama to send his own men east to look after his interests, and he had exempted his whole household from paying taxes. Dom Vasco was even permitted to hunt in the royal forests and to collect fines from poachers.

He was not satisfied. Rank meant everything, and he was still a mere fidalgo, a gentleman of the court. The honor he desired most—the overlordship of his father’s town of Sines—continued to elude him. Typically, he moved his growing family there anyway and began building himself a lordly new home. The Grand Master of the Order of Santiago reported his presumptuous knight to the king, who had no choice but to order Dom Vasco, his wife, and his children to leave Sines within thirty days and never show their faces there again, under penalty of such punishment as was “meted out to those who do not obey the command of their king and lord.” Gama never returned to the town he had hoped to pass on to his descendants, and he switched his allegiance from the Order of Santiago to the Order of Christ.

Plenty of patricians thought the explorer’s pushiness was beyond the pale. For refusing to be satisfied with how far he had already risen above his origins, he was scolded as intemperate, ungrateful, and unreasonable. Gama pushed on regardless. In 1518—the year after Magellan had defected to Spain—he brought matters to a head by threatening to quit Portugal himself and offer his services abroad. To lose a couple of navigators to one’s rival was one thing; to lose one’s admiral was quite another. The king refused to let him go until he had cooled off for several months, “by which time we hope you will have seen the error you are committing and will decide to serve us again rather than take the extreme step you propose.” Dom Vasco stayed put, and the following year, twelve years after his brusque dismissal from Sines and sixteen after his return from India, he was invested as Count of Vidigueira. His elevation, the royal letter that delivered the news proclaimed, was a reward for his services, “especially in the discovery of the Indies, and the settling of them, from which there resulted, and results great profit not only to us and the Crown of our kingdoms and lordships, but generally universal profit to their residents and to all of Christianity, on account of the exaltation of Our Holy Catholic Faith.” Gama had always been politically active as an adviser on imperial affairs; now he was one of only nineteen high noblemen in the nation and a resplendent presence at ceremonial events.

When the young new king wooed the grand old man of fifty-five to return to the scene of his triumph, he decided to risk it all. The empire was his legacy, and the opportunity to remake it in his image was too important to refuse.

On April 9, 1524, Vasco da Gama set sail for India for the third and last time. With him came two of his sons: Estêvão, who at the tender age of nineteen was to assume the title Captain-Major of the Indian Seas, and Paulo, who was even younger. Before leaving, Gama had extracted from the king a guarantee that in the event of his death his titles and estates would pass directly to his eldest son, Francisco, who stayed safely at home.

Vasco da Gama had been a mere captain-major himself on his first voyage east. This time out, titles hung around him like impenetrable suits of armor. The Admiral of India and Count of Vidigueira was now Viceroy of India to boot. The new viceroy—only the second man, after Almeida, to bear that title—had received the commission shortly before he left, and he had sworn the solemn oath of fealty three times before the king.

It was in every way a major mission. State-of-the-art ordnance had been procured in Flanders and several large ships had been built to order; Gama’s flagship, the Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai, had as its figurehead the Alexandrian martyr who was condemned to die on a Roman torture wheel and was reportedly disinterred half a millennium later, her luxurious locks still growing. Altogether there were fourteen ships and caravels carrying three thousand men—and a few women. Many of the men were old India hands, and an unusual number were knights, gentlemen, and nobles who had been attracted or persuaded into serving with the great Gama. The women had sneaked on board at the last minute. Taking wives, lovers, or “comfort women” on the harrowing voyage was strictly forbidden, more for the morale-sapping quarrels their presence provoked than for the sake of their souls. The prohibition was regularly flouted; on one voyage, a passenger noted, the sailor who hoisted the mainsail was taken prisoner because he “kept a Concubine, which he had brought from Portugal, and she being with Child when she Embark’d, was brought to Bed in our Ship.” Gama, ever the disciplinarian, had vowed to put a stop to the onboard orgies; before leaving Lisbon he had had it proclaimed on ship and shore that any woman found at sea “should be publicly scourged, even though she were a married woman, and her husband should be sent back to Portugal loaded with fetters; and should she be a slave and a captive she should be confiscated for the ransom of captives: and the captain who should find a woman in his ship and not give her up should for that lose his commission.” The warning was also written on signs and nailed to the masts; no one could have missed it, or doubted that the count would carry out his word.

After the familiar trials of the voyage past the Cape, the fleet arrived in Mozambique on August 14. As soon as it anchored, three women were dragged over to the flagship. A vessel at sea was the least private place in the world, and it had been impossible to keep them hidden for long. Grim-faced at the insubordination that had broken out among the India crews, Gama took the women into custody to be dealt with later.

There was much worse in store. As he prepared to leave Africa, Gama sent a caravel to make his apologies and deliver letters and gifts to the ever-patient sultan of Malindi. The caravel’s crew, master, and pilot had already taken a violent dislike to their Majorcan captain. Once they were on their own they murdered him, then absconded toward the Red Sea to cruise for plunder.

Nature, too, seemed to be conspiring against the returning admiral. One ship ran into a reef off the African coast and had to be abandoned, though the crew was saved. As the southwest monsoon battered the fleet on the crossing to India, a ship and a caravel disappeared in mid-ocean and were never seen again. When the ten remaining ships neared the coast, the fierce wind gave way to a dead calm. Suddenly, during the daybreak watch, the water began to tremble violently, as if the whole sea were boiling. A tidal wave smacked into the hulls with such force that the sailors thought they had hit a huge shoal, and one man threw himself overboard. The rest struck the sails and lowered the boats, shouting out warnings as the vessels pitched and rolled. When they realized the entire fleet was firing off distress signals from its cannon, they cried to God to have mercy on them, certain they had been gripped by a diabolical force. They lowered the leads to sound the depth, and when the lines paid out without reaching the seafloor they crossed themselves even harder.

The tremors died down, then came back as strong as before. Again the ships lurched so violently that men toppled up and down the decks and chests skidded and banged from one end to the other. For an hour the convulsions came and went, “each time during the space of a Credo.”

The admiral stood planted on his deck like an oak. A doctor who dabbled in astrology had explained to him that the fleet had sailed into the epicenter of a submarine earthquake.

“Courage, my friends!” he shouted to his men. “The sea trembles for fear of you.”

Gama was back.

THREE DAYS AFTER the seaquake subsided, one of the ships captured a dhow on its way home from Aden. On board were sixty thousand gold coins and goods worth more than three times that amount. With no Zamorin to teach a lesson, Gama took the valuables and let the crew go. This time he was determined above all to set an example to his own people, and to avoid any semblance of impropriety, he ordered his clerks to itemize every last cruzado.

The Muslims inadvertently had their revenge. The coast, they had told their captors, was just three days’ sailing away. Six days later there was still no sight of land, and the more credulous crewmen began to whisper that it had been swallowed up in the quake. Panic gripped them when they recalled the forecast by several of Europe’s leading astrologers that a conjunction of all the planets in the house of Pisces was about to unleash a second Great Flood. A number of Portuguese nobles had prepared themselves by building mountaintop shelters stocked with enough barrels of crackers to last until the waters receded, though in the end the year turned out to be drier than usual.

It soon transpired that the ships had taken the wrong heading. Two days later they arrived in Chaul, the port where Lourenço Almeida had met his end. Another Portuguese fort had gone up there three years earlier, and a settlement had already grown around it.

Gama published the king’s commission that installed him as viceroy and set about business.

Vasco da Gama had never been a great dreamer. He was a loyal servant of his lord who unflinchingly carried out his commands, a born leader who set his course and unswervingly stuck to it, and from afar he had watched in disgust as his ocean turned into a free-for-all at a heavy cost to the crown. If he could, he dutifully declared, he “would make the King rich, as the greatest benefit the people could obtain was to have their King well supplied.” He was determined to clear away the scroungers and deadweights accumulated after a decade of bribery and patronage, and he had brought his own handpicked men to fill many posts. Chaul’s officers were summarily dismissed, and it was announced in the streets that anyone not there on official business was to embark immediately or lose his pay. Before leaving, Gama gave the new captain of the fort his first command: If Dom Duarte de Meneses, the governor whom Gama was replacing, showed up as expected, the captain was to refuse Meneses permission to disembark, disregard his orders, and only supply him with enough food to last four days.

Ignoring the appeals of his cabin-fevered and scurvy-ridden sailors to allow them ashore, Gama moved on to Goa. He was received with a public oration and lavish festivities and was carried in procession to the cathedral and the fort. The next day he relieved its captain, Francisco Pereira, of his command and opened an inquiry into a long list of accusations leveled against him by the townspeople. The charges included the imprisonment of his adversaries—among them the city’s lawyers and judges—without charge or trial, the seizure of their property, and the expulsion of their wives and children from their homes. Crowds arrived to denounce Pereira for more “great evil doings,” and Gama peremptorily sentenced the apoplectic former captain to pay reparations to them all.

Pereira had at least put the property he seized toward a good cause: a palatial hospital for the hundreds of Europeans who fell ill each year in the East. Yet so much money had been lavished on the hospital and the equally grandiose monastery of St. Francis that nothing had been left over for essentials, such as artillery. Gama took one look at the infirmary and its patients, some of whom appeared to be using it as a hotel, and ordered the doctor in charge not to admit anyone unless they could show their sores. Even the wounded were to be banned if they had been involved in a brawl; trouble with women, the viceroy stiffly pointed out, was invariably the cause, and there was no medicine for that. Meanwhile, the many sick men on board the ships had begun to complain bitterly at their treatment. Gama retorted that he knew exactly how to make them feel better, and he announced that their shares of the booty from the vessel he had seized were ready to be disbursed. The attraction also drew forth large numbers of inmates from the hospital; when they tried to return, they found they had been locked out.

There was still the case of the three women stowaways to be dealt with. The town crier proclaimed the sentence:

“The justice of the King our sovereign! It orders these women to be flogged, because they had no fear of his justice, and crossed over to India in spite of his prohibition.” It was, of course, Gama’s justice that was sovereign in the East, and it was his punishment that had to be meted out.

Portuguese women were a rarity in Goa, whatever the state of their souls, and their plight immediately became a cause célèbre. Franciscan friars, Brothers of Mercy, and even the bishop of Goa protested to the viceroy’s officials, and the gentlemen of the town offered a ransom for their release.

Gama paid no heed, and the flogging was fixed for the following day. Shortly before the appointed hour, the Franciscans and the Brothers of Mercy paraded to the viceroy’s residence waving a crucifix and announced that they had come to make a last plea for a pardon. Gama ordered them to return the crucifix to its altar, and when they came back he launched into a long harangue. Marching on his house under the sign of the cross, he said in icy tones, “was a kind of conspiracy, and done to show the people that he was cruel and pitiless,” and it must never happen again. When the brothers tried to explain the value of mercy, he brusquely retorted that mercy was for God, not men, and he vowed that if a single man dared commit a crime during his tenure, he would have him cut down inside the city gates.

The women were duly flogged, and the example had the intended effect. “The people were much scandalized at what happened to these women,” reported Gaspar Correia, a self-appointed chronicler who was in India at the time, “and judged the Viceroy to be a cruel man; but seeing such great firmness in carrying out his will, they felt great fear, and were wary, and reformed many evils which existed in India, especially among the gentlemen who were very dissolute and evil-doers.”

For all his dictatorial ways, the new viceroy was undoubtedly a man of much greater probity than his immediate predecessors. The members of Goa’s Municipal Council wrote a long report to King John III extolling Gama’s determination to serve the crown, to rectify abuses, and to redress injuries. They were particularly astonished that he refused to accept the gifts—a polite word for bribes—that were offered as a matter of course to new governors. Gama, though, was in a hurry to continue his work, and to the council’s dismay he moved on from Goa while petitioners were still lining up at his door. Leaving instructions that Dom Duarte de Meneses was not to be welcomed or obeyed there, either, he boarded a galliot and sailed down the coast, closely followed by his fleet.

In the long interval since Gama’s last visit, the river mouths and harbors on the way to Cochin had become infested with nests of militant Muslim pirates. Many were merchants who had been driven out of business and who nursed a deep hatred of the Portuguese. Every summer they fortified themselves with paan and opium and sailed out to make war on the occupiers; the threat of being put to forced labor for life in the king’s galleys made them more reckless, not less, and any Portuguese they captured who were not quickly ransomed were summarily killed. Gama had heard a great deal about the menace, and he insisted on nosing into the rivers to take a look for himself. The pirates spotted the intruders from their lookout towers, and to the viceroy’s indignation the extravagantly mustachioed men in their light, fast boats darted brazenly around the lumbering Portuguese ships, even when the eight-strong squadron that was intended to police the coast sailed into view. Gama immediately dispatched his son Estêvão with a flotilla of armed boats to teach them a lesson, and he stationed six ships in the bars of the rivers. When he had put his own house in order, he vowed, he would return to deal with the scourge.

The former governor was still at large, but Gama finally ran into his brother off the coast. Dom Luís de Meneses was sailing north from Cochin to meet Dom Duarte, who was due to return south from Hormuz. The flags went up and the drums and trumpets sounded, but Gama insisted that Luís turn back and accompany him to Cochin.

The fleet briefly stopped at Cannanore, where Gama replaced another captain and threatened to punish the new Kolattiri for allowing Muslims to do business in his city and for failing to root out the pirate lairs. The alarmed king handed over a leading Muslim, and the sacrificial victim was imprisoned and later hanged.

Steering clear of Calicut, which was still a thorn in Portugal’s side after twenty-six years, Gama arrived in Cochin in early November.

THE FLEET ANCHORED after dark, its guns firing a salute and inadvertently killing two men on a caravel. The flashes from the bombards also lit up a ship that had gone missing the night before and was sneaking into the harbor. It belonged to a merchant who had slipped away to steal a march on his competitors, and Gama clapped him in irons.

The next day Dom Luís sailed up on a richly decorated galley rowed by slaves, with the gentlemen of Cochin lining the poop deck and a lavish breakfast laid on a table, and offered to conduct Gama to land. He refused and set out for the city in his own boat.

Twenty-one years had passed since he had last been in Cochin, and much had changed. A new Portuguese town had grown up along the shore, and its leaders welcomed the new viceroy with an effusive oration. Clergymen with crucifixes conducted him to the main Portuguese church, and after the service the king stopped by on his elephant. Gama installed himself in the fortress, dismissed its captain, and set about refashioning the corrupt, bloated empire into a well-oiled machine run with martial efficiency from his office. Nominees for even the lowliest positions were ordered to report to the viceroy for a personal grilling. The clerks, some of whom were barely literate, were summoned to produce a writing sample in his presence. He insisted on personally licensing every captain, on pain of death if they tried to avoid his audit. He threatened to seize merchants’ vessels and property and banish them from the East if they carried on embezzling from the royal weighing houses. He revoked the pay and rations of married men, unless they were called up to fight or to serve on the ships. He investigated allegations that officials had been pocketing tax revenues, and he had several arrested. He forbade his captains to load barrels of wine without his express permission, and he banned men from fighting if they had not proved themselves in war. He would give the honors of the battle, he pointedly declared, to soldiers who won them with their sword arm, whether or not they were gentlemen.

The old explorer had always ruled his ships with steely discipline, and now he was adopting a zero-tolerance approach to running his empire. “He had it proclaimed,” reported Gaspar Correia, “that no seafaring man should wear a cloak except on a Sunday or Saint’s day on going to church, and if they did, that it should be taken away by the constables, and they should be put at the pump-break for a day in disgrace; and that every man who drew pay as a matchlock man should wear his match fastened to his arm. He upbraided the men-at-arms very much for wearing cloaks, because with them they did not look like soldiers. He ordered that the slaves they might have should be men who could assist in any labor, for they were not going to be allowed to embark pages dressed out like dolls on board the King’s ships.” Anyone who disliked the new austerity, the viceroy announced, was free to go back to Portugal, as long as he had no debts and was not under investigation. So as not entirely to depopulate the empire, he declared a three-monthamnesty during which crimes that predated his arrival would be pardoned. The period was reduced to one month for those who had purloined artillery; some of the captains and officers, it turned out, had been selling their guns to merchants, who had sold them to Portugal’s enemies, and they responded to requests for their record books by burning them.

Gama had set himself a punishing program, and he refused to slow down even as the heat mounted. Mornings and evenings he visited the beach and the warehouses to hurry up the unloading of the fleet. He dispatched two ships to Ceylon to buy cinnamon, and four to the Maldives to attack a nest of Muslim pirates who preyed on supply convoys crossing the Indian Ocean. He readied a squadron to head to the Red Sea under the command of his son Estêvão, and he summoned a Genoese master builder to design a fleet of new vessels that could outpace the pirate craft of the Malabar Coast. “Sir, I will build you brigantines which would catch a mosquito,” the shipwright answered.

There were more threats on the horizon. The Spanish had to be confronted; treaties or no treaties, Gama vowed, if he had his way Spain’s ships would mysteriously vanish, along with their crews. The Ottomans were massing to the north, and with every passing year it seemed increasingly likely that they would go all out to challenge Portugal’s control of the oceans. Meanwhile, a bishop had written to the Portuguese king to complain that the Zamorin and his Muslim subjects had been persecuting India’s Christians; many, he said, had been robbed and killed, and their houses and churches had been burned down. Once again, Gama planned to launch a massive attack against his old foe, and the old hatred came flooding back. As soon as the merchant fleet had left, he declared, “he would go and destroy Calicut and all the coast of India, so that there should not remain one Moor on land nor at sea.” Even in an empire troubled with internal strife and threatened by its Iberian neighbor, the fires of holy war still burned bright and true.

Many of the five thousand Portuguese in Cochin had had a much easier life before the Count of Vidigueira had shown up, and his iron-jawed rigor earned him plenty of enemies. Public meetings took on a menacing edge, and Christians as well as Muslims began to quit Cochin to conduct their business away from the viceregal gaze. The sidelined Dom Luís de Meneses was behind much of the dissent; half of Cochin, noted Gaspar Correia, seemed to eat at his table, and over dinner, plots began to be hatched. Matters came to a head when Luís’s brother Duarte finally reached Cochin after being cold-shouldered in Chaul and Goa. Gama had brought to India a long list of complaints against his predecessor, and he had begun, in secret, to call witnesses. Meneses, it was variously alleged, had used the king’s money for his own trade and had broken the royal spice monopoly. He had stolen the estates of Europeans who had died in India, and he had handed out slaves to soldiers and sailors in lieu of salaries. He had slept with the wives of European settlers, not to mention Hindu and Muslim women, and he had even taken bribes from Muslim rulers to go easy on them. As soon as the former governor sailed into the port, Gama sent a delegation to ban him from coming ashore and arranged to transfer him to a ship that would take him home as a prisoner.

Meneses was the son of a count, a powerful nobleman in his own right, a major figure in the Order of Santiago, and a renowned war leader. He had nothing but contempt for the new Count of Vidigueira, and he had taken his time in coming. Along the way he had stopped off to stock up his chests for the voyage home, and he had also brought with him a vast haul of booty, tributes, and bribes from Hormuz. He refused to hand it over, and he treated the viceroy’s emissaries with lordly disdain. Meneses had, though, reckoned without the loyalty that Gama inspired in men who admired his determination to serve his lord. When he reminded one member of the delegation that his father had personally made him a knight, the messenger retorted that he would cut off his own father’s head if the king commanded it.

The ousted governor had still not officially handed over power, and he waited in the harbor, hoping that events would somehow conspire to rid him of the self-righteous viceroy. His supporters kept him well informed about events on land, and they soon gave him startling grounds for hope.

Vasco da Gama had been suffering for days from severe and inexplicable pains. Hard boils had broken out at the base of his neck, and it became sheer agony to turn his head. He took to his room in the fortress and issued orders from his bed. His forced confinement, Gaspar Correia reported, brought on “great fits of irritation, with the heavy cares which he felt on account of the many things which he had to do, so that his illness was doubled.” Soon the pain became so excruciating that he was only able to croak out commands in a hoarse whisper.

Secretly, at night, Gama called his confessor to his side. He was moved to the house of a Portuguese grandee, and he summoned his officials to join him. He made each man sign an oath to press on with his plans until another governor replaced him. Then he confessed and took the sacraments.

As he drew sharp breaths and murmured his last wishes, his clerk wrote down his will. He told his sons to go back to Portugal with the spice fleet and take with them any of his servants who so desired. He directed them to give his clothes and best furniture to the churches and hospital; the rest of his belongings they were to take home, not selling anything. He asked for his bones to be returned to Portugal, and he charged one of the witnesses to write to the king, begging him to look after his wife and sons and to take on his attendants. Finally, or so it was later rumored, he ordered a large sum of money to be sent to each of the three women he had flogged at Goa, so they could find good husbands and marry.

He died at three o’clock in the morning. It was Christmas Eve, 1524.

NO ONE CRIED, no one wept. The house was silent. The doors stayed shut all day. After dark his sons and his servants announced his death, and many of his friends and relatives came to mourn. Soon the entire city had gathered in the nearby courtyard of the Portuguese church.

The mood was solemn, but for some relief outweighed their grief. “The captains, factors, scriveners and other officials would be very satisfied at the death of the viceroy,” one of Gama’s admirers wrote to the king four days after his death, “for they do not wish to have the justice in their own house that he brought.”

The great explorer’s body was dressed in silks. His gilded belt was buckled around his waist, and his sword was placed in its scabbard. His spurs were fastened on his buskins, and his square cap was placed on his head. Finally, the mantle of the Order of Christ was draped over the old Crusader’s back.

The uncovered bier was moved into the hall of the house. The coffin bearers, each wearing the cloak of a military brotherhood, raised it on their shoulders. Gama’s loyal men walked alongside holding lit tapers, and the towns people followed. For good or ill, none of them would have been in India were it not for Vasco da Gama.

The Count of Vidigueira, Admiral and Viceroy of India, was buried in the simple Franciscan church of St. Anthony. The next day the friars said a dignified funeral mass, with Gama’s sons sitting in their midst. At night the two young men came back to the church to grieve in private, “as was reasonable,” said Gaspar Correia, “on losing so honored a father, and of such great deserts in the kingdom of Portugal.

“For it pleased the Lord,” he continued, “to give this man so strong a spirit, that without any human fear he passed through so many perils of death during the discovery of India . . . all for the love of the Lord, for the great increase of his Catholic faith, and for the great honor and glory and ennobling of Portugal, which God increased by His holy mercy to the state in which it now is.”

GAMA HAD BROUGHT to India a letter of succession sealed with the king’s insignia. It was ripped open in church and was read aloud. To his indignation, Duarte de Meneses discovered that he and his brother were out of a job.

The spice fleet sailed for home with Gama’s sons and the Meneses brothers on board. The disgruntled brothers made life as difficult as possible for the two young mourners, but in the end they got more than they gave. Luís de Meneses’s ship was lost in a storm after rounding the Cape; a French pirate later revealed that his brother had seized it and had killed Luís and his crew before setting it on fire. Dom Duarte was nearly shipwrecked, too, but he finally made it to Portugal. It was rumored that he stopped off on the coast to bury his treasure while his ship sailed on to Lisbon. The ship sank before it reached the port; some said it was sabotage to cover up the theft of riches that should have been the crown’s. Whether for that reason or for his other nefarious activities, the king slung Dom Duarte in prison for seven years. The buried treasure, of course, was never found.

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