Post-classical history

PART II

CHAPTER 7

THE COMMANDER

THERE WAS NOTHING obviously remarkable about the two ships that were taking shape under a wooden scaffold on the waterfront dockyards of Lisbon. As the carpenters completed the stout framework of ribs and nailed the planking into place, the hulls began to take on the same tubby form, the same bluff bows and high, square stern, as the dozens of cargo ships that were riding at anchor in the busy port. They were clearly being strongly built—the timber had been specially felled in the royal forests—but they were definitely on the small side, perhaps eighty or ninety feet overall in length. Only a few insiders knew that they were destined for an astonishingly long voyage through uncharted seas.

The shipwrights signed off on the hulls, and tall masts were raised toward the sky and secured to the keels. The decks were laid around them. A high forecastle and an even taller sterncastle, robust enough to serve as a last redoubt if the ships were boarded, took shape above the main deck. Rudders were mounted on long posts and were fitted to the sterns, and heavy wooden tillers were joined to the tops of the posts. Bowsprits were fixed to the bows, where they poked jauntily upward like unicorns’ horns to serve as extra masts. The carved figureheads of the ships’ patron saints were installed in pride of place on the prows, and the fitting out began.

Relays of dockhands wheeled cartloads of stones up the steep gangplanks and tipped them into the holds to serve as ballast. Ropemakers rolled over large wooden drums wound with hawsers and riggings fashioned from twisted flax, and sailmakers carried greatwings of canvas. Iron anchors were fitted to the bows, and spares were stowed in the holds. The topsides of the hulls were painted with a black tarry mixture to protect the wood against rot. Below the waterline, oakum—hemp fibers picked from old tarry ropes—was rammed into the seams between the planks, and hot pitch was poured on top to make a water-resistant seal. Then the bottoms were daubed with a foul-smelling mixture of pitch and tallow to ward off the clinging barnacles that acted as a drag on ships’ hulls, as well as the tropical worms that turned them into sieves. Meanwhile teams of laborers hauled over trolleys bearing great guns, their barrels made from wrought-iron bars hammered together in the furnace and reinforced with iron hoops. Twenty were installed on each ship, some heavy bombards lashed to wooden beds, others lighter falconets mounted on simple forked bases or iron swivels, though even the smallest weighed hundreds of pounds. Cannon had been carried on Portugal’s Africa-bound caravels since mid-century, and strengthened ships had been especially designed to support large bombards, but a keen observer might have paused to think that these two were more heavily armed than most.

A figure cloaked in black watched every step of the progress. Bartolomeu Dias had been ordered by King John to begin construction of the two vessels. He had abandoned the caravels, which he knew from bitter experience were too small for comfort on voyages that were now measured in years rather than months, as well as dangerously light and low in the water to weather fierce South Atlantic storms. Instead he had based his designs on the versatile merchant vessels that had evolved from the combined shipbuilding traditions of northern Europe and the Mediterranean. The new ships were square-rigged on the mainmast and foremast, with a single lateen sail on the mizzenmast. They were heavier, slower, and less capable of tacking against the wind than the caravels, but they were also roomier, steadier, and safer. Dias deliberately kept them compact—100 or 120 tons burthen, about twice the size of the caravels—to allow them to sail in shallow coastal waters and enter deep rivers. Even so, there was no disguising the fact that a hugely dangerous voyage was about to be undertaken in ships meant for lugging bulk goods around European shores.

From the start John had intended the two vessels to sail for India, but he would not even see them leave Lisbon.

On October 25, 1495, the king finally succumbed to a long illness that some ascribed to grief at the death of his son Afonso and others to regular doses of poison. Kissing a figure of Christ on the cross, penitent for his ferocious temper, and refusing to be addressed by his royal titles, “for I am only a sack of earth and worms,” he died, aged forty, in great pain. His cousin and brother-in-law Manuel took the throne.

King Manuel I had come of age in a court whose air bred conspiracy. John had murdered Manuel’s older brother and brother-in-law during his wars with the aristocracy. He had brusquely dismissed Manuel himself as a spineless incompetent, and he had only named Manuel as his heir after he had failed to legitimize his bastard son Jorge. The new king was a vain and capricious man—he was so fond of new clothes that half the court was dressed in his castoffs—and he was sufficiently fearful of rivals that the national assembly met just three times during his long reign. Like more than a few vain men, he was also a pious puritan who drank only water and recoiled at food cooked or dressed in oil. He was quickly nicknamed the Fortunate, both because of his unlikely route to the throne and because he came to power at the critical moment in the great enterprise fostered by his forebears. Yet just as those kings and princes, in their different ways, had each given the discoveries new impetus, so for good and ill the profoundly religious Manuel would leave a deep mark on history. John’s brief blast of modernity had relapsed into a royal worldview that was still substantially medieval, and faith, not reasoned calculation, would drive Portuguese ships directly into the heart of the Islamic world.

The twenty-six-year-old king had no queen, and soon after his accession Ferdinand and Isabella offered up their daughter for the task. The new bride was the same Isabella of Aragon who had married John II’s son—and Manuel’s nephew—Afonso. Isabella had been grief-stricken at Afonso’s death and had gone home to Castile and self-imposed widowhood. Being thrust into the arms of her beloved’s uncle was a ghoulish prospect, and she attached conditions to her compliance. The marriage, Manuel was told, could only proceed if he followed her parents’ lead and expelled from his kingdom every Jew who refused to convert to Christianity. King Manuel harbored dynastic designs on his neighbors’ lands, and his feelings for his bride dramatically heated up when the Catholic Monarchs’ only son died, at the age of nineteen, on the way to his sister’s wedding. Manuel suddenly found himself the heir to Castile, and thus potentially the overlord of the entire Iberian Peninsula.

Tens of thousands of Jews had fled from Spain to Portugal in 1492. Now they were on the run again.

Officially, Portugal’s Jewish population had long been confined to quarters known as judiarias. They were among the better ghettoes in Europe: the oldest, in Lisbon, occupied prime real estate between the business district and the harbor, to the annoyance of Christians who were allowed in during daytime but had to traipse around it at night. In practice, though, prominent Jews had always been able to live where they pleased. They were a vital part of Portugal’s economy, and they had played an equally important role in the discoveries. Henry the Navigator had employed Jewish experts in navigation, cartography, and mathematics; Jews had acted as trusted royal advisers and, like the shoemaker Joseph and Abraham the rabbi, as envoys and explorers. Yet on December 5, 1496, every Jew in Portugal was ordered to leave the country within ten months on penalty of death. By the following Easter the synagogues had been boarded up, Hebrew books had been confiscated, and children had been torn from their families to be brought up in Christian households.

In private, Manuel was less enamored of the new policy than he publicly professed. He was well aware of the brain drain that would accompany a mass exodus, and he had no intention of letting most of his Jewish subjects leave. Those who chose exile were only allowed to book passage on ships specified by the king; when they arrived at the port, clerics and soldiers met them and coerced or cajoled as many as possible into being baptized. In September 1497 most of the rest were rounded up, brought to Lisbon, and baptized by force; perhaps only forty held out. Manuel announced that all converted Jews and their descendants would henceforth be called “New Christians,” and he decreed a long grace period during which no inquiries into their faith would be allowed. He had fulfilled the letter of his in-laws’ wishes while completely disregarding their spirit, but it was a subterfuge born of pragmatism, not religious tolerance. To those who protested that forced conversion was far worse than exile—worse even than death—he replied that it was a matter for exultation, since it had saved thousands of souls from eternal damnation and brought them to the True Faith. Manuel had lit a long fuse, and the fires of religious purification would burn in Portugal, too.

Without any prompting from the Catholic Monarchs, at the same time Manuel expelled every Muslim from his lands. Reminders of Portugal’s Islamic past were still everywhere, including directly beneath the ramparts of Lisbon’s royal Castle of St. George. A maze of streets wound down the hill, linked by cobbled stairways and crisscrossing at tiny squares adorned with tinkling fountains, with every so often a chink in the whitewashed walls giving a glimpse of courtyards planted with fragrant orange trees. Yet only a few Muslims remained, and they were confined to a few backstreets, where they were taxed, banned from commerce, and made to wear a half-moon symbol on their turbans. Economically they were no loss, and unlike the Jews, they were allowed to leave. Several years before the Spanish had completed their rites of purification, Manuel unraveled the final strands of convivencia and declared Portugal a purely Christian nation.

The king’s advisers had few issues with the new domestic policy; they were far more alarmed by his increasingly grandiose talk about changing the world. Many took advantage of John the Tyrant’s death to voice long-held fears about the foolishness of trying to reach India. The hope was doubtful, they pointed out, while the perils were great and certain. Even if a miracle saw them across hazardous seas to that vast and mysterious place, who knew what dangers awaited? How could they hope to conquer India, when they had found it hard just to hold on to Ceuta? Even worse, surely an attack on the East would make enemies of far richer powers, not least Egypt and Venice, and threaten the homeland itself?

The advice fell on deaf ears. Manuel had inherited a sacred obligation, and he was determined to reap the glory. God, he replied to his critics after failing to persuade them with rational arguments, would look after his kingdom, and he put the affair in His hands.

The young king’s belief that a divine hand impelled the Portuguese explorations was shared by many of his people. It came from the conviction that Portugal, as a nation born of the Crusades, was obliged to carry the fight against Islam to the ends of the earth. But Manuel went much further. The year 1500 was fast approaching, and in the wake of the fall of Constantinople all manner of apocalyptic figures were hovering on the horizon. Encouraged by his pious wife, Manuel had developed a startling messianic streak. He had come to believe that the Holy Spirit had directly inspired him to usher in a new global age of Christianity. The armada he was about to send to the East was to prepare the way for the overriding objective of Manuel’s new foreign policy: a Last Crusade to recapture Jerusalem, the great event from which, Scripture foretold, the Last Days of the world would follow as light follows dark.

AS THE SHIPS neared completion, Manuel ordered his factor to equip them with all due haste. The dockhands installed two rowboats, a longboat and a lighter yawl, on each deck and stowed long oars for rowing the ships in an emergency. The holds filled up withchests of iron and stone cannonballs and shot, spare sails and tackle, compasses and sounding leads, Venetian hourglasses and assorted trading goods. An armory of crossbows and pole-axes, lances and boarding pikes, spears and swords was stashed safely away. Porters shouldered aboard cases of wine, oil, and vinegar and barrels of sea biscuit, salted meat and fish, and dried fruit. The plans assumed that the crews would be away from home for three years, but no one really knew how long the voyage might take.

Two more vessels completed the fleet. The Berrio, a swift caravel of fifty tons, was purchased from a pilot named Berrios. Finally, a storeship of two hundred tons was bought on the king’s orders from a Lisbon shipowner.

With the armada almost ready, its commander took control of filling the final positions in his crew.

The man in charge was not Bartolomeu Dias. It was not just that he had caved in to his mutinous men on the brink of sailing into the East. Dias was a professional mariner, and his task had been to explore and chart. The leader of the new mission needed to know the ways of the sea, but he also had to be a diplomat and, if necessary, a war leader. His task was not just to reach India; once there, he was to negotiate alliances that would oust Islam and entrench Portugal as an Eastern power—and all before the Spanish arrived. He would need to inspire, cajole, and threaten, and if argument failed, he would have to persuade at the point of a gun. In short, what was required was a captain who could command sailors, an envoy who could converse with kings, and a Crusader fit to carry the standard of Christ.

It was a tall order, and there was not a huge pool of talent to draw on. Portugal was still a rough place dominated by the Church and the military nobility. Its clergy was heavily procreative, and standards at the new university of Lisbon were so low that successive popes forbade it to teach theology. A Polish visitor who arrived in 1484 was deeply unimpressed with what he found. Portuguese men of every class, he reported, were “coarse, poor, lacking in good manners and ignorant, in spite of their pretense of wisdom. They remind one of the English, who do not admit any society equal to theirs . . . they are ugly, dark, and black, almost like negroes. As for their women, few are beautiful; almost all look like men, though in general they have lovely black eyes.” At least, he added, they were less cruel and insensate, more loyal, and more sober than the English.

Eventually Manuel’s gaze settled on a young courtier, a fidalgo—a gentleman of the king’s household—who was eager to make his fortune and who seemed to promise the right balance of skills.

Vasco da Gama was such an unexpected choice that not even the Portuguese chroniclers could agree on the reason for his appointment. One explains that his father was given command of the mission, and that Vasco inherited it on his death. Another asserts that Vasco’s older brother Paulo was offered his father’s command and declined on account of poor health, though he was apparently fit enough to offer to serve as captain of one of the ships. A third simply declares that the king caught sight of Vasco walking through the palace and took a shine to him. The most likely explanation is that men of quality were not exactly lining up to lead a voyage that would mean living for three years amid appalling conditions and would in all likelihood end in death. Vasco da Gama was the best man Manuel could find.

Gama’s lineage did not mark him out for more than a modest position in life, and even the place and date of his birth are uncertain. He was most likely born in 1469 in Sines, a small Atlantic seaport a hundred miles south of Lisbon. Tradition holds his birthplace to be a simple stone house under the gray battlements of the small castle where his father Estêvão was the local alcaide-mor, the chief magistrate and military governor. It was a respectable situation for a respectable family. Gamas had fought against the Moors in the Algarve and had carried the royal banner into battle against Castile, while Vasco’s mother, Isabel, was the granddaughter of an English knight named Frederick Sudley, who had arrived in Portugal to fight the Castilians and had never left.

Vasco da Gama was probably the third of five legitimate sons; he also had at least one sister and a bastard half brother who was also called Vasco da Gama. By the time he was born his father had secured a sinecure as a knight in the service of the exceptionally well connected Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu. Ferdinand was the nephew, adopted son, and heir of Henry the Navigator, the brother of Afonso V, the father of Manuel I, and the master of both the Order of Christ and the Order of Santiago. He was a patron worth having, and Estêvão rose to a middling position in the order of the Moor-slayers. In 1481 young Vasco was invited to one of its council meetings and was presented with its monkish habit, a white robe embroidered with a red cross, the lower arm of which was shaped like a plunging sword. From an early age, the novice Crusader was schooled in the warrior monks’ ancient malice toward Muslims.

From the castle the little town straggled down the hillside to a tiny harbor formed by a small cape and a rocky spit, where fishermen landed their catch and mended their nets. No doubt Vasco and his brothers first learned the ways of the sea from them. As the son of a minor nobleman, he may have been sent to school in the venerable and scholarly town of Évora, and in his late teens he may have fought alongside his peers in Morocco. Certainly, from an early age he was headstrong and proud. One night in 1492, he was out walking with a squire of the royal household when a magistrate challenged the two stop-outs. Gama stubbornly refused to identify himself, and the magistrate tried to rip off his cloak. The two young men fended him off, and he had to be rescued from the brawl by several of his fellow officials.

Despite his quarrelsome nature, by 1492 Gama had made the leap from the provinces to the royal court. That year a French privateer—a privately owned ship licensed by a state to attack and plunder enemy shipping—captured a Portuguese vessel that was returning from Africa with a large cargo of gold. In retaliation King John had all the French ships in Portuguese waters seized, and he sent the twenty-three-year-old Vasco to carry out his orders in the ports south of Lisbon. According to the chronicles, the young man had already served in Portuguese “armadas and naval affairs” and had earned the king’s trust. Three years later Gama was a fidalgo of King Manuel’s household, a professed knight of the Order of Santiago, and the recipient of revenues from two estates. He was unpolished and somewhat brusque in manner, but intelligent, ambitious, and willing to risk his life to make his fortune. Perhaps there was a question mark over his quick temper, but if it was hardly a desirable trait for a diplomat, at least it seemed likely to keep his crew in check. Either way, the king clearly saw in him the self-confidence and strong will that marked out a born leader. That, more or less, is all we know about the inconspicuous man who carried the future of Portugal—some thought of Christendom itself—on his young shoulders.

VASCO DA GAMA’S first choice for his crew was his brother Paulo. The two were deeply attached, and though Paulo had no discernible experience of navigation, loyalty was the most prized quality of all when a fleet was out at sea.

The two newly built ships were named after the two saints carved on their figureheads. Vasco da Gama took the slightly larger São Gabriel for his flagship and appointed Paulo captain of its sister ship, the São Rafael. He put Nicolau Coelho, a close family friend, in command of the Berrio, and Gonçalo Nunes, one of his own retainers, in charge of the storeship. With his authority firmly established, he selected the rest of the officers from among Portugal’s most experienced mariners.

On the São Gabriel:

Pêro de Alenquer, chief pilot. Responsible for navigating the whole fleet, he had sailed with Bartolomeu Dias to the Cape of Good Hope and had since returned to the Congo.

Gonçalo Álvares, sailing master. Skipper of the flagship, he had served on Diogo Cão’s second voyage.

Diogo Dias, clerk. Brother of Bartolomeu Dias. The clerks, also known as scribes or scriveners, were among the few truly literate men on board and were in charge of keeping all records.

On the São Rafael:

João de Coimbra, pilot.

João de Sá, clerk.

On the Berrio:

Pêro Escobar, pilot. He had served in Fernão Gomes’s fleets and had also sailed with Diogo Cão to the Congo.

Álvaro de Braga, clerk.

On the storeship:

Afonso Gonçalves, pilot.

Petty officers—including boatswains, who supervised the deck crew, and stewards, who had charge of the stores and provisions—completed the roster.

As important as the officers to the mission’s success was a small group of interpreters. Among them was Martim Affonso, who had lived in the Congo and had learned several African dialects, and Fernão Martins, who had mastered Arabic during a spell in a Moroccan prison.

Less well regarded, but hardly less valuable, were the ten or twelve men known as degredados—“exiles”—who had been recruited in Lisbon’s prisons. They were convicts whose sentences had been commuted by the king to service on the ships. At Gama’s will, they were to go ashore in dangerous places to act as scouts or messengers, or to gather information until a later fleet picked them up.

The able and ordinary seamen were selected from veterans of the earlier voyages to Africa, and where possible from those who had sailed with Dias. Some were skilled in the various crafts that were vital at sea: among them were carpenters, caulkers, coopers, and ropemakers. Gunners, soldiers, trumpeters, page boys, servants, and slaves completed the full company, which altogether numbered between 148 and 170 men. In sharp contrast to many of the preceding voyages, the mission’s importance meant there was no place for foreigners. Naturally, women were not allowed on board.

Crucially, one of the sailors was given the responsibility, or took it upon himself, to keep a journal of the voyage. His is the only eyewitness account that has survived, and though there have been repeated attempts to identify him with one or another of the crew, we do not know his name. In our story, we will respect his anonymity and call him the Chronicler.

KING MANUEL HAD overseen the preparations from the old Moorish castle overlooking Lisbon, but as the warm weather returned and the heaps of rubbish in the streets began to raise their usual stink, he had decamped to a more salubrious spot. For their farewell audience Vasco da Gama and his captains rode east out of the city, passing through lush orchards and vineyards and waving fields of wheat and barley, then struck out across the rolling plains of the Alentejo to Montemor-o-Novo.

There they rode up through the village to another forbidding Moorish fortress. Behind its long crenellated walls the court was gathered in ceremonial dress. The king launched into a lengthy, high-flown address that laid out the glorious deeds of his ancestors and his determination to bring them to a still more glorious conclusion.

“Praised be God, by the power of the sword we have driven the Moors from these parts of Europe and Africa,” Manuel recalled, before reminding his audience why the impeding voyage was a natural continuation of that long campaign:

I have decided that nothing is more fitting for my kingdom—as I have often debated with you—than to search for India and the lands of the East. In those places, though they are far from the Church of Rome, I hope with God’s mercy that not only may the faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ His son be proclaimed and adopted through our efforts, and that we may win fame and praise among men as our reward, but also that we will wrest new kingdoms, states, and great wealth by force of arms from the hands of the Infidels.

Since Portugal had won titles and riches by exploring Africa, he added, how much more could be expected by pursuing the quest to Asia and acquiring “those Eastern riches so celebrated by the ancient authors, some of which have, through their business dealings, aggrandized such mighty states as Venice, Genoa, Florence, and the other great powers of Italy!” He was not about to reject an opportunity offered by God, he pointedly declared, and nor would he insult his ancestors by abandoning their long Crusade and the great expectations of which it held out hope.

When he had finished lecturing the numerous court skeptics who were less than ecstatic at the royal obsession with fantastical quests, Manuel introduced the man he had selected to lead the mission. Vasco da Gama, he told the assembly, had given a good account of himself in everything he had been asked to do, and he had chosen him “as a loyal knight, worthy of such an honorable enterprise.” The king conferred on the young commander a title that coupled together his responsibilities as both navigator and military leader. From now on, he was to be known as the captain-major of his fleet.

Manuel enjoined the other captains to obey their leader, and he urged them to pull together to overcome the dangers they were bound to face. Then every man filed past the king, knelt, and kissed his hand. When Vasco da Gama’s turn came, Manuel presented him with a white silk banner embroidered with the cross of the Order of Christ, and the captain-major knelt to speak his oath of allegiance:

“I, Vasco da Gama, having been commanded by you, most noble and mighty king, my liege lord, to discover the seas and the lands of India and the East, do swear on the sign of this cross, on which I lay my hands, that I shall hold it high in your service and that of God, and not surrender it to any Moor, pagan, or other race of people I may meet, and in the face of all perils, whether water, fire, or sword, always to defend it and protect it, even unto death.”

The king dismissed the visitors, and Gama returned to Lisbon. With him he carried his sailing orders and a packet of letters addressed to some of the great figures he was expected to meet on his travels—among them, of course, Prester John of the Indies.

On the eve of the great voyage, with excitement and trepidation contending in its leaders’ minds, perhaps none paused to weigh their king’s words very exactly. If they had, Manuel’s yoking together of religion, politics, and economics would scarcely have made them doubt their cause. Even men who did not concern themselves with such matters knew that a healthy, wealthy nation was a sign of God’s favor and a signal to carry on His work. To seek riches from cornering the spice trade was to strengthen the states that defended Christendom and to weaken Islam in turn. If the Italian mercantile republics suffered in the process, so be it; they had always seemed closer to the East than to the West.

Each man had his own motives for signing up; each man knew he was part of a larger pattern. Perhaps it was just as well, though, that they did not know just how large that pattern was. Vasco da Gama’s mission was not merely to reach India; it was to win allies and wealth there that would enable the Portuguese to invade the Arab heartlands and push on to Jerusalem itself. It was an astonishing thing, to be sure, that Europeans would sail halfway around the known world to end up near the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, but such was the belief in Prester John, the marvelous East, and the value of spices. It was extraordinary, too, that more than seven hundred years of history had been placed in the hands of at most 170 men, but true believers had an answer to that, too. If the means seemed hopelessly inadequate to the end, God would surely intervene to make up the shortfall.

PORTUGAL’S QUEST TO explore the oceans had begun with Henry the Navigator, but it had been advanced by the collective endeavors of a nation. Before he set sail, Vasco da Gama was entrusted with the intelligence gathered by four generations of Portuguese princes, captains, and sailors. The bishop of Tangier—the same ardent cosmographer who had prepared Pêro da Covilhã for his mission—furnished him with maps, charts, and reports, perhaps including the letters sent back by the intrepid spy himself.

The last provisions—fresh water, fruit, and bread, live chickens, goats, and sheep—had been loaded. The ships had left the docks and had anchored four miles downstream from the city. Nearby, behind a fine sandy beach, was the little village of Belém—the Portuguese name for Bethlehem. From the same spot a great armada had once sailed for Ceuta, and Henry the Navigator had built a little chapel to mark the spot. It had become a ritual for departing crews to pray there for success and a safe return, and on the evening of July 7, 1497, Gama rode out with his brother and his fellow officers and kept vigil until daybreak.

As the sun rose above the silvery waters of the Tagus, the sailors and soldiers rowed over to join them. The officers were clad in steel armor, their men in leather jerkins and breastplates. The seamen wore loose shirts, knee breeches, long hooded capes, and dark caps. With their families, lovers, and friends crowding the entrance, they squeezed into the somber chapel and celebrated a final mass. Then the bells rang and the cowled monks and robed priests led the worshippers to the shore, each man carrying a lighted taper and intoning a litany. By now huge crowds had gathered, and they surged toward the beach, murmuring the responses and “weeping and deploring the fate of those who now embarked, as devoted to certain death in the attempt of so dangerous a voyage.” All knelt as a priest received a general confession and absolved the departing Crusaders of penance for their sins, and the full company rowed out to the ships.

The trumpets pealed, the drums beat out a tattoo, and the royal standard was hoisted to the peak of the captain-major’s mainmast. The banner of the Order of Christ fluttered from the crow’s nest, and the same Crusader cross flew from the mastheads of the three other ships. The anchors were heaved to the rhythmic chant of a sea chantey, the deck crews hauled on the halyards, and the sails slowly spread to reveal their own great crosses—the same crosses beneath which the Knights Templar had ridden into battle for the Holy Land.

A brisk breeze filled the sails and the fleet edged forward, imperceptibly at first, then with gathering pace. Even the youngest boy on board could hardly have failed to feel an electrifying jolt. In that moment a new life seemed to begin, a life that would be shared with unfamiliar companions and that would unfold in unknown places. As their homeland retreated into the distance a vast horizon opened ahead, bright with the anticipation of adventure but tinged with the fear of danger and death. Over the coming years the picture would be filled in; for now, it was enough to watch, and wait.

On board Paulo da Gama’s ship the Chronicler made his first entry. He noted the date—Saturday, July 8, 1497—and the place of departure. Then he added a brief, heartfelt prayer: “May God our Lord permit us to accomplish this voyage in his service. Amen!”

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