Post-classical history

CHAPTER 9

THE SWAHILI COAST

CHRISTMAS DAY, 1497, passed in prayers before the shipboard shrines. In honor of the date the explorers named the land they were passing Natal, but there was no time to rest. The charts had run out; from now on, blank sheets had to be filled in. Everything needed to be observed and recorded, and there were the usual trials—a cracked mast, a snapped anchor cable, an adverse wind—to slow things down still more. Worst of all, the drinking water was nearly finished and the cooks were reduced to boiling salted meat in salty seawater, with nauseating results. The need to put into land was becoming urgent.

The new year was eleven days old when the watchkeepers sighted the mouth of a small river. The captain-major gave the order to anchor near the coast, and the following day a landing party set out in the boats. As they approached they saw a large crowd of men and women watching them. All were remarkably tall—much taller than the Portuguese.

Gama, who was leading from the front as usual, ordered Martim Affonso to land with a companion. The Africans gave them a quietly courteous welcome. Among them was one who appeared to be the chief, and as far as Affonso could make out, he seemed to be saying that the travelers were welcome to take anything they needed from his country.

In return Gama sent the chief a red jacket, a pair of red pantaloons, a red Moorish cap, and a copper bracelet. As night fell and the boats returned to the ships, Affonso and his companion set off with the Africans to their village. Along the way the chief shrugged on his new clothes. “Look what I have been given!” he announced, either in surprise or pleasure, to anyone who came up. They arrived in the village to general applause, and the chief paraded around the thatched houses. When he retired for the night the visitors were shown to a guesthouse and were fed with millet porridge and chicken. They slept lightly, not least because whenever they opened their eyes they found groups of villagers peering down at them.

The next morning the chief appeared with two men who were to lead the sailors back to the ships. He gave them some chickens for their commander, and he added that he would show their gifts to a great chief, whom the Portuguese took to be the king of the land. By the time Affonso, his companion, and their two guides had made their way to the landing place, they had attracted a two-hundred-strong following.

The Portuguese named the country the Land of Good People. It seemed to be densely populated, with many chiefs but twice as many women as men. The warriors, whose constant battles with neighboring tribes no doubt had much to do with that imbalance, went armed with long bows and arrows, spears with iron heads, and daggers with pewter hilts and ivory sheaths. Both men and women wore copper ornaments on their legs and arms and in their braided hair. Near the villages were pools in which seawater was carried in dried, hollowed-out gourds and was evaporated to obtain salt. The travelers eagerly deduced that they were on the verge of more developed lands. Even so, they stayed for five days, their ships riding at anchor on the waves, trading linen shirts for large quantities of copper and replenishing their water supplies. This time the Africans helped them carry the casks to the ships, but before they were finished a favorable wind blew along the coast and beckoned the explorers on.

After nine days’ sailing the thick woods parted to reveal the mouth of a much larger river, guarded by sandy islets covered with mangrove thickets. Gama decided to risk a little reconnaissance, and on his orders the Berrio entered the waterway. A day later the two larger ships followed.

On either side were flat, marshy plains dotted with clumps of tall trees that produced strange but edible fruits. The people were dark, strong, and naked except for short cotton loincloths. The Portuguese quickly noticed that the young women were remarkably good-looking, even though their pierced lips were hung with a daunting array of twisted tin ornaments. The Africans, the Chronicler noted, took equal delight in the strange newcomers. Groups rowed up in dugouts to proffer the local produce and climbed on board without hesitation, as if the Europeans were old friends. They left with bells and other trinkets and led the sailors to their village, and they readily offered them as much fresh water as they could take.

A few days later two men wearing caps of green satin and embroidered silk rowed up to the fleet. They were clearly the local nobility, and they looked over the ships with a connoisseur’s eye. One of their young men, they explained, had traveled from a distant country, and he had seen vessels that were just as big as these.

“These tokens,” the Chronicler wrote, “gladdened our hearts, for it appeared as if we were really approaching the bourne of our desires.” The Portuguese were less happy when the two men turned up their noses at the gifts they were offered—an alarming snub when they were still far from India. Still, the haughty gentlemen had huts built for them on the riverbank, and for seven days they sent servants to barter reddish dyed cloths for the strangers’ trinkets until they grew bored and paddled back upstream.

The Portuguese stayed on the river for thirty-two days. Gama had decided his men deserved a rest after their trials, and they evidently enjoyed the company of the attractive and obliging women. At the same time they repaired the mast of the São Rafael and once again careened all three ships.

So far East Africa had turned out to be some kind of paradise, but danger lurked in the warm, moist air. Many of the crew fell seriously ill. Their feet and hands ballooned, and their legs broke out in hundreds of tiny spots. Their gums puffed up so far over their teeth that they were unable to eat, and their breath stank unbearably. Their eyes bled, and their eyeballs began to protrude from their shrunken faces. Seven months from home, the dreaded scurvy had struck.

Paulo da Gama, a kindly and solicitous man, visited the sick night and day, consoling them and dispensing remedies from his own stores. There was no doctor among the crew, though since ship’s surgeons—who also acted as barbers—tended to be like the sort encountered by the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle, “a man of such unprepossessing appearance, that even in perfect health I would have sickened if he had felt my pulse,” their effectiveness was anyway limited. The worst afflicted developed suppurating wounds that left them paralyzed, and their teeth dropped out. Perhaps thirty men died while the survivors stood by, baffled and helpless to act.

Eventually Vasco da Gama gave the order to move on. Before leaving he erected the second of his pillars and made a note of the name his men had given to their anchorage: the River of Good Omens. The signals, though, were decidedly mixed. The fleet had hardly passed the bar of the river when the flagship ran aground on a sandbank. Everyone was about to give it up for lost when the rising tide refloated it just in time.

THE LITTLE ARMADA regained the open sea on Saturday, February 24. At night the pilots set a course to the northeast to keep clear of the coast, and for the next week they followed the same heading, stopping at night to avoid missing anything but seeing little of note except for a few scattered islands.

On March 1 a larger group of islands heaved into view, this time close to the shore. It was growing late, and the ships stood out again and lay to, waiting until the morning to survey the scene.

The dawn light revealed a large flat lozenge of coral, fringed with white sand and spiked with green vegetation, embraced by a broad sweep of the mainland. Two smaller islands guarded the approach from the sea. Gama decided to send in the caravel first, and Nicolau Coelho set his sails and edged forward into the bay. It was soon clear that he had misjudged his approach, and the Berrio headed straight for a sandbank. As he was attempting to put about and dislodge himself, he saw a little flotilla of boats set out from the main island.

By now the other two ships had come up behind, and the islanders excitedly tried to flag them down. The Gama brothers sailed on regardless to the sheltered roadstead between the mainland and the island, and with the welcoming committee in hot pursuit they cast anchor. Seven or eight of the boats came up to the ships, and a small orchestra struck up a tune. The Portuguese recognized their long, straight trumpets as the same instruments played by the Moors of North Africa.

The rest of the men in the boats warmly beckoned the newcomers to follow them into the island’s port. Gama invited some of them on board, and they ate and drank their fill with the crew.

The Portuguese quickly realized the islanders spoke Arabic. This was both promising and puzzling. They were clearly Muslims, but they were much friendlier than any Muslims the explorers had met before.

Vasco da Gama decided he needed to find out more about where he was and what kind of people were there. Once again he ordered Nicolau Coelho to go ahead into the harbor and take soundings to see if the larger ships could follow. Coelho tried to steer around the island and struck a rocky point that broke his rudder. He managed to extricate himself, and the caravel limped into the deep, clear water of the port.

The Berrio had barely come to a standstill when the local sultan drew alongside and climbed on board with a large retinue. He cut a distinguished figure in a long linen shirt, a full velvet gown, a multicolored silk cap trimmed with gold, and a pair of silk shoes. His men were dressed in fine linens and cottons, elaborately worked and dyed in vibrant stripes. On their heads they wore caps with silk bands embroidered with gold thread, and Arab swords and daggers were thrust in their belts.

Coelho received the dignitaries with due deference, though he was only able to present the sultan with a single red hood. In return the sultan gave the captain the black rosary he fingered while praying, signaling that he was to hold it as a pledge of goodwill, and invited some of the sailors to come ashore with him.

They landed on a rocky belt of shoreline where small ships could dock at high tide. Warehouses lined the waterfront. Several substantial boats were being built nearby, their hull timbers sewn together with coconut fiber and their sails woven from more of the same versatile material. Behind was a sizable town, with small mosques, ornate graveyards, and stuccoed houses built of coral rag and blocks. Everywhere coconuts, melons, and cucumbers were piled up for sale, and in the streets women sold small fried fish and meal cakes baked over coals.

The sultan beckoned the men to his house. He fed them and sent them back with “a jar of bruised dates made into a preserve with cloves and cumin, as a present for Nicolau Coelho.”

By now the two ships had followed the Berrio into the port. The sultan dispatched more delicacies to them, and Gama hastily prepared himself for a visit. After their arduous voyage, his men were hardly a presentable lot: the best were ragged and unkempt, while the worst were on their last legs. The captain-major ordered the sick and infirm belowdecks and summoned the strongest men from the other ships. They shrugged leather jerkins over their loose shirts, stepped into their boots, and concealed weapons under their clothes. The flags were run up, the canopies were put out, and the show was ready in the nick of time.

It was just as well. The sultan arrived in full ceremonial splendor, with attendants dressed in rich silks and musicians who played nonstop on ivory trumpets. Gama welcomed him on board, seated him under an awning, offered him his best meats and wines, andpresented him with more hats, together with some tunics, coral beads, and other baubles from his chests. The sultan cast his eyes over the proffered gifts, dismissed them contemptuously, and asked if the foreigners had any scarlet cloth. Gama, through his Arabic translator Fernão Martins, was forced to reply that they did not. The visitors soon left, though the sultan was intrigued enough to come back several times, and the Portuguese carried on giving him what they had.

By now the explorers had learned that they were in a country called Mozambique. The well-dressed men were wealthy merchants who traded with Arabs—or white Moors, as the Portuguese insisted on calling them—from the north. Four Arab ships were in port, and they turned out to be heavily laden with “gold, silver, cloves, pepper, ginger, and silver rings, as also with quantities of pearls, jewels, and rubies, all of which articles are used by the people of this country.” All apart from the gold, explained the Europeans’ new friends, came from rich cities where precious stones, pearls, and spices were so common “that there was no need to purchase them as they could be collected in baskets.”

The visitors’ pulses quickened. Here was the first evidence of the fabled riches of the East they had come so far to seek. It was disturbing, of course, to discover that Muslims controlled the entire coast—the Swahili Coast, from the Arabic for coast dwellers, as they would learn to call it—but there was good news there, too. Nearby, the merchants told them, was a hugely wealthy island whose half-Christian, half-Muslim population was constantly at war. Half encouraged, the Portuguese inquired after the whereabouts of Prester John. He also lived nearby, they learned, and ruled over numerous coastal cities, whose inhabitants were “great merchants and owned big ships.” The Prester’s court, it transpired, was far in the interior and could only be reached by camel, but that deep disappointment was tempered by the revelation that the Arabs had two Christians from India itself on board their ships. Another dose of reality was delivered by the news that the Christians were the Arabs’ captives, but the two were soon brought out to the São Gabriel. The instant they saw the saint’s figurehead on the prow, they fell to their knees in prayer. Prisoners or not, this was surely the long-awaited proof that there were, after all, Christians throughout the East.

“This information,” rejoiced the Chronicler, “and many other things which we heard, rendered us so happy that we cried with joy, and prayed God to grant us health, so that we might behold what we so much desired.” The hopes and dreams of centuries were almost within their grasp: a Christian king of the East and his fabulously wealthy subjects, and cities overflowing with jewels and spices that could simply be scooped up.

Just as the travelers were becoming flushed with excitement, things started to go badly wrong.

On one of his visits the sultan asked the foreigners where they came from. Were they Turks, he wanted to know, or another distant Muslim people with whom he was unfamiliar? The Turks, he was aware, were a fair people like them. If they were Turks, he added, he would be very interested to see the famous bows of their country and to take a look at their copies of the Quran.

They were not from Turkey, Gama replied, wearing his best poker face, but from a kingdom in that neighborhood. He would willingly show him their weapons, but they did not have the religious books at sea. The soldiers brought out their crossbows, drew them, and shot them off, and the sultan seemed astonished and delighted. Over a spread of figs and sugared fruits and spices, Gama ventured to explain that he had been sent by a great and mighty king to discover a way to the Indies. He asked if he could hire two pilots who knew the Indian Ocean, and the sultan readily agreed. Two men duly reported for duty, and Gama gave them each a purse of gold and a tunic. His sole condition, he told them through Fernão Martins, was that from now on, one of them must stay on board at all times.

It was not long before the presence of the pilots caused trouble. The behavior of the pale visitors with their strange language and stranger ships had already raised suspicion. They seemed to know nothing about the coast or its produce; they asked too many questions and refused to give clear answers. It finally dawned on the two men that they had been recruited not by some exotic race of Muslims but by Christians, and one of the pair made his excuses and left. When he failed to reappear, the Portuguese set off for one of the small outlying islands, a league across the bay, where they had found out he lived. The ships anchored close by, and Gama and Coelho headed for the shore in two armed boats, taking the other pilot with them. Immediately half a dozen small dhows started out from the island to intercept them. They were packed with Muslim fighters armed with bows, long arrows, and round shields who gesticulated to the Portuguese to return to the town.

Gama had the pilot secured, and he ordered his gunners to fire their bombards at the boats.

Cannonballs roared out of the barrels and rumbled through the air.

The moment that Christians and Muslims had knowingly come face-to-face in the Indian Ocean, relations had skidded from jovial to hostile. The old bitter rivalry had been exported into new waters. The first shots had been fired, and the report would echo across centuries.

Paulo da Gama had stayed with the fleet in case he needed to send help, and at the sound of gunfire he sprang to action. As the Berrio bore down on the Arabs’ boats they fled to the main island, where they disappeared into the town before Paulo could catch up with them.

The Portuguese returned to their anchorage. Relations with the sultan were clearly beyond repair. When he had taken them for Turks, the Chronicler noted, he had been markedly friendly. “But when they learned that we were Christians, they arranged to seize and kill us by treachery. The pilot, whom we took with us, subsequently revealed to us all they intended to do, if they were able.” Making the best of it, the Portuguese decided the pilot had been moved by the Almighty to reveal the plot.

The next day was a Sunday, and the crews set out to the small island to celebrate mass. They found an isolated spot, and under the shade of a tall tree they set up an altar and took communion. Immediately afterward they set sail in search of more hospitable waters.

The elements had other plans. Two days later, as the ships sailed past a cape backed by high mountains, the wind dropped away and they ground to a halt. The following evening a breeze carried them out to sea, but the men woke up the next morning to discover that a powerful offshore current had dragged them all the way back past Mozambique Island. By evening they had made it to the island where they had celebrated mass, but by then the wind was against them again. They anchored, and waited. It was the last place they wanted to be.

When reports reached the sultan that the Christians had returned, he sent one of his men to the fleet with a message of friendship. The envoy was an Arab from the north who swore he was a sharif, a descendant of the Prophet. He was also blind drunk. His master, he told the Portuguese, wanted to make peace after their unfortunate misunderstanding. So did he, replied Gama, but first he required the return of the pilot whom he had hired. The sharif left and never came back.

Soon another Arab arrived with his little son and asked permission to come on board. He was the pilot of a ship from a port near Mecca, he explained, and he was looking for a passage back north. This seemed odd when there were so many Arab ships plying the coast, but Gama agreed to take him as a passenger, not so much out of hospitality as to ply him for information. The newcomer gave one piece of advice unprompted: the sultan, he declared, hated Christians, and they had better keep their wits about them.

After holding off for nearly a week, Gama ordered the fleet back into the harbor. He had little choice: the weather showed no sign of improving, and the drinking water was running dangerously low.

There was no freshwater source on the island: digging down brought up brackish, salty puddles that gave anyone who drank from them a bad dose of dysentery. All the water came from the mainland, and there, the explorers were told, warring tribes of naked tattooed men with sharpened teeth dined off the flesh of the elephants they hunted and the humans they took prisoner.

Despite that alarming news, at nightfall the sailors quietly lowered the boats and loaded them with empty casks. Around midnight, Vasco da Gama and Nicolau Coelho took some men and rowed softly to the mainland. The pilot whom Gama had hired from the sultan had offered to show them to the watering place, and he came with them. Soon they were hopelessly lost amid mangrove swamps, and they began to suspect that the pilot was merely looking for a chance to escape. After rowing about all night they returned tired and angry to the ships.

The next evening, without waiting for nightfall, they tried again. This time the pilot quickly pointed out the place, but when the boats drew near, the Portuguese saw twenty men on the beach, brandishing spears at them and gesturing them to go away.

Gama was reaching the end of his tether, and he ordered his men to open fire. As the shot exploded out of the barrels, the Africans fled into the bush. The sailors landed and took all the water they wanted, though their satisfaction was spoiled when they realized that an African slave who belonged to João de Coimbra, the pilot of the São Rafael, had slipped away unnoticed. The Portuguese soon heard to their indignation that he had gone over to Islam, even though he had been baptized a Christian.

The next morning another Arab approached the fleet and delivered a threatening message. If the strangers wanted water, he said with a sneer, they could go and search for it, but they might meet something that would make them turn back.

The captain-major finally snapped. His gifts had been laughed off, one of his pilots had escaped, and now one visitor after another was toying with him. He was being made to look a fool, and he was determined to teach the Muslims a lesson before he lost anymore face. He sent a message to the sultan demanding the return of the slave and the pilot, and the answer soon came back. The sultan was outraged. The men at the watering hole were only being high-spirited, and the Christians had killed them. As for the pilots, they were foreigners and he knew nothing of them. The visitors had appeared to be trustworthy people; now it seemed they were nothing more than low vagabonds who went around plundering ports.

Gama held a quick conference with his captains. All the boats were armed with bombards, and they bore down on the town.

The islanders were prepared for a fight. Hundreds of men were drawn up on the beach, armed with spears, daggers, bows, and slings with which they hurled stones at the approaching boats. The cannon fired back, and the islanders retreated behind a palisade they had built by lashing together rows of wooden planks. They were hidden but they could no longer easily attack, and for three hours the Portuguese bombarded the shore.

“When we were weary with this work,” recorded the Chronicler with the feigned insouciance of the provoked, “we retired to our ships to dine.”

The islanders began to flee, taking their belongings with them and paddling in dugouts to the mainland.

After dinner the Portuguese set out to finish off their work. The captain-major’s plan was to take prisoners to swap for the slave and the two “Indian Christians” held by the Arabs. His brother overtook a canoe paddled by four Africans and hauled them off to the ships. Another group of sailors pursued a boat that belonged to the self-declared sharif. It was crammed with his personal property, but the rowers abandoned it as soon as they reached the mainland. The Portuguese found another abandoned canoe and carted away “fine cotton-stuffs, baskets made of palm-fronds, a glazed jar containing some butter, glass phials with scented water, books of the Law, a box containing skeins of cotton, a cotton net, and many small baskets filled with millet”—the household possessions of a well-to-do merchant. Gama handed out everything to the sailors, except for the Quran, which he put away to show to his king.

The next day, a Sunday, the coast was deserted. The Portuguese topped up their water casks, this time unopposed. On Monday they rearmed the boats and set out again for the town. The remaining islanders stayed in their houses. A few shouted oaths at the brutal strangers. Gama did not want to risk a landing, and since there seemed no hope of recovering the missing men, he satisfied honor by ordering the gunners to discharge their bombards.

Having made their point, the Portuguese left the roadstead and returned to the small island. They had to wait another three days before the wind finally picked up.

ALARMING LEGENDS CIRCULATED about the coast the explorers were about to follow. In one place, a traveler reported, “the Blacks Fish for Pisce Mulier, which is to say Women Fish”:

This Fish resembles a Woman, having the Privy Parts after the same manner, and carrieth her young under her Fins, which are on each side, serving for Arms, and goes often on Land, and is there disburthened of her young: The Blacks who Fish, are to swear not to have to do with these She-Fishes: Their teeth are of great Virtue, (as I have experienced) against Hemorhoids, Bloody Flux, and hot Fevers, in rubbing them against a Marble, and agitating it with Water, and so to be Drunk.

Forbidden or not, he added, the Africans “are extream fond of these Fishes, and refresh themselves by having Communication with them,” though far from being ravishing mermaids, the fish-women had “a hideous Face, like the Snout of a Hog.” The purely human inhabitants of the coast were even more awful. Farther inland, it was reported, there ruled a great king whose subjects, “when they kill any of their Enemies, cut off their Privy-Members, and having dried them, give them their Wives to wear about their Neck, of which they are not a little Proud: For they who have the most are the most esteemed, in regard that Evidences the Husband to be the more hardy and valiant.” Possession of a “Chaine of mens members,” another traveler helpfully explained, was equivalent to being knighted in Europe; for the warriors of East Africa it was as great an honor “as it is with us to weare the golden Fleece, or the Garter of England.”

The Portuguese stoutly persevered, and on March 29 a light wind finally blew them north. Slowly they made headway against the current, the heavy work of continually casting and weighing anchor leaving a catalog of blisters on the seamen’s hands.

On April 1 they sailed up to a large archipelago of tropical islands edged with mangrove forests and ringed by vibrant coral reefs. Boats plied between the islands and the mainland, and there were sizable trading posts near the shore. The night before, while the Portuguese were still too far away to make out the terrain, the Arab pilot had insisted that the islands were part of the mainland. By now Gama was convinced that everyone was conspiring against him, and he had the pilot soundly flogged. To commemorate the event, the Portuguese named the first of the islands the “Island of the Flogged One.”

Gama decided to carry on, and three days later they came across another archipelago. This time both of the Muslim pilots recognized it. Three leagues back, they declared, the fleet had sailed straight past an island inhabited by Christians.

The captain-major was convinced the pilots had made him overshoot a friendly port on purpose. All day the ships maneuvered to reach it, but a strong wind was against them. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, or, as it was later interpreted, a miracle sent by God, because the island of Kilwa was home to the most powerful ruler on the coast, and he was no Christian. Far from trying to lead the Portuguese away, the disappointed pilots had been trying to draw them into a trap.

When it became clear that there was no going back, the pilots tried a new tack. A big city called Mombasa lay four days’ sailing ahead, they said, and powerful Christians also lived there. It was already late, but the wind was high and the fleet bore away to the north. As night fell the lookouts made out a large island ahead—another place, claimed the Mozambique pilot, with both Christian and Muslim towns. Gama pressed on regardless, and with the favorable wind the ships made good progress until the São Rafaelsuddenly hit a shoal and ran aground.

It was two hours before daybreak, and the fleet was several miles from land. The crew shouted at the top of their voices to the other ships, which were following behind and could easily have rammed them in the dark. The São Gabriel and the Berrio came to a stop just in time and lowered their boats.

By dawn the tide had fallen and the São Rafael was revealed sitting high and dry on its shoal. In the background, on the coast, was a magnificent range of lofty mountains with a settlement at its feet. Seeing a business opportunity, the locals paddled out to the stricken ship and did a brisk trade in oranges, which the sailors thought were much better than the fruit back home. Gama rewarded them with the usual trinkets, and two stayed on board.

By now the São Rafael had lowered all its anchors. The men in the boats laboriously heaved each anchor forward of the bow and away from the shoal before shouting out to their comrades on board to pay out the cable. When the tide rose later in the day, the ropes tensed and the ship floated off amid much relief and cheering.

Finally the fleet arrived off Mombasa.

It was April 7, a Saturday. Ahead was a lushly wooded island clasped by the protective arms of the mainland. A large walled city rose on a rocky height facing the ocean. A beacon marked the shoals in front, and a fort almost level with the water guarded the bar. The harbor was just in sight around the north side of the island, and the Portuguese could see a large number of ships moored there, dressed in flags as if for a celebration. They were clearly in a wealthy and important port, and not wanting to be outdone, they ran up their own flags. They put on a good show, but in reality the fleet was in poor shape. With many sailors dead from scurvy and many still painfully ill, the ships had been undermanned for weeks. The one thing that cheered up the survivors was the prospect of landing the next day to hear Sunday mass. The pilots had told them that the Christians had their own quarter of the city, ruled by its own judges and lords; they would receive the newcomers with great honor, they assured them, and would invite them to their fine houses.

The night watch took over and the rest of the men bedded down in their usual nooks, eager for morning to come.

About midnight the watch cried out. A dhow was approaching from the city carrying perhaps a hundred men, all armed with cutlasses and bucklers. It bore down on the flagship, and the armed men tried to clamber on board. Gama barked out orders and his soldiers lined up around the decks, blocking the way. He eventually allowed four of the leaders aboard, but only after they had laid down their weapons.

Gama slid from soldier to diplomat. He begged his visitors to excuse his precautions and not take offense; he was a stranger, he added as he offered them food, and he didn’t know how things worked in their city. His guests, all smiles, explained that they had merely come to look at the fleet because it was such a striking sight; carrying arms, they added, was their custom in peace or war. The sultan had been eagerly expecting the foreigners’ arrival; he would have come himself if it weren’t so late.

The delicate parley continued for two hours. When the four men left, the Portuguese were still convinced they had come to see if they could capture one of the ships. They were, after all, Muslims, though they, too, had confirmed that there were indeed many Christians on the island.

Sunday morning arrived, and with it a present from the sultan of Mombasa: a sheep, together with crates of oranges, lemons, and sugarcane. Clearly the Europeans had already become minor celebrities along the coast, because they received a stream of callers all day. Among them were two envoys who presented Gama with the sultan’s ring as a pledge of the visitors’ security and promised that they would be supplied with everything they needed if they entered the port. The envoys were pale-skinned and said they were Christians; they were very plausible, and the Portuguese believed them. Gama sent them back with a string of coral beads for the sultan—an unremarkable gift on a coast brimming with coral reefs—and the message that he intended to head into the harbor the following day. At the same time, he sent two of the degredados to repeat his friendly greetings to the sultan in person and to reconnoiter the scene.

As soon as the two men landed, a crowd gathered around them and followed them through the narrow streets to the palace. A series of four doorways, each manned by a doorkeeper holding a drawn cutlass, led to the audience chamber. The sultan received the foreigners hospitably, and he ordered his men to show them around the city.

The group wound through handsome streets lined with three-story buildings. Fine plaster ceilings could be seen through the windows. The women were draped in silk and glittered with gold and precious stones, while coffles of slaves shuffled by in irons.

The tour halted at the house of two merchants who were introduced as Christians. They showed the visitors an image they worshipped, which seemed to be the Holy Ghost painted as a white dove. There were many other Christians in the city, the guides explained, and when their ships came into the harbor they would meet them all. The itinerary ended back at the palace, where the sultan reappeared and handed the two men samples of cloves, pepper, and sorghum. They were for sale in great quantities, he said, and he would permit the visitors to load their ships with them. He also had warehouses full of silver, gold, amber, wax, ivory, and other riches, and he promised to undercut the competition.

Gama received the messages and the reports of the city with much satisfaction. The three captains consulted. As an insurance policy in case anything went wrong in India, they decided to put into the port and stock up with spices.

The fleet weighed anchor, but the São Gabriel refused to turn and it drifted onto a shoal. The next ship ran straight into it, and all three anchored again to sort themselves out.

The shoal turned out to be another instance of divine providence at work. There were still several Africans and Arabs on the ships, and now they decided the Christians were never going to go nearer the shore. They signaled to each other, ran for the stern, and jumped into a dhow that was tied alongside. Seconds later the two pilots jumped overboard and swam to the boat.

Vasco da Gama began to suspect that a deep plot was in hand. That night, he set about interrogating two men from Mozambique who had not managed to escape. Since it was commonly believed that reliable answers were only given under torture, he had some oil heated to boiling point and dripped on their skin.

Between their shouts of pain they gasped out the gist of the plot. News of the Christians’ arrival and their attacks on Mozambique had preceded them up the coast, and plans had been laid to capture them as soon as they entered the port.

Gama ordered more boiling oil applied to more smoking skin. One of the interrogees squirmed out of his tormentors’ grasp and threw himself into the sea, his hands still tied together. The other suicidally followed suit a few hours later. The Portuguese thanked God for once again saving them from the Infidel’s evil grasp.

Around midnight, two canoes paddled silently toward the fleet and halted just out of sight. Dozens of men dived noiselessly off the edge and swam up to the ships. Several surfaced at the side of the Berrio, took out their knives, and cut through the anchor cables. Their skin and weapons glinted in the moonlight, but the night watch took them for a school of tuna. As the caravel began to drift, the sailors finally caught on and raised the alarm. More swimmers had already climbed on board the São Rafael and were swarming around the rigging of the mizzenmast, about to sever the ropes. When they were spotted they slipped silently into the water and swam away.

“These and other wicked tricks were practiced upon us by these dogs,” recorded the Chronicler, “but our Lord did not allow them to succeed, because they were unbelievers.”

The Portuguese were still convinced that half the population of Mombasa was Christian, but they were troubled that there was no sign of them coming to their aid. They eventually concluded that there was a war going on between the Christians and Muslims; clearly the slaves they had seen were captured Christian soldiers. In any case the Christian merchants, they persuaded themselves, were only temporary residents and so were unable to do anything without the sultan’s permission.

By now the crews had finally recovered their strength. Perhaps the ample supply of citrus fruit had helped; more likely, the Portuguese believed, it was another miracle. The captain-major waited two more days for Christians to arrive who might furnish him with a replacement pilot. Then, on April 13, he ordered the fleet to set sail, still none the wiser about how to cross the Indian Ocean.

AT DAWN THE next day the watchkeepers spotted two boats in the open sea, and the ships immediately set off in hot pursuit. If there were no pilots for hire, Gama had decided, one would have to be captured.

One of the boats escaped to the mainland, but by late afternoon the fleet caught up with the other. Inside were seventeen Muslims, some gold and silver, and a great deal of maize. One elderly man had a distinguished look about him, and clinging to his side was his young wife. As the ships closed in the sailors and passengers threw themselves overboard, but the Portuguese jumped in their boats and fished them out of the sea.

To Gama’s annoyance, none of the new captives was a pilot, and the fleet was forced to continue up the coast.

Thirty leagues north of Mombasa the Portuguese found themselves near another sizable town. At sunset they anchored for the night, keeping a close watch for any signs of nefarious activity along the shore.

The next day was April 15, Easter Sunday, but only the usual morning prayers were said. The explorers looked warily around them, waiting to see who would make the first move.

Ahead the coastline curved majestically between two distant rocky points to form a broad, undulating bay. At low tide the surf crashed onto coral reefs that stretched well out from the sandy beach, exposing glinting pools and low rocks spread with tattered green blankets of algae in the shallows. The town spread along the shore amid extensive palm groves flanked by farms and orchards. Well-kept villas roofed with palm thatch stood tall and white against the limpid blue sky; unlike most blank-walled Arab houses, they had many windows and roof terraces that looked out to sea. The scene reminded the Portuguese of Alcochete, a favorite resort of Portuguese royalty—and the birthplace of Manuel I—on the Tagus estuary above Lisbon.

The men who had been seized from the boat told their captors that they were in front of the city of Malindi. They had just come from there themselves, they added, and they had seen four ships belonging to Christians from India in the port. If the strangers would let them go, they would provide them with Christian pilots, together with water, wood, and any other provisions they cared to name.

Gama was badly in need of some help, and he listened to their advice. He moved the fleet toward the city and anchored half a league away. The inhabitants kept their distance: perhaps they had already been warned that the foreigners went around capturing ships and kidnapping their passengers and crews.

The next morning, Gama had his men row the elderly Muslim to a sandbank in front of the city. They left him there, and he stood quietly until a canoe approached from the shore and picked him up. The foreigners were still holding his young wife hostage, and he went straight to the palace and passed on the captain-major’s message. The newcomers, he related, were the subjects of a great and powerful king whom the sultan would rejoice to have as an ally; they were headed for India, and would be glad of pilots. For once the diplomatic patter found a receptive ear; the sultan was at war with neighboring Mombasa and was eager for new allies, especially belligerent ones with fearsome-looking ships.

After dinner the old man reappeared with one of the sultan’s men-at-arms, a sharif, and three sheep. The human callers relayed the ruler’s eagerness to enter into friendly relations with the strangers and his readiness to give them pilots or anything else in his power. Gama sent them back with a surtout, two strings of coral, three hand basins, a hat, some small bells, two striped cotton scarves, and word that he would enter the port the next day.

The fleet edged nearer to the shore, and a boat arrived from the sultan with six more sheep and a gift of cloves, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper. Once again the expensive waft of spices quickened the sailors’ pulses.

With the gifts came a new message: If the strangers’ leader wished to talk with the sultan, he would come out in his dhow and meet him halfway. Gama agreed, and after dinner the next day the royal dhow pushed off from the shore. At the sultan’s side was a band of trumpeters, two of whom played huge horns made from intricately carved ivory tusks, as tall as a man and blown through a hole in the side. Together the deep blasts and sweet peals made a harmonious, hypnotic sound.

The sultan wore a robe of crimson damask trimmed with green satin and a lavish turban. He was seated on a double chair made of bronze and piled with silk cushions. Over his head was a crimson satin parasol, and by his side stood an old retainer holding a sword in a silver sheath. His men were naked above the waist, but below they were wrapped in silk or fine cotton. On their heads they wore cloths embroidered with silk and gold, and they carried fancy daggers and swords decorated with silk tassels in a rainbow of colors. The Europeans were much taken with the pageantry and the dignified comportment of the royal party.

Gama was dressed in his best knightly gear and was accompanied by twelve of his principal officers. His boat had been decked out with flags and streamers, and as the sultan drew near, his sailors rowed him out. The two boats stopped side by side. In signs and through the translators, the two men exchanged cordial greetings, and Gama was flattered to find himself addressed with the deference due a king.

The sultan invited the captain-major to visit the city and stay in his palace, where he could refresh himself after the fatigues of his long voyage. Afterward, he suggested, he would pay a reciprocal visit to the ships. Despite the soft comforts on offer, Gama demurred. He had come to the fixed conclusion that it was too dangerous to set foot in what were clearly strongly armed Muslim cities, however friendly the people seemed. He was forbidden from complying, he replied, by the orders of his king; if he disobeyed them, a bad report would be made of him.

What would his people say of him, the sultan responded, if he were to visit the ships without a sign of goodwill from the strangers? At the least, he would like to know the name of their king.

The Portuguese translator wrote down the name Manuel.

If the strangers called on him on their way back from India, the sultan declared, he would send letters to this Manuel, or even an ambassador in person.

Gama thanked him for his politeness, promised to return, and answered a string of questions about the mission. The sultan expounded at length on spices, the Red Sea, and other matters of vital interest to the explorers, and he promised to provide them with a pilot.

The meeting went so well that Gama sent for his prisoners and handed them all over. The sultan vowed that he could not have been happier if he had been presented with a city. In great good humor he made a lap of honor around the fleet, admiring each ship in turn and doubtless estimating the damage it could inflict on his neighbors. The captain-major, who had followed in his own boat, ordered the bombards to fire off a salute. The alarmed Muslims lunged for their oars, and Gama quickly signaled for the guns to cease. The sultan, when he had recomposed himself, proclaimed that he had never been so pleased with any men and would be very glad to have some of them to help him in his wars. He had seen nothing yet, Gama intimated; if God permitted them to discover India and return home, his king would surely send a whole fleet of warships to his new ally’s aid.

After a visit of three hours the sultan headed home, leaving his son and a sharif on board the fleet as a surety. He was still keen to show off his palace, and he took two sailors with him. Since the captain-major would not go ashore, he said as he left, he would return the following day to the beach.

The next morning Vasco da Gama and Nicolau Coelho took charge of two armed boats and rowed along the town front. Crowds had gathered on the shore, where two cavalrymen were acting out a duel. Behind were handsome streets and plashing fountains. The explorers learned that only Arabs—perhaps four thousand in number—lived inside the city walls, while the Africans, many of them slaves who worked the plantations, lived outside in mud-and-wattle huts. As all along the coast, after centuries of intermarriage there was little to tell physically between the two groups, but whatever their ethnicity the Muslim elite called themselves Arabs and labeled the non-Islamic population kaffirs, the Arabic word for infidels.

The sultan emerged from his seafront palace. He climbed into his palanquin—a covered litter mounted on poles—and was carried down a flight of stone steps to the water’s edge. Gama’s boat bobbed alongside, but it was hard to have a proper conversation, and again the sultan begged the captain-major to step ashore. He asked it as a personal favor, he added; his elderly, infirm father was keen to meet the man who had come so far and survived such dangers for his king. If need be, both he and his sons would wait as hostages on the ships. Even that was not enough to lower Gama’s guard, and he stayed firmly seated in his boat to watch the entertainments that his hosts had laid on.

Of all the Indian Ocean cities ruled by Arabs, the Portuguese had hit upon the one most likely to give them help. The information about the four ships from India turned out to be accurate, too, and soon a party of Indians rowed up to the São Rafael and asked to come aboard. Vasco was there talking to his brother, and he told the crew to show the Indians an altarpiece that represented “Our Lady at the foot of the cross, with Jesus Christ in her arms and the apostles around her.” Since these were the first Indians they had seen, the sailors examined them with unabashed curiosity and decided they looked nothing like any Christians they knew. They wore white cotton shifts, full beards, and their hair long and plaited up under turbans; on top of that, they explained that they were vegetarians, which sounded deeply suspicious to men who were ravenous for fresh meat. But the moment they saw the altar they prostrated themselves on the deck, and throughout the fleet’s stay in the harbor they came daily to say their prayers before the shrine, bringing little offerings of cloves or pepper.

This was final confirmation, surely, that India was teeming with Christians. The Portuguese were even more stirred when the captain-major rowed past the Indians’ ships and they fired off a salvo in his honor.

“Christ! Christ!” they shouted joyfully, raising their hands above their head; at least, so their chant sounded to European ears.

That night the Indians applied to the sultan for permission to throw a party in the strangers’ honor. As darkness fell the sky blazed with rockets. The Indians fired round after round from their small bombards, and they sang strange hymns at the top of their voices.

After a week of fetes, sham fights, and musical interludes Gama was growing impatient. On April 22 the royal dhow arrived bringing one of the sultan’s counselors, the first caller in two days. Gama had him seized, and he sent a message to the palace demanding the promised pilot. The sultan had hoped to keep the Portuguese diverted until they could join his war, but he immediately sent a man and Gama released his hostage.

To the Europeans’ great joy, the pilot appeared to be another Christian from India. He unrolled a detailed map of the Indian coast, talked the officers through its features, and explained the winds and currents of the ocean. He was clearly an experienced navigator, and he was equally knowledgeable about the science of sailing. The ships’ instruments failed to impress him in the slightest; the pilots of the Red Sea, he remarked, had long used similar contraptions to take the altitude of the sun and the stars, though he and his fellow Indians preferred another device. He showed it to them, and Gama’s pilots decided to let him take the lead.

On Tuesday, April 24 the trumpets sounded, the sails were set, and the fleet left Malindi with all flags flying. According to one report, the sultan was heartbroken to see his new friends go and assured them that the name of the Portuguese “would never leave his heart where he preserved it, except when he died.”

The weather was fair, and they made good progress. Directly north, their pilot told them, was a huge bay that ended in a strait: the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el Mandeb, the gate to the Red Sea and the Kaaba of Mecca. Nearby, he added, were many large cities, both Christian and Muslim, and six hundred islands, counting only those that were known. The Europeans still had a great deal to learn.

After two days the African coast disappeared from view. Three nights later the North Star reappeared on the horizon. The explorers had once again crossed the equator, but this time they were sailing in an ocean where no European ship had ever been. They held their course to the northeast, and India.

Behind them they had left more enemies than friends. Their picture of Africa was muddled at best, and they still had only the shadiest notion of where they were headed.

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