Post-classical history

CHAPTER 16

STANDOFF AT SEA

CHRISTMAS PASSED IN high spirits for the Europeans in Cochin and Quilon. The festive mood was only slightly spoiled on December 29, when the soundly sleeping sailors on the Santo António woke up with a jolt to find their anchor rope had snapped, they had hit the coast, and they were letting in water at an alarming rate. They fired off two shots and the boats raced to their aid, but the ship stayed beached all night until it could be towed off for emergency repairs in the morning.

As the year 1503 began, even the excruciating display of barbarity that Gama had inflicted on Calicut seemed to be paying off. The Zamorin had already sent two sambuks to spy on the fleet; the Portuguese had captured them and had summarily executed their crews. Now, though, an embassy arrived with a new letter from the Zamorin and renewed assurances of friendship. If the admiral would come back, the Zamorin promised to make restitution for the seized goods; for his security, he would give him anyone he named to keep as a hostage until he was completely satisfied.

A Brahmin delivered the letter, and his son and two Nairs accompanied him. “This Brahmin,” noted Lopes, “is like a bishop and a monk, and is a man of great estate.” Like the rest of his caste, he added, the Brahmin was able to travel in perfect safety even if the country was at war, because anyone who harmed him would immediately be excommunicated with no possibility of absolution. The Portuguese were flattered all the more when the Brahmin announced that he wanted to go to Portugal with them. He had brought enough jewels, he explained, to pay his way, and if they would allow him, he would buy some cinnamon to do a little trading. He even asked if his sons and nephews could come with him to learn Latin and be instructed in the Christian faith.

This was music to Gama’s ears, and he was coaxed out of his professional distrust. Clearly, he thought, he had bombarded some sense into the Zamorin, and he decided to return with the ambassador in person. When his captains protested, he bluntly replied that if the Zamorin broke his word he would hang the Brahmin and his fellow messengers. The risk was worth taking: if he humbled Calicut and turned it over to Portuguese control, he would go home in triumph.

The admiral had the distinguished visitor’s jewels and spices secured on the flagship. He boarded the Flor de la Mar, his cousin Estêvão’s ship, and accompanied by a solitary caravel he set sail for Calicut.

The merchants of Cochin watched the admiral leave and immediately put down their scales. All their king’s blandishments had failed, they complained: the fickle Christian was headed back to Calicut to buy spices. Gama had given command of the Cochin fleet to Dom Luís Coutinho, a wealthy nobleman who was captain of the Lionarda, and Coutinho went to reason with the merchants. By two o’clock in the morning he had still failed to hammer out an agreement, and he sent Giovanni Buonagrazia after the admiral with letters asking for his orders. On board was Buonagrazia’s brother in arms Tomé Lopes, and once again Lopes recounted the story.

The winds were feeble, and it took the Italian captain three days to reach Calicut. When he arrived he edged within half a league of the shore, but the Flor de la Mar was nowhere to be seen. He sailed straight on to Cannanore, thinking the admiral had already made peace and had left to join his uncle, but since a strong northeast wind made it impossible to approach the harbor he returned to Calicut, still convinced that all was well. Luckily the wind again refused to cooperate, and he headed back to Cannanore, where he finally found the missing vessels in full battle rig, “as if they were ready to fight with a thousand ships.” The captains sent up the flags and banners, and the crews exchanged stories.

As soon as Gama had arrived outside Calicut, Lopes heard, he had dispatched the caravel to Cannanore to fetch his uncle. With only a few dozen sailors left to protect him, he had made a warm speech to the Brahmin and had asked him to repeat it to the Zamorin. It often happened, he said, that two enemies became great friends, and so the Christians would become to the Zamorin. From this moment on, they would do business as if they were brothers.

The Brahmin promised to return by nightfall, but in his stead a different messenger arrived. The money and spices were ready for the admiral, he announced, if he would send a man of quality to the city to settle their accounts.

Gama began to suspect that he had been taken for a fool. He wouldn’t even send the smallest ship’s boy, he furiously replied. For the umpteenth time, he told the Zamorin to send what he owed or forget the whole thing.

The messenger advised him to stay at least another day; he knew the will of the Zamorin and his people, he added, and it would soon become clear. He, too, promised to return with an answer.

That night, during the last quarter before dawn, the watchkeepers sighted a sambuk setting out from the shore. When they took a second look, they saw that what looked like one boat was really two tied together, and they were now heading straight for their ship.

The officers woke up the admiral. He threw on some clothes and came on deck, confident that the Zamorin was at last sending the long-awaited goods. Instead he made out seventy or eighty more sambuks rowing silently from the shore. He decided it must be the fishing fleet heading out for its morning catch.

Without warning the two leading boats opened fire. Iron cannonballs skipped across the sea and smashed into the Flor de la Mar. The rest of the war fleet came up behind and fired at will. As soon as one of the Christians showed himself, arrows thudded from the moonlit sky like black rain. The enemy was already too close for the bombards to be of any use, and the Europeans could only climb up the masts and throw back stones.

Along the way Gama had seized a sambuk, and it was tied to the stern of the Flor de la Mar. The Indians filled it with wood and gunpowder and set it on fire. The flames leapt up the sternpost, and the sailors scrambled to cut the rope. The current took the blazing boat away just in time.

As dawn glowed on the horizon, more boats were still starting out from the shore. Soon there were two hundred swarming around the lone Portuguese vessel, all shooting as soon as they were in range. Their guns were small, but the vengeful Zamorin had clearly gone all out to procure every weapon he could find.

The Flor de la Mar was in desperate straits. The slow business of hauling in the anchors would have exposed the sailors to lethal fire, and instead they dashed to hack at the cables.

The sails were set, but the ship did not budge. The night before, Gama had secretly ordered a special anchor to be dropped in case the Zamorin’s men tried to cut the others loose. It was attached with several iron chains. Cowering beneath the relentless barrage of arrows, the men had no choice but to take a hatchet to each in turn.

The day was already well advanced when the ship finally moved off, with the enemy fleet in full pursuit. Almost immediately the wind dropped, the sails sagged, and the rowing boats swarmed around again.

Just in time Vicente Sodré’s ship and two caravels drifted into view. As they took in the sight, they put out their oars and laboriously rowed toward the Indian fleet. When they were near enough they opened fire with their big guns, and the Indians scattered and retreated to the town.

The Admiral of India was fast losing face. He had fallen for the Brahmin’s blandishments and had sailed straight into a trap. He had been wounded—eleven times, according to a Portuguese sailor. He had misjudged his opponent’s mettle, and he had nearly paid for his mistake with his life.

Gama had the remaining envoys—including the Brahmin’s son—hung from the masts of the caravels, and he ordered the ships to parade up and down as near as possible to the city. A crowd came out to watch and shout insults, and the Portuguese shot at them. When the Indians had had plenty of time to see the grisly show, the admiral had the bodies taken down and thrown into a captured boat. He sent it to the shore with one last letter for the Zamorin.

“You vile man!” it read: “you had me called for, and I came in answer to your call. You did as much as you could, and if you could have, you would have done more. The punishment will be as you deserve: when I come back here, I will make you pay what you owe, and not in cash.”

The threats were wearing thin, and Gama did not have the forces to back up his words. He beat a retreat to Cannanore, where he met up with Tomé Lopes’s ship. They stopped for several days to load spices, then sailed back to Cochin, giving Calicut a wide berth.

THE RUNNING BATTLE with Calicut was threatening to capsize the entire mission, but once again Vasco da Gama found a safe haven in Cochin. The fleet regrouped, the sailors swapped stories, and the admiral met twice more with the king. Their final agreement established a permanent Portuguese factory in the city with a staff of thirty, but it went much further. The chief factor henceforth had jurisdiction over all the Portuguese in Cochin—and over all the Christians in India. As a mark of how strongly the king had sided with the Europeans—if not of Gama’s confidence in the attractions of his faith—the factor was explicitly given the authority to deal as he saw fit with any Christian who defected to Islam. This was no mere trade treaty: it established Europe’s first Indian colony, and in theory at least it made India’s Christians subjects of the Portuguese crown. For the raja, at the ostensibly low cost of a few words it gave the Europeans a vested interest in aggrandizing his power. The cost would soon turn out to be a great deal higher: the agreement dangerously trespassed on the rights of his neighboring rulers.

By February 10, with letters and envoys to King Manuel safely on board, Gama’s business in Cochin was done. His plan was to return one last time to Cannanore and then sail for home; if he made a similar pact with the Kolattiri, he reasoned, he could box in the headstrong Zamorin—and if necessary play off his new allies against one another. Before he could depart, though, more unnerving news traveled down the coast. The Zamorin had managed to regroup and amass a fearsome new war fleet, and this time he was determined to rid himself once and for all of the truculent Portuguese.

Gama, in a cold fury, steeled himself for one final battle. His plan was to draw out the enemy and provoke them into attacking before they were fully prepared. The admiral and his uncle Vicente set all their sails and moved off at full speed, while Don Luís Coutinho toured the rest of the fleet in a boat, telling the captains to hold back and follow at a distance.

Two days later, as Coutinho’s convoy edged within four or five leagues of Calicut, the lookouts saw a great armada of Arab dhows heading toward them from the north. Lopes counted thirty-two vessels—the Flemish sailor thirty-five—a Portuguese sailor thirty-six—Matteo da Bergamo thirty-eight. With as many as five hundred troops on each, they were far bigger than the boats that had attacked the Europeans before—and far bigger than the largest Portuguese ships. Gama had drawn them out, but there was no sign that they had been caught off guard.

The Christians were sailing close-hauled against the wind and were making slow progress. The Muslims had the wind with them and their sails were fully set. They were bearing down fast, and as the Europeans ran to their battle stations, the ominous rhythm of a war tattoo beaten on big Arab castanets came to them on the breeze.

A new cry went up on the Portuguese ships. A swarm of sambuks and long rowing boats was heading toward them from the city, all armed and with their guns already firing. Gama’s men scrambled to return fire, but the boats kept on coming. The Indians had learned to push on until they were past the range of the European guns; that way, they could put their numerical advantage to use in hand-to-hand fighting. In no time the light, fast boats reached the fleet and darted in and out, letting loose flocks of arrows.

The Portuguese ships were heavily laden and in poor condition. They responded sluggishly as the helmsmen heaved on the tillers, and they drifted apart toward land and sea. To complicate matters more, two trading vessels from Cochin were following them. They were even slower sailers, and the Zamorin’s boats targeted them, trying to pick them off first. Both the ships’ owners were Muslims, but Gama thought better of sacrificing them and endangering the treaty he had just signed with their king. On his urgent signal the fleet slowly re-formed around them.

The situation was dire, but the Europeans had one signal advantage: their big cannon were still much more powerful than anything the enemy possessed. By now the Arab fleet had come within range, and a Portuguese ship that was farther out to sea than the rest opened fire. The gunners scored several direct hits and the dhows fell back toward Calicut. Almost immediately the wind died down, and the Europeans were left powerless to give chase.

Gama barked out new orders. With the Indians still firing at them, the crews put out the boats, tied them to the ships’ bows, and strained at the oars to tow the entire fleet along the coast. After a backbreakingly long time they drew level with the seafront of Calicut and closed in on the enemy. A great fusillade of cannonballs ripped holes in the sides of the Arab ships, which scattered toward the city.

The two caravels put out their long oars and set off in pursuit of the Arab flagship. A sudden gust of wind blew the light, freshly tarred dhows to the shore, and the heavily laden caravels creaked after them, their guns blazing away. The flagship refused to surrender, and the caravels were forced to keep their distance. There were only a few dozen men between them, and they were heavily outnumbered.

Eventually a big Portuguese ship lumbered into the harbor. As it grappled one of the Arab vessels, another crashed into its side. The Muslim sailors threw themselves overboard and swam to the shore. The Christians went after them in the boats, throwing lances at them and skewering them in the sea; according to Tomé Lopes, only one of the hundreds of men slipped away and escaped with his life.

The Europeans boarded the two dhows and found a young boy cowering in a corner. Gama immediately sent him to be hanged, then changed his mind and instead had him interrogated. The Zamorin, the boy told his captors, had suffered such losses that he had demanded that his Muslim merchants fight their own battles; otherwise, he had threatened, he would “cut off their heads and those of their women, too.” Every piece of artillery he could buy, beg, or borrow had been loaded onto their vessels, and every day he had raged at them, saying he was at war with the Christians on their account. Seven thousand had joined the armada and had sworn to defeat the Portuguese or die trying, but in the end the Zamorin had had to have them beaten with sticks to make them go on board. Their unpreparedness had proved their undoing: when the battle was barely under way a few bombards had been fired from the shore, and the jittery captains had decided it was a signal to retreat.

There was little booty in the captured ships: some nuts and rice and water, seven or eight stubby bombards in poor condition, some shields and swords, and plenty of bows and arrows. During the search the Portuguese found two more Muslims hiding and killed them before they could pray. When they were done, they set the vessels ablaze.

The Europeans’ blood was up. The rest of the fleet bore down until their prows were leaping at the seafront, but the crews of the other Arab ships had already escaped to land. Even Tomé Lopes wondered why the admiral did not give the order to burn the city.The only thing in the Zamorin’s favor, he acerbically noted, was that “for the whole night the wind blew from the sea with great fury, sending all the dead to the shore, where they could be counted at leisure.”

With the ships full of spices and time running out to return home, the guns stayed silent. Hoping—if not quite believing—that he had finally done enough to quell the maddening Zamorin, Gama set a course for Cannanore.

The nineteen ships arrived at midday on February 15, and boatloads of Muslim merchants immediately came to meet them. The merchants had already heard the news from Calicut, and they had some startling information. There had been sixteen thousand men on board the war fleet, they said, and the Portuguese had killed as many as a thousand. Nearly seven hundred had died on the two captured vessels alone. Out of five hundred men on the flagship, half had died in the bombardment, and the other half had had their arms or legs blown off. The ship itself had been smashed so badly that it had nearly sunk before it made it to land.

To Gama’s violent satisfaction, the merchants added that the Zamorin had seen the whole engagement from the turret of a house on a hill. Even better, among the informants were several who had given up on the Zamorin and his wars and had brought their wives and children to Cannanore. They had been starving to death in Calicut, they said; food had reached twice its usual price, and the city could only hold out on its own resources for a few more months. Many of the most powerful merchants, they added, had also abandoned the city, since nothing was arriving by sea. The Zamorin was beside himself with fury, and he had vowed to take the first Christians who fell into his hands and roast them alive.

Rather than blame the foreigners, these men seemed on the whole to be content at their victory. The Kolattiri was delighted. He had welcomed the refugees from Calicut and had given them money to hire crews, and he had been on the point of sending ships to go to the Europeans’ aid. Vasco da Gama’s merciless attacks on his old rival had finally convinced him to side with the Christians.

Gama decided he could trust the ruler of Cannanore after all. He made arrangements to set up a permanent factory in a spacious house with a staff of twenty, and he promised that his countrymen would return every year. The Kolattiri swore to protect them and supply them with spices, and the admiral engaged to defend his kingdom from attack. Before he left, Gama presented the king with some splendid gold and scarlet robes—the very Turkish velvets he had stolen from the Mîrî more than four months before.

The holds were now stacked high with spices, and the stores were freshly stocked with water, fish, and rice. On February 22, with the last preparations complete, Vasco da Gama left India for the second time. Vicente and Brás Sodré, his two uncles, stayed on with their three ships and two caravels to police the Indian Ocean—the first permanent European naval presence in Eastern waters.

THE ADMIRAL HAD decided to try a new tack across the Indian Ocean, and he set his course directly for Mozambique Island. The route bypassed Malindi and its loyal sultan, without whose help Gama might never have made it to India, but it promised to shave valuable days off the return journey.

Vast stretches of the ocean were still uncharted water to the Europeans. During the crossing they passed chains of unknown islands, and they skirted the shallows to take a look. The inhabitants of one island lit a large bonfire to attract them, but mindful of his precious cargo, Gama decided to press on.

For seven weeks the ships plowed close-hauled into storms and drifted under full sail in calms. They were sluggish in the water and leaking badly, and the sailors began praying that they would reach land before they sank. Two of the smaller ships went on ahead, and finally, before dawn on April 10, they sounded the seafloor and fired their bombards. The next morning the sailors made out the familiar green ribbon of the African coast, and on the evening of April 12 they anchored off Mozambique.

The long journey, the heavy loads, and the repeated battles had tested Europe’s maritime technology to the limits. Many of the fourteen ships were now in an utterly unseaworthy state, and once more they were unloaded and tipped on their sides. The hulls were so perforated with wormholes that they looked as if they were made of pegboard, and there was nothing to do but pore over the wood and plug the holes with little wooden sticks—five or six thousand of them, estimated Lopes. Then the ships had to be recaulked, refloated, restocked, and loaded with water and wood.

Gama chose the São Gabriel and the Santo António, which were in better condition than the rest, to sail ahead and deliver the news to King Manuel. Each ship also carried a copy of Matteo da Bergamo’s report to his employer. For several days the opinionated Italian had been busy putting the finishing touches to his letters, and he must have hoped that no one would decide to take a peek. The Indians and Arabs, he wrote, were more formidable foes than the Portuguese had reckoned them:

It seems to me that the argument made at Lisbon, that our ships are better than theirs, is wrong; we’ve seen from experience that the opposite is true. It seems to me that as long as we don’t make peace with Calicut they will always arm themselves, and in consequence, if we are to defend ourselves and not run away, we need big, well-armed vessels. Because if they hadn’t suffered great losses this year, during the storm that destroyed more than a hundred and sixty of their ships between Calicut, Cannanore, and Cochin without a single person saved, none of ours, I fear, or rather I’m certain, would have stayed there, or perhaps wouldn’t have been able to load their cargo. But if at least twelve or fifteen ships with a tonnage of 200 tons and more came to this region well armed and equipped, they could load quite safely and would find a cargo. That’s what I think.

Vasco da Gama himself, he added, had several times insisted that the king would never let any merchants arm themselves, but he advised his employer to defend his interests against the Portuguese as well as against the Indians. Gama, he complained, had refused to let him and his colleagues negotiate their own terms, he had ordered them to leave their unsold goods with the king’s factors against payment in Lisbon or else throw them in the sea, and he had kept the spoils from every captured vessel for the crown. The merchants, the Italian urged, should examine their articles of agreement and claim compensation for the admiral’s injurious actions.

The two ships left Mozambique on April 19. The admiral himself set out ten days later with eight ships, and the last five followed after another two days.

The final convoy had barely left the harbor when the lookouts saw Gama’s fleet heading back toward them. Two of his ships, the Flor de la Mar and the Lionarda, were taking on so much water that it was almost impossible to bail them out. The admiral ordered all thirteen vessels back to Mozambique for more repairs.

On May 4 Gama chose two more ships to go on ahead in case the first pair had encountered any trouble. It was just as well. On May 20, with the hulls patched as best they could be, the eleven remaining vessels once again set out to sea. Within days, they were back again.

Tomé Lopes’s ship was among them, and he reported what had happened.

All had gone well until they were eight days out. Then, without warning, a tempest had whipped up the sea like a bubbling cauldron. Night had fallen and ardent prayers had been said when the Lionarda crashed straight into Lopes’s ship. The collision sheared away part of its forecastle and splintered the topsides. The shrouds became entangled, and the waves were so high that the men swung wildly in the rigging as they tried to disengage them. When Lopes’s ship finally broke free, the Lionarda came straight at it again and smashed into the side near the bow. A huge gash opened up, and shrouds, planks, chains, and sails went crashing around. The sailors were convinced they were doomed, and every new crack and bang made their hearts jump. Most gave up, kneeled down, and prayed.

Eventually a few stouter men managed to cut the rigging, and the two ships sheered apart. Relays of sailors bailed out the rising water, some with the pumps and others with any container to hand. Another party waded into the hold carrying lanterns and found the bottom of the hull still watertight. Even so, many were convinced the vessel was about to founder, and thirteen deserters jumped ship to the Lionarda.

Lopes and the rest who stayed on board were sure their lives had been spared by an act of God. It was impossible to be saved from such calamity by natural forces, the clerk recorded, and they all vowed to go on a pilgrimage when they reached home. Miracle or not, they were not safe yet. As soon as they tried to come around to the heading set by the admiral, the water rushed in again and the ship listed dangerously toward the holed side. With the waves still rearing high, the officers decided to risk lighting bonfires on the decks as a signal to the rest of the fleet.

Gama’s vessel was the first to arrive on the scene, and he shouted to the men to ask if they wanted to abandon ship. With God’s help, they cried back, they could last until morning. The Flor de la Mar appeared next and offered to send out its boat. Its crew tried to persuade their comrades that they were bound to sink in such furious seas, but Lopes and his men were convinced they were under supernatural protection.

On May 31 the fleet once again turned back toward land, and the pilots found they had made only ten leagues from Mozambique. It took them three attempts to enter the harbor, and the next day Lopes’s ship limped in after them. The Lionarda, too, was leaking and badly in need of repair, and the process of careening started all over again.

So much time had passed that the supplies of food had run dangerously low. Already the men were on reduced rations of bread and wine. Four days after they arrived in Mozambique for the third time, the rice they had bought ran out. They moved on to African millet, and that ran out, too. Eventually they were reduced to cooking up the biscuit crumbs from the bottom of the barrels—at least, the ones the mice had missed. Since there was no oil or honey left, the crumbs were boiled in water. The result, Tomé Lopes mordantly noted, “needed no condiments since it smelled like a dead dog, but we ate it because we were starving.”

By June 15 conditions had become so bad that Gama ordered three of the ships to leave immediately for home. They set out early the next morning, and after surviving a blizzard that separated and nearly sank them, they finally came within sight of the Cape of Good Hope. There, as if to show just how much had changed in the five years since Vasco da Gama had first sailed into the Indian Ocean, they ran into two Portuguese ships newly bound for India. The bombards fired and the boats went out. News of a prince born to the king passed one way, and sacks of bread passed the other. The homeward-bound crews went on their way, watching pods of whales swimming around the Cape, shooting large, sleek tuna with their artillery, and stopping on an island to trap and roast flocks of birds that had never learned to beware of humans. According to the Flemish sailor, birds were not the only victims. By mid-July the provisions were again running out, and on the thirtieth, he matter-of-factly reported, “we found an island, where we killed at least 300 men, and we caught many of them, and we took there water.” No doubt he was exaggerating as usual, though Tomé Lopes, whose ship was waiting offshore, was unusually reticent about what went on.

The flotilla sailed on toward the Cape Verdes. The islands were still some way off when it ran into a raging storm and was forced to anchor in the pitching sea. All the men fell ill, and for twenty days they had no bread to eat. The German sailor was among them. In the nick of time, he reported, another Portuguese ship sailed past, “from which we took flour and baked cakes and made porridge, and helped ourselves as best we could. Every second or third day a man died, and the rest were ever sicker and more despondent from the change of air.” Eventually the three vessels reached the Azores, took on plenty of fresh food, and scudded on the westerlies to Lisbon.

Back in Mozambique, the remaining ships set out in twos and threes as soon as they could be provisioned. The Admiral of India waited for the very last departure and left on June 22. Two of the ships lost the rest on a dark, stormy night and limped home taking in water, accompanied by nothing, recorded a Portuguese sailor, but their fears. As they headed to the Azores, the entire company sickened and no one was left to sail the ships. There was nothing to eat but moldy biscuits crawling with maggots, and the ailing men devoured two dogs and two cats that had been taken on board to eat rats.

THE SCENT OF spices reached land before the ships. Seventeen hundred tons of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, brazilwood, aloeswood, myrobalans, canafistula, zerumba, zedoary, benzoin, camphor, tamarind, musk, and alum perfumed the holds and masked the odors of men who had been nearly two years at sea.

The first vessels reached Lisbon in late August, and the news they brought set the seal on Vasco da Gama’s fame. “In every place that he has been,” Matteo da Bergamo’s boss Gianfranco Affaitati reported to Pietro Pasqualigo, who was then in Spain, “either through love or through force, he has managed to do everything that he wanted.”

On October 10, the Admiral of India sailed triumphantly into Lisbon. By the end of the month at least thirteen ships had returned. One vessel had come aground off Sofala early in the voyage; another, the oldest and smallest of the fleet, arrived home during a fierce storm and had to anchor five miles off Lisbon. “Such a strong wind blew,” a witness reported, “that all the anchor lines broke and the waves dashed the ship to pieces, and the men saved themselves on these pieces, so that not more than four were drowned.” Otherwise, Gama had not lost a single vessel.

His success stood in stark contrast to the disasters that had befallen his great rival. Three months after the Admiral of India had embarked on his second voyage, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea had set out from Spain for the fourth and final time. When Christopher Columbus arrived at Hispaniola, the governor ignored his warning that a hurricane was brewing and refused him entry to the port. Two days later the first Spanish treasure fleet left the colony and sailed straight into the tropical storm. Twenty of the thirty ships foundered, taking a vast haul of gold and five hundred men, including the governor himself, to the bottom of the sea. Columbus’s four venerable vessels had taken refuge in an estuary, and when the storm passed he set off to explore the mainland he had struck on his previous voyage. In Panama he learned that a whole new ocean lay a few days’ march away, and he was convinced he was close to finding a strait through which he could sail directly to India.

He was never able to search for it. Having evaded the hurricane, his fleet was pummeled by an even fiercer storm. One of the damaged ships was trapped in a river, and under attack from a nearby tribe, he was forced to abandon it. The three remaining vessels were riddled with wormholes and were leaking fast, and they had barely set sail for home when another had to be abandoned. As the last two ships headed for Cuba they were lashed by another tempest, and Columbus was forced to beach them in Jamaica before they sank. There were no Spaniards on Jamaica, and the men were marooned. One of the captains bought a canoe from a local chief and paddled to Hispaniola, where the new governor promptly threw him in prison for seven months. Columbus was still stuck on Jamaica, trying to put down a mutiny among half his crew and startling the islanders into feeding the castaways by predicting a lunar eclipse, when Vasco da Gama arrived home.

The court came down to the sea to welcome Dom Vasco and accompany him to the palace. He paraded through the streets to drumrolls and fanfares, preceded by a page boy carrying a huge silver basin filled with the golden offering from Kilwa. When he arrived at the palace, he presented the heap of gold to Manuel.

For the first time, a valuable tribute had been brought back from a celebrated Eastern city. For the first time, a Muslim ruler had made himself a vassal of the Portuguese king. For the first time, Manuel had thousands of Christian subjects in India. The doubts sown by Cabral’s troubled mission were silenced.

Manuel praised his admiral in unstinting words that redounded to his own credit. Vasco da Gama had outmatched the ancients, he rhapsodized. He had attacked “the Moors from Mequa, enemies of our Holy Catholic Faith,” he had made solemn treaties with two Indian kings, and he had brought his fleet safely home, “well-laden and with great riches.” As for the gold from Kilwa, Manuel had it melted down and made into a glittering monstrance for the vast monastery church that was rising at Belém, its lavish detailing a candy store of African carvings and Eastern marvels, proof in soaring stone of Portugal’s new power and the profit from spices.

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