The common man

After I had done some research, it became obvious to me that to write about the maritime route to India, focusing on Vasco da Gama alone would be like showing the end of the movie without the rest. I realized that his journey culminated a work of decades, expertly led by King John II of Portugal, in my opinion the greatest ruler in 900 years of Portuguese monarchy.

I decided to write about the cabin boy for three reasons.

The first was that the Portuguese discovery of the maritime route to India needs to be described from several angles, one of which is that of the common man. The political and scientific perspectives, and the bravery of the expedition leaders, require appropriate characters. In The India Road, practically all of these are actual historical figures. But who remembers the common person, the men and women who built and provisioned ships, crewed and fought and died in foreign lands? I brought them in to write about the hardships. History is in good part written by the common man, but he is rarely written into it.

The second was that I was intrigued about women on board. I found out that unlike the Spanish ships, for which a royal edict was passed determining that senior officers’ wives should accompany them on their travels, the Portuguese were forbidden to do so. But occasionally there were episodes when a woman would be smuggled aboard, and in the XVI century girls from Portuguese orphanages (the aptly named orphans of India) were shipped to the colonies, in order to provide partners for garrisons serving abroad.

The third was because life has always been more difficult for women than for men, more cruel and more unforgiving. I wanted to sketch an example of such a situation, highlighting the ruthlessness of ordinary men. It allowed me also to explore the figure of the “Degredados”, the prisoners (or deportees) who served time on ships and in foreign lands. King John II famously said:  ‘What a waste to put an able-bodied man to death, with so many islands to colonise, and so much dangerous work to be done overseas!’

The cabin boy is really an unfortunate girl, who suffers a tragic destiny. Her fate is not so different from young girls sold or kidnapped today in Eastern Europe and raped and beaten into prostitution, or those who in some islamic countries are lapidated because they have the wrong boyfriend. – The Cabin Boy.pdf


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