ONCE AGAIN SEA biscuit was baked, barrels of wine rolled along gangplanks, and the banners, standards, and crosses fluttered in the winter breeze. The usual devotions were made, the artillery fired a farewell salvo, and Vasco da Gama sailed out of Lisbon on February 10, 1502.
Altogether the fleet numbered twenty ships, though only fifteen were ready in time. Gama had chosen as his flagship the sturdy São Jerónimo. From the Esmerelda, his maternal uncle Vicente Sodré, a knight of the Order of Christ, commanded a subfleet of five ships. Also among the captains was Brás Sodré, another of Gama’s maternal uncles, and Álvaro de Ataíde, Gama’s brother-in-law. Gaspar da Gama, the admiral’s unlikely godson, was again prominent among the personnel. The remaining five vessels were due to leave in early April, with Vasco’s first cousin Estêvão da Gama in command on the big new warship Flor de la Mar. Paulo da Gama’s steadfast support and calm voice would be much missed, but the new mission was even more a family business than the first.
It was also a European affair. Lisbon was buzzing with foreign financiers, merchants, and sailors, all talking India and spices. Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Genoese, Spaniards, Flemings, Florentines, and even a few renegade Venetians were arriving daily to try their luck in the East. The new fleet was too big to be crewed or financed by the Portuguese alone, and large numbers of foreigners signed up.
Gama’s sailing instructions were astonishingly ambitious, though they were at least more specific than the apocalyptic agenda the king had set Cabral. The combined fleet was to shore up the fragile Portuguese factories, force more African and Indian cities to agree to advantageous trade terms, and deal with the truculent Zamorin of Calicut. When it had imposed its will on the Indian Ocean, it was to split in two. Vasco da Gama was to return to Portugal with the main body of the fleet and its precious cargoes of spices. Vicente Sodré’s strongly armed subfleet, meanwhile, was to stay behind and escalate the war against Islam. As well as protecting Portugal’s interests, he was to mount a permanent blockade of Arab shipping, stanch the flow of spices into the Red Sea, and strangle Egypt’s economy. If all went according to plan, before long the Portuguese would sail up the Red Sea, rendezvous with troops trekking east across Africa from Morocco, and march on Jerusalem.
The first fifteen vessels made the customary first stop at the Cape Verde Islands, where the priests said mass. There were plenty of novices among the crews, and a Flemish sailor aboard the Leitoa Nova, one of the ships in Gama’s main fleet, ogled the islands’ inhabitants. “The people there were stark naked,” he blurted out to his diary, “men and women, and they are black. And they have no shame, for they wear no clothes, the women have converse with their men like monkeys, and they know neither good nor evil.”
Even more than usual, the Atlantic passage was a test of nerves. On March 6 the fleet left the Cape Verdes with a fair wind, but it was soon becalmed. For days the men had little to do but reel in huge fish, which one sailor noted had a strange and horrible appearance and were as heavy as Frisian cows. Then the wind picked up and brought with it six weeks of changeable weather marked by heavy seas, violent squalls, and hailstorms that swept the ships in every direction. By the end of March the Great Bear and the Pole Star had disappeared from the night sky, and on April 2 the sun burned so high overhead that nothing could be seen in the shadowless light. Even the nights were stifling, and the whole company was sick from the heat.
Soon the ships crossed the equator, the noon sun swung behind them, and the Southern Cross appeared in the night sky, shining clearly through wispy clouds. For company the men watched huge schools of flying fish leap out of the sea in unison and flocks of gray, white-headed frigate birds keep pace with them, every so often dipping on their huge wings to make a catch in their long beaks. When larger predators appeared on their tail, the schools jumped so high that ten or twenty at a time flopped into the boats. For days on end even the fish and the birds disappeared and there was no living thing to be seen. Only the usual minor disasters broke the eerie silence: a mast breaking, or one ship ramming another so hard that it took hours to disentangle them.
By April 23, St. George’s Day, the fleet finally had a fair wind and was back on track. Gama consulted with his captains, asking how far they thought they were from the Cape, and set a course to the east-southeast. Then the wind turned against them again, and they were driven west toward Brazil. By late May, having once more regained their course, they were far enough south that the early winter days lasted barely eight hours, and amid a spectacular storm of “rain, hail, snow, thunder and lightning” the westerlies drove them past the Cape of Good Hope.
By now the suffocating heat had given way, a German sailor recorded, to “a chill such as in Germany cannot occur. We were all cold, for the sun lay to the north, and many of our men died of the cold. The sea is of such storminess there as it is wondrous to behold.” He pulled his sodden cloak tightly around him, but his shivers sharpened when he was told that four ships—including the vessel captained by Bartolomeu Dias—had been wrecked at this very spot less than two years before. For days the fleet plowed with furled sails through the high seas and driving rain, and nerves were badly frayed by the time the admiral pointed out a flock of birds that fished by day and slept on land at night; a clear sign, he promised, that the coast was near. The captains made what headway they could with shortened sails, and on May 30 they sighted land and dropped anchor. As the relieved sailors celebrated, the pilots peered at the coastline, compared it to their charts, and reckoned they were a hundred leagues past the Cape.
The elements were not ready to let go. “Then we weighed anchor and continued further,” the German sailor resumed; “and when we found ourselves at sea, a great storm overtook us, and the sea was more tempestuous than we had ever seen it.” Bowsprits and masts snapped like twigs, and three of the ships disappeared from sight. Waves pounded the sides and washed over the decks, and as they battled the swells, currents, and winds for three days and nights, even the seasoned mariners were convinced their time was up. At the worst point a giant dolphin leapt out of the sea and almost overshot the masts, panicking the superstitious sailors. Soon after, a humpback whale with fins as tall as sails swam around for so long and made so much noise that they trembled with foreboding. To their intense relief, the visitors turned out to be good omens: the storm gave way to a fair wind, and the men spread out their drenched clothes to dry in the weak sun.
Soon after the fleet sailed into the Indian Ocean, the admiral called a conference of all fifteen captains. They decided to split up: Vicente Sodré’s five ships would head straight for Mozambique, while the rest would stop off at the famed gold-trading town of Sofala. The goods intended for sale at Sofala were transferred to Gama’s ships, and a week later the main fleet arrived there, anchoring well away from the low shifting sands of the shore.
In Western lore, Sofala was believed to be the fabulously wealthy biblical port of Ophir, the location of King Solomon’s Mines, the capital city of the Queen of Sheba, or all three. “Our Captain told us that the king lived here who came to offer gold to our Lord Jesus Christ at Bethlehem; but the present king is a heathen,” the German sailor noted; by heathen he meant, of course, Muslim. The location of the town shifted with the sands; when the Portuguese arrived it was set amid palm groves and plantations on an island at the mouth of a river. The mainland embraced the island to form a broad horseshoe-shaped bay, and boats sailed down the river ferrying gold mined in the hinterland.
Gama called another meeting of the captains. The question, he put it to them, was how to be prepared to respond to hostile action, without appearing so aggressive as to invite a preemptive attack. A decision was reached: each captain would fully arm his boats and his men, but the weapons would be concealed.
At daybreak the boats rowed out. The beach was already full of people, and as the Europeans approached, fifteen or twenty men dragged a canoe into the water. Five or six Arabs climbed inside and pushed off to meet the strangers. When the canoe was within hailing distance, Gama’s spokesman impressively announced that he bore a message from the admiral of Portugal. The Arabs reported back to the sultan and returned with gifts of bananas, coconuts, and sugarcane. The sultan welcomed them, they said, and he was waiting for their message.
Gama was taking no risks, and he asked for hostages before he would let his men land. Two important-looking Arabs soon arrived, and two Portuguese set out for the palace. They came back with more welcoming words, together with more bananas and coconuts and a cow. After a boat had taken soundings of the shallow but navigable harbor, the flagship and three other ships sailed into the bay. Ten or twelve days of trading began, in the course of which the Europeans loaded a hoard of gold in exchange for simple glass beads, copper rings, woolens, and small mirrors. The exchanges stayed friendly, though according to one report, Gama spent his time secretly surveying the surrounding area for the best place to build a fort.
Financially the mission had got off to a flying start, though its fortunes quickly plummeted when one of the gold-laden ships struck a reef on leaving the harbor and was barely evacuated before it sank. The rest of the fleet sailed on to Mozambique, where a week later it reunited with Sodré’s squadron.
This time around the sultan of Mozambique was all smiles and cooperation. Two of the three ships that had been lost in the storm were also sheltering in the port, while Sodré’s men had been busy constructing an armed caravel, which was to be left to patrol the African coast, from parts that had been brought from Portugal. The fleet loaded fresh water and wood and exchanged more beads for gold, and when all was ready, the admiral dictated a letter outlining the course he intended to follow. He sent it to the town with instructions for it to be delivered to the second wave of ships, and the thirteen vessels sailed on to their next port of call.
Kilwa, the island about which Gama had heard so much on his first voyage, had for centuries been the home of the most powerful sultans in east Africa, the Arab overlords of the entire coast from Sofala and Mozambique in the south to Mombasa and Malindi in the north. The dynasty’s star had been waning for some time—the ruins of a monumental palace, with spacious suites of courtyards, bathing pools, and throne rooms, moldered magnificently on a headland overlooking the Indian Ocean—and three years earlier it had been extinguished for good when the last sultan was murdered by his own emir. Yet the island was still seriously rich. Its heavyweight Muslim merchants acted as middlemen for the gold and ivory trade of Sofala and Mozambique, which were too far south for vessels from India and Arabia to arrive and leave with the turning monsoon; they also shipped the gold that was mined inland on the great granite plateau of Zimbabwe, together with silver, amber, musk, and pearls. The city’s tall houses were handsomely built of stuccoed stone embellished with ornamental niches and set amid fine gardens and orchards. The Great Mosque, with its egg-box roof of concrete domes and forest of coral columns, looked like a miniature version of the Mezquita in Córdoba. Kilwa’s glory days might have gone, but it was still a glittering prize.
Two years earlier, on Gama’s advice, Cabral had sailed up to the island to propose a treaty of trade and friendship. At first the usurping Emir Ibrahim had made encouraging noises, but he had soon decided the Portuguese looked too warlike for comfort and hadretreated to his palace, where he locked the doors and surrounded himself with armed guards. The Portuguese, as usual, were convinced the Muslims were determined not to trade with Christians, and Gama was under orders to take proud Kilwa down a peg.
The fleet anchored off the island on the afternoon of July 12, and Gama took in the scene. The harbor was thick with masts, and more ships were hauled up on the beach. Men and women waded through the sands and mangrove roots for their daily dip in the sea. The black slaves and the poorer men were all but naked; the Arabs were dressed in long silk and cotton robes. “Their bodies are well shaped,” noted one European, “and their beards large and frightening to see.”
Gama was expecting a cool reception, and he announced himself with a noisy burst of cannon fire. A boat soon approached, but it turned out to contain only a degredado left behind by Cabral. The convict handed over a letter that João da Nova had given him on his way home; in addition to updating his successors on the fracas at Calicut and the progress at Cannanore, Nova warned that they would not get anywhere by being friendly to the ruler of Kilwa.
Gama sent the man back with a message for the emir. The admiral of Portugal, he was to announce, had been sent by the king his lord to make peace with Kilwa, and he had many goods to trade.
The emir heard the message and immediately fell ill.
Gama summoned all his captains to a council on his ship. Emir Ibrahim was clearly trying to avoid meeting him, and he asked each man to give his advice. They agreed a strategy, and the next morning the captains had their boats fully armed and manned and set out for the shorefront. They drew up in front of the palace, and Gama, who was directing the operation from his own boat, sent a new edict to the emir. If he did not do what he was told and meet the admiral, the envoy declared, the fleet would open fire on his palace.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, the emir’s health recovered sufficiently for him to come to the shore, accompanied by a crowd that the German sailor estimated at more than two thousand strong. Four men took the ashen-faced Ibrahim in their arms and carried him to the admiral’s boat. When he was seated on a carpet, Gama informed him that he had brought a letter from his king but that, as time was short, he would tell him its gist. If the emir wanted the protection of the Portuguese, he would have to fork out a huge sum in gold and provide all the merchandise they required at the local price. As a token that he was a loyal vassal, he would have to send the Portuguese queen an annual tribute of ten pearls and fly the Portuguese flag from his palace. If he disobeyed, Gama would throw him in the hold and batten down the hatches.
The shaken emir, who was not used to being addressed in such terms, asked if the admiral had come to make peace or war. Peace, if he wanted, or war, if he wanted, Gama replied; it was up to him. He had no doubt, he added, which he would prefer if he were in his shoes.
The emir chose peace, but he tried to wriggle. He didn’t have enough money to pay the tribute, he regretted, though he would do what he could. Gama insisted it was useless to argue, but Ibrahim drew out the negotiations long enough that he finally agreed to take a much smaller sum. It was the principle, after all, that mattered.
The emir handed over three dignitaries as hostages and was carried back to the shore. The crowd burst out in applause and cries of joy that war had been averted, and they rushed to scatter twigs before the murderous usurper’s feet. The Europeans rowed back to their ships, and soon boats approached containing a whole farmyard of sacrificial goats, chickens, and oxen.
Within three days the protection money arrived to the accompaniment of women chanting “Portugal! Portugal!” in what seemed intended as a spontaneous demonstration of joy. In return the emir received his hostages, some scarlet capes, fourteen lengths of crimson velvet, letters patent in the name of King Manuel that graciously accepted the emir as a vassal and promised to defend his realm, and a silk standard embroidered in gold with the royal coat of arms. The standard was tied to a spear and was sent ashoreaccompanied by an honor guard, a cannon salvo, and a band playing trumpets, castanets, and drums. The pragmatic Ibrahim accepted the precious token with a salute. He had decided to go all out, and the flag was paraded around the city to more shouts of “Portugal! Portugal!” before being hoisted with great ceremony from his topmost tower.
While the Flemish sailor ogled the half-naked local women and marveled at the island’s fat-tailed sheep and enormous onions, Gama had his clerk draw up a memorandum for the edification of the following fleet. The emir, he declared, had behaved very discourteously to him, “on account of which I armed myself with all the men I had, determined to destroy him, and I went in my boats before his house, and placed the prow on dry land, and had him sent for much more discourteously than he had behaved with me, and he agreed to do so and came, and I made peace and friendship with him on the condition that he should pay a tribute to the King, my lord.” Since the emir was now a vassal of Portugal, Gama ordered his successors to keep the peace as long as the emir kept his word. He added a detailed rundown of his intended itinerary and instructed the latecomers to travel day and night to catch up, and he signed the letter “The admiral Dom Vasco.”
The ships had been careened, scoured, and recaulked, and they made ready to leave. It took them two days to reach the open sea; the tides, as Gama had warned in his letter, made the harbor tricky to exit. Irritation turned to joy when, while they were still trying to extricate themselves, Estêvão da Gama sailed into view on the Flor de la Mar. He had left Lisbon in May; two of his ships, though, had been lost amid more tempests at the Cape, and Gama left his message in the hope that they would pick it up.
The combined armada of sixteen ships sailed north to Malindi. If the men were looking forward to the sultan’s famous hospitality, they were to be disappointed. The monsoon winds had begun to howl, the rain pelted down, and the ships were driven five leagues past the city. They anchored in a cove, and men set out to look for water. Meanwhile Gama ordered his captains to make a list of the spices they hoped to load and the money and merchandise they had brought. While crossing the ocean, he explained, he wanted to work out exactly what business he needed to conduct in India. He had a hidden agenda: private merchants had funded several of the ships, and he was determined not to let them compete with each other—or with the king’s factors—for the precious spices. “We all thought it was advisable to notify him of our merchandise and funds, as well as what we would buy, keeping to us the possibility to take more or less spices depending on the quality and prices we found,” noted Matteo da Bergamo, the factor of an Italian merchant.
The sultan of Malindi had seen the ships passing by, and he sent a letter to the admiral. The messengers waded waist-deep through the sea to reach him, avoiding the wild beasts that roamed the shore at night, and Gama sent back friendly greetings and more instructions to the remaining ships not to tarry. The African part of his mission had gone more or less according to plan, and Gama had decided to head straight for India. After stopping for just two days, the fleet set sail on Friday, July 29.
The monsoon did not oblige. A storm drove the armada nearly to Arabia, and when it finally arrived in India, it found itself far to the north of Calicut in Muslim-controlled territory. The ships sailed south along the coast and passed a city whose sultan, the Flemish sailor recorded, owned at least eight thousand horses and seven hundred war elephants. The Europeans, he added, captured four hundred ships, “and we killed the people and burned the ships.”
Whether or not such horrifying slaughter took place—if anything did, it was almost certainly on a far smaller scale—the Admiral of India was determined to rid the Arabian Sea of Arabs once and for all. The king had ordered it. The massacre at Calicut and the attacks on the Portuguese fleets had made it more urgent. Gama was ready to do his Christian duty, and no doubt the prospect of exacting personal revenge for his earlier treatment steeled his soul.
After a few days the fleet arrived at Anjediva Island, where Gaspar da Gama had been taken captive on the first voyage. By now hundreds of sailors were stricken with scurvy, and they were carried ashore and housed in makeshift shelters. The mysterious disease terrified the new hands, though the Flemish sailor distracted himself by hunting and killing a five-foot-long lizard. The friendly locals brought plenty of food—fresh and cooked fish, cucumbers, and the bananas that the Portuguese, who were obsessed with them, called “Indian figs”—but sixty or seventy died.
One morning a sail appeared on the horizon, and the admiral sent out three ships and two caravels to head off the vessel. As they drew near, it put out its flags and standards and wild cheering broke out. The ship was one of the two that had sailed in May and had been delayed at the Cape. It was owned by a wealthy “New Christian” named Rui Mendes de Brito and was captained by a Florentine named Giovanni Buonagrazia; also on board was a scribe named Tomé Lopes, who had taken it upon himself to make a full record of the voyage. As it joined the rest of the fleet, sailors swarmed aboard to hear the news from Portugal and ask if they had any letters. The new arrivals had called at Malindi, and they gave the recuperating patients chickens and oranges from the sultan.
The second ship missing from the May fleet showed up soon after, and the huge armada sailed off toward Cannanore, the northernmost of the three great ports of the Malabar Coast. Along the way the Europeans captured several boats and looted their cargoes of rice, honey, and butter. The men belonging to friendly rulers were set free; the rest were taken as slaves, and their vessels were burned.
RATHER THAN ENTER the port of Cannanore and start trading, the admiral ordered his captains to wait out at sea. They stopped opposite Mount Eli, the landmark to which Arab pilots steered and the point where Gama himself had first arrived in India.
By now the entire company was in on the plan. The Flemish sailor put it as simply as possible. They were to lie in wait for the merchant convoys heading from Arabia to Calicut, “the ships which carry the spices that come to our country, and we wished to destroy them so that the King of Portugal alone should get spices from there.”
Every few hours one of the ships set out to scan the sea-lanes, and when its turn was up another took its place. The relay kept going for days without achieving much. A captain named Fernão Lourenço tried to board an enormous four-masted dhow carrying a large crew, but after shooting off six or seven bombards, the gunners ran out of ammunition, and as night fell they lost their quarry. The ship belonging to Rui Mendes de Brito managed to capture a sambuk, a small, double-ended dhow, but it was carrying little more than oakum threads and yams and it turned out to be headed to friendly Cannanore. Gama kept its twenty-four Muslim sailors under close watch for a few days while he decided what to do; in the end the need for allies prevailed over the urgings of faith, and he put them under the care of an ambassador from Cannanore who had returned to India with the fleet.
The twenty-four men soon found out what a narrow escape they had had.
The armada stayed at the ready, its guns loaded, the officers plated up for action and spurring on their crews, who were growing increasingly restless as the supplies ran down. Finally, two days before the end of September, the traffic from Jeddah and Aden began to arrive on the late monsoon winds and a suitable target sailed into view.
Tomé Lopes, the clerk on Rui Mendes de Brito’s ship, later set down a full account of the horrors that unfolded over the following days.
The São Gabriel was on reconnaissance duty when the huge Arab vessel appeared on the horizon. As the watchkeepers shouted out, the gunners sprang into action and fired warning shots across its bow.
Strangely, since the Europeans could see it was armed, it came to a halt and lowered its flag. The São Gabriel closed in, and its soldiers boarded the vessel without meeting any opposition.
The Arab ship was called the Mîrî. To the deep satisfaction of the Portuguese, it was headed for Calicut. It was crammed with 240 men and more than 50 women and children. Most were pilgrims coming home from the hajj to Mecca, but a dozen of the wealthiest merchants of Calicut were also on board. They were used to running the gauntlet of pirates along the Malabar Coast, and rather than put up a fight they had decided to buy their freedom with a portion of the riches they were carrying.
The foremost merchant was named Jauhar al-Faqih, and he was, the Europeans learned, none other than the factor in Calicut of the sultan of Mecca. The Mîrî was part of his personal fleet, and he took charge of the negotiations.
At al-Faqih’s request, the Admiral of India met him in person. The Muslim grandee opened with a high bid, and in the usual Arab manner, to save face he presented a blatant bribe as a regular business transaction. His mast was broken, he explained, and he could offer a handsome sum in gold for a new one; moreover, he would personally ensure that every ship in the Portuguese fleet would fill its hold with spices.
Gama refused. Five years earlier he had made a great play of being outraged when the Muslims of Calicut called him a pirate. With good reason, he was now being treated like one. Yet much had changed in the meantime. Gama’s first expedition was a voyage of exploration conducted on three small ships. His second was a voyage of conquest backed up by a bristling armada. Then he was a pathfinder. Now he was a Crusader, and he had designs far darker than simple extortion.
Al-Faqih upped his offer. If he, his nephew, and one of his wives were set free, he guaranteed to load four of the biggest ships with a full cargo of spices at his own charge. He himself would remain on the flagship as a hostage; the admiral merely had to allow his nephew ashore to make the arrangements. If, say, within fifteen or twenty days, the shipment did not arrive, his life would be theirs to do with as they wished, and so would the valuable cargo of the Mîrî. On top of that, he would mediate with the Zamorin to ensure the return of the goods in the Portuguese warehouse and to restore friendly relations in place of the unfortunate hostilities that had broken out.
The admiral brusquely ordered the merchant to return to his ship and tell his fellow Muslims to hand over everything of value on board.
There was clearly no negotiating with the uncouth European, and al-Faqih’s pride had taken enough knocks.
“When I commanded this ship,” he answered, “they did as I said; now that you command it, you tell them!”
Nonetheless he went back to the Mîrî, and after a heated debate, the merchants sent a modest amount of gold to the Portuguese fleet. Gama took it, then dispatched his boats to rake the Arab ship for more booty. One of his own crewmen was transferring the seized goods when he lost his footing and slipped over the side. The current forced the two vessels against each other with the sailor in between, and his body was shattered. The admiral became even more implacable.
Waylaying ships at sea was a military affair. The representatives of the European merchants looked on, unsure what was happening, while Gama held closed councils with his captains. Matteo da Bergamo heard that the soldiers had seized a great deal of gold and silver coin as well as Turkish velvets, quicksilver, copper, and opium from the Mîrî. “We couldn’t even speak about this capture,” he noted, “all the more so because we had no part in it. We were told that it was none of our business.”
The standoff had already lasted five days. “It was a Monday, the 3rd of October 1502,” wrote Tomé Lopes: “a date that I will remember every day of my life.”
By now Gama’s soldiers had removed all the weapons they could find from the Arab ship. It was a sitting duck, and the admiral ordered his men into their boats. Their task was simple. They were to tow the Mîrî out to sea until it was safely away from the Portuguese fleet. Then they were to set it alight and burn it with everyone on board.
The soldiers marched onto the Mîrî, set fires across the decks, and jumped back into the boats as the flames licked and the smoke billowed. Some of the Muslims rushed to smother the fires, and one by one they stamped them out. Others dragged out several small bombards they had managed to hide from the search party, and they hurriedly set them up. The pilgrims and merchants ran to grab anything that could serve as ammunition, including fist-sized stones from the piles of ballast in the hold. There was clearly no chance of surrender, and they were determined to die fighting rather than burn to death.
When the soldiers in the boats saw the fires go out they rowed back to light them again. As they approached, women and men alike fired the bombards and hurled the stones. The Europeans cowered under the hail of missiles and beat a fast retreat. From a distance they tried to sink the Mîrî with their bombards, but the guns carried on the boats were too small to inflict real damage.
The Muslim women tore off their jewelry, clutched the gold, silver, and precious stones in their fists, and shook them at the boats, screaming at their attackers to take everything they had. They held up their babies and little children and desperately pleaded with the Christians to take pity on the innocents. One last time, the merchants shouted and gestured that they would pay a great ransom if their lives were spared.
Gama watched, hidden from sight, through a loophole in the side of his ship. Tomé Lopes was stunned: shocked by the admiral’s refusal to relent, and amazed that he was willing to turn down such wealth. There was no doubt in his mind that the ransom would have been enough to buy the freedom of every Christian prisoner in Morocco and still leave great treasure for the king. Bergamo and his fellow factors were no doubt wondering just how much of their profit would go up in smoke. Yet there were plenty of zealousChristians among the crews who had no more qualms than their Crusader forebears about killing peaceful merchants and pilgrims. The dehumanizing notion that their enemies in faith were somehow not real people was too deeply ingrained to be shaken. Like holy warriors before and after, they avoided looking into the whites of their victims’ eyes and got on with their godly business.
The Mîrî was still afloat. The desperate Muslims had dragged their mattresses and the mats that covered the cargo into the center of the deck, and they kept up their barrage from behind their makeshift shelters. Tomé Lopes’s ship was nearest, and he and his crew could see their comrades in the boats waving flags and calling them to come to the rescue. They sailed over and took the soldiers on board, half on the ship itself and half on the sambuk they had seized earlier, which they were still towing along. The gunners trained a large bombard on the Mîrî and the cannonball crashed into the base of its mast, splintering the wood. Thinking they had the situation under control, they sailed right up to the enemy ship.
The Mîrî was much the bigger and taller of the two, and the Christians turned their ship astern so that the top of its castle came up against the waist of the Arab vessel. The Muslims sprang into action. They threw ropes onto Lopes’s ship, and so quickly that the sailors had no time to act, they leapt across the gap. They clung to the netting that was meant to ward off boarders, climbed up the rigging, and threw the ropes back. The men on the Mîrî grabbed the ends and pulled the two vessels tight against one another.
Suddenly the Christians were in deep trouble. At such close quarters their guns were useless. The forty or so sailors were heavily outnumbered, and every time they poked their heads out into the open, a hail of stones thudded around them. A few soldiers scrambled up to the crow’s nest and returned fire with their meager supply of lances and arrows, but the Muslims picked them up and sent them thwacking back into the decks. Lopes and his comrades were forced to cower out of sight: only one soldier armed with a crossbow stopped the men on the Mîrî from swarming aboard.
It was the longest day of the year, Lopes later noted—it certainly felt like it—and yet as the light finally began to fade the battle showed no sign of letting up. The Muslims were still fighting “with such vehemence that it was marvelous to see, and even though we wounded and killed many, it seemed as if no one was dying and no one felt their wounds.” They tore arrows from their skin, flung them back at their attackers, and threw themselves back into the action without a second’s pause. Fourteen or fifteen Muslims jumped on the Portuguese ship and hurled themselves at the sterncastle with the superhuman force of men who knew they were wronged. The victims were now the avengers, and they pushed at the door, brushing away the lances that pierced their chests. The officers and soldiers who had barricaded themselves inside beat a bruised and bloody retreat down the ladder to the main deck. Only Tomé Lopes and Giovanni Buonagrazia, the ship’s captain, stayed to fight on. The cuirass the captain had strapped around his torso was already dented and broken from the barrage of stones, and as he stood there the straps gave way and his breastplate fell to the ground. He turned to the faithful friend at his side.
“O Tomé Lopes, scribe of this ship,” he said, “what are we doing here, while everybody has left?”
They quit the castle, too, both heavily wounded. The Muslims charged in and raised a triumphant cry. The men on the Mîrî took heart and rushed the decks of the Portuguese ship. By now most of the Europeans were wounded and several were dead. The rest cowered behind the sails, the only cover they had left.
With the wind against them the rest of the armada had been unable to act, but eventually a few ships closed in on the action. They were powerless to fire lest they hit their own men, and as they looked on, several of their comrades abandoned all hope and threw themselves in the sea. Some of the wounded and exhausted men of the Mîrî lost their footing as they tried to drag themselves back to their ship and fell into the sea, too, but still new waves of attackers took their place.
Finally one of the larger Portuguese ships caught a breeze and headed straight for the Mîrî. The Muslims scrambled back to their decks, cut the ropes, and pushed off. The Julioa was bigger than its stricken sister ship, but the men on board took one look at the fired-up enemy and decided to leave them alone. The Mîrî was getting away.
It was only then that Vasco da Gama managed to arrive on the scene on the Lionarda. The principal warships were close behind, and they set off in pursuit of their fleeing quarry. The wind was now gusting and the sea was swelling in great waves, and as they pitched up and down they were driven far ahead of the Mîrî and then blown far back behind. As they swayed within range they let loose a few off-target cannonballs and veered off again. The ghastly chase continued for four days and nights, the wounded men and women on the Mîrî lying prone on the deck, calling to the Prophet to deliver them from the hands of the Christians.
The end was as sordid as the whole engagement. A young Muslim jumped off the side of the Mîrî and swam through the rough sea to the nearest Portuguese ship. He would give them the secret of how to sink the Arab vessel, he blurted to the captain, if they promised to save his life. He would tie a rope to her rudder, and with the Mîrî crippled they would no longer have to follow her all over the sea.
The traitor carried out his task and the cannons fired. “And so,” recorded Tomé Lopes, “after all those battles, the Admiral ordered the ship burnt with the men who were on it, very cruelly and without the slightest pity.” Screams rent the air. Some of the Muslims leapt in the sea with hatchets in their hands and swam to the boats, but they were killed in the water as they tried to hack at the bottoms or clamber on board. Almost all the rest—nearly three hundred men and women—were drowned.
The young traitor was sufficiently chastened by the ghastly sight to relish a small moment of revenge. There had been great treasures on the Mîrî, he told the Christians, that they had never found. Gold, silver, and jewels had been hidden in casks of oil and honey, and when the merchants had realized their lives were lost, they had thrown them all in the sea.
The Portuguese had shown one small sign of mercy, and one of pragmatism. Before they sank the Mîrî, they had taken off seventeen children. They believed they were saving their souls when they baptized them by force. They had also seized the ship’s pilot, a hunchback with useful experience of sailing the Indian Ocean, and they found an immediate job for him.
With grim satisfaction, Gama dictated a letter to the Zamorin of Calicut and handed it to the pilot to deliver. The letter explained that of all the souls on board the Mîrî, the admiral had spared the lives of only some children and the man who was now his messenger. The rest, Gama declared, had been killed in revenge for the Portuguese who had been murdered in Calicut, and the children had been baptized as reckoning for a Portuguese boy whom the Moors had taken to Mecca to make a Muslim. This, he added, “was a demonstration of the manner that the Portuguese had in amending the damage that they had received, and the rest would be in the city of Calecut itself, where he hoped to be very soon.”
Vasco da Gama had returned to India in the service of a king who dreamed of ushering in a universal Christian age. A visionary’s sense of proportion lessens as his vision grows in grandeur, and world domination and fair play have no common border. If the admiral had any notion of natural justice, it, too, was sacrificed to the call of holy war.