Post-classical history



THE YOUNG KING who had sent Vasco da Gama to fix his Indian problem soon succumbed to his dynasty’s delusions of grandeur. Like his father he, too, began to fantasize about wringing the Indian Ocean drop by drop until it was purified into a Christian lake. More brutal campaigns were waged against Muslims, more forts went up, and Gama’s drive to rein in the unwieldy empire was quickly forgotten. As its outposts were flung still farther across the map and the annual spice shipments that reached Lisbon barely covered the cost of maintaining the garrisons, Portugal steadily evolved into a territorial power, its income dependent on taxing peasants.

With spices still a royal monopoly, Portuguese ships backed by European merchants began to crisscross the Indian Ocean carrying Persian horses to India, Indian textiles to Indonesia and East Africa, and Chinese silks and porcelains to Japan. The so-called country trade proved more profitable than the long Cape route, and the Portuguese soon outstripped Muslim merchants in Asia; by the mid-sixteenth century pidgin Portuguese had replaced Arabic as the language of commerce in ports across the East. Yet as regular links with Portugal were increasingly severed, large swaths of the empire became all but impossible to control.

Only the hardiest and most desperate men were eager to serve in the remotest corners of the earth, and like their Crusader forebears, many who went east had small horizons at home. They were determined to live like lords, and they were not overly fussy about how they made their fortunes. As dropouts, jailbirds, criminal gangs, kidnapped youths, and penniless younger sons poured out of Portugal, shocking tales of depravity began to filter back to Europe.

The French traveler Jean Mocquet penned the most devastating of many exposés. As apothecary royal to the king of France, Mocquet was responsible for concocting the king’s drugs from a global range of resins, minerals, and aromatics. Perhaps because of his daily exposure to the exotica of the East, he developed a bad case of wanderlust. The king granted him permission to roam the globe on condition that he brought back weird and wonderful souvenirs for the royal cabinet of curiosities, and Mocquet set out on a ten-year odyssey. After he had visited Africa, South America, and Morocco, his fourth voyage took him to Goa. Like many of the era’s adventurers, he kept an exhaustive account of his travels, and he sat down and dashed off page after page devoted to trashing the Portuguese.

By the mid-sixteenth century Goa had grown into a colonial city grand enough to earn the sobriquet “Rome of the East.” Its streets and squares were lined with fifty churches and numerous convents, hospices, and colleges staffed by thousands of ecclesiastics. Its lofty white cathedral was the seat of an archbishop whose dominion stretched from the Cape of Good Hope to China. The governor’s palace, public buildings, and potentates’ mansions were magnificent examples of Renaissance and early Baroque architecture sprouting among the lush Indian foliage, and pomp and pageantry filled the streets to celebrate festivals and victories. Barely hidden behind the stately facade, though, was a frontier town of bars, brothels, and brawls where gangs of soldiers roamed the streets and a self-appointed Portuguese aristocracy wielded power at the point of a sword.

The social pressure on new arrivals was intense. As soon as they stumbled half dead off the ships in their home-style clothes, they were jeered at with such venom—“licehead” was a favorite insult—that they hid in their lodgings, under a boat, or at the back of a church until they worked out how to pawn their cloak or sword and dress like old hands. Within weeks, Jean Mocquet acerbically noted, they began calling themselves gentlemen, “tho they be but Peasants and Tradesmen.” One gallant named Fernando, he reported, had caught the eye of a rich woman and was parading around decked out in gold chains and attended by a retinue of slaves when he was recognized by the son of his old employer in Portugal. Fernando pretended not to know him and asked who he was, “to which the other made answer, Was he not the same who formerly kept Hogs for my Father; This Gallant hearing this, drawing him aside, told him, he was, and was here called Don, and was looked upon as a great Gentleman, praying him to hold his peace, and gave him Money; yet this hindered not his being known by several, who made their own profit thereof.” Other newcomers were less fortunate: if they breathed the truth, they were quickly roughed up. Even lowly soldiers equipped themselves with a boy to carry their parasol or cloak and assumed an air of majestic gravity, and if they quarreled—as they often did—any of their gang who refused to back them to the hilt was cast out and was fair game, too.

At its high point Goa was home to more than two hundred thousand inhabitants—as many as lived in Paris, more than in London or Lisbon itself. Only a few thousand, though, were Portuguese, and most of those were mestiços, or the mixed-race offspring of colonists and indigenous women. The rest were Hindus, Indian Christians, and slaves, who were kept in large numbers by every Portuguese household and by every seminary, monastery, and nunnery. None were well treated. Indians who failed to bow down to the new rulers or doff their caps were slashed with swords, cudgeled with bamboo poles, or beaten with long sandbags. One cabal of captains set out at night to steal a golden idol from a Hindu temple, pausing to torch the nearby houses to cause a diversion. Inside they found five hundred temple women dancing an all-night vigil. At the sight of the intruders the dancers linked their arms and legs together, and before the Portuguese could prize them apart the fires they had lit began licking at the walls. They snatched the jewelry from the women’s ears, hacked off their fingers to get their rings, and beat a hasty retreat without the idol. The women, it was reported, “made such a lamentable noise, that ’twas a great pity to hear them: The Portugals flying away from the Fire, let all these Religious young Women to be Burnt, none being able to succor them; and thus cruelly do the Portugals treat their best Friends and Confederates.”

No doubt the dancers had feared for their honor, because women were rarely safe in Portuguese India. Especially vulnerable were mestiços who retained their ties to the Indian community and unmarried daughters with any portable property. The latter’s slaves were bribed to gain access to them, they were swept off on a whirlwind elopement, and when their lovers had gambled their way through their jewelry they were regularly strangled and buried, in at least one case under the floorboards of their own lodgings. Portuguese husbands, meanwhile, were paranoid that their mestiço wives were drugging them while they cavorted with lovers before their insensate eyes; they were so suspicious, warned Mocquet, that it was courting disaster to look their womenfolk in the face, while if they saw them speaking to another man,

they presently Strangle or Poison them; and when they have Strangled them, they call their Neighbours to their Succour, saying, that a Swooning Fit has taken their Wife upon the Chair; But they never come again to themselves: Sometimes they send for a Barber to Blood them, saying, that they are not well; When the Barber is gone away, they undo the Fillet, and let the Blood run out until the poor miserable Creature dies; and then also they call in the Neighbours, to see as they say, what a sad Disaster has happened to their Wife in Sleeping.

Others took their wives for a dip in a brook or pond, “and there make them Drink their Belly full; and a little while after, send their Slaves to look for their Mistress, whom they find Drown’d, which the husband knowing before, seems to be mightily astonished and grieved at.” He knew of some, the Frenchman added, who had done away with three or four wives, though women, too, reportedly rid themselves of adulterous husbands, usually with the help of poison. Many blamed it on the climate: it was, said Mocquet, “so hot, that where any Man can only have the means to speak with a Woman or Maid, he is sure to obtain of them what he desires.”

Most egregious of all was the colonists’ treatment of slaves. Hundreds at a time, seized across Asia and Africa, were stripped and displayed on the auction block in Goa, where they went for less than a tenth the cost of an Arabian horse. Girls sold as virgins were examined to make sure their hymens were intact; some were kept as concubines, others were doused in perfumes and sent out to prostitute themselves. Whatever their task, Mocquet claimed, slaves who dissatisfied their master or mistress were beaten to the point of death. “For they run them through with double Irons, then give them with a Cudgel, 500 blows at a time, and make them lie along the ground on their Belly, and then come two, who by turns strike the poor Body as a Log of Wood.” If an owner was particularly religious, Mocquet sharply noted, he kept a count of the blows on his rosary. “And if by chance they who thus strike are not strong enough to his mind, or have an inclination to spare their Companion, he causes them to be put in the place of the Patient, and to be soundly banged without any Mercy.”

Of Mocquet’s long litany of accusations, it was this vicious mistreatment that shocked even a violent age. The Frenchman piled example on example to make his point. At night at his lodgings, he wrote, he was kept awake by the noise of blows “and some weak Voice, which Breathed a little, for they stop their Mouth with a Linnen Cloth, to hinder them from crying out. After they have been well beaten, they cause their Bodies to be sliced with a Razor, then rub it with Salt and Vinegar for fear it should Fester.” Sometimes, he claimed, owners made their slaves lie on their bellies, heated a shovel until it was red hot, and dripped lard from it on their naked flesh. One Indian girl came running to his lodgings, “crying out for help, and praying me to be a means to obtain Mercy; but I could not save her, to my great Sorrow; For she was taken and laid all along on the Ground and Bastinadoed without pity.” A mestiço woman had killed five or six slaves and had buried them in her garden; while she was punishing her latest victim, the slave administering the blows left off and told his mistress she was dead. “ ‘No, no,’ she answered, ‘she counterfeits . . . Lay on, lay on, ’tis an old Fox.’ ” One slave who was slow to answer her owner’s summons had a horseshoe nailed on her back and died soon after of gangrene; another had her eyelids sewn to her eyebrows. A male slave was hung up by his hands for two or three days for spilling some milk, and afterward he was “well Bang’d.” When Mocquet heard a young woman being beaten in his own lodgings, his host’s brother explained that it was nothing to what others had endured:

He told me also, how his Brother, who was Master of the Lodging, having one day bought a Japan Slave, a beautiful Girl, and how in Dineing with his Wife, he happened to say in Jesting, that this Slave had exceeding White Teeth, his Wife said nothing at present, but having watched her opportunity when her Husband was abroad, she caused this poor Slave to be taken and bound, and pluck’d all her Teeth out without Compassion; And another’s Privy-Parts, whom she conceited her husband entertained, she ordered a red-hot Iron to be run up, of which the miserable Creature Died.

“Such,” Mocquet concluded, “is the cruel and Barbarous treatment, which the Portugals and others use to their slaves of Goa, whose condition is worse than that of Beasts.” Years later, the experience still made him shudder with horror.

Justice was rarely done. Posses of Portuguese pulled on masks, barged into houses at dinnertime, and swept the plate off the tables into their swag bags; then they demanded a bribe to return it, and another not to kill the master of the house. In case they were caught they had bags of gunpowder at the ready, with matches tied around them, and they threatened to blow up anyone who approached. Murderers ran away to the mainland and waited for an amnesty to be declared: with desertions rife, soldiers were always in demand. Successive governors, meanwhile, lined their pockets and tyrannized the poor. Vast quantities of spices, gold, and ivory vanished without ever showing up in the royal ledgers. Captains pocketed half the money they were allowed for provisions and left their men on half rations, adding starvation to the toll from scurvy, cholera, dysentery, and malaria. In desperation the crown cut back the royal cargo fleets and sold the captaincies of the forts to the highest bidders for three-year terms. That only encouraged the debt-laden officials to pump the system all the harder before their time was up. One captain of Sofala murdered one Muslim merchant to whom he was deeply in debt, went on a killing spree to shore up the position of another Muslim merchant with whom he was in cahoots, and tried to stab to death the king’s factor when he complained. The Portuguese East had become a forerunner of the Wild West, with soldiers paid in gold dust by the carat and captains shooting up each other’s ships.

The forces of lawlessness that had been the camp followers of every previous Crusade had been exported east. Violence bred violence. When the king of Siam captured some miscreant Westerners, reported Mocquet, he showed little self-restraint:

For some of them he causes to be put stark-naked in Frying Pans of Copper, upon the Fire and thus to be roasted by little and little: Others he causes to be put betwixt two great Fires and set down, and thus to Die in Torments; others, he exposes in the Park of his Elephants to be crushed and knocked down by them, and a thousand sorts of barbarous Cruelties, which he exercises upon these poor Portugals.

Southeast Asia had hardly been an enlightened place before the Portuguese had appeared. The same Siamese ruler, when he heard that his commanders had failed to turn up for battle because their wives could not bear their absence, “sent for these Women, and having caused their Privy Parts to be cut off, and to be fastened upon their Husbands Foreheads, he caused them thus to walk about all the City, and then to have their Heads choped of.” Sorcerers reportedly so inflamed one Burmese king against his people that he resolved to exterminate them all: for three years he forbade anyone, on pain of death, to plow or sow the land, and the country resorted to cannibalism. Yet the Portuguese were foreign devils, and as their aggressions mounted, their former friends turned on them one by one. “The Portuguese are much detested in almost all the parts of the Indies,” a Venetian ambassador to Spain reported with no little satisfaction, “as the countrymen have seen that they go about fortifying themselves little by little, and making themselves the lords of those lands. . . . I think that the difficulties will increase every day.”

Amid all the troubles the original purpose of the Portuguese explorations was virtually forgotten. Portugal’s Crusading kings had planned to siphon vast wealth out of the Islamic East and into Christian Europe, then conquer and convert the Infidels and heathens of the world. The first part of the plan had met with some success, even though much of the money ended up in pockets other than their own. Yet if faith had led the charge to the East, to the majority of the empire builders who followed it came a distant second to the scramble for filthy lucre.

The Portuguese were fond of claiming that their arrival in the East had stopped all of India from succumbing to Islam. They had certainly pummeled the Muslims of the Malabar Coast, who responded to their loss of power by seeking martyrdom in a jihad that intermittently lasted into the twentieth century. Even so, their policies were hardly designed to win converts to the Christian way of life, let alone to usher in the universal Christendom of which their kings had dreamed. Eventually they resorted to the old stratagem of forced conversions, and the dark figures of the Inquisition arrived to stalk the streets of Goa.

AS EARLY AS 1515, Manuel I had petitioned the pope to establish the Inquisition in Portugal.

Manuel’s request was yet another consequence of his marriage to the daughter of the Catholic Monarchs. Early in their reign Ferdinand and Isabella had pressured Rome into authorizing the revival of religious tribunals to torture, try, and execute heretics, a practice that had been dormant since the early thirteenth century. By the time Manuel made his request, the Inquisition had already wreaked such havoc that the papacy delayed its debut in Portugal by twenty-one years. Four years later, in 1540, the first batch of marranos was publicly sentenced at the first Portuguese auto da fé, and the burnings began.

By then John III had become as evangelical as his father, and he was increasingly embarrassed by his colonists’ unchristian lifestyle. Violence, naturally, was not the problem; what was really worrying was that so many settlers had succumbed to the earthy pleasures of India and had gone native. The king turned to the newly formed Society of Jesus, all but one of whose founders, including Ignatius Loyola himself, were Spanish or Portuguese. In 1541, a year after John had ordered the destruction of every Hindu temple in Goa, the Jesuits sent Francis Xavier, a Basque from Navarre, to the East.

Xavier’s labors to improve the colonists’ morals evaporated in a sultry haze of indifference. After four years he gave up the struggle and wrote to King John, recommending that the Inquisition be installed at Goa as the only way to cleanse his colony. Xavier left for Indonesia, where his evangelism found a much more receptive audience, and died while trying to reach China several years before the Inquisition finally arrived.

By then Portugal had had more than half a century to shepherd Africa and India into the Catholic fold. Rome had begun to take a dim view of what it saw as Portuguese apathy, and it reminded the king that it had only given him authority over the lands he discovered on condition that he spread the faith. Since the quid pro quo seemed to have been forgotten, the Church threatened to throw open Asia to all comers. The threat worked, after a fashion. The colonial government offered rice to poor Hindus and jobs to the higher castes if they submitted to baptism. Many of the “Rice Christians” were dunked under water, took their reward, and carried on with life as normal.

In theory the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over Christians, but its first act was to outlaw the open practice of Hindu rites on pain of death. Having only recently been mistaken by Vasco da Gama and his contemporaries for Christians, Hindus found themselves herded into churches to hear their religion ridiculed and were subjected to a regime of discrimination that ranged from the petty—prohibitions against riding on horseback or being carried in palanquins—to the ruinous. At the latter end of the scale were bans on Christians employing Hindus and on Hindus employing Christians. More Indians lined up for baptism, failed to shake off their old habits of keeping small idols or chanting under their breath, and like the Rice Christians, found themselves caught under the Inquisition’s burning lens of religious purification.

Many “New Christians” who had fled the Inquisition in Portugal also became its victims in India. Hundreds were burned at the stake in the cathedral square, and thousands sought refuge in Muslim territory. Finally, the inquisitors turned on the St. Thomas Christians who had been so eager to give their allegiance to Vasco da Gama and his nation. In 1599, on the grounds that they practiced a heretical form of Eastern Christianity, they were converted en masse to Catholicism. Their books were burned, their ancient liturgical language was banned, and their priests were imprisoned and targeted by assassins. As the dungeons and torture chambers filled up, the inquisitors awarded themselves their victims’ property and connived with the colonial government to terrorize them into submitting to Portuguese control.

The Goan Inquisition was one of the most brutal and iniquitous of all those scandalous tribunals of the soul. It was also spectacularly unsuccessful. Obsessing over doctrinal purity was no way to convert people who came from radically different religious traditions. Missionaries who tried to understand those traditions and graft native churches onto them were much more effective, though some were persecuted by the Inquisition for their very success. The educated Jesuits, who on the whole were mercifully free of the inquisitors’ superiority complex, arrived in China, learned the language, and dressed their hair and beards in the local style; even though preaching in public meant instant death, they made large numbers of converts, among them influential mandarins and even a few regional governors. Yet they, too, were hampered by the rebarbative behavior of their Portuguese hosts, while Jean Mocquet had a typically caustic explanation for the missionaries’ grueling experiences in Japan. The Japanese, he reported,

who are a subtile and wary People, seeing that the design of the Portugals, after having made them Christians, was to dispossess them of their Lands and Goods by all inventions; therefore they did not care for their Amity, much less did they desire ’em to Govern, and this perhaps was one of the causes that they have Martyred so many Jesuits who were utterly innocent of all this: For these Japans are mightily Jealous of their Wives, and the Portugals had no other aim but to gain them, especially those of the greatest, with whom afterwards they do what they please.

“I have found out in the Indies,” Mocquet blisteringly added, “that the Whoredoms, Ambition, Avarice, and Greediness of the Portugals, has been one of the chiefest causes why the Indians become not Christians so easily.” For all the Frenchman’s anti-Portuguese prejudice, the missionaries had no hope of making major inroads without the sheltering umbrella of an effective empire, and many met with a martyr’s death.

Strangely, while Hindus and Christians were persecuted with increasing enthusiasm, the animus against Muslims that had driven Vasco da Gama to India was muted for a long while.

It was not for want of Muslim threats. In 1524 an Uzbeki warlord named Babur, who was terrifyingly descended from Tamerlane on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s, rode into India through the mountain passes of Afghanistan. Babur had decided to retake his rightful inheritance, and he founded the Delhi Empire of the House of Timur, called by Europeans the Mughal Empire. The Mughals swept across northern India, but they had no navy to challenge Portugal’s supremacy at sea and the Portuguese pragmatically refused to fight them. More alarmingly for the Westerners, the increasingly almighty Ottoman Empire finally refocused its attention on the seaways of the East. Muslims and Christians fought sea battles from India to Indonesia, but the Ottomans never managed to project their naval power convincingly beyond the Red Sea. In 1538, a massed fleet of eighty warships set out from Egypt to wage “holy war . . . and to avenge the evil deeds of the Portuguese infidels” once and for all, but a second Battle of Diu ended in a comprehensive Portuguese victory and by 1557 the Turkish threat had lifted for good.

Closer to the hub of Portugal’s activities, the once-formidable Vijayanagar Empire finally fell in 1565 to the Muslim sultans across its borders. The sultans’ armies marched to the coasts to oust the Portuguese, and the colonists only held on to Goa after a brutal ten-month siege. Yet long before then, most of the empire’s freewheeling monopoly holders had decided it was more profitable to ally with Muslim merchants than to try to uproot them. So had the increasing numbers of wanted men and deserters from the fleets who wandered around Asia and Africa, married into local trading networks, and adopted the local lifestyle and beliefs. Many eked out a living as middlemen to the empire, which gradually became barely recognizable as a Portuguese empire at all. In East Africa a sort of mercenary convivencia was established, and it endured until the 1570s, when a young Portuguese king caught Crusading fever and sent new armies to massacre Muslims around the Indian Ocean.

As the sixteenth century drew to a close, the Crusader fleets petered out for good. The reason was simple. There were no longer enough Portuguese who were willing and available to sail to the East.

DEATH HAD ALWAYS stalked the explorers, but in an age that held life cheap the risk had been worth the reward. Men who lived in hope of heaven and fear of hell had been eager to serve as Crusaders; men born into poverty had hungered to touch the wealth of the East. Yet the wealth had stuck to the fingers of the elite, and faith had proved a poor defense against disease, famine, and storms. Even the devout had begun to wonder whether God had really chosen them to carry out His plan. Christians or not, Portugal’s greatest chronicler lamented in the mid-sixteenth century, “It seems that—on account of our sins or as a result of some judgment of God hidden from us—at the entrance to this great land of Ethiopia where our ships go, he placed a menacing angel with a sword of fire in the form of mortal fevers which prevent us from penetrating into the interior to find the springs which water this earthly garden and from which flow down into the sea, in so many of the regions we have conquered there, rivers of gold.”

In the three decades following Vasco da Gama’s first voyage, perhaps eighty thousand Portuguese men—and a few women—had set out for the colonies. Perhaps eight thousand had returned. For a nation of a million men, women, and children it was an insupportable loss. As the dreaded plague once again struck Portugal and cut down countless more lives, towns and villages across the kingdom emptied and sleepily decayed.

Complete collapse was only averted when the attractions of the East began to wear off.

The voyage around Africa had always been a deadly obstacle course. Now it had become tediously familiar, too. There were no new coastlines to explore, people to encounter, or stars to chart, and there was little hope of finding fabulous wealth at the end. The Portuguese still clung to the old system that separated sailors from soldiers and put both under the command of men qualified by birth rather than ability, and shipboard brawls became a depressingly regular feature of life at sea. They broke out all the more as merchants commissioned towering two-thousand-ton vessels that were built for their carrying capacity, not for seaworthiness or comfort. With their rearing castles and bulbous hulls the ships’ design had changed little since Vasco da Gama’s time, and the bigger they got, the more top-heavy and unstable they became. They were overloaded with goods and passengers, they were badly maintained and crewed by inexperienced hands and slaves, and out of every four, one met with disaster.

Of all the Portuguese vessels lost to shipwreck, piracy, and war, the fate of one reverberated on every subsequent voyage.

In February 1552 the São João left Cochin, its holds crammed with one of the greatest hauls of all time. It was late in the season, and it sailed into a storm near the Cape of Good Hope. The mainmast and rudder sheared off, and the ship crashed into the coast of Natal. A hundred and twenty survivors—among them the captain, a nobleman named Manuel de Sousa de Sepúlveda, and his wife, Dona Leonor—dragged themselves ashore with as many valuables as they could stuff under their clothes. They had no provisions, they were soon parched and starving, and when they encountered a group of Africans, they asked to be taken to their king.

The king sent word that strangers were not allowed to enter his village, but if they camped under a clump of trees he would give them food. Since they had no idea where they were, they did as they were told, ate the food they were given, and decided to wait until another ship passed by. To defend themselves they had just five muskets they had rescued from the wreck.

Manuel de Sousa sent one of his men to ask for a house for himself, his wife, and his two small sons. The king replied that he would lend him one, but only if his people split up among the local villages, since he could not feed them all. His chiefs, he added, would lead them to their new homes and would take care of them, but first they had to lay down their weapons. Ignoring the advice of a chief who warned the castaways to stick together—and the protests of his wife, who was made of stronger stuff than her husband—Sousa ordered his men to hand over their muskets.

“You lay down your arms,” Dona Leonor said sadly, “and now I give myself up for lost with all these people.”

The captain abandoned all pretense of leadership and told his people to make their own way home. He would stay where he was, he said, and die with his family if it pleased God. The Africans led the sailors in groups through the bush to their villages, where they stripped them, robbed them, and beat them. Back in the king’s village Manuel de Sousa, his family, five women slaves, and a dozen or so men who had stayed with him were relieved of their jewels and coins and were told to go and find the others.

Many of the scattered party had managed to regroup, but no one took charge. Without arms, clothes, or money they trekked across the arduous terrain, some taking to the woods, some to the mountains. The humiliated and half-delirious captain set off on their track with the rest of his weakening party, but they had barely started out when more Africans fell upon them, stripping them of their clothes and wounding Sousa in the leg. Dona Leonor tried to fend off her assailants with her fists, but her husband begged her to let herself be stripped, “reminding her that all are born naked and that, since this was the will of God, she should submit.” With her sons crying and begging for food she threw herself on the ground and covered her modesty with her long hair, scrabbling in the sand to bury herself to the waist. She refused to move, even when her old nurse gave her the torn mantle with which she was protecting her own dignity, and she never moved again.

The other men stood off in embarrassment. “You see how we are and that we can go no further, but must perish here for our sins,” Leonor said to one, the pilot of the wrecked ship. “Go on your way and try to save yourselves, and commend us to God. If you should reach India or Portugal at any time, say how you left Manuel de Sousa and me with my children.”

Most of the men shambled into the bush, while Sousa, his wound suppurating and his mind wandering, dragged himself off to look for fruit. When he came back, Dona Leonor was half faint from weeping and hunger, and one of his sons was dead. He buried the little body in the sand. The next day he returned to find the slaves crying over the corpses of his wife and his other son. He sent the women away and sat motionless, his chin resting on his hand, staring fixedly at his wife’s body. After half an hour he got to his feet, made a hollow in the sand, and buried the rest of his family. When he was finished, he disappeared into the bush and was never seen again.

Three of the women slaves managed to escape to Goa, where they told the sorry tale. Thirty-seven years later another Portuguese ship was wrecked not far away, and a local chief who came to see the castaways cautioned them not to travel overland, as thieves would rob and kill them. “He added that his father had warned Manuel de Sousa de Sepúlveda of this when he had passed that way,” a chronicler recorded, “and he was lost through not following his advice.” Instead the sailors waded out to an islet and camped in a deserted Portuguese settlement that had been built by ivory traders. As the sailors and soldiers began to bicker and fight, the captain—another Portuguese nobleman—shut himself up in a half-derelict hut and begged his men to leave him alone, “since he was old and weary, and finding himself with his wife in these straits, he determined to lead a hermit’s life there, passing the remainder of his days in penance for his sins.” Four years after that, another shipwrecked party behaved with much better discipline and marched overland for more than three months to meet up with the rest of their fleet. Along the way, they encountered an African who bowed and doffed his cap to their leader. “I kiss your worship’s hands,” he said, in the Portuguese manner; it turned out he had been brought up among the Portuguese survivors of the São João.

To superstitious sailors, the horror story of the São João, the half-witted Manuel de Sousa, and the tragic Dona Leonor kept resurfacing like a ghostly reminder of everything that had gone wrong. The hulking, unwieldy treasure ships disappeared at sea with terrifying regularity. Their captains, however noble, often proved desperately poor leaders. The indigenous peoples were inhospitable at best, and at worst they were seized with a violent loathing of the intruders. The climate wreaked havoc with European constitutions, and tropical diseases finished them off. The casualty figures were terrifying: twenty-five thousand patients died in the course of the seventeenth century at the Goa hospital alone. Around the Indian Ocean gravestones marked the deaths of countless young men taken before their prime. Countless more were buried or lost at sea, and the scars of absence were the only marks they left.

A Jesuit priest named Father António Gomes summed up the feelings of the unfortunate many. In the 1640s Gomes was himself shipwrecked on the Swahili Coast. He made his way to the nearest village and asked for the local chief. An old man with leathery skin and a gray beard appeared; Gomes cheekily suggested that he must have been around in Vasco da Gama’s days.

“I started to complain about the sea that had done us so much wrong,” the priest reported, “and he gave me an answer which I considered very wise.

“ ‘Master, if you know the sea is crazy and has no brain, why do you venture upon it?’ ”

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